Sunday, July 08, 2007

Histories as Visions of the Past

[The historian] describes historical events. And if he is a true historian, he describes them as accurately as they can be described on the strength of the available record. But he was not there. He did not see these events with his own eyes; or if he was there and did see them, then what we are talking about is journalism or autobiography but not history. And not having been there and not having seen them, what does he have to start with when he envisages these events and portrays them for us? He has, as a rule, only the hieroglyphics of the written word as preserved in crumbling only documents, and sometimes a few artifacts that have survived the ravages of time and neglect — perhaps even a portrait or a drawing or, if he works in recent history, a photograph or two. But these evidence only hint at the real story — they don’t tell it. It is up to the historian to examine them critically and imaginatively, to select among them (for they are often multitudinous in number), to try to penetrate the reality behind them, and to try to depict them in a way that reveals their meaning. And to accomplish this task, what does he have to draw upon? Only what he already has within him: his knowledge, of course, of the historical background, his level of cultural sensitivity, his ability to put the isolated bit of evidence into the larger context, and, above all, his capacity for insight and empathy, his ability to identify with the historical figures he describes, his educated instinct for what is significant and what is not — in other words, his creative imagination.

What emerges from this scrutiny is something that is, of necessity, highly subjective. It is not, and cannot be, the absolute and total truth. It is, if the writer is a conscientious historian, as close to the truth as he can possibly make it. But it remains a vision of the past — not the past in its pure form (no one could ever recreate that) but the past as one man, and one man alone, is capable of envisaging it, of depicting it. It is perceived reality — reality in the eyes of the beholder — the only kind of reality that can have meaning for us other human beings and be useful to us. This is why every work of history — at least of narrative or explanatory history — is at least as revealing of the man who wrote it and the period in which it was written as it is of the people it portrays and the epoque in which they lived.

— George F. Kennan, At a Century’s Ending, New York, 1996, 303–304.

. . . William James concluded after reflection that philosophers do not give us transcripts but visions of the world. Similarly, historians give visions of the past. The good ones are not merely plausible; they rest on a solid base of facts that nobody disputes. There is nothing personal about facts, but there is about choosing and grouping them. It is by the patterning and the meanings ascribed that the vision is conveyed. And this, if anything, is what each historian adds to the general understanding. Read more than one historian and the chances are that you will come closer and closer to the full complexity. Whoever wants an absolute copy of what happened must gain access to the mind of God.
— Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence, New York, 2000, x–xi.