History is a nightmare from which a great many of us seem to have awakened. One is struck frequently by examples of our culture’s lack of historical memory, or at least by that lack on the part of many members of our society. In my own city, a politician was recently roasted for an inappropriate joke she made about Auschwitz over social media concerning the phallic nature of the camp’s electrified fence posts; her defense was that she was not aware until a reporter pointed it out that Auschwitz was a death camp, in spite of being a chief executive on the local school board. Members of the public contended, meanwhile, that this was a historical event of which one really should be cognizant. I bring up this useful example not to bury the woman, but only as a recent incidence of a public figure displaying a startling level of historical obliviousness. A more interesting example might be a comedienne who was recently lauded for stating that we should look to university-aged students for their social conscience because they are “almost always on the right side of history,” a surprising thought for a Jew after the Nazi era. But, to be fair, examples abound and most studies reveal a surprising sort of unawareness of history on the part of the public at all ages.
I tend to be perhaps overly sensitive about these things as someone who holds a PhD in History and has an abnormal sensitivity to the past, the sort of person that Philip Rieff once referred to as a “remembrance.” Knowledge of the past shapes my responses to events in the present and lacunae in that knowledge eat at me as deficiencies in a way that might not be general in the population. Speaking with old friends who are still enlisted in the ranks of academia, I also hear frequently about the specter of “shrinking enrollments” that haunts all humanities departments, particularly History. As higher education becomes increasingly commoditized and capitalized, there is a pressing need to validate history as an area of inquiry, especially since it does not appear to offer a return on most material investment. Since I hold that PhD and am employed as a cleaner, dishwasher, and prep cook, even I feel pressed to explain. In response, historians usually make moral claims: we ought to know about the past in order to understand the historical context in which we were born and the ways that historical forces shape our lives and decisions. We ought to understand the interplay of common human problems and historically specific answers to those problems. At the least, we should consider how history will judge us. I find I tend to take the necessity of understanding history in its sweep and particulars as axiomatic. How can we know who we are without knowing where we came from?
I ask myself often if this position is right, however. Can too much historical knowledge be something that hinders rather than helps us? Can it make us bloated and dyspeptic like the middle-aged husband (Ralph Kramden, say) who can’t believe he ate the whole thing? This is what Friedrich Nietzsche contends in the untimely meditation On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life, although he uses the more vivid example of a bloated snake that can hardly move while it digests rabbits swallowed whole, and he has in mind the ways this indigestion can strike an entire culture so that it ceases to be a culture at all, creating nothing new, sinking into itself, and inhibiting forward motion so severely that it’s more like the crammed, used curio shop of the pathological hoarder. The newborn German Empire that emerged from the Franco-Prussian War was suffering from the sort of history poisoning that Nietzsche diagnosed, being to an extreme degree fascinated with the notion of history as process, or even worse as world process, and historiography therefore as a kind of science that makes measurements and uncovers these processes as they unfold, thus either promising a sort of reading of the future from the past, or just as hubristically, a picture of historical teleology culminating in its endpoint in ourselves and our generation, or in the Hegelianism that was then popular, culminating essentially in Berlin and Hegel.
This is a somewhat uncharitable interpretation of Hegel, to be sure, but then calling Nietzsche charitable would be downright offensive. He was right to see Hegel’s history as basically providential, God sneaked in the back door of philosophy. There is also, quite simply, a sort of tedium that can result from the historian writing as an objective, pseudo-scientific measurer; I recall articles in social history from the 1960s, before the “cultural turn,” that read with all the excitement of a state department report on subjects as bracing as increases in coal production in a particular region of England in the 1880s. Often, the guiding concern behind these mini potboilers grew out of the historian’s own political convictions, particularly Marxist, which likewise saw history as process and the uncovering of that process as a pressing concern for the present. Lacking those particular convictions, though, many works of history sink into personal irrelevance.
Nietzsche saw five serious long-term illnesses that could result from history poisoning:
- the contrast between our historically engaged inner lives and rather placid outward social conventions can cause a sort of schizophrenic collapse
- we might complacently fantasize that ours age is the most just, a sort of Panglossian “If you don’t like it here, go live in the last century!” attitude that should be fairly familiar to most of us
- our instinctual life could be disrupted by too much historical awareness as we measure ourselves in relation to past times
- we can start seeing ourselves as latecomers and epigones living in an exhausted age, something we should also be keenly familiar with
- and finally, we can succumb to irony and cynicism about the whole bloody human business.
Two things should stand out here: first, Nietzsche’s three salutary methods of thinking about history—the preserving antiquarian, the inspiring monumental, and the suffering critical—are modes that all require each other and, if any of them is taken to an extreme in isolation, can lead to any one of these ailments; second, these are all psychological ailments, maladies of the psyche. Historical awareness can inhibit fully engaged actions in the present, which Nietzsche argues always require an unhistorical state of being and thinking.
The real problem, it seems to me, is that the past always exists in a dialectical relationship with the present, whenever we do history. As thinking people, as feeling intellects, we cannot avoid the confrontation with the alterity of the past, which judges us much just as we judge it. If we make the past “live again,” it casts its aspersions upon the present. There are some historians who seem to feel its judgments particularly intensely, and to tend toward conservatism or reaction. A friend and mentor from grad school recalled for me doing research at the Bibliotheque Nationale de France one summer and eating his lunches with Leo Strauss, who was of a close age and, like himself, a brilliant intellectual historian who had fled Nazi Germany as a Jew, but Strauss was to the right, while my friend had wound up on the radical left. Nevertheless, I think the two men enjoyed each other’s company greatly. “What was he like?” I naturally asked. “I had the very strong impression,” my friend said, “that he was deeply unhappy with the modern world and wished that he could have lived in ancient Greece.” I don’t mean this as a comment on Strauss and it was, at any rate, one man’s impression; yet, spending years of one’s life as an intimate of past peoples, I think the feeling of envy can be a bit unavoidable. As I near completion of a book project on the American writing colony of Paris in the 1920s, it is difficult not to compare my great-grandfather’s life in that milieu to my own in the exotic Southern Ontario of 2015 and yearn, if not for the impossible journey back to that time and place, at least for a revival of some of its norms and ideas about art, culture, love, and life. Who wouldn’t? In such a case though, writing history becomes an escape from reality and another inhibitor of action in a time and place in which so little action seems possible.
More often today, we are extorted to face the past in all of its inhibiting horribleness as a sort of moral exercise, lest we forget past atrocities and repeat them. Our local ahistorical politico’s gaffe seemed all the more noxious, I suspect, because the Shoah is an historical event, perhaps the ultimate example, of an event that we feel a moral obligation to be vigilantly conscious of. In recent years, Holocaust memorials have proliferated, so that one encounters them in unlikely places like Washington Park in Portland, Oregon, with the impetus to be ever vigilant against the imputed dangers of ethnic hatred and intolerance, and forbid genocide’s recurrence. There seems to me, however, to be an equal danger of diluting the historical specificity of atrocities and somehow universalizing them; the Holocaust was, after all, the terrible outcome of specific actions and decisions made by specific people, and not a crime for which all of humanity can or should be held responsible. In fact, genocide is a crime against humanity that, it is generally understood, removes the perpetrator from the human community.
An equal danger is to reduce history to a lengthy record of atrocities that can remove past societies from our understanding of humanity altogether such that doing history becomes pointless, or even results in a deep revulsion and despair about humanity as such. When the courageous historian Iris Chang committed suicide in 2004, one determining factor in her mental collapse was reported to have been the weight of her work documenting the Bataan Death March after bringing the Rape of Nanking back into historical consciousness; if true, this would seem an extreme case of the critical method of historical inquiry leading to the sort of despondency that Nietzsche warned about. We can also despair about engaging with the past at all and, somewhat paradoxically, with the present. This is what I believe Nietzsche means when he says that historically significant actions ultimately have to be carried out in an unhistorical spirit.
There is finally something philosophically suspect about establishing historical trends, or rather creating a story out of historical trends. Whenever we pick a certain milieu as a subject of historical inquiry, we are confronted almost immediately by the sheer multiplicity of events and persons, by one damned thing after another. Writing history requires ignoring the majority of those damned things and shaping those events remaining into a narrative by subjecting them to a suspect conception of causality. We don’t have to go to the extreme of Hume's “Problem of Induction” to suspect that, instead of trends or processes, what we see more often are the cumulative effects of a number of disjointed events. If we’re not careful, or simply creative historians, we can see the effects of certain events and interpret them as necessary outcomes, or even the reverse, that they necessitated the event. We can make the mistake that because event X was followed chronologically by event Y the first event necessitated the second, even if they are relatively disconnected and existed in a field of countless events, most of which were lost to memory. What is the alternative, though? Simply cataloging everything that happened in the past? Instead, we sift and winnow out the most highly charged events, something that is always personal and subjective. We do the same in how we understand our own lives, especially after Freudian psychology, which tends to see our personalities as the product of psychological/autobiographical processes. Why do we interpret the event whereby someone broke our heart at age 12 as being more significant than the test we failed the week before? Why do we find any event to be significant? Is all history a form of cloaked autobiography?
Ultimately, I think we do history as an inquiry into the self. Perhaps this was dangerous in Nietzsche’s view because it can lead to the excess of inwardness that he felt was stifling action, which is a projection of the self outward. In the same way that psychology has become a subject of chemical imbalances in our era rather than an exploration of the soul, historical awareness has diminished in proportion as inwardness has diminished. Our problems are nearly the opposite of those that Nietzsche diagnosed and we need, more than ever, to cultivate the sort of inwardness that he reacted against. When we ask who we are once again we will ask once again where we came from.
Rufus F. Hickok is a freelance writer, cook, janitor, doctor of history, part-time editor, and singer in a punk rock band. Born in Virginia, he currently resides in Canada.