Saturday, January 30, 2010

Whose past? Whose present? More on my personal understanding of history


A while back I posted here about my personal understanding of religious traditions. I wrote about how any religious tradition that is big and important by necessity has to include a whole bunch of different and often contradictory elements. Thus, people who talk about "true X" where X is a big-name religion, seem to me to be talking about their aspirations and not a historical reality.

Yesterday, a post on Richard Scott Nokes' blog, Unlocked Wordhoard, made it possible for me to put into somewhat awkward words another thing I'm fairly sure of after all these years. Let me borrow parts of Scott's post and adapt a comment I left on it. Maybe it will make more sense this time around.

Here is what he said:

I'm using Kathleen Biddick's The Shock of Medievalism in something I'm writing. ... Biddick offers up terminology useful in establishing a framework for talking about medievalism.

Two of the most useful terms, however, are two of the ugliest: pastist (which “argues for radical historical difference between the Middle Ages and the present”) and presentist (which “looks into the mirror of the Middle ages and asks it to reflect back histories of modernist or postmodernist identities”). They're ugly on the page and ugly rolling of the tongue, and are kind of unsophisticated in their construction.* The terms are, however, very useful.

Me, I am not so sure that those terms are useful, but maybe Scott will convince me that I'm wrong when it comes to talking about medievalism. But I doubt it.

You see this touches on one of the most important things about history, namely that every human being has a different perspective on the past, because they are in a different position in the present. A commonplace for some people, of course, but one that people should take more seriously.

I know that Scott has lived in Korea, so that he knows that it is not like the United States, but he also knows it is not entirely incomprehensible. With this experience behind him, he might find Korean culture more or less comprehensible than some other cultures in the world. And again with this experience behind him, he could rate certain medieval cultures as really exotic, and others as kind of tame and boring in their familiarity. Say that Scott also has lived on a farm in Iceland for several years in childhood, and so there are certain things about rural North Atlantic and Scandinavian cultures, even medieval ones, that he can pretty much take for granted. Scott also has a neighbor, we will say, who shares neither of his foreign experiences. Depending on where he is coming from, he might find everything about Iceland to be exotic, more so than South Korea, where at least they have big cities. And traffic lights. Here we have two hypothetical Americans, both of whom we will say are white, about the same age, and well-educated, and they have different histories of the Middle Ages, and different views of the present as well.

I think the only history we can know is the particular understanding we have of the past. There was a real time before us, I am reasonably sure, but what's left of it is a few stories, a few records, a few monuments heavily restored by later architects, and a lot of trash. The history that we discuss and use to bring some kind of order into our understanding of the world is inside our heads, and in the debates we have about people's differing understandings. There are billions of world histories, and at the very least hundreds of different types of history.

It is legitimate to use various schemes to try to relate those differing histories and simplify things a bit, but I find that an awful lot of historians stop there; they really do divide the human experience into "the present," whose characteristics are pretty self-evident, and the "past," the particular slice of the dead and gone that they find fascinating, which all too often stands in for the entire past, or the crucial transition between a singular past and in the present with which we are so familiar with. (Even the present in Nepal?)

I may be overreacting to Scott's post, but at the very least it reminded me of something that drives me crazy. I visualize a discussion in which the participants have forgotten the vast variety of the human experience, and which turns the past and present both into cartoon versions of themselves.

Image: I have never been to Iceland, so I don't know whether they have traffic lights. My 25 years in the Canadian countryside, however, make it easy for me to think that they haven't bothered.

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