Departments

Historiography

Historians are the natural predators of history. History, like entropy, always increases in a closed system. Without historians to control it, history would suffocate us. Whole peoples live today enthralled by history, peoples for whom the dishonors of a thousand years ago require the murders of today – and all because they never had historians to set them free.

History always increases. There are always more artifacts and more events, always more memories binding those artifacts and those events. The natural condition of history is not the absence of history, but absolute history – when commemoration and observance fill every every hour and block 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 still 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 meaning to a period gives us categories of thought that allow us to sort and assess the masses of artifacts and memories that would otherwise lay total claim to our attention and devotion.

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: the freedom that makes us equal in history with those who have come before us and those who will come after us: not the wreck of the past, not the redeemers of the past, not the seed of the future, not the betrayers of the future, but what we are: the inescapable present.