7/24/2019

The Past-Present

"When I say that we do not care about the past I am not particularly thinking of the fact that we do not study history as a field. After all, we do not study any of the other normal university disciplines either sociology, geology, psychology. We do read the two authors who are generally agreed to be the founders of history; however, it is not clear just how much interest these writers had in the past. Herodotus introduced the word history, historia, for his composition concerning the Persian War, but the Greek word means primarily an inquiry. It has the same origin as the verb for knowing: A histor is someone who knows, not necessarily things remote in time. Even when it is taken in the current sense, history has a relation to the past, which is anything but straightforward. After all, History with a capital H, that is, the public memory of events in the past, comes into being after history with a small h, the work of reconstructing the past, has been done. Some people go so far as to claim that historians, in telling their plausible and timely tales, do not reconstruct so much as construct the past, so that the past is an invention of the present. I might say that I cannot quite believe so extreme a claim because I know of some historians who are less truthful than others, and therefore of others who are more truthful in trying to determine the deeds done (these are called facts) and the times assigned to them (these are called dates). Facts and dates form, of course, the skeleton of history. I do believe that something definite in fact happened at a certain date, but I doubt that it is in principle or in practice possible to find out what that was, and I am pretty sure that it ought not to be our business here to learn what others thought happened nor to try to find out for ourselves. The reason is that the recovery of the past from its fragments is a practically infinite and intellectually tricky task, which requires a completed liberal education. In short, you learn to do it in graduate school.
...
And that seems to me to be the main attraction of the past—that it adds worlds to my world, and bygone beauties to a present diminishing in beauty. It does so much as does fiction, only with the strangely moving modifier of real past existence. I read history dutifully for information, I consult historians somewhat skeptically for illumination, but I am in the past uncritically as in a romance, like Bernal Diaz when he saw Tenochtitlan. For the past is primarily a place (we will see that all talk of time is infected by spatial metaphor), a romantic place, as the present is prosaic and the future uncanny."