The Need for the Past

A few days ago, Historiann posted a piece on the point of learning history, and, for whatever reason, it found a little nook in my brain.  I wasn’t really thinking about it, it was just…there.  And then this morning, while reading Luigi Giussani‘s The Religious Sense, I came across a few passages that struck me:

  • “We must recognize that — in order to react now –we need to use something given to us in the past: flesh, bones, intelligence, heart.  Therefore, although the force for building the future lies within the energy, the imaginativeness, the courage of the present, the richness of the present comes from the past” (83).
  • “Because even as the human person is one, so too is history, and the force of the present undertaking lies in all that has preceded it” (83).

Which brought to mind another quote from someone else that I carry with me:

Both Jordan/Weedon and Giussani advocate for knowledge of history, but for different reasons: Giussani values the traditions from the past, while Jordan/Weedon value its revolutionary potential.  Giussani loves continuity; Jordan/Weedon love change.  And that, of course, is history: the stories we tell about change and continuity in the past.  We need both, and I think these quotes get at something fundamentally important about the value of the past.  From Giussani, we get a sense of the reservoir of experiences, practices, traditions, and examples offered to us by the past.  “The richness of the present comes from the past” that has established, through experimentation and trial-and-error, certain forms of wisdom.  From Jordan/Weedon, we see the possibilities of the future suggested by the past — the “knowledge that things have changed and do change” is empowering; if change has come before, it can certainly come again.  I think part of my job as a historian is to weave together those strands of change and continuity and demonstrate their empowering value.

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The Idealized Life of an Academic

I’ve decided to pursue the idealized life of an academic for the next week or so.  An imaginary construction, the Life of an Academic is a conglomeration of ideas about academia from people with real jobs, pre-graduate school students, and geezers in the Ivory Tower who fantasize about the good ‘ol days.  It looks something like this:

  • Get out of bed late, then fetch your coffee from either a friendly barista or an expensive espresso machine in the kitchen.
  • Spend an hour reading the New York Times, preferably in the confines of a mahogany-clad at-home office.
  • Muse for an hour or so, perhaps about your latest writing project, or nothing in particular.   The State of the World, maybe, which is surely in dire need of your wisdom and guidance.
  • Write for a bit.  On a typewriter, if at all possible, or at most on minimalist word processing software.
  • Afternoon: take a short lunch, then write some more for a little while, but spend a lot more time reading wonderful history books and the occasional journal, if necessary.  And when the brain is absolutely fried, finally get around to grading some papers.
  • Evening: read some more, and maybe draft up an op-ed on this-or-that.

We’ll see how much real work I get done over the course of the next seven days.  My guess: not much.

What I’m Reading

  • Fun Reading: Narziß und Goldmund by Herman Hesse.  I have had this book for at least five years, and I’ve tried (and failed) to read it at least five times.  It starts with a sentence that takes up most of the first page.  That awful German language indeed, Mr. Twain.
  • Soul Reading: Wealth, Poverty, and Human Destiny, ed. Doug Bandow and David L. Schindler.  A priestly friend of mine (no, seriously, he’s a priest) gave me this probably ten years ago, and I’m going to give it another try.  Looks like it starts off with a bunch of economic liberals spouting off about the glories of capitalism, and then responses to the same.  We’ll see how serious those responses actually are.
  • Theory Reading: Das Kapital I. Yup, still at it.  As a matter of fact, I’m exactly where I was when I posted on this a few months ago.  Sigh.
  • Dissertation Reading: I don’t have anything right now, but I really need something on colonialism.  Suggestions?
  • How-We-Do Reading: On History by Eric Hobsbawm.  A collection of essays by the master himself.  I bought this book eleven years ago while I was living in Berlin.  I found myself in an English-language bookstore for the first time in months, and I went on a spending spree, including this text.  Never read it.  As a matter of fact, I think I’ve only touched it to put it in boxes for moves.  I figure it’s been it at least six different houses/apartments.  About time that I opened up the cover.

No One Is That Interesting

I’ve given up on Jon Lee Anderson’s Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life.  I had a feeling from the outset that it wouldn’t go well: the book is 800+ pages long and totally unrelated to my dissertation and teaching responsibilities (meaning: I ain’t got time for this shit).  Moreover, I’m just not that interested in Che.  I’m sure he was a fascinating individual who could stare into someone’s soul and convince her/him that the Revolution is Now, but I don’t really care.  It’s not about Che specifically; as a general rule, I don’t care enough about any individual to want to read her/his biography.  I detest biographies: on the screen, the stage, or the page.  Here’s why:

  1. Over an extended period of time, any one individual will annoy the hell out of me.  I need my space, and biographies don’t give you your own space.  You’re supposed to inhabit not just the subject’s world, but the subject’s brain, and there’s just not enough air in there for the both of us.
  2. Biographers always end up playing psychologist, and they always fail.  “So, Che, what makes you tick?” asks Anderson of a man who is dead and who never would have revealed such secrets, anyway, partly because Che himself didn’t know.  Just like you and me and everyone else, the subject of any biography is necessarily a mysterious and indecipherable stew of nature and nurture that even the subject herself can’t figure out.  And if she says she knows, she’s a liar, a fool, or both.  Such a mystery confounds efforts at the totalizing interpretation towards which all biographies tend.  In short: biographers do not and can not know what they are ultimately talking about, which is who their subject really is.
  3. Biographies run against my understanding of how history works (which is to say, how things happen).  Individuals are only nominally involved in the course of history.  Deeper currents — like economic structures — exercise their power with much more force, consistency, and consequence than the isolated person.  People matter, of course, but “people” in the plural sense, as in persons: groups of individuals whose collective energy (not to say deliberate cooperation) make things happen.

And that’s why I haven’t read David McCulough‘s Pulitzer Prize winners; it’s why I don’t like one-man plays; it’s why I don’t usually care for solo acts after the band breaks up.  And it’s why my bookshelf sags once more under the weight of Jon Lee Anderson’s Che.

TSoA: “Across the Dark Water,” the Black Legend Cometh

In chapter four (“Across the Dark Water”) of The Story of America, early twentieth century young readers learned the following about the Spanish (or is it “Spaniards”?  I’ve never bothered to figure out which…):

  • Las Casas, the great defender of the Indians, brought “negro slavery” to America by suggesting that residents of Hispanolia bring African slaves, rather than enslave Indians.
  • Ponce de Leon was a “gay and courteous cavalier”–but mostly just crazy.  Same thing goes for Balboa, De Soto, and the rest.
  • “The white man gave the Indian lessons in treachery, which he was not slow to profit by.  A party of gentle St. Dominican Brothers, who had come to America to make a ‘conquest of peace’ among the savages, were captured, upon their landing, and brutally murdered.  It was too late for kindness to be understood–too late for the word of the white man to be believed.”

And so we see the endurance of the “Black Legend,” the story that pins on the Spanish much of the blame for Very Bad Things in Early American History.  Even the good guy, Las Casas, is at fault, and for one of the greatest evils of American history!  It is true, it turns out, that Las Casas suggested the importation of Africans for slavery (and later regretted it).  But Peattie’s implying that the Spanish are to blame for the development of slavery throughout the Americas, including what would become the United States; same thing goes with white-on-Indian violence and the foolishness of gold-inspired tours of exploration, discovery, and conquest.  The basic idea advanced: the Spanish did it first and did it worst.  Those who came after–especially the English–were better people and better Christians, and if they made mistakes, they (a) weren’t as bad as the Spanish and (b) can’t be fully blamed, because, after all, the Spanish started it.  In short, the Black Legend lets the English (and, by virtue of heritage, the American colonies, the United States, and you and me) off the hook for what happened to non-whites.* At least, that’s what Peattie’s readers might have been picking up on by chapter four.  We’ll see what happens in future chapters.

*For more on the Black Legend, see Weber’s The Spanish Frontier in North America.

TSoA: Myths and Knowing Your Audience

Chapter II of The Story of America is called “The Legendary Century,” and includes the delightful subheading, “Myths, Legends and Traditions.”  In this chapter (and the next about Columbus, and I’m sure many of the following chapters), Peattie didn’t draw a fine line between the different types of narratives; myth, legend, and tradition weave together so tightly that facts take on secondary importance.*  But I’m more taken by the way Peattie starts the chapter: “Little children, standing on the shores of Europe and looking toward the west, could make no guess at what lay beyond the water.”  Given that Peattie wrote this book for young readers, this is a pretty good opening.  She knows her audience: kids who have never been to Europe and probably never will be, but who know what it’s like look in some direction and wonder what’s out there.  She may be talking about strange adults from different places who spoke unintelligible languages, but in one sentence, she makes it a little less foreign.  More than that: she seizes on a fundamental human experience — wonder.  As the children of Europe wondered about the world, so did the Norsemen, Columbus, and the late-19th century adolescent reading The Story of America.  And us, too — we wonder.  What else is curiosity and the drive to know and understand?  I’m just spitballing here, but I think a particular sense of wonder might set history apart from other fields.  Part of the reason that someone buys a story of a boy growing up during Mao’s Cultural Revolution (currently #2 at Powell’s) is the question, “What was that like?”  The past is strange, and that’s compelling, because there were people like you and me there and then.  We want to understand that different world, and — note the phrasing of the question, “what was that like” — we want that world related to us in terms that we can understand.  The job of the historian lies somewhere in that relationship: seizing on the human sense of wonder and cultivating it while also making the past more familiar and intelligible.

* For instance, Peattie devotes most of chapter two to the “well known” discoveries of the Northmen, who (Peattie says) ranged from Newfoundland to Martha’s Vinyard to Massachusetts, leaving skeletons in armor and bearing “little Snorre, the first child of European blood born in America.”  Peattie also notes the “traditions” of Chinese, “Buddhist,” and Welsh explorers and settlers.  All of this strikes me as…odd, given that (a) rarely do Norse adventures in America come up anymore and (b) I’m pretty sure the Welsh stories of white Indians were bogus, probably for racist reasons (the undiscovered civilized Welsh Indians justifying conquest/extermination of uncivilized real Indians…surely there’s a book on this?  A dissertation-in-waiting?).