Imagining History

One of the other ‘joys’ of 2005 was that many publications disappeared. Not as many as in the 1980s, where five stories of mine failed to publish after acceptance because the magazines collapsed, in two cases just before my stories were entering the world (they are all now readable in an anthology, Mountains of the Mind). I thought you might like to see a couple of non-fiction pieces that were accepted and then remained unseen. This week’s is:

Imagining history

History is a cultural artefact. It is easier to collect packaging labels or children’s toys or works of art and to display them as cultural artefacts than to think of history this way. Besides, we tend to think of books and articles about history as something intellectual and thoughtful and different, not as products of a time and place, and definitely not a part of our everyday lives. If you dissect the themes of every single work of history produced in a single decade, you could put them on show as the product of that decade. A decade in our lives. A product of our society. This display would help show how we think and how we feel, where we are coming from and where we think we are going to. Cultural artefacts. Our past. Our imagination. Ourselves on show.

The trouble is doing that distilling. It is hard to distil the common ideas in histories without being sucking into belief in them and worshipping at their shrine. How often have you read something by your favourite historian without quoting an idea or a fact at your next dinner party?

The trouble with cultural artefacts is they not only show who we are when we analyse them, they dictate who we are when we accept them. In other words, when you read a history, you start thinking the way it tells you to, unless you are careful. Some of this is the convincing argument put forward by the author, but some of this is the form of the written history itself. It is a sad fact that our forms of scholarly expression simplify how we imagine history: they help dictate how we think.

We need that scholarly description and analysis of the past. Never deny that. History is terribly, terribly important. The way history is written is hard to change, and indeed, may not need to be changed. Some of it comes from the need for written history to communicate clearly and to teach. Some of it is the need of historians to make a coherent argument and state a case. The writing of history has forms that are understandable and can be analysed and put on show, in our theoretical history display case.

What needs to be added to the writing of history is something within our own minds when we read. We need to think about what else is in the work under question besides facts and interpretations about the past, what is not covered by the driving argument and the scholarly analysis. Every single one of is who enjoys reading history should take a long and serious moment to think about history as a form of literature, about history as a cultural artefact. As a form of literature and as a cultural artefact, books of history embody lots of lovely complexities and that simplicity and elegance can ignore the reality of the cultural content being presented. The world of people’s cultural consciousness is not tidy, or logical. And it is not comfortable to think that what you read might dictate how you think.

How do you stop being dictated to? The terrible confusion of semiotics was trying to stop this happening. Semiotics was about unpacking rhetoric from reality, trying to sort out meanings and intended meanings and finding out what messages people took on board when they read. Deconstruction is a fine ideal. Alas, language got in the way of semiotic aims. Word after words after word was defined and interpreted until it became an impenetrable maze of meanings, only accessible by the experts

So if you want to read a history book and find out what you think about it without being trapped by the thoughts of others, what do you do?

There is a very old-fashioned technique, one that some teachers still teach to lucky students. First you read the history book. Then you start thinking about it. You look for its component parts. You unpack them and analyse them and think about them. Then you read the book or article again, with all this information in mind. It is not just a matter of the author using good sources and sensible interpretations, it is a question of what assumptions the author brings to his or her history. Do they use emotional language? Do they build up an argument so slowly and gently that you miss the stages and are convinced without knowing how you were convinced?

Reading history intelligently is like being a jury and instructing judge in one. It is a messy business.

Some patterns are quite clear and there are a bunch of books out there that can point to them. A classic book about how historians think about history is by EH Carr and there is a new study of how history had changed since his writing. These two together make a good manual for thinking about how historians think about the past. The best tool for thinking, though, is the human brain. Historians are human and have their enthusiasms and their failings. Look for those enthusiasms in their work. Look for their failings. Find out how they argue and why they argue.

When you read a history, you are not just deciphering the past. You are using the past as a way of imagining the present and enriching your life. When you see a busker on the street, you don’t ask an expert whether or not you are capable of judging how good the busker is. When you read a book of history you should be able to think for yourself. It is harder than laughing at a joke or cringing at an off-key chord, but it is also more rewarding.

If you accept the history presented by other people you will have a nice tidy world, with nice tidy opinions. This is the easy way out. The tough way out is exciting, challenging and puts you on the intellectual spot. It also brings history back into all our lives, and enriches all of us. History is not just or the academy, after all, since it is the past of all of us.

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