History. It’s Long Lost Dead and Gone.

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by Neil Godfrey

To see all the human race, from the beginning of time, pass, as it were, in review before us, . . . what spectacle can be imagined so magnificent, so various, so interesting? — David Hume (Of the Study of History)

To which R. G. Collingwood replied:

History is not a spectacle. The events of history do not pass in review’ before the historian. They have finished happening before he begins thinking about them. He has to re-create them inside his own mind . . . .

A moment’s thought and we can see how absurd is the image of “history laid out for us to survey”. Imagine historians a hundred years from now yet ignorant of our times getting into a time machine and coming back to our day to “survey” this particular time in history. What would they see? They would see the vast world just as we see it today — masses of populations, groups, activities: where would they start to look for any particular “historical moment”? There would be thousands of possible starting points. History of “what, exactly?” would be the first question to ask in order to try to narrow down the search into something of particular interest for the generation a hundred years hence. If perchance they decided to investigate the history associated with the American presidency, again, the same question arises: where would they start? The options would be almost limitless. When we watch movies we are watching scenes created by a narrator and viewed through the perspective of a director. We do not see people in real life or that would be boring. We cut out the moments they tie their shoelaces and every step they take from an office to their car. Selection is always necessary. And how we put scenes together will also decide the type of story we tell. When it comes to a historical narrative we are reading a story that comes about through processes of selection, heavy editing, and the influence of the message the creators want to convey.

History has to be created or constructed. It is not “there” to be observed and recorded. The ideal in modern times is that the construction is derived from material or textual evidence of events that actually happened. We can see from public monuments, memorials, museums, that there was once a Great War in 1914-1918. To understand the effects of that war on various societies requires uncovering and sifting through another mass of material and textual evidence.

The conclusions vary over time according to the particular interests and needs of each historian. One historian will write that the Great War really “broke” the spirit of Australia so that an era of promising social progress (workers’ and women’s rights, egalitarianism, for example) was replaced by a general demoralization of the nation and cynicism that led to hitherto unimagined divisions, intolerance and exploitations. Another historian will write that the Great War made the spirit of Australia, put Australians on the world stage as heroic fighters and gave us a national pride that never existed before. Another historian will make a study of those two historians to find out why each was so different: what were the background influences and interests of each of them that led them to such opposing histories?

History has no existence except in our imaginations. The history many of us learned in school was a story especially constructed by socially approved elites for the purpose of instilling in us a particular sense of (national) identity and sense of place in the world. Those who decided what the curriculum should look like were the politically and economically powerful in society. Alongside state institutions, there have been religious ones that have instilled into believers another history, that of their church or communities of faith.

We grow up with these indoctrinations about our past and if anyone challenges us on them we can easily feel as if our own personal identities are being assaulted and it can be so easy to react with hostility. We can resort to defending the “true history” that we take as our own. When we do that, we fail to recognize that we are defending a fiction, a myth, a construction that appeared at a certain time and place to meet the particular needs and interests of that time and place.

The past is long lost dead and gone. What remains are memories that have been constructed by historians to meet the needs of those whom those historians represent.

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Neil Godfrey

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7 thoughts on “History. It’s Long Lost Dead and Gone.”

  1. “History has no existence except in our imaginations.” That is, probably, too strong a statement. For example, in my personal history, I have my marriage certificate, which is a factual document, supporting some events from my personal history. There is a Montblanc of documents or artifacts, confirming many facts from the history of humanity. Of course, those ones are not precise confirmations, but confirmations with some precision. Many of those events were confirms not only by historians, but from scientists from other fields of science. Some of those fields even belong to a precise science.

    1. All modern historical inquiry is ideally based on documents or other “hard evidence” of events and persons but those records or the moments of which they testify by themselves are not history. History is created when we interpret or impute meaning into particular events in order to give them relevance to a narrative of some kind. We have different kinds of evidence that Japanese planes bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941 but by itself that is not history. By itself it is nothing more than one more event to be added to an almanac or chronicle that lists all the events that, say, happened in 1941. By itself it has no meaning historically. A Japanese historian might write of the event as an Asian retaliation against a western power seeking to destroy its economy, an American historian might write of it as an unprovoked act of perfidy, and other historical discussions could surround it.

      I understand your point but this is what I think most historians mean by history as distinct from, say, a fact-file or a chronicle (ancient and medieval scribes produced many of these but they are hardly histories).

      A classic illustration of this was popularized after E.H. Carr’s claim in What Is History that the newspaper account of the murder of a gingerbread seller at Stalybridge Wakes in 1850. Yes, we have a record of the event, but it does not become “history” until its significance is interpreted in a way that enables it to become part of a meaningful narrative about our past. I have photos and documents marking events in my past but I don’t think I could include my life as part of any history — unless a historian is writing a very narrow history of my family or house where I lived.

  2. Ancient historians, I should add, did not always rely on documented evidence for the raw factual material they wove into their historical narratives. Thucydides, for example, crafted his description of the Athenian plague out of poetic or dramatic literature that described plagues in myths and justified his narrative on the grounds that what he wrote is what he believed was in accordance with human nature and therefore presumably happened. Herodotus claimed to have personally seen a certain inscription that he quoted in his Histories but moderns can see that he clearly lied — he had not seen it and did not quote what it actually said. Even Homer was revered as more than a poet and ranked with the “historians” in some of the ancient literature.

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