The Art of History

Irish poet William Wall’s recent collection Ghost Estate (2011), begins with a poem called ‘Figures of Speech’. The poem is a response to Theodor Adorno’s Prisms (1955), where Adorno wrote that ‘to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric’. To which Wall’s poem responds:

after Abu Ghraib he says

for others it was Auschwitz

what can I say

art is in the unimaginable

& nevertheless necessary…[1]

The necessity of art in troubling times is as true after Auschwitz as it is after Abu Ghraib, or during the the worldwide recession in which people and their lives are sacrificed to the demands of the market, to the ideology of austerity. If as Wall writes ‘art is in the unimaginable/& nevertheless necessary’ then where does the art of history fall? Is it too in the unimaginable? Is it that art also happens to reside in the unimaginable, but the unimaginable does not have sole claim to what constitutes art?

Opening his chapter on the place of classical music in Hitler’s Third Reich in The Rest is Noise (2009),music critic Alex Ross writes that ‘in the wake of Hitler, classical music suffered not only incalculable physical losses…but a deeper loss of moral authority’. He notes that afterwards ‘classical music acquired a sinister aura in popular culture. Hollywood, which once had made musicians the fragile heroes of prestige pieces, began to give them a sadistic mien.’ Worse, he notes ‘by the 1970s the juxtaposition of “great music” and barbarism had become a cinematic cliché…now when any self-respecting Hollywood archcriminal sets out to enslave mankind, he listens to a little classical music to get in the mood.’[2] Such damage to the popular image of classical music is one deeply lamented by Ross, a writer whose collected essays Listen to This are a paean to his attempt at synthesising his knowledge of classical music with his experience of contemporary, popular music in order that others can derive the same pleasure, and participate in both musical worlds.

Ross’ work displays a sound knowledge of why history matters – of why the affairs of state, of such big history, has such apparent consequence on the human experience – be that the experience of a Hollywood film, or as it was for those Ross recounts in Theresienstadt, for whom the experience of music was a consolation at a time when their human experience was beyond the bounds of true empathy of other humans, who had hitherto not experienced the same displacement, physical discomfort and pain of the concentration camps.

As we approach the fiftieth anniversary of EP Thompson’s seminal The Making of the English Working Class, first published in 1963, the debate about what history is for – how it is to be written – indeed, who history is for, is as important now as it was then. For Thompson, of course, history and that particular history which he wrote was about one thing primarily more than any other:

                I am seeking to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the “obsolete” hand-loom weaver, the “Utopian” artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity. Their crafts and traditions may have been dying. Their hostility to the new industrialism may have been backward-looking. Their communitarian ideals may have been fantasies. Their insurrectionary conspiracies may have been foolhardy. But they lived through these times of acute social disturbance, and we did not. Their aspirations were valid in terms of their own experience; and, if they were casualties of history, they remain, condemned in their own lives, as casualties.[3]

Just like Ross feels about classical music, that it is accessible for everyone – it is just finding their point of access, so too for Thompson everyone deserves to be rescued from the ‘enormous condescension of posterity’ – everyone has a past, and everyone should have and should be able to access their history. Around the same time as these words of Thompson’s were in the bookshops, John Lukacs argues in The Future of History (2011) that a discernible appetite for history, hitherto unseen, presented itself. He notes the explosion of local historical groups, the development of the popular historical magazine since the early 1960s and the almost simultaneous shrinking of history as taught in second-level (high school and secondary school). He notes too in this period a rise in the interest in the United States in the Holocaust, something which Lukacs puts down to not just ‘curiosity about this and that in the recent past’ for him instead it indicates an ‘appetite for encountering some things and some people who were real.’[4]

Lukacs’ real people are, I feel, the same people who Thompson sought to rescue from the unformed, cruel and forgetful mess of the past. One aspect of that reality which historians engage with is people’s remnants: that which they leave behind – frequently, and for much of the past, that then consists of words, of paper of one kind or another. Lukacs makes the point when discussing the ‘re-cognition’ of history as literature that as well as the sources directly pertaining to their subject matter they ‘must read and know what to read – a knowledge and interest and, yes, an appetite that will not only enrich their minds but guide and inspire their writing.’[5] To writer Ian Sansom ‘everything that matters to us happens on paper. Without paper, we are nothing. We are born, and issued with a birth certificate. We collect more of these certificates at school, and yet another when we marry, and another when we divorce, and buy a house, and when we die.’ According to Sansom ‘we are born human, but are forever becoming paper, as paper becomes us, our artificial skin. Everything we are is paper: it is the ground of activity, the partner to all our enterprises, the key to our understanding of the past. How do we know the past? Only through paper and all its records…’[6] Intriguingly, Alberto Manguel throughout his splendid meditation on the library acknowledges that were a visitor from the past to arrive on earth now he would see among other things ‘huge commercial temples in which books are sold by their thousands’, ‘libraries with readers milling about in the stacks as they have done for centuries’. Manguel notes, despite seeing ‘a host of readers: on park benches, in the subways, on buses and trams and trains, in apartments and houses, everywhere’ the visitor would be wrong to suppose ours was a literate society. Why?

According to Manguel ‘our society accepts the book as a given, but the act of reading – once considered useful and important, as well as potentially dangerous and subversive – is now condescendingly accepted as a pastime, a slow pastime that lacks efficiency and does not contribute to the common good.’ Manguel is certain that his hypothetical visitor would soon realise that today in our society ‘reading is nothing but an ancillary act, and the great repository of our memory and experience, the library, is considered less a living entity than an inconvenient storage room.’[7] In the same chapter though Manguel writes that those things we can find in a library ‘histories, chronologies, almanacs’ each of them offer us the illusion of progress, even though, over and over again, we are given proof that there is no such thing’.[8] Here Manguel echoes Lukacs who wrote emphatically that ‘history does not repeat itself.’ More importantly, Lukacs follows this with ‘nor do the motives and conditions and purposes of historical knowledge.’[9] In this way we must recognise that the reasons why we want to reach back through time and engage with the paper versions of ourselves that Ian Sansom points to, must necessarily change, even if like Manguel suggests, at the same time, those things deposited in the library (real or imagined), give the appearance of sameness.

Tony Judt, a man whose existence in words and on paper became ever more important as his body was trapped in a collapsing version of itself, and authored his Memory Chalet, nevertheless felt it vital to state in conversation with Timothy Snyder that ‘I profoundly believe in the difference between history and memory’. For Judt, ‘to allow memory to replace history is dangerous. Whereas history of necessity takes the form of a record, endlessly rewritten and re-tested against old and new evidence, memory is keyed to public, non-scholarly purposes. It could take the form of ‘theme park, a memorial, a museum, a building, a television program, an event, a day, a flag. Such mnemonic manifestations of the past are of necessity partial, brief, selective.’ He felt ultimately that ‘those who arrange them are constrained sooner or later to tell partial truths or even outright lies…in either event they cannot substitute for history.’[10] So history as a discipline has its, very necessary, place.

Judt is sceptical of the commemoration of the Holocaust in so far as it has become the moral yardstick by which all other acts are compared – to which almost all pale, thus excusing their execution. Judt’s feelings on the difference between memory and history are echoed a little closer to home by Irish historian Tom Dunne, whose Rebellions show a deep ambivalence at a situation in which not just history but even memory are warped for political ends that are, however well-meaning, nonetheless misplaced. Cold War historian John Lewis Gaddis in his lectures that eventually formed The Landscape of History (2004) feels that history as such is about gaining ‘historical consciousness’ because it is something that ‘helps us to establish human identity.’ In the end, for Gaddis at least, it is ‘part of what it means to grow up.’[11] Growing up of course, begets growing old which begets death. But if history too is about exceptions, then those who in the now-fabled phrasing are ‘not left grow old’, are those from whom learning to grow up, grow old and die is most important. That there is a right way to do so. We must reach back to those who, dead because of times passing, have also ceased to age and are entombed for us really in their paper selves that they have left behind – those records that Sansom points to in our quest to become paper. The trouble with history of course, and the writing of it, is that it necessarily depends on paper – for its construction in both senses: with no records (no paper) there could be no history and with no paper (nowhere to record and arrange the record) there could no recording of history. The form which history takes is almost by necessity a narrative one; because of the shape of our books, the form we have given to our paper, we move from one leaf to the next in our histories, expecting continuity, however artificial that fluidity is because of the imposed structure on the mass (and mess) of historical sources from which the story is drawn.

History is also, like literature and music, incomplete and open to constant and continuous revision – it is never finished, never (so far as we can see) able to finish. New sound can be struck always by an instrument, new poems written, new characters placed in new worlds in novels; Anymore than our quest, so ably described by Greg Milner in Perfecting Sound Forever, to find the best means of recording our music and lodging it has never ended while shifting from the wax cylinder to the mp3, in some sense they are all just forms of paper – a record in the most literal sense. What after all was Alan Lomax doing throughout the United States and the many other countries to which he made field trips recording sound (almost always imperfect – almost always perfectly real) but putting on the paper of music (wax discs and magnetic tapes) those people and their songs – oftentimes their songs as history – who otherwise might have been lost to the ‘enormous condescension of posterity’ that so exercised Thompson.[12] So too, will the art of history never cease, there will always be those explorers of the past who will with pen and ink (or with processor and screen) continue to record in lost fields and places those whose voices remain, however thinly, somewhere in our past, asking to be let sing their song.

For philosopher Peter Singer, it was by way of his grandfather David Oppenheim’s letters that he could rescue just his grandfather and grandmothers lives from that condescending posterity – that he could recount for all the world to share in Pushing Time Away an account of his grandfathers life in Jewish Vienna that in some small way counteracts the horrors met by Oppenheim in Theresienstadt, the concentration camp whose story looms large over all that was despicable about the Third Reich. Theresienstadt, the model camp, full of artists and Europe’s middle class Jews – was paraded in front of the world for its rich cultural life and comfort – it was used as a propaganda site for the Red Cross to show how good the concentration camps were. For Peter Singer’s grandparents, it was to provide a grave, and for many more, despite the music and books, there was no ultimate consolation. Manguel tells us the story of the library in Block 31, ‘the family camp’ at Auschwitz, where all the usual rigours of library life were maintained, of which he writes ‘it is almost impossible to imagine that under the unbearable conditions imposed by the Nazis, intellectual life could still continue… this persistence adds to both the wonder and the horror: that in such nightmarish circumstances that men and women would still read about Hugo’s Jean Valjean and Tolstoy’s Natasha, would fill request cards and pay fines for late returns….reading and its rituals became acts of resistance.’[13]

In like fashion, Olivier Messiaen’s composition of Quatour pour la fin du temps, was a resistance of recording the time in which it was written, its context. Helped, according to Ross, by guards at Stalag VIII-A where he was a PoW, in composing the piece it was first performed at the camp on January 15, 1941 and the piece, with its strong religious tones was according to Ross an expression of Messiaen ‘responded to the mechanized insanity of the Second World War by offering up the purest, simplest sounds he could find.’[14] Messiaen’s resistance was, like the readers maintaining the rituals of the library in Auschwitz or the artists and intellectuals like Peter Singer’s grandfather in Theresienstadt, a small one, but the best one – continuing to create, continuing to refuse to be lost to history’s condescending posterity; by the simple act of staying alive and continuing the rituals of living they all demanded recording, on and through paper, by history.

Their stories, brought out in these books, ostensibly none of them really about history as such, is testament to the importance of understanding history as primarily participatory. Just like Thompson thought people were present at the making of their own history, so too were these people ensuring by engaging with a world forbidden to them, by resisting, that they would leave their marks on paper – in the form of love letters to their wives, in their prayers, and musical notation – and by transforming themselves into paper they ensured their survival, and the books which have been borne of their paper, ensuring their part and place in history, in the ultimate library, greater even than the one imagined by Borges. History no more ends than Francis Fukayama might like to think it does, nor is it necessarily the case, as John Gray notes of Fukayama’s thinking, that history is ‘a process with a built-in goal.’[15] Of Fukayama’s ‘end of history’, Judt said that the historian must be able to ‘take such such tidy nonsense and make a mess of it.’[16] It is difficult not agree with this assertion, neat readings of history such as Fukayama’s, though twenty years old now and widely discredited are still popularly considered to carry weight, why Gray termed one chapter of Black Mass ‘Utopia Enters the Mainstream’. In a Europe, and an Ireland, in which economic recession and the concept of austerity is beginning to create pain such as it is for thousands and millions of Europeans from Greece, to Spain, Portugal, Italy to Ireland, the notion that any one system, any one socio-economic political ideology is the inevitable outcome of messy historical process is at best naive, at worst a sinister and intentional misunderstanding and misreading not just of historical process but also the historian’s art – the history we write.

So where does that leave the art of history – the product of the historians labours? It is, like the best arts, a participatory art – a ritualistic, necessary artform – ultimately, it becomes a responsibility: a responsibility to participate, to create it, to write it. For Tony Judt, as well as responsibility to coherence, the historian has another responsibility; he said ‘we are not merely historians but also and always citizens, with a responsibility to bring our skills to bear upon the common interest.’[17] It has never been more important that the historian be a public figure, making messy the neat summations of others. In the words of Tom Dunne ‘the role of the historian should be to inform rather than to inspire, to be true to the sources that survive, to tell what actually happened rather than to cloud them over with dreams of what did not. State commemoration may stimulate historical inquiry, but it should not determine it.’[18] The poetic resistance to prevailing conditions offered by Irish writers like William Wall and the challenge offered to history to resist the situation where in the words of London-based poet, Sean Bonney

history is those who sit

inside their prepared vocab,

the comfortable ones,

the executioner, especially,

never utters an articulate sound,

quietly gets on with his work.[19]

is an important one. It is as important as the strains in Messiaen’s final movement of his Quatour, as the late stamps on the books in the library of Auschwitz’s ‘family camp’, as the strains of the blues collected in a church by Alan Lomax. Like all art, it is forever a resistance: to wilful ignorance, to tyranny of all kinds, to accepting that which we know to be unacceptable. For it to be otherwise would be unimaginable.


[1] William Wall, Ghost Estate, Clare: Salmon Poetry, 2011, 11

[2] Alex Ross, The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, London: Harper Perennial, 2009, 334-335

[3] EP Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, 1963

[4] John Lukacs, The Future of History, London: Yale University Press, 2011, 61-69

[5] Lukacs, The Future of History, 94

[6] Ian Sansom, Paper: An Elegy, London: Fourth Estate, 2012, xix

[7] Alberto Manguel, The Library at Night, London: Yale University Press,  2006, 223-224

[8] Manguel, The Library at Night, 232

[9] Lukacs, The Future of History, 66

[10] Tony Judt with Timothy Snyder, Thinking the Twentieth Century, London: William Heinemann, 2012, 277-278

[11] John Lewis Gaddis, The Landscape of History, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004, 147

[12] For a good biography of Lomax and his mission see John Szwed, The Man Who Recorded the World, London: Random House, 2012

[13] Manguel, The Library at Night, 242

[14] Ross, The Rest is Noise, 390-391

[15] John Gray, Black Mass: Apocalypse, Religion and the Death of Utopia, London: Penguin, 2008, 105

[16] Judt with Snyder, Thinking the Twentieth Century, 270

[17] Judt with Synder, Thinking the Twentieth Century, 268

[18] Tom Dunne, Rebellions: Memoir, Memory and 1798, Dublin: TheLilliput Press, 2010

[19] Sean Bonney, The Commons, London: Openned Press 2011, 21

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