13 June 2005 - Monday

Glow-worm on a grassblade, IV


Humorlessness comes easily, I fear. History has so many implications in contemporary affairs that it must, indeed, be taken seriously, yet I regret that the field is so often politicized. We all find it difficult to avoid using the discipline as an ideological weapon, especially when there are so many horrible ideas based on flawed accounts of the past. What, should we refuse to respond to distortions? That would not solve the problem of politicization.

Rather, I think we must try to love the past for itself, not for what history can do for our causes. The reality of the past lies far beyond our descriptions of it; humility implies a certain amount of flexibility and congeniality. None of us will ever comprehend the past perfectly. This does not mean that we should excuse recognizable distortions, but I think it does mean that responsible scholarship begins at home.

Jacques Barzun, Clio and the Doctors: Psycho-History, Quanto-History, and History (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1974), 123-124:

The use of history is for the person. History is formative. Its spectacle of continuity in chaos, of attainment in the heart of disorder, of purpose in the world is what nothing else provides: science denies it, art only invents it. To try to make out the same vision for oneself in the midst of life is difficult, not to say discouraging. One might suppose that an astute synthesis of the items in the daily paper would supply it, but the paper lacks charm and solidity; its formative effect is nil, as one can see from sampling public opinion. Reading history remakes the mind by feeding primative pleasure in story, exercising thought and feeling, satisfying curiosity, and promoting the serenity of contemplation.
If to the beholder the deeds soon become more interesting than the explanations, this influence of the primary realities does not mark a decline in intellect or seriousness. It means rather that the reader is confident about the historical effect. Like the accomplished lover of an art, he immerses himself in the material without scruple. In other words, history is a means of cultivation much more than of instruction.
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