“History is not abstraction, it is the enemy of abstraction.”

Miss Fitz’s comment on an earlier thread – on sharing a commemoration of our past – reminded me that I had intended to note a fascinating article in The Observer by Stephen Fry – who memorably and movingly investigated his own family history on the BBC programme Who Do You Think You Are?. It’s a speech he made to launch Why History Matters, a campaign which unfortunately does not include our contested local history, but the points he makes, on the need to imaginatively engage with the lives of the people from our history, are applicable everywhere.From the Observer article:

No, it isn’t exactly political correctness that dogs history; it’s more a pernicious refusal to enter imaginatively the lives of our ancestors. Great and good men and women stirred sugar into their coffee knowing that it had been picked by slaves. Kind, good ancestors of all of us never questioned hangings, burnings, tortures, inequality, suffering and injustice that today revolt us. If we dare to presume to damn them with our fleeting ideas of morality, then we risk damnation from our descendants for whatever it is that we are doing that future history will judge as intolerable and wicked: eating meat, driving cars, appearing on TV, visiting zoos, who knows?

We haven’t arrived at our own moral and ethical imperatives by each of us working them out from first principles; we have inherited them and they were born out of blood and suffering, as all human things and human beings are. This does not stop us from admiring and praising the progressive heroes who got there early and risked their lives to advance causes that we now take for granted.

In the end, I suppose history is all about imagination rather than facts. If you cannot imagine yourself wanting to riot against Catholic emancipation, say, or becoming an early Tory and signing up to fight with the Old Pretender, or cheering on Prynne as the theatres are closed and Puritanism holds sway … knowing is not enough. If you cannot feel what our ancestors felt when they cried: ‘Wilkes and Liberty!’ or, indeed, cried: ‘Death to Wilkes!’, if you cannot feel with them, then all you can do is judge them and condemn them, or praise them and over-adulate them.

History is not the story of strangers, aliens from another realm; it is the story of us had we been born a little earlier. History is memory; we have to remember what it is like to be a Roman, or a Jacobite or a Chartist or even – if we dare, and we should dare – a Nazi. History is not abstraction, it is the enemy of abstraction.[added emphasis]

The bizarre but wonderful William Gerhardi wrote a polemical introduction to his book, The Romanovs, a foreword he called a ‘Historian’s Credo’, a series of furious and marvellously eccentric aphorisms. One paragraph reads: ‘History must at last convince of the uselessness of insensate mass movements riding roughshod, now as ever, over anonymous suffering and claiming priority in the name of some newly clothed abstraction. If it does not teach that, it does not teach anything.’

One worrying thought does occur, though, and it relates to a point I briefly noted in a previous thread on an apparently separate subject, it’s a question of whether the destructive appeal of the savage logic of ethnic and sectarian strife in the midst of a cultural chaos, encouraged by the increasing speed of information flow, risks overwhelming the attempt to imaginatively engage in the historical lives of others.