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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