Friday, November 20, 2009

What Historical Consciousness is NOT!

From a Yale historian - complete nonsense: "...just as historical consciousness demands detachment from - or if you prefer, elevation above - the landscape that is the past, so it also requires a certain displacement: an ability to shift back and forth between humility and mastery."
From The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past by John Lewis Gaddis (2002)

I find this nonsense for several reasons: (1) he compares writing history to map-making, which is a false (and scientistic) analogy. If history is a map, it's full of pitfalls - literally - not to mention swamps, sinkholes, and dry wells. The analogy substitutes accuracy for truth (even when there can be no accuracy) - in contrast to John Lukacs' humbling refreshing statement, that a historian's task is the "reduction of untruth." (2) Gaddis has gotten giddy from his all his shape-shifting and gadding about. I don't know of any historian who needs to switch on humility at one moment and mastery at the next, and still retain anything like sincerity. What a load of crap!
(3) It never ceases to amaze me what publishers will publish. Gaddis has swallowed all the new physics (well, John Lukacs does too, but he does it more modestly) and come up with the brilliant comment that "[we historians] have been doing a kind of physics all along." Names and words ought to mean something, and the condition of meaning is obedience to a certain form of limits. After reading a few pages of Gaddis...I gagged.

I'd appreciate hearing from any readers who likewise want to poke holes in the ridiculous quoted assertion above by analyzing it rhetorically, philosophically, historically, semantically and in any other way they see fit.

We need to start holding the professoriate to account!!


John said...

Glad to see you are back and writing. I was a little anxious for you during your absence. I am out of my depths commenting on the meaning of truth in history but I have been pondering a couple of sentences I'd come across recently. Jacques Ellul in Apocalypse wrote:"And consequently we are here at the very heart of the uniqueness of the apocalyptic work: a certain reality - truth relationship. As we have often said, in our epoch, because of the activity of science, there is a confusion of truth with reality. To schematize, in the Middle Ages there was an opposition between truth and reality (and this opposition is found already, for example, in John, between the world, which is reality, and the kingdom of God, which is truth). But in the Apocalypse there is a close relationship between the two: the real provides the truth with the means for expressing itself, the truth transfigures the real by giving it a meaning that it obviously does not have by itself. This is thoroughly fundamental, and we will see the decisive interpretive capacity that taking this position provokes."
A second quote is from Margaret Barker's website: "The quest for real provable history - with the flawed assumption that historical accuracy was the truth of the Bible - began with the fashion for archeology in the mid 19th century and has been pursued relentlessly and with disastrous results ever since." BTW, if you are acquainted with Israel Shamir's essay at his website, "Translating the Bible Into Hebrew", I think you will find one source of his inspiration here.

Caryl said...

Hello, John -
Thank you for your comment. I don't quite understand the quote by Ellul. It seems to me that the medieval period was characteriszed by a balance, or truce, between Reason and Revelation. My brother calls this the First Synthesis - of Thomas Aquinas. Following this was the gradual ouster of Revelation and the elevation of Reason - which meant that the world became manipulable. Paul calls this the Second Synthesis.
We are now living in the ruins of the Second Synthesis.
More on this in a future post.