The end of history?
The first History Festival of Ireland is on this weekend. We have to understand the past to avoid old mistakes, according
to CATRIONA CROWE. But can ‘history’ ever be more than myths and misunderstandings, asks MANCHÁN MAGAN
THE INAUGURAL History Festival of Ireland, which takes place in Carlow this weekend, will no doubt further strengthen our current obsession with the past, but no matter how distinguished the speakers, who include Diarmaid Ferriter, David Norris, Myles Dungan, Kevin Myers and Ruth Dudley Edwards, they cannot distract from Henry Ford’s central truth that “History is more or less bunk. It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present, and the only history that is worth a tinker’s damn is the history we make today.”
History is Coronation Street for the intellectual mind. It is no more or less relevant, nor enlightening, than any other well-told tale. There is an attraction to a beguiling mythology that helps us feel more comfortable with our place in the world, but it oughtn’t to be mistaken for truth.
Even the most fanatical historian would not try to claim that history is objective or comprehensive. It is a miasma of agendas, myths, fallacies and misunderstanding fudged together to create a simplistic log of our existence, a convenient narrative of past events as interpreted by any historian; just as Liveline and this newspaper are interpretations of tiny fragments of reality through different prisms. No serious historian would argue that the records and chronicles on which history is based are dependable, yet each subjectively chooses from these very sources, which are really only tiny candles illuminating the infinite darkness.
The survival of historical data is due to happenstance or, more likely, a decision by someone in the past to influence a future view of previous events. It is further tainted by the bias of the collector and, later, the archivist. We invariably encounter it out of context, and thus what emerges is a historical narrative that is tenuous and somewhat fictitious yet becomes, unfathomably, accepted by the public as fact.
The reason for this, I think, is our innate love of story. History makes for ideal fiction: tales of scandal, heroism, treachery, dashing deeds and double-crossing intrigue. But as GB Shaw said, “The only thing that we learn from history is that man can never learn anything from history.” Why do historians so rarely address this issue in public? They expend so much of their energy squabbling back and forth in academic journals, desperately searching for footholds on the teetering human pyramid of their discipline, that they never dare stop to challenge its inherent platitudes and pretensions, or even its basic veracity.
The best way of understanding its inherent unreliability is to look back at your own family. Most of us have a narrative about our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents, with letters, photographs and first-person accounts to back it up. But imagine the vast realms of knowledge about our parents that we cannot ever know, or the even wider swathes of knowledge about our grandparents. We focus on what we have and join up the dots to form a tenuous story.
As Howard Zinn, the pioneering champion of “honest” history and author of A People’s History of the United States, says, “The basic problem of traditional history books is that they’re nationalistic and they’re elitist. By nationalistic, I mean they look upon the world centered around us and they look upon American policy as benign.”