Category Archives: Uplifting Quotes for the Uninspired Historian

Uplifting Quotes for the Uninspired Historian #9

Not a historian this time but one of my favourite fiction writers, and not so much uplifting as interesting.  It’s the late Carol Shields from a short story I read last night called Collision. She’s talking about biography, not as a genre or literary construct, but as the live experience that we all accumulate around ourselves just through the act of being and living:

The only law of biography is that everything, every particle, must be saved.  The earth is alight with it, awash with it, scoured by it, made clumsy and burnished by its steady accretion… That’s the worst of it: there’s nothing selective about biography’s raw data, no sorting machine, no briny episodes underlined in yellow pencil or provided with bristling asterisks- it’s all here, the sweepings and the leavings, the most trivial personal events encoded with history.  Biography- it sniffs it out, snorts it up… (p. 315)

…Written biography, that’s another matter, quite another matter! Memoirs, journals, diaries. Works of the biog-imagination are as biodegradable as orange peels.  Out they go. Pssst- they blast themselves to vapor, cleaner and blonder than the steam from a spotless kettle.  Nothing sticks but the impulse to get it down. (p.316)

From ‘Collision’, Carol Shields The Collected Stories


Uplifting Quotes for the Uninspired Historian #8

Ged Martin, in Past Futures:  The Impossible Necessity of History, Toronto, Toronto University of Press, 2004

The original  lectures from which this book derives were delivered as part of the  1996 Joanne Goodman Lecture series, conducted annually at the University of Western Ontario. However, the closing chapter of the book  reflects on September 11, which indicates that this written version is far more recent.

One of the themes that runs throughout the book is the nature of decision making in history and the historian’s task in reconstructing it at a distance:

...historians must not simply embrace with gratitude whatever survives from the past. Rather, the whole process of historical reconstruction is one of dialogue, between our questions and their answers.   Sometimes that dialogue requires some sharp interrogation on our part, since there is often a mismatch between our concerns and their evidence…

A related problem, especially for those studying the activities of government, is that while historians ask questions about ‘why?’, most official records were designed to apply answers about ‘how?’. (p.22)

In fact, ‘why?’ is not the right question:

Unlike computers, people do not face an infinity of choices , but are usually obliged to select from a finite range of available options.  The real task for historians is to locate that moment in time and account for the range of options on offer- in short, to ask ‘why when?’ and ‘why what?’.   (p. 85)

Every decision is a double decision, requiring us to ask first, ‘why when?’ and only then ‘why what?’. The operative second part is the action of saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the available options.  The historical core is to be found in that crucial first part, the decision to take a decision.  We should begin by seeking to understand not simply why a decision was taken but when it was taken.  This helps us to appreciate why, at that time, some options but not others were available to those making the decision. (p. 93)

Far too often, historical analysis begins by pressing the pause button on a videotape of the past.  The historian traps the characters to be studied in the awkward attitudes of the moment, and proceeds to explain how they had come to relate to one another in that frozen past present.  We need rather to ask which of the characters captured on the screen contemplated some form of future, in the hope of recovering how they shaped their actions in the moment of their past present to meet those futures.  Were their perceived futures short-term or long-term in scope, optimistic or pessimistic in character.  Were they adjusting to the collapse of previous assumptions about the road ahead or coping with the sudden arrival of a destiny that had previously been perceived as only a distant possibility….

Such an approach means that historians must place less emphasis on explaining static moments in the past, an exercise that is in any case impossible, and more upon locating those events in a longer sweep of time.  In other words, we must approach the study of history by seeing past, present and future as a single continuum.  Only thus can we enter into the world view of the people we study, to recapture how they reached their yes/no decisions in response to the propositions that confronted them at that ephemeral instant when they too stood on the moving frontier between their own past and a future that they could rarely foresee but never ignore. (p. 147)

Uplifting Quotes for the Uninspired Historian #7

Greg Dening yet again.

Yes, imagination is an act of solidarity in our humanness. But there is a dilemma in that.  The humanness we share with the past is at the one time the same and different.  The most unhistorical thing we can do is to imagine that the past is us in funny clothes.  Our imagination has to allow us to experience what we share with the past and see difference at the same time…

…When we empower the past by returning it to itself, we empower our imagination to see ourselves.  Our certainties are our greatest enemy when we approach the past.  Hindsight is always blinding.  We know from our living experience that our present moments- this moment- has all the possibilities of the future still in it. None of us prescribes the reality we live in.  None of us controls the consequences of our actions.  None of us can predict with absolute certainty anybody else’s reaction tot he simplest gesture, the clearest sign, the most definite word.  But we have to cope with these ambivalences, interpreting these never- ending possibilities.  Hindsight, on the other hand, reduces all possibilities in the past to one.  Hindsight leaches out not all our uncertainties, but all the past’s uncertainties.  Hindsight closes down our imagination.  In hindsight we do not see the past as it actually was, only as it would have been if all its uncertainties were taken away.  Hindsight freezes the frame of every picture of the past.  Hindsight removes all the processes of living.  Makes the past our puppet.

From Empowering Imaginations 1998

Uplifting Quotes for the Uninspired Historian #6

History is made up of a multitude of whispery but insistent voices from the past, each filled with its own imaginings and fond hopes, cynicism or despair, its own way of understanding an endlessly complex world, of explaining the inexplicable, of articulating an imperfect, subjective grasp on an historically determined existence. This conglomerate of contested, contingent meaning making that we call experience must be caught in a finer mesh, in the analysis of the webs of life as lived by individuals in relation to each other, as well as in the broader web of discourses that shaped and sought to define those lives. In analysis of the particular, and in the complexity of its relationship to the general, lies the recurring fascination of history.

Penny Russell, ‘Cultures of Distinction’ in Hsu-Ming Teo and Richard White Cultural History in Australia, Sydney, UNSW Press, 2003  p. 169

Uplifting Quotes for the Uninspired Historian #5

‘Being there’ for an historian is the feeling for the past that can only be matched by the hours, the days, the weeks, the months, the years I sit at the tables in the archives. It is the assurance that my extravagance with time here is rewarded with a sensitivity that comes in no other way. It is an overlaying of images one on the other. It is a realisation that knowledge of the past is cumulative and kaleidoscopic, extravagantly wasteful of my energy.

Greg Dening ‘Culture is talk. Living is story’  in Hsu-Ming Teo and Richard White Cultural History in Australia, Sydney, UNSW Press, 2003  p. 232

Uplifting Quotes for the Uninspired Historian #4

Not from an historian this time, but from Bertolt Brecht in Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic. I’m still thinking about this one.

Historicization (p. 140)

Historical incidents are unique, transitory incidents associated with particular periods.  The conduct of the persons involved in them is not fixed or ‘universally human’; it includes elements that have been or may be overtaken by the course of history, and is subject to criticism from the immediately following period’s point of view.  The conduct of those born before us is alienated from us by an incessant evolution.

and then on p. 90

In other words we must drop our habit of taking the different social structures of past periods, then stripping them of everything that makes them different; so that they all look more or less like our own, which then acquires from this process a certain air of having been there all along, in other words of permanence pure and simple.  Instead we must leave them their distinguishing marks and keep their impermanence always before our eyes, so that our own period can be seen to be impermanent too.

Uplifting Quotes for the Uninspired Historian #3

From Alan Atkinson The Europeans in Australia Volume 2: Democracy

It is not the duty of historians to be objective, in the strictest meaning of that word, because the material they work with is not object but human- a distinction of crucial importance for the period of this volume.  It is not their duty to be dispassionate at every stage because in their research and writing they handle and memorialise passions like their own.  It is the duty of historians to be, wherever they can, accurate, precise, humane, imaginative (using moral imagination above all), and even-handed. (p.xix)

Uplifting Quotes for the Uninspired Historian #2

From my pin-up biographer, Richard Holmes in his book Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer. He speaks about the biographer’s feeling of being haunted by their subject as being part of  the essential process of writing biography:

As far as I can tell, this process has two main elements, or closely entwined strands. The first is the gathering of factual materials, the assembling in chronological order of a man’s “journey” through the world- the actions, the words, the recorded thoughts, the places and faces through which he moved: the “life and letters”.  The second is the creation of a fictional or imaginary relationship between the biographer and his subject; not merely a “point of view” or an “interpretation”, but a continuous living dialogue between the two as they move over the same historical ground, the same trail of events.  There is between them a ceaseless discussion, a reviewing and questioning of motives and actions and consequences, a steady if subliminal exchange of attitudes, judgments and conclusions.  It is fictional, imaginary, because of course the subject cannot really, literally, talk back; but the biographer must come to act and think of his subject as if he can. (p.66)


Uplifting Quotes for the Uninspired Historian #1

From J. G. A. Pocock ‘Tangata Whenua and Enlightenment Anthropology’ in The Discovery of Islands: Essays in British History p. 201

…the historian is not concerned to show that belief systems are ridiculous, but to discover why they were not ridiculous once.