Departments

Historiography

Historians are the enemies of history. History, like entropy, always increases in a closed system. Without historians to ventilate it, history suffocates. Whole peoples live enthralled by history, peoples for whom the dishonors of a thousand years ago require the murders of today; all because they never had historians to set them free.

History always increases. There are always more artifacts and more events, always more associations surrounding those artifacts and events. The ground state of history is not the absence of history, but absolute history—when commemoration and observance fill every every hour and every path, until any choice is violation or sacrilege, and any novelty is hubris or corruption.

Of course there are other, uglier ways to fight history than the historian's. But besides its low success rate, fighting history with atrocity is perverse. It is only a way of destroying someone else's history; the winner is doomed to have their own history written.

The historian is gentler and more effective. In consolidating and concentrating history, in resolving it with narrative, the historian does to history what the distiller does to grain: reduces so many tons of space-consuming, care-intensive material into something stable, compact, and portable. The historian who puts a name and a meaning to a period gives the categories of thought that allow us to sort and judge the masses of artifacts and events that would otherwise lay total claim to our attention and devotion.

I love to know history. I love to know foundings and flourishings, conquests and collapses. I love to know even the footnotes of history. I love to know how the Sumerians kept their accounts, how the Romans scrawled graffiti; how clockmakers set their gears, how machinists poured their bearings; how the caves were painted at Altamira, how the seas were crossed from Easter Island.

History is not over. History is still happening. History is still flowing from the invisible meanwhile to the obvious retrospect. But just because we are in history, because we must learn from it—so we must not submit to it, we must not inherit our place in it; we must be free enough of it that we can range over it, that we can examine all of it and it can examine us. Let us look at the past and let it look at us; let us invite the dead to judge the living as their most impartial judges. But first we must be free to take the judgment of the best wherever they are found, not only among our fathers and forebears.

Polyps make coral; trees make wood; human beings make history. Freedom from history is not freedom without history, but freedom for history: not that history should be bent to be relevant to us (if history is humanity, those to whom history is irrelevant are irrelevant to humanity); but that we should be equal in history with those who have come before us and those who will come after us, neither the declension of the past, nor the prelude of the future.