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Back to the future. Where Historians are at Home

“Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future and time future contained in time past.”

T. S. Eliot

Coming back home…

In my previous posts, I’ve shared with you a travel story, a story about two friends, Alex and I, who left the (relative) comfort of a couch on a sweaty summer night to explore the refreshing land of historiography and get to know the historians who inhabit it.

On our journey of thought we have learned that historiography is the history of history: It studies how the work of historians changes throughout the centuries. But to what purpose? Well, in our imaginary journey we explored the idea that the work of historians is most useful to mankind when it’s not focused on giving answers, but rather questioning the past, the present, the future …

Now we were ready to return home. Our fantasy journey was coming to an end. But the very thought of going back home stirred us to move forward with our conversation. In fact, one step was still missing to complete our itinerary. We knew what home was for us: London, the torrid and lazy summer, and the Mexican takeaway down the street luring us in with the promise of excellent guac and salsa to accompany our drinks. But we still needed to answer a key, basic question. What was home for a historian? We resumed our walk pondering this question and talking it over until we finally reached home.

Where is the historian’s home?

Alex: We spent all of our time outdoor and didn’t visit any of the buildings where historians hang out and live. Maybe this is a silly question, but what does the house of a historian look like? Is it full of old things and books?

Me: Well, historians themselves have been reflecting on this issue for many centuries now, questioning the essence of their work. Some actually compared it to a collector’s quest, where facts rather than objects are the elements to gather and assemble. In this view, a historian’s house is similar to that of an antiquarian, and the past is a dusty storehouse from which time after time she picks and chooses what she needs for his collection.

Alex: Just collecting things? Put it this way, it doesn’t sound like a very intriguing job…

Me: I agree… And when I say that I am a historian but don’t feel so much at home in museums most people tend to frown. Yet, I am in good company. Here’s a sweet anecdote through which the great historian Marc Bloch gives us a hint to answer our question. The curious episode takes place when Henri Pirenne, Bloch’s mentor, made a trip reaching his old-time apprentice in Stockholm. As soon as he arrived and met Bloch, he wondered what they should see first and then suggested to start by visiting the brand-new Town Hall. And perceiving a certain bewilderment in his fellow historian, he added: “If I were an antique dealer, I would only have eyes for old things. But I’m a historian. That’s why I love life.”

Alex: This anecdote seems much more in tune with the vibrant valley landscape that we just visited. But then, if not to an antique dealer, what would you compare the historian’s work to?

Me: You know, Marc Bloch goes beyond the idea of comparing professions and says that the good historian is like the ogre in a fairy tale. “Wherever she smells human flesh she recognizes her prey.” In other words, what really interests the historian are not facts, or events, or the past as such, but rather humanity in all its diversity, frailty and greatness, banality and glory. As a matter of fact, Bloch defines history as “the science of diversity”.

Alex: So the home of the good historian would be a quite macabre place, furnished with a well-assorted variety of human flesh. Ewwwwww…

Dwelling in the past, present and future – or better, in a time-traveling car

Me: Yeah, that’s not the best image to have in mind, especially since we are approaching our home and we’ll be heading off to bed soon. I’ll give you another, more agreeable, metaphor. To me the work of a historian resembles the life of a time traveler. She goes to the past as a visitor from the future. When she spends time with characters from the past, she shares her life with them, almost as if she was one of them. Compared to them, she knows a lot about what will happen in the future. However, she also knows that, through her interactions with them, people and events of the past can still have a momentous impact on the future, in either constructive or destructive ways. She knows that ideas can shape the course of history, and her representation of the past will contribute to shape the future. After having been in the past, she goes back to the future, which is her present, and she is able to see it with different eyes because of what she saw in the past. And after gaining a different view of her present, she is able to also see the past from a further different viewpoint. She does this back-and-forth every day, sometimes several times a day. In this sense, history is the science of diversity not only because it studies the rich diversity of humankind, but because it makes the historian a diverse person, someone always in the making, living in a constant flux of ideas, questions and self-questionings. So, to answer your original question, the historian could actually feel to be at home living in a car. Of course it would have to be a time-traveling sports car like a DeLorean, nothing less than that 😎

This answer seemed quite satisfactory to Alex, and, as I finished putting it into words, a brooding silence fell upon us, until we were suddenly roused by the roar of a sports car (a real one) running fast up Kensington High Street. And there we were, on the doorsteps of our flat building, mesmerized and lulled by the memory of a journey that forever changed our lives as well as the lives of others. Technically we had just been chatting over frozen margaritas and chips, but we felt as the protagonists of an epic and fateful voyage. And, in a certain sense, we were.

From London to Münster: Let new adventures begin!

Indeed, the story of this nerdy jam session on historiography is also the story of how I came to write these blog posts. My nocturnal conversations with Alex inspired a concrete research project that brought me here to the University of Münster, where I met a lot of wonderful people and a lot of wonderful people met me. So, I can say without hesitation that you are reading the story of a life-changing experience. After all, historiography, like any other science, can really change the world. Sometimes simply through one person who asks a simple question about it. I would even say that questions and doubts are the highest and most impactful achievement of historiography. But … I have to rectify what I said in my previous post as to the fact that history does not provide ultimate truths. In my case, history revealed a universal and inescapable truth: Deep friendship and intellectual exchange are an incredibly empowering cocktail, even more than margaritas 😉

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