12 November 2005
Returning to the study of history after a gap of 30 years, I am delighted to find that the Postmodern movement passed me by.
Asked to read and comment on Keith Jenkins, Rethinking History, (Routledge 1991) and Refiguring History (Routledge 2003), I was amazed that his re-hashes of ideas from the 1960s and 1970s have been taken seriously and are apparently so influential.
If anyone reading this blog likes or agrees with what Keith Jenkins has written, please add a comment or email me. I'd be delighted to hear from you.
I remember discovering works such as Borges' Labyrinths, Albert Camus' The Rebel and George Steiner's Language and Silence. These are all good or great writers, who said it all much better many years ago.
You can't translate ideas taken from literature, let alone literary criticism, and use these as criticisms of historical writing, or the study of history itself.
History is different from literature. History is not the same thing as an historical novel, any more than science fiction is same thing as science.
It's fine to say that a work of literature can be interpreted in many different ways, and that all interpretations are equally valid. This is true, for literature, as a work that draws its strength from the author's imagination and the reader's response to the author's ideas and how these are expressed in the work.
It's also fine to say that there is no certainty in history and we can never know, for sure, what really happened.
Life is just the same, as Bishop Berkeley and the idealist philosophers showed centuries ago. How can I know that the table in front of me is real? I can see it and touch it, but as the only way I can experience it is through my own senses, how can I know that it really exists and is not just a figment of my imagination. But so what?
This does not mean that all historical interpretations are equally valid, or that students of history should spend their time studying texts comprising what people have written about the past, rather than attempting to discover for themselves "how it really was."
When we study history, it does matter if the events we describe really happened, even though we can never know for certain if they did, or not.
The power of history lies in the shared belief between the writer and reader that the events described really happened.
The novelist Graham Smith expressed this better than anyone when he said (in Waterland, quoted by David Cannadine in British History, Past Present and Future, 1987):
"... what history teaches us is to avoid illusion and make believe, to lay aside dreams, moonshine, cure-alls, wonder workings, pie-in-the-sky - to be realistic."