Tuesday, September 14, 2010
Clio Has a Problem
In the New York Times Magazine article entitled, "Clio Has a Problem, History's Muse has been muffled, a historian argues, her poetic voices stilled", Simon Schama argues that there is not only room, but indeed urgent need in the field of history for poetic, inspiring, spell-binding, and captivating story-telling. History should incorporate, not banish, the qualities that distinguish great literary works in their ability to animate past events and personages in all their subtleties and complexities. The past, rendered mobile and living by the imaginative historian, may serve to illuminate the darker corners of contemporary minds.
To support his argument, Schama first takes us on a literary tour through the dusty halls of academia, where the teaching of history is lost in a maze of specialization, political correctness, and commercialism. Dominating this scenario is a sort of assembly-line of bare historical facts masquerading as objectivity. Where in this production, asks Schama, is the drama of history for which young minds hunger? Clio, the Muse of History, is silenced by the semantic battles of historians gauging the correctness of Western versus "multicultural" perspectives, "Eurocentric" as opposed to "Afrocentric", and the differentiation of terms such as "slave" and "enslaved persons". Such quibblings, according to Schama, amount to little more than self-righteous name-calling, distracting the historian even further from his/her capacity to illuminate the human imagination. Furthermore, historians are reprimanded for subjective excursions beyond the revered walls of objectivity built with bricks of hard empirical data. Yet, enduring historical texts and the works of historical scholars such as Denis Brogan and Richard Cobb, make no pretense of objectivity in their shared ability to give nuance, color, and texture to remote worlds, just as the true artist gives life to his/her subject by faithfully conveying an intensely subjective perception of that subject.
Schama doubts that the analytical powers of a great historian such as Walter Ullman, of Trinity College, Cambridge, are weakened by his active imaginative faculty. History needs to liberate itself from the solemn constraints of academic propriety. School curriculums should therefore abandon the bland order of "social studies" and declare themselves free to revel in a complex and often messy past. History must also avoid the culture of disposable information recycled as historical facts. The less history caters to such a culture, the greater its power to capture imaginations, and to make humankind think. Schama refers to G.M. Trevelyan who talked about the "poetry of history" as the "quasi-miraculous fact that once, on this earth, ...walked other men and women,...thinking their own thoughts, swayed by their own passions but now all gone, vanishing after another, gone utterly as we ourselves shall be gone like ghosts at cockcrow."
Where do we come from? Where are we now? Where are we going? What is man? Study of the past can reveal insights into the nature of being human. Lastly, Schama concludes by imploring historians to reunite with its splintered sister literature. History and literature, once interwoven into a splendid whole, unravelled when history became an academic discipline in the third quarter of the last century. History lost much of its evocative power, argues Schama, when it embraced empiricism and banished "unscientific" storytellers. Will we, askes Schama, find a new history in the next millenium? Can we hope for some great narrative that will reinvigorate the historical imagination?