Monday, 14 September 2009

The history boys

I've been thinking about how my appreciation of history has changed over the years. In particular, how my views as to its 'knowability' have developed. I've tried below to categorise my attitudes over time. I would think that in our mostly post-ideological age it's a fairly typical intellectual progression.

Each phase has its own particular character, rather like Fry's Five Boys, as pictured on the chocolate bar of blessed memory (before my time, but I spent some time working in the old Fry's factory near Bristol where this bit of confectionery history was unavoidable).


Naturally, when you start studying history at school you know very little - some basic stuff taught in early years and what you've gleaned from films, the odd book, and trying to keep up with conversations between your elders (Dad and Taid debating whether Monty was a good general or just a show-off, or whether Patton was right in wanting to head for Berlin - usually kicked off by a Christmas war film: The Battle of the Bulge, A Bridge Too Far, Patton). You look forward to learning more, it all seems so very intriguing and might make you a man-of-the-world. Frustratingly, there's not a lot (if anything) about generalship, but more than you'd want about three-field crop rotation.


You begin to learn proper history at what was 'O' and 'A' Level, and then at the more rarefied degree level, if you pursue it that far. Things at bottom seem to be quite clear and straightforward. You tend to be persuaded by grand narratives, or at least the one that appeals to your instinctive view of the world: Marxist, Whiggish, Darwinian - perhaps nowadays Environmentalist. You suspect you have access to some higher knowledge and wonder how a lot of your elders don't know any better - it's obvious what's been going on, isn't it? For me, it was some vaguely Marxist/progressive idea that progress was taken forward by revolution. For instance, Britain's biggest problem was it hadn't experienced a bourgeois revolution, unlike France, leaving it encrusted with outdated and irrelevant institutions, conventions and attitudes.


You continue to read around and, more importantly, you live a bit too - getting a sense of what people are really like in the outside world. Things don't fit together as neatly as you guessed. You experience foreign countries and cultures. Is the hyper-critical attitude to where you grew up justified? You begin to doubt if the truth really is out there. All these grand narratives turn out to be partial or inadequate explanations of the world. Things you thought irrelevant are meaningful. Meanings are layered, non-obvious, paradoxical. Ideas matter, people matter, interests matter, no-one is in control really and no-one ultimately knows what the hell is going on. This is troubling. And some seem to have already reached this conclusion. Is it all just one damned thing after another? Is it a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing?


However, you begin to accept contingency; it implies that life intrinsically contains an element of freedom. Instead of there being one big source of meaning, there are instead a succession of meaningful events. Establishing why they're singularly meaningful is the fun of it. Tentatively you begin to appreciate history's fundamental mystery; its subtlety, its profundity, its complexity. The satisfaction comes from struggling with this intractability. You may never come to the definitive truth about something, the chances are it may not exist. But to travel is better than to arrive. There probably is no Holy Grail. But there is a fantastic adventure to be had in trying to track it down, one which might teach you a great deal about the world. Galahad was a boring prig, it was Lancelot who experienced the exciting stuff.


As far as I know, the last phase is the end-point. But who knows? Perhaps I might end up an ideologue of some sorts, or perhaps a nihilist. Life, like history, can be full of surprises.


worm said...

I think in the next phase you turn into a chrysalis and then emerge as a glittering Simon Schama

great writing, as ever - I had reached the same conclusion, but in far less eloquent language! -

you start off thinking everything's black and white, then you learn that it's all a sludgy grey. finally you come to be excited by the sludge.

Maybe the next step is finding your own, new sludge?

Bunny Smedley said...

Personally I think you've got more sense than Simon Schama, who's admitted a star when it comes to generating exciting prose, and sometimes stimulating insights as well, but who all too often doesn't quite get things right - if you don't believe me, just talk to any specialist in any of the areas about which Schama has written. (Starkey, on the other hand, seems to be a seriously good Tudor historian, as well as a fluent writer and delightful presenter, suggesting that there may be more to the criticism of Schama than professional jealousy.)

As for the next phase, perhaps 'living a bit' comes back to bite us all on the ankle, as we come to realise that the experiences which formed our various working models of how the world works look increasingly old-fashioned, irrelevant and perhaps even a bit contemptible to a generation whose experiences are so very different? Or to put it another way, I can remember once, as a teenager, arguing about history with an adult, and thinking 'she just can't see past the Second World War, can she?' But now, give or take a war or two, I probably AM a version of that adult, and the younger knights around the Round Table are probably seeking another Grail altogether. The odd and faintly pitying looks they give me probably needn't prevent me from having fun with the search, though.

worm said...

difference is Bunny, that you felt the need to argue about History - these days most teenagers could probably only argue about the history of High School Musical

Gaw said...

Worm: Thanks, old fella. I like that 'excited by sludge'. Better than 'passionate about sludge'.

Bunny: I will forgive Schama most things (even his v tedious recent book on America) as he wrote one of my favourite history books, Embarrassment of Riches. Certainly his knack of generating occasionally flaky but almost always stimulating ideas doesn't put me off (after all what would that mean for this blog's modest attempts in that direction if it did!)

Your point about 'maturing' is frighteningly well made. My next phase will be dedicated to outflanking the young by taking up whatever they think to such an extreme of enthusiasm that it flips over into the opposite. Keep the little buggers on the back foot.

Or we could always fall back on the immortal words of Wayne's World's Mr Big: 'kids know shit'.