August 10, 2015

The Reason I Do What I Do

To do history is nothing more than to be a conscientious reader of history: to extrapolate ramifications from texts and other artifacts, to hypothesize the logistics implied by a literature, to imaginatively construct a non-fiction storyworld, to encompass the world in one's mind. It can be nothing else.

The history one "does" (or "produces") may ultimately take the form of yet another literary synopsis, or it may become yet another detailed critical analysis, or perhaps it will exist merely within one's own memory of the experience of studying "the past". In all these cases, past history always exists presently as nothing more than the narrative residue informing mnemonic reconstruction. The "actual past" is remembered not as a text, but as the memory of whatever you imagined that world and that era to have been like, as you were reading.

To say "Jesus wept." is not necessarily to say that Jesus wept. The difference is all in the mind. If we do not imagine a narrative storyworld, we are not reading about actual persons in past situations. If we're just mouthing the words, our default mental setting is to remain focused on self. To dig in, to imagine the story, is a valuable step towards focusing elsewhere.

We do not have to write history to do history. We do not have to do history to read literature. But to read literature without doing history is to treat the contents of that text as nothing more than a bit of light fiction, perhaps with a moral attached, and this makes any story as irrelevant to the present world as it seems non-existent to us, as it remains for us only in the non-envisioned past - words never dwelt upon, a non-situation, even less than forgotten.

I am not suggesting that we need to declare how much of a story we believe really happened. 

I'm suggesting we need to show care for important historical stories by reading and thinking about their contents AS IF those things actually happened.

Otherwise, I don't see how any portion or detail of a supposedly non-fiction story could ever, actually, presently, personally matter...

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"If I have ever made any valuable discoveries, it has been owing more to patient observation than to any other reason."

-- Isaac Newton