Foreword | December 01, 2009
The Questionable Past
Many of the pieces in this issue concern the challenge of understanding the past. Andrew D. Cohen’s essay “Television Days” describes the importance of television in one family’s memory and history. M. G. Stephens’s essay on the British painter Francis Bacon takes a fresh approach of portraying the artist not by recapitulating his chaotic, alcohol-driven life but by illustrating and dramatizing it through the physical evidence of his extraordinary studio, re-created in the Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery in Dublin.
Julyan Peard’s story “A Man from Zagreb” retrospectively recounts a young married woman’s affair when she was living in New York with a baby, bored with her husband and her life. The story describes the weird feel of certain episodes in one’s past that can be recalled in detail yet cannot be fully felt or remembered-as if they belonged to another life. In “The Mariposa,” Maggie Shipstead writes of an illegal Mexican immigrant tormented by memories of his wife and his own recent behavior, even as he prepares for her arrival in this country. Tsung-yan Kwong’s story “Tooth,” about a mythical hero of the North Korean gulags, is a masterful and disturbing speculation about the reliability of memory, particularly memory of trauma, and of the need to reinvent reality to make certain recollections bearable.
In Richard Bausch’s dreamlike narrative poems, the past remains undisclosed, but its presence lies just beneath the surface, influencing meaning. Daniel Anderson’s poems explore our dubious grasp of the past. In “The Hills, Beautiful Hills,” the speaker climbs into the attic of his youth, looking through the memorabilia and thinking about the ways in which a family’s past is a natural phenomenon that fades away like the hills in a photograph of his grandfather. Mark Kraushaar’s meditative poems range from imaginary reflections by the dead to fantasies of the past and future of an identical universe. All three of these poets share a concern over how much of our histories we should hold on to and what influence they should have in our lives.
I recently went on a fishing and camping trip with friends in the San Juan Mountains north of Durango, Colorado. Five of us rode horses fifteen miles and stayed in a campsite at 10,500 feet. My oldest friend, J. B., had arranged the trip. We’ve known each other since we were toddlers. One evening we sat in the kitchen tent trying to stay warm and awake, recalling the night we both first got raging drunk, at age thirteen. On that night in 1959 we mixed a half-dozen kinds of liquor and liqueurs, mostly from his mother’s liquor cabinet, chuffing them down and getting vividly sick through the rest of the night; for J. B., the sickness spanned the following three days. There were details he recalled about the night that I had forgotten, including our attempt to walk to the Dairy Queen at midnight, falling into the bushes as we dodged police cars on the prowl for kids out past curfew.
In the company of old friends, what surprises me is not forgetting shared experiences or remembering them slightly differently but the fact that we have anything like the same memories. Perhaps that is a simple confession of aging. Yet psychologists have grown increasingly skeptical about the human ability to remember and accurately recount the distant past, just as historiographers are dubious about our understanding of history. This declining faith in our grasp of “what really happened” has taken a particularly dramatic dive over the past century.
Jonathan Littell’s recent novel The Kindly Ones(published in English in 2008) dramatizes the questionability of human memory with frightening believability. It recounts the life of a World War II German SS officer, Maximilan Aue. Aue is active in mass slaughters, especially of Jews, in the Ukraine, and later he serves as a bureaucrat under Himmler, helping manage the Final Solution. The book’s stunning power comes from the fact that while its narrator, a classical-music-loving intellectual, presumably remembers the details of his hellish and murderous life, and while he describes undergoing mental breakdowns and attempts to carry out more “humane” treatment of prisoners, he also evades and denies any sense of responsibility for what he has done. He is a prime example of someone who claims to have been lost in the cauldron of history. While Maximilan Aue appears to see and describe the events of his life, at the same time he glosses them over and denies that he had any other choices, finally making his “confession” a more terrible lie than simple denial.
Doubts about our ability to accurately interpret history arise from skepticism about sources of information and our frameworks for understanding the past. Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War took the first step toward historical “objectivity” by describing the conflict between Athens and Sparta by means of what later historians called “realpolitik,” focusing on politics and events. For Thucydides, it was more important to stick to the vital facts. His predecessor Herodotus had employed extensive moral lessons, personal information and fables about the influence of the gods in his more freewheeling history of the Persian wars. Yet it could be argued that Herodotus was in some ways more like contemporary historians in that, unlike Thucydides, he revealed his sources, discussed conflicts in their accounts, included geographic and ethnographic information and admitted to the “fictional” side of his reconstruction by openly imagining and re-creating dramatic scenes and dialogue. Thucydides also re-creates historical scenes and dialogue, though his inventions are less outlandish.
Developing what some later called a “science” of history, Leopold von Ranke, a German historian of the mid-nineteenth century, took the important step of insisting on using and crediting primary sources, “the narratives of eyewitnesses, and . . . genuine and original documents.” Von Ranke’s resolve to undertake a scholarly accounting of the past was the beginning of truly modern history. Since the development of scholarshipbased history, however, the argument continues about the credibility and reliability of sources and about what one focuses on when writing history. Any historian-even one who accurately pours out names, dates and details-may not just miss the important issues but, like Littell’s SS officer, actually obscure them.
Probably the most influential school of historiography in the twentieth century has been the Annales School, pioneered by Fernand Braudel and Marc Bloch and followed by others such as Philip Aries and Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie. Annales historians create large, socially aware portraits of historical places using detailed accounting of economic and cultural realities. The term Annales is taken from the scholarly journal Annales d’histoire economique et sociale, a title which accurately and succinctly suggests these historians’ focus. The strength of their approach owes partly to the fact that they narrate in amazing detail life as lived in faraway places, making books like Braudel’s The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II and Marc Bloch’s Feudal Society read like vivid historical fiction. In his book Montaillou, for example, Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie gives a close accounting of life in a small village in the south of France at the beginning of the fourteenth century, showing how the people farmed, what their houses were like and their ideas and behavior regarding such things as God and sex and marriage. Like most of the Annales histories, Ladurie’s book is made possible by the survival of a highly unlikely but wonderfully detailed source-the notes of a member of the Inquisition assigned to the town, Jacques Fournier, who would later become Pope Benedict XII.
Some current historians, such as Michel Foucault, share with George Orwell’s 1984 the sense that history is continuously subject to alteration by political dominance, that “he who controls the present, controls the past. He who controls the past, controls the future.” Yet others-contemporary historians like Barbara Tuchman and Frederic Jameson-share with the authors in this issue a sense that while our view of the past may be skewed and our vision slightly out of focus, the only natural and productive way to see it, finally, is through historicized narrative. While we should remain skeptical and questioning, we should admit the miracle of our unique human ability to put together a cohesive story of our past.
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