“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.

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  • joeCanuck

    Food for thought Pete. Very interesting proposition.
    In our case though, I think it needs to be more specific. Rather than just trying to get inside the heads of our ( generic) ancestors, it might work wonders if Nationalists/Republicans could contemplate what went on inside the minds of the planters and their descendants (fear of the natives?) and if the descendants of those planters could try to understand what went through the minds of the displaced and their descendants (abiding sense of deprivement?).
    We are not responsible for the actions of our ancestors but we sure are responsible for our own individual actions.
    Appealing to past wrongs as a justification for our present day actions is a dubious moral proposition.

  • Free Agent

    Am I being dense here, or is Northern Ireland actually completely ignored by this campaign. There are no events planned for here, according to its website and in fact we don’t even appear on its map of “the nation”. Does our history not matter? or is it too bitter for English palates?
    Our history matters too – Pass it on.

  • Pete Baker

    FA

    That point was made in the intro – that particular campaign is by heritage organisations in England and Wales.

    It’s also why I made the point that Stephen Fry’s comments – which are the actual topic – are applicable everywhere.

  • Keith M

    If there’s one part of the U.K. that doesn’t need to be reminded of history, it’s Northern Ireland. Unfortunatly an agreed history is still at least a generation away.

  • Pete Baker

    Keith

    Did you read the article? I don’t think Stephen Fry is talking about an agreed history.

  • Garibaldy

    I worry about the grasp of history of somebody who can say this

    “But … isn’t history now just point of view, tribal assertion, cultural propaganda? After all, the days of Burke, Macaulay, Gibbon, Trevelyan and Froude are over.”

    Ridiculous in the extreme.

  • wjd

    Apart from the fact, noted here, already that it applies only to England and Wales, I gather from people involved in this felt that a campaign called History Matters wasn’t entirely what NI needed. (as the joke had it, they wanted to a launch a History Doesn’t Matter campaign for the North).

    The truth is, of course, that the English and Welsh are less aware of this history and possibly do need more of a minder.

    Of course, recognising what it felt to be a hunger striker, Orange man, planter, kern or gallowglass is probably a good idea, but there’s probably another way of doing it.

  • Pete Baker

    Garibaldy

    Your use of those particular lines from the speech is, I would suggest, somewhat out of context.

  • Nevin

    I’ve just had a chat with someone involved in the campaign. Apparently Northern Ireland and Scotland opted out or rather the organisations consulted opted out on their behalves. Sad

  • Garibaldy

    Pete,

    I don’t think it is out of context. The implicit suggestion is that these people were superior historians and not engaged in cultural propaganda or whatever because they were at the centre of civilisation. Which is absurd. Burke and Froude in particular knew quite a bit about tribal assertion, for example.

    If he meant to say that the professionalisation of history has pushed its practictioners away from the centre of power, then he should have made it more clear that’s what he meant. If he meant to say that today’s historians focus on trivia unlike these great men of the past, then that too is nonsense.

  • Pete Baker

    Garibaldy

    You can interpret those isolated lines in whatever way you please, I don’t agree with your assertion and I’ll point out, again, that the lines should be read in the context of the entire speech.

    Besides, I’d have thought, given your previous contributions on Slugger, you would have taken issue with his final quotation:

    ‘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.’

    No? ;o)

  • Greenflag

    ‘History is not the story of strangers, aliens from another realm; it is the story of us had we been born a little earlier.’

    Very true and it ‘history’ has always been written by the ‘winners’ and of course subsequently ‘revised’ when the ‘losers’ become the ‘winners’.

    There is no point in looking to dead ancestors either ‘winners’ or ‘losers’ to solve present day problems . Can we learn from some of their mistakes as seen in hindsight ? Perhaps in some societies . In NI it would seem not.

    We should just all be grateful that we do not live in an era when the reward for hunting down a Catholic priest was a fiver and where the punishment for being a witch was the ‘duck ‘ treatment . I read the State of Virginia has given a pardon and restored the good name of the witch of Pungo 300 years late mind you. I’m sure she’s relieved ?

    Never mind about your ancestors and don’t worry too much about your progeny assuming you have any ? After all what did posterity ever do for us ?

  • Keith M

    Pete “I don’t think Stephen Fry is talking about an agreed history.” I never said that he was. I’m simply saying that while this campaign is very desirable in the rest of the U.K., that through the continuance of tribalism and sectarianism, history is lived every minute of every day in N.I. Finding a common and agreed history might be a start to end both.

  • Garibaldy

    Pete,

    I had indeed noted those lines at the end, but decided to ignore them as beneath my notice 🙂

    On the point of the lines about Burke et al, I did read them in the context of the entire speech. The point being that they weaken the overall argument by casting doubt on his understanding of the issues at stake.

  • Greenflag

    ‘history is lived every minute of every day in N.I. ‘

    ‘Those who continually choose to live in and on the past are condemned to miss out on the future ‘ JFK IIRC ?

    ‘Finding a common and agreed history might be a start to end both.’

    A waste of time except perhaps for those professionally involved in academic ivory towers . Most ordinary voters are not interested apart from the fun and frolics surrounding the Twelfth?St Patrick’s Day/Easter Rising .

    There is the Irish version of Irish history which very few English/British kids ever get to read/see and there is the English /British view of history in which the Irish are usually mentioned as an afterthought/a nuisance /trouble /rebellious /unfortunate /lazy /indolent /supertstitous etc etc particularly in older histories . Understandable of course from a British Imperial perspective but not the kind of history that endeared the Irish to the UK polity. Perhaps in 100 years time some English economic historian may notice the fact that Ireland as a country only really started to develop when England left the natives to run their own country without Mother’s kind attentions ?

    Realistically and I hate to repeat this message but sectarianism and tribalism go hand in hand with a 6 county NI State and that may only improve marginally in a 2 county Unionist State /30 county Republic settlement . Day and night , rain and sunshine , Northern Ireland and sectarian strife .

    Direct rule will work temporarily but ultimately it will be seen as a temporary fix .

    As I’ve said NI is torn between two worlds one dead (the Empire and it’s legacy) and the other ( a non sectarian normal democracy0 powerless to be born .

    The solution ? Repartition is worth a try at this stage . At least it will help to move SF into the modern world . I can’t think of anything that would do the same for the DUP or the UUP ?

  • Pete Baker

    So, Garibaldy, the concluding paragraph and associated quote of Stephen Fry’s speech is beneath your notice.

    At least it’s an honest indicator of the intent behind your other comments.

    But if you want to undermine the conclusion may I suggest some better suited, and equally isolated, lines from the introduction:

    “History is bunk or possibly bunkum. History is a comedy to those who think and a tragedy to those who feel. History is written by the victor. Historians are prophets looking backwards.”

    None of those lines reflect the speech as a whole either.

    Keith

    I think that the approach suggested in the speech is a better way to potentially find any common and agreed history than setting such an objective to begin with.

  • Pete Baker

    GreenFlag

    Give it a rest, please.

  • Greenflag

    The truth never rests 🙂 Well it never rests easy but in deference to your very interesting thread I’ll give it a rest .

    Enjoy your twelfth and stay sober 🙂

  • Garibaldy

    Pete,

    The stuff about history is bunk is him paraphrasing those who say history doesn’t matter, and does not represent his views. The stuff about Burke et al does represent his views of how the historical profession conducts itself, hence the reason I raised the issue. I have no interest whatsoever in seeking to undermine the why history matters campaign. I do have an interest in whether his criticisms of historians should be taken seriously.

    While we’re on the topic of the last lines, it as politicised a view of history as any other. Written interestingly in a book on the Romanovs. Should we ignore the impetus to stick of principled political action even if it requires sacrifice, then I’d suggest we might well be in trouble. After all, why then fight to defend national sovereignty, democracy etc? Aren’t they just abstractions. Such arguments are trite, and do no good in the promotion of historical understanding, or the historical profession. They stand in the way of imagining the past as much as anything else.

  • Pete Baker

    Garibaldy

    “I have no interest whatsoever in seeking to undermine the why history matters campaign.”

    And I didn’t say you did, what I said was that you had an interest in undermining the point Fry was making on learning from history in the way described in the quote given your previous defence of Stalin.

    “I do have an interest in whether his criticisms of historians should be taken seriously.”

    Its your assertation that he is criticising historians. What I see is his setting out the different ways in which historians are viewed by the public.. that’s who the Why History Matters campaign is aimed at.

    We’re not, btw, on the topic of the last lines.. but it’s worth remembering that Fry himself describes the quote as part of “a polemical introduction.. a series of furious and marvellously eccentric aphorisms.”

    Fry is arguing, at least in part, that the campaign, and history, should rescue those you and others would sacrifice from anonymity.

  • Garibaldy

    Pete,

    My initial criticism of Fry had nothing whatsoever to do with the last lines. It had to do with what I see as a misrepresentation of Burke and the rest.

    As for imagining the past sympathetically, I note that this impulse seems to stop with the Soviet Union. It’s easier for people to say this was all due to a totalitarian ideology that was inherently rotten from the start and because Stalin was evil etc rather than try to understand the reasons for thing developing as they did. Or to imagine themselves in that situation.

    I have no intention of sacrificing anybody, thank you, but equally I’m honest enough to admit that put in that situation I can understand why things happened the way they did, and that overall, I’m more than happy that the USSR was strong enough to, in Churchill’s words, tear the guts out of the Nazi army. Doesn’t mean I want to see a re-run of those conditions in the future.

  • Pete Baker

    Garibaldy

    just a couple of quick points as we seem to be treading across previous ground, and some ground unrelated to the actual speech.

    The misrepresentation is still an assertation on your part, one which I don’t see in the same, full, text – as I mentioned previously.

    It’s not about imaginatively engaging sympathetically.. it’s about imaginatively engaging with the lives of people in the past empathetically. The first presupposes a value judgement, the second – if necessary – allows an assessment to be made.. hence, I’d suggest, Fry’s explicit reference to Nazi’s.

    A remembering of what it was like to be in such times.

  • Garibaldy

    Pete,

    Empathetically the right word. I totally agree. Deciding whether to put myself through land and freedom again, wjhich has just started on sky movies 5. Probably won’t bother. Might bring out the less moderate me, but a clear warning why history matters

  • ballymichael

    Pete: Well done for picking up this Stephen Fry speech. Extremely well-argued and persuasive.

    In a northern irish context, I suppose it reminded me of my reaction on reading Ruth Dudley Edwards “The Faithful Tribe”.

    I mean that wish to engage, to imagine oneself in their shoes, to get inside their heads. It isn’t the same thing at all as being “pro-orange order”.

    Thanks.

  • ballymichael

    re: greenflag’s “Perhaps in 100 years time some English economic historian may notice the fact that Ireland as a country only really started to develop when England left the natives to run their own country without Mother’s kind attentions ?”

    He/she might. Then again, he might notice that economic prosperity grew in the late 19th century. That tenant law reform, cheap loans to buy land, and all those boring demands of the Irish National Party, actually were the economic bedrock from which independance became possible.

    And that the first decades of independance were anything but successful economically.

  • Pete Baker

    ballymichael

    It’s one of the reasons why I was disappointed that, as noted by Nevin earlier in-thread, heritage organisations in Northern Ireland, and in Scotland, opted out of this campaign.. it would also have provided an opportunity for some useful, and interesting, cross-border co-operation.

  • c Hound

    History is bunkum to me. Henry Ford

  • Greenflag

    Ballymichael

    ‘he might notice that economic prosperity grew in the late 19th century. ‘

    At the expense of or as a result of the island’s population being reduced by almost 50% ? The last few years of the 19th century do not amount to a whole lot when compared to the previous 250 years of land confiscation , penal laws ,restriction of Irish manufactures and trade , forced use of British shipping , religious discrimination and the reduction of Ireland to a supplier of soldiery ,cheap food and cheap labour for England’s growing industrial economy.

    ‘That tenant law reform, cheap loans to buy land, and all those boring demands of the Irish National Party, actually were the economic bedrock from which independance became possible.’

    I’m not saying they did’nt help . But I would say that they came too late to do anything for the Union – just like Catholic Emancipation and in modern times just like Sunningdale in NI . In truth without the finacial and moral support from the Irish in America -an independent Irish State would probably never have come into existence . We Irish should never forget that .

    Your ‘argument’ appears to be that if you treat a country as a second or third class or no class entity for most of it’s existence and then when they finally appear to have accepted ‘defeat’ you offer them some small ‘tokens’ that they should have the decency to forget hundreds of years of suffering and thank you profusely for your gracious ‘alms’ ? Have you any more jokes ?

    And if such a nation by it’s own efforts finally shakes off the tyrants yoke and somehow achieves a measure of financial and political independence then you expect that nation to thank it’s former oppressor for those small tokens given late in the day without which that now free nation’s prosperity would never have been possible ?

    Sorry Ballymichael you and I live on different planets as regards an understanding of how people respond under the above conditions.

    ‘And that the first decades of independance were anything but successful economically.’

    So ? Like every former colony Ireland had to learn the hard way that there is no such thing as a free lunch and that there’s more to independence than waving flags and marching up and down streets beating drums and shouting ‘ No Surrender’ and ‘Kick the Pope ‘for three months and 3,000 parades every summer. My apologies, NI does not celebrate it’s independence on July 12th . Perhaps they should rename the 12th Northern Ireland’s Dependence Day celebration?