Sunday, May 24, 2009

Random Opinions

More years ago than I care to remember I was browsing in a bookshop in Hay-on-Wye and found a book called Dissenting Opinions. At the time I was on the dole and just had the cash in my pocket to buy it. It's the musings of a liberal historian called Page Smith.

Tardy as ever, I have only just discovered anything about the man. Page was born in 1917 and died in 1995, spending a long fulfilled life in academia even after almost failing his BA.
More generally he absorbed Jamesian values and attitudes - respect for human individuality, service to society, disdain for the merely respectable, abiding sympathy for the eccentric. This blended with a predisposition toward a Calvinist view of human nature, a combination often puzzling to his contemporaries and collaborators. But contrarieties and contradictions, the mysteries of human conduct, did not disturb him, and he responded feelingly to words of Walt Whitman's which conveyed this unfathomable complexity.

Do I contradict myself?
Very well, I contradict myself.
I contain certain multitudes.
I particularly liked Page's Rules for Historians where he disdains the objective:
7. Never write about anything that you do not find of consuming interest, ideally, that you have not fallen in love with. It was once thought that objectivity (often interpreted as not caring) was essential to the writing of good history. The reverse is true; in Hegel's words: "Nothing great is accomplished without passion;" or, as Nietzsche put: "One is only creative in the shadow of love and love's illusions." Controlled and disciplined passion is the only proper mode for the historian.
I also liked
15. Professional historians often behave (and teach) as though they thought history was something embalmed in monographs; that it had a tapeworm-like structure made up of successive monographic increments; that it is cumulative, constructed of facts and units of facts (monographs) which in time will add up to TRUTH. The fact is that history, both past and present, is almost frighteningly "open". That is to say, the past exists only in some kind of relationship to the future and, in a real sense, vice versa, i.e., it is only possible to conceive of the future in terms of the past.

16. The historians passion for explanation and for constructing casual sequences in history is a dangerous delusion. It is the product of a world view in which manipulation and control are the dominant values. It obscures the fact that the unexpected is the only certainty in history and thus leaves people unprepared to cope with that same ultimate certainty - the unexpected. The teaching of history must reflect the openness of history. This means a new way of thinking about and teaching history. Indeed, it may mean not teaching history at all - simply studying history. History, while it has been written and read since the ancient Hebrews, has only lately been taught in colleges and universities. Some would argue that its decline as a humane study can be dated from the time when it was organized into part of the academic curriculum.
This I take to mean disdain a belief in progress, and moreover a belief in the inevitability of progress. Some things get better, such as the eradication of diseases like smallpox make life now better than in the medium term past. Some things get worse, such as the immiseration of working class communities, caused by capitalism's deskilling of swathes of the workforce, in the rich Northern countries. Other things get worse like Coca-Cola's ravages in the global South.

What we need is passionate accounts of the past to guide us into the future.

1 comment:

The Plump said...

What we need is passionate accounts of the past to guide us into the future.

I really, really like this.