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Sunday, June 10, 2007 -- 9:02 am

One interest of mine is the collection of books of indigenous literature from vanishing languages and cultures, and I was recently reminding myself of the practical implications of doing so. One, of course, is linguistic, since a grammar and dictionary are of limited value by themselves without concrete examples of how such words are used in various social contexts, of which the recitation of oral history is one -- specialized, to be sure, but nevertheless real. Another is anthropological and sociological, since such texts often shed light on religious beliefs, family relations and obligations, and various notions about one's role in society. But ossifying these various cultures into museum exhibits seems a little sad. It becomes sadder still when you reflect that the most basic type of grieving involves a resurrection (and, ideally, retelling and recording) of all that one knows and remembers of the deceased. Such archaeological and philological efforts seem one step removed from that -- taking a snapshot of a stranger so a trace of them remains after they disappear. Is this of any more than sentimental value?

Perhaps not with the snapshot, but perhaps so with the texts, but the practical value of a vanished culture depends on just how much you've managed to preserve of it. Recipes, crafts, musical instruments, and ethnobotanical knowledge naturally have their place. But stories are often told, implicitly or otherwise, as a guide to future action. I'd be the first to admit that the precise dealings between two mythic figures on the Siberian tundra may have no relevance whatsoever to the particulars of corporate life, and that xenocultural notions of spirituality are among the most difficult to translate intelligibly. (The visualization exercises in the Tibetan Book of the Dead are a good example of this.) But the human capacity for mining stories for metaphors is impressive and apparently limitless, and to the extent that these stories (as they must) represent a distillation of human life experience, I think they have a role to play in informing our intuitions and judgments about human nature, moral conduct, and the values we attach to various aspects of life and death. In other words, to allow what remains of a particular culture's collective memories to be consigned to oblivion seems, on some level, comparable to allowing ourselves to forget entirely a year of our own individuals lives. The practical significance of our experiences during that year may not, now, seem particularly useful or relevant. But it's not unreasonable to suspect that the experiences accrued during that year may incrementally or subconsciously guide our decision-making in the future, in ways we can't anticipate. Given that we would typically prefer to have more information rather than less whenever confronted with difficult decisions, I would think the balance would weigh in favor of preservation.