History, “(must) first ‘die’ in the heads, hearts, and bodies of the affected, before it can rise as knowledge like a phoenix out of the ashes of experience.”
-Aleida Assmann as quoted by Alexander von Plato
This post is about a week and a half in the making and was inspired by those very same academic readings that actually kept me from writing it for so long.
But getting back to this wonderful turn of phrase, the image of history as knowledge rising from the ashes like a phoenix admittedly got my heart racing a little and immediately set me down the never-ending path of the perpetual question from those perplexed people whose pulses do not quicken when they read an historical passage (or, apparently, for super nerds – read a passage about the passage of history…).
OK, so I didn’t immediately start thinking about the aforementioned question (yup, I’m leaving you with another cliff hanger…). My mind, in all honestly, went to Harry Potter and I may or may not have had to Youtube the best moments from all 7 films (8? Does a 2-part final instalment technically count as 8 movies?) and then ponder whether my childhood is really now officially over (I vote no) – but THEN I got back to the issue at hand.
This question, if you haven’t guessed it already, is the following: Why in the hell do you study history? These people are dead, the events are passed, none of it matters any more, right?
OK, so most of those (and they are innumerable) who have asked this question did so in a much nicer fashion, none of whom included the word “YOLO” in their arguments for living only for the present (thank GOD, seriously people, Mae West said, “you only live once, but if you do it well enough, once is enough” over 70 years before Drake uttered that irritatingly shortened phrase. And it’s an idea that’s been around for much longer than that. You’ve just been historied).
Any way. So why do we do history? Well I could go on and on, most likely indefinitely, about why the historical discipline as a whole is important, but I shan’t. Instead – for all those who have asked and all those who are planning to in the future: Here is why I care about history.
1) It repeats itself. You may not think it does. You may hope it doesn’t when something particularly awful happens, but it does. It will not look identical, it will not necessarily involve people who share the same name (although – try suggesting this to those who existed under the reigns of the countless Henry’s in England and Louis’s in France – bet they’d beg to differ) but this does not mean that certain patterns are not discernible and that certain things will not lead to very similar, sometimes scarily so, reactions.
I agree with this, I do, but I don’t think it follows that you can not learn anything about the present by looking into the past. If you’re lucky enough to have grandparents around, ask them what the mood was leading up to the Second World War. They may not have known exactly what was about to transpire, but they knew something bad was on its way. How? They had been indoctrinated with stories about the Great War since they were kids, and all signs were pointing to a conflict that even attempts at appeasement could not curtail.
Events are not random – they happen for a reason. I’m not saying history can help you predict the future, but it sure as hell can give you an indication that say, oh I don’t know, getting involved in the immensely complex and historic conflicts in Afghanistan is a very very bad idea (here’s looking at you, Bush). I really honestly believe that studying history, if it doesn’t stop one (or many) from doing something stupid, makes one (or many) more cautious when making potentially catastrophic decisions. You can argue it however you like, but history does teach us something about the way our world works.
2)There are human constants – and they are fascinating. We (being generation – oh gosh what are we…Y? X? ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWZ??) did not just sprout out of nowhere fully formed and conscious of who we were, and neither are all of our traits dictated by those who raised us. There are some basic qualities that humans share in common, and if you study history, you’ll start to notice them. This does no guarantee that every single person will fully develop these intrinsic qualities, but they are certainly at their disposal.
A 24-year-old Jane Austen in 1799 had just as much of a capacity to feel anger, hurt, loneliness, immense happiness, peace and exhaustion as myself. So she was a much better writer than me, so she lived in a beautiful house in the English countryside and I’m in an apartment where my bedroom also serves as a dining room, sitting room, parlour and office. This does not discount the fact that this incredible woman lived and breathed and felt and loved and lost and I believe that, despite the intervening 200-odd years, I can still connect to that human nature and it inspires me to learn more about her and her experience of the world as she knew it. The incredible Ms Austen is only one of many examples – who inspired you?
3) Finally, not to go on too long, history is EVERYWHERE. It’s in the 2-room apartment in an old house that you’re just renting as a struggling student until you can afford something larger (don’t do your PhD in that case! Especially if you’re planning on doing it in Europe – that apartment can and will get smaller).
It’s in the now tantalizingly unreadable plaque nestled in the un-trimmed grass along a desolate path by the river.
It’s in those faded family photographs with the exquisite cursive writing on the back describing people long faded from ageing memories.
It’s in the shelves upon shelves of books in the library and those piled all over a bibliophile’s house (if you don’t believe me – see my father’s office).
It’s in the eyes of every single person you’ve ever encountered or even glanced at.
I guess that’s the simple answer: I do history because it deserves, nay, begs to be done. If I didn’t do it, someone else would – but where’s the fun in that? If you read my old diaries (I wouldn’t recommend it) the only class little Erin ever wrote of in great detail, instead of rhyming off assignments and school-yard gossip, was history.
History is the greatest story ever told, it encompasses all of human kind that ever was or ever will be.
The best part? Unlike The Lord of the Rings, or Pride and Prejudice, or any other well-thumbed novel that you keep picking up again in the hopes that its contents may last just a little bit longer this time; History NEVER ends.
So – before you ask another budding historian why they do history, remember this post – you could be in for a Never-ending Story.
And always remember. Life (and its web of history) is beautiful.
History is ever-changing, ever-moving. You can capture it for a moment but that moment is fleeting and one must immediately begin the chase all over again.