11 May 2015 by Published in: General musings No comments yet

This is a guest post by my friend Daniel Mallock which provides food for thought about the role of the historian….

Late in the evening several days ago I was watching an episode of “Chopped”. It made a strong impression on me.

“Chopped” is an hour-long cooking competition television show that pits four chefs against each other. There are three rounds, appetizer, entrée and dessert–there’s a ten thousand dollar prize for the winner. If the judges don’t like a chef’s dish he or she is eliminated from the competition, that is, “chopped.”

For the dessert round Chef Fed prepared an English custard tart and German Baumkuchen combination. A colorful fellow with a hybrid American/German/French accent Chef Fed, obsessed with the supposed “aphrodisiac” qualities of food, finally failed to seduce the judges with his cuisine. He was chopped.

The exit walk-off of a defeated chef can be an illuminating moment. Some are egotists who complain of the incompetence of the judges, some are humble and express appreciation for having competed; some few compliment the judges or their opponents. Chef Fed’s exit was a bit different. He said, “I really appreciate the opportunity to show the judges and everyone my world of flavors.” I am not a chef, but I thought that this was a beautiful thing. I switched off the television and prepared for sleep.

It was around half past midnight. Suddenly, I had a crisis of meaning.

An accomplished chef, Fed knew exactly what he was about, what his “world” was about: superior, delicious flavors, beguiling and comforting aromas, and beautiful, balanced presentation. I thought, “He is a chef–of course he knows his ‘world.’ But what is my world? What is the world of the historian, the student of history?” That I didn’t have a ready answer was troubling. I sat for a time and thought about it. This post, prompted by Eric’s kind invitation to write on the matter, is the result.

Marc Bloch is widely considered one of the greatest French historians of the twentieth century. His last book, “The Historian’s Craft,” goes a long way in defending the study and teaching of history and of explaining its value.

A professor at the Sorbonne Bloch was a WW1 veteran. When the Nazis invaded France he left his teaching position and joined the French army once again (a reserve officer at the age of 52). With the defeat of France and Nazi occupation Bloch swiftly lost his teaching career due to the fact that he was Jewish. It was during this period that he wrote “The Historian’s Craft” (the book was never finished). But Bloch was by no means retired; he had joined the Resistance. Captured and tortured by the Nazi occupiers Bloch was executed not long after D-Day.

An anecdote he included in The Historian’s Craft, is this one, about a visit that he and his friend Henri Pirenne (another renowned European historian of the last century) made to Sweden.

“I had gone with Henri Pirenne to Stockholm; we had scarcely arrived, when he said to me: ‘What shall we go to see first? It seems that there is a new city hall here. Let’s start there.’ Then, as if to ward off my surprise, he added: ‘If I were an antiquarian, I would have eyes only for old stuff, but I am a historian. Therefore, I love life.’ This faculty of understanding the living is, in very truth, the master quality of the historian.” (p.43)

Must a great historian, like Pirenne and Bloch, “love life?” The answer must be Yes.

The present is so fleeting, so swift and mercurial it is gone in an instant–and becomes the stuff of history. The future is a mist, little more than an expectation, a hope. History then is ever-expanding and as each day passes becomes more difficult to discern.

What of those who find no value in the study of history? How should a student of history respond when someone honestly asks, “What is the value of history?” Bloch has an answer.

“These condemnations offer a terrible temptation, in that they justify ignorance in advance. Fortunately, for those of us who still retain our intellectual curiosity, there is, perhaps, an appeal from their verdict.” (p.11)

Historians ought to be strongly opposed to ignorance. Isn’t the core of the historian’s work meant to eradicate such things?

We’re obliged to get to the bottom of things as best we can, to understand the living and the dead and the times in which they live and lived to the best of our ability. Certainly an honest, open-mindedness with a tempering of any bias is fundamental to the historian’s “world.” Opinions are more common than a bad cup of coffee, informed opinions–not so much.

The historian’s view must be an informed one. Our views and conclusions should be shaped by research and by a disciplined exclusion of personal bias (or tempering of it). With this self-discipline we can best legitimately weigh the merits of evidence that we examine. Aren’t we obliged to follow the records to whatever conclusion they lead? Aren’t we required to be flexible enough in our thinking so that if our conclusions (based on careful research and analysis) are unexpected ones, we can accept them?

A good portion of the historian’s “world” is the attempt at making sense of the confusion, conflicts, and conflicting views and opinions about people and events of the past. Our responsibility is all the more heavy when we find ourselves as researcher, compiler, transcriber, chronicler, analyst, judge and jury. Our strong views should be tempered by the knowledge that others just as diligent, just as scholarly, just as curious and careful as we, working with the same or similar sources may (and likely have) reached entirely different (and even completely oppositional) conclusions.

James Parton, a nineteenth-century biographer of Andrew Jackson illustrates the difficulties (that is, the muddle of the past) quite clearly. A person or event might seem to be one thing and/or its total opposite simultaneously.

“Andrew Jackson, I am given to understand, was a patriot and a traitor. He was one of the greatest of generals, and wholly ignorant of the art of war. A writer brilliant, elegant, eloquent, without being able to compose a correct sentence, or spell words of four syllables. The first of statesmen, he never devised, he never framed a measure. He was the most candid of men, and was capable of the profoundest dissimulation. A most law-defying, law-obeying citizen. A stickler for discipline, he never hesitated to disobey a superior. A democratic autocrat. An urbane savage. An atrocious saint.” (James Parton, Life of Andrew Jackson, 1861, I:vii; quoted in Andrew Burstein, The Passions of Andrew Jackson, 2003, xvi-xvii.)

One historian’s negative Andrew Jackson, or anybody else, is another’s hero (or both!).

Walt Whitman understood this inherent contradiction in humanity when he wrote the following in Song of Myself:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Making our way through the confusions of the past falls upon us, students of history. One of the benefits of good research technique and analytical skill is that our results/conclusions can be, as far as the limits of personal opinion and bias allow, verified, duplicated, and confirmed. Bloch again:

Corrupted by dogma and myth, current opinion, even when it is least hostile to enlightenment, has lost the very taste for verification. On that day when, having first taken care not to discourage it with useless pedantry, we shall succeed in persuading the public to measure the value of a science in proportion to its willingness to make refutation easy, the forces of reason will achieve one of their most smashing victories. Our humble notes, our finicky little references, currently lampooned by many who do not understand them, are working toward that day. (The Historian’s Craft, p.88.)

Our historian’s “world” then is about making sense of the past, being as honest as we possibly can, and deploying the finest and most vigorous research and analytical methods to reach conclusions that are as accurate as possible. In a sense we are guardians against ignorance and against the loss of knowledge, against the loss of myriad personal experiences and the total extinction of those who have gone before from the memories of the living. We’re open to discussion and are prepared, like any theorist working in the sciences, to have our theories challenged and if need be thrown down. The pursuit of truth cannot be about one’s ego.

Henri Pirenne was insightful and accurate in his characterization of the historian’s “world” as one built on a foundation of love of life. Perhaps those who are fully engrossed in the lives of the dead and in comprehending the influences of the past upon the present are in a particularly advantageous position to have a deep appreciation for life and for humanity. What is the value of full engagement in the events and people of the past if not to learn (and share) those lessons for the benefit of the living and the future?

History is not just about the darkness of the past, the pitch black of past times that we try to illuminate through our research and writings. It is also about coming to some understanding of the darkness and cruelty of evil, suffering, and inhumanity. What a challenge to describe the causes, consequences, and details of the abyss of past and present human savagery yet find in it all some cause for hope!

Certainly readers of history and those who follow events in the world of the living, too, are aware that evil deeds and evil-doers have never diminished. They and the miseries that they created rise and flow like some grotesque miasma through our lives and through the annals of history; the evil of some men and women, and their large and small cruelties and crimes, are the appalling pools that we all must wade through if we are to understand the past, and thus ourselves.

Suddenly, amidst the inhumanity, injustice, cruelty, violence, and hatred one finds a gem; a glistening thing of beauty, compassion, selflessness. We grab at it, wipe it off, put it in our pockets, and display it on the mantels of our work and souls to show everyone that, see!- we are not all so awful after all and, even further–that some who are awful can and have been redeemed.

The world of the historian then is a world of study, built necessarily on an approach to the past that is founded solidly on love of life and a disciplined self-honesty. We follow the truth as best we can and arrive at conclusions (and build explanations and theories) that are supported by evidence. But there are other things, too. There is hope.

The “world” of the historian must involve hope. The best histories show a true appreciation of life, of people, and of the difficulties they faced. And when (or if) they overcame their particular challenges, rise above some horror or war (or some other nightmarish thing) these folks ought to be celebrated; how they coped, how they persevered, how and why they may have failed, why they did what they did. If our subject(s) failed we should explain why, and talk about the cost and even speculate about if and how such horrors might have been avoided (or prevented or stopped or interdicted). Historians ought to be extremely sensitive to the errors and casualties of the past because helping the living to avoid the mistakes of the past is an important part of our “world.”

One of the finest American poets of World War Two was Randall Jarrell. He could write a novel, or a history, and tell an important story in only several lines that otherwise, in prose, might require several hundred thousands. This is the mark of the greatest poets. Much of poetry is about our human need and desire for connections. We need to know that we are not alone.

Here is the entirety of Jarrell’s poem called “Little Friend, Little Friend” (1945). It is encompassing, fundamental, brilliant.

. . . . Then I heard the bomber call me in: ‘Little Friend, Little Friend, I got two engines on fire. Can you see me, Little Friend?’
I said ‘I’m crossing right over you. Let’s go home.'”

Jarrell doesn’t tell us if the bomber and its crew (and their escort) survived. He only tells us that on that journey home the wounded crew in their burning plane was not alone. These haunting, disturbing lines are somehow triumphant, and comforting. The reaction of the stunned reader invariably must be… “I hope they made it home!” Isn’t it extraordinary that one of the finest poems of WW2 has only three lines?

Is there some aspect of the historian’s world that involves hope? The answer must be Yes.

If Pirenne and Bloch are correct in their affirmation of the value of humanity then, somehow, we must walk in the same path. The expression of the truth, the illustration and illumination of people and events, is an affirmation of humanity. If Pirenne and Bloch are right, and they are, that life is of the utmost value then it is part of our “world,” too, to affirm, explain, and defend this critically important concept.

The progress of humanity is built upon the successes and failures of previous generations. This is an undeniable truth of the linear quality of our too short lives. Understanding the near or distant past illustrates for the living lessons learned by those who have faced similar challenges; the continuum of humanity is built on lessons learned, forgotten, misunderstood, and ignored.

Since history is always active, that is, history is always being “made” or is endlessly occurring – it is almost impossible to understand wider issues, bigger themes in which we find ourselves, our fellows, our country and our planet. Events in which we are a part are sometimes so immense and long in development that only an understanding of previous events can provide crucial insights into those of the present. The greatest historians then, like Pirenne and Bloch, in studying, analyzing and writing of the past, and thus contributing to an understanding of people and events in the present time are in service to humanity. This works both ways: an insightful understanding of the living cannot help but assist in understanding those who are no longer alive. How can we talk about, write about, even judge people living or dead without trying our best to empathize with and comprehend people?

In another episode of Chopped a young woman chef named “Ashley” was unable to prepare pickled pig’s feet to the satisfaction of the judges. She was “chopped” in the first round. Chef Ashley said, “That’s why I love cooking, there’s always something new to be learned.” Like the Chef’s world of innumerable ingredients (and combinations), recipes, and styles, ours is an ever-expanding field of knowledge that must include a love of learning.

The “world” of the great historian is one of love of humanity and love of learning. If the historian has one but not the other, he or she then is something other than a proper historian.

Rabbi Harold Kushner’s introduction to Viktor Frankl’s classic Man’s Search for Meaning (1946) summarizes the importance of hope. Frankl, a brilliant Jewish Viennese psychotherapist had been arrested by the Nazis and sent to Auschwitz. In such an appalling place so high in the pantheon of sites of human cruelty and suffering hope could not readily be found in abundance–but it was there.

“He (Frankl) describes poignantly those prisoners who gave up on life, who had lost all hope for a future and were inevitably the first to die. They died less from lack of food or medicine than from lack of hope, lack of something to live for.”

The historian’s “world” is also one of duty. We have a duty to our forebears to tell their stories and to learn from them as best we can. We have a duty to keep the memory of heroes and villains and the experiences of everyday people alive. And then we have to analyze it all, explain it, present it, and share it with others for their knowledge (and perhaps even entertainment). Someone must keep the light of the past burning; somebody has to read the old books, and cull the important bits from them. We’re meant to tell the stories and help the living as best we can by providing for them an illumination of the past!

One of the finest poems about the Civil War is Donald Davidson’s “Lee in the Mountains.” It’s a haunting, beautiful achievement. A segment:

And Lee is in the mountains now, beyond Appomattox,
Listening long for voices that will never speak
Again; hearing the hoofbeats that come and go and fade
Without a stop, without a brown hand lifting
The tent-flap, or a bugle call at dawn,
Or ever on the long white road the flag
Of Jackson’s quick brigades. I am alone,
Trapped, consenting, taken at last in mountains.

We may be feeble, tired, and even overwhelmed but there is that duty. There is that duty and pleasure to discover/rediscover and understand and to make it all relevant somehow for today. We absolutely must learn the lessons of the past; there is no other way to avoid, if at all possible, the old mistakes.

Lee and Jackson and Lincoln are gone, all now outside of time. The determined blue and gray soldiers and their bitter guns are silent sentinels now on battlefields across the land. Davidson’s description of Lee is a poignant thing. It’s an emotionally heavy poem, and for those who know the history, all the more so. Stonewall’s “quick brigades” are dispersed, disappeared. The poet can invoke them, but only the historian can tell their stories and, in a sense, “bring them back” out of the darkness and nothingness of time gone by. There is too much of events and character to be learned from all of these people to ever let them go to nothingness.

In a historian’s “world” nihilism is an impossibility.

In a September, 1870, letter to Charles Marshall, his former aide-de-camp, Robert E. Lee in summing up his many years of experience chose an inspirational message. The War had been over then five years. There was not much time left, and Lee was aware of his failing health. This quote and the promise of hope that it provides has not gone unnoticed since his death a month after he wrote it. Despite everything he had been through, the loss of the war and of the old South and the Confederacy itself, Lee focused on wider themes and concluded with a message of positivity that is now, much like the General himself, timeless and outside of time.

“My experience of men has neither disposed me to think worse of them nor indisposed me to serve them; nor, in spite of failures which I lament, of errors which I now see and acknowledge, or of the present aspect of affairs, do I despair of the future. The truth is this: The march of Providence is so slow, and our desires so impatient; the work of progress is so immense and our means of aiding it so feeble; the life of humanity is so long, that of the individual so brief, that we often see only the ebb of the advancing wave and are thus discouraged. It is history that teaches us to hope.”

The present is a fleeting mist, the future but a dream and hope. What remains then is history; everything is history. It is the foundation of hope.

I will never compete on Chopped. I can find the best ingredients, prepare and present them with attractive colors, depth and balanced aromas and flavors. I can sauté, steam, stew, and simmer. I can select a good, appropriate wine. I can plate and serve a fine meal. I am not a chef, but I know how to cook.

Daniel Mallock is the author of the forthcoming book An Essential American Friendship: John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and a World of Revolution (Feb. 2016)

Title quote from Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865. (Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away.)

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