I’m eventually planning to write an article about this sort of thing. It’s essentially a concern that we’ll all end up like Ozymandias. (Cultural references can help compress concepts into easily transmissible packages, for better or worse, case in point.) For now, since I don’t have much time tonight, these somewhat disjointed thoughts will have to do.
Is the ultimate fate of all classics to become footnote? To a large extent, yes. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb would put it, fame is in Extremistan. For comparison, Mediocristan is the domain of physical properties, which often follow a normal distribution (e.g. most people are average height, and there are fewer and fewer people at heights that vary more and more in either direction from the average). Fame, however, doesn’t do that. Necessarily you have many people who are known by few and the people with the most fame are few in number.
My perspective on this issue is that everything in civilization is a scaffold. It exists to help us to get to the next place, hopefully a better one, and then it is taken down. This includes even memories, since memory is a resource that culture uses and we only have so much memory to go around, at least in our day-to-day lives. What we remember must have some functional benefit, even if that function is nostalgia. We can learn about the past, but only inasmuch as we enjoy it or as it helps us create the future. Its value is considerable, but can be concentrated more efficiently than having everyone know all the esoteric details of it at all times. Anything about the past that doesn’t help us or make us feel anything can be temporarily forgotten until such time as it becomes relevant again (hopefully before it’s too late for us to use that remembered knowledge).
If you take a bus to work, and the bus breaks down after you get there, you don’t teleport back home. Humans didn’t go extinct when their ancient ancestors did. The past doesn’t need to stick around after it’s gotten us here. As someone who is preoccupied with archives, I think we should always have access to the past if we need it, but if we have a good foundation then we can do periodic sweeps and pick out what’s relevant.
The process of taking down a scaffold is not instantaneous. We retain bits and flecks of the past in their original form (though fewer over time). More importantly, though, the concepts forming the foundation of the present evolved from the concepts of the past. It’s definitely important to study history to know how this evolution works, to have some ability to predict and influence the future. After all, the foundation of the present is merely the scaffold of the future. However, the ideas of the present will live on in the future to the extent that they need to. Timeless stories and jokes will adopt the new fashions, the obsolete ones will remain in museums, and new ones will enjoy their time in the limelight.
If there are any concerns about the fading of the past I neglected to address, please let me know.