AS A SOCIAL SCIENCE, history uses scientific—or at least systematic—methods. But there is a less tangible, spiritual aspect to history that many historians have been loath to acknowledge. Their motivations may be more akin to theologians than scientists. History requires rigor and diligence, but it also needs, I believe, mystical devotion to the importance of collective memory.
Cameron McWhirter begins this short reflection on the nature of historiography in an intriguing manner. Mystical devotion? A spiritual ground to history? Interesting and provocative, tell me more. But the more he does the more I think he is toying with his readers in a game of bait and switch.
A few paragraphs later he states:
My impulse to write the book, however, came from a place that is less tangible but equally as important as the gathering of facts: a desire to understand human relations and why things happened the way they did. I identify this desire as mystical in origin.
What would drive him to identify issues relating to sociology and causality as springing from a mystical source? These are the very things that separate historiography from annal-compiling. Furthermore, one can have an interest in human motivation and causality that is entirely non-mystical.
In a round about way McWhirter admits this:
This spiritual aspect does not require God or a god or gods. Many historians are atheists, agnostics, or intellectually uninterested in the question of a God. But good historical research and writing has to include a need—often never articulated—to commune with the dead, to understand on a human level the people about whom you are writing.
But again, why play fast and loose with words? Why would he invoke a “spiritual aspect” as a way of describing a desire to understand humans from generations past? I think that historians should push through reconstructions of bare events and attempt to connect their histories to human dimensions. This thought impressed itself upon me as I was going through the cuneiform tablet collection that belongs to the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh. I was bogged down in trying to read from broken tablets and keep track of the accounts mentioned in the various texts when, as I held a 4,000 year old tablet in my hand, I saw a fingerprint. It was a powerful sign that reminded me that as I read the tablet I was not merely reading a “sheep text” but a record of the work of a real human being. Someone who probably enjoyed his work some days and other days found it difficult and frustrating. Someone with parents who loved him or was he abused? Maybe he had a wife and child at home and worried about feeding and clothing them and about buying a new house, and so on. This tablet was no longer just about sheep, it was about the humans who engaged in these tasks. Yet, as deeply moving as this experience was for me I would hardly call it “spiritual.”
Maybe what McWhirter means is that there is an unknown quality to historical reconstructions; that causality and the idiosyncrasies of human relations always remain at arms length to the modern historian. This idea is reflected in Julian Barnes’ new novel, A Sense of an Ending, in which this definition of history is attributed to one of the characters:
History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.
However, I don’t think that this is what McWhirter had in mind. He closes his essay with an anecdote about a time when he learned of aspects surrounding an instance of racial injustice that had not been widely disseminated. He ends the piece with this:
It had all been kept in the dark, he told me, then gave me a sideways glance.
“Maybe we ought to turn the lights on,” he said.
That, at its mystical core, is the purpose of history.
Exposing truth, especially truth that has been suppressed, is a vital role of history-making. Yet, should we describe truth-telling in historiography as a “mystical” exercise? Personally, I think it is a misuse of the term. It seems to me that McWhirter sets us up for a potentially fascinating look at spiritual dynamics of historiography and then veers off course to conclude with an idea that has little do with mysticism or spirituality–at least in the way that McWhirter presents it. What do you think?