PHILIP MARTIN: The impossibility of history


“Purely objective truth is nowhere to be found … So the trail of the human serpent is on everything.”

– William James, “Pragmatism: a new name for some old ways of thinking” (1907)

Human history does not exist, said the amateur historian.

This is indisputable, he continued, for “the annals of humanity have never been written, can never be written” and we would not have the time or the patience to read them if they were to be read. ‘were. After all, the perfect map would be as large as the territory it is meant to represent, and therefore unnecessary. Jorge Luis Borges recognized this, as did Lewis Carroll.

What we can have, the historian continued, is “a leaf or two from the ledger of human fate as it floats in the stormy winds still sweeping the earth. We decipher them as best we can with them. blind eyes, and we strive to learn their mystery as we float into the abyss; but it is muddled babble, hieroglyphics whose key is lost. “

The historian who made this postmodern argument was John Lothrop Motley, who wrote two well-received popular histories of the Dutch Republic. He was speaking to the New York Historical Society on December 16, 1868.

A few months later, President Ulysses S. Grant appointed him “Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary” to the United Kingdom. (Grant will recall this in December 1870 when Motley disregarded instructions from the administration to pursue a claim against the British for attacks on Union merchant ships by Confederate raid ships built in shipyards British during the Civil War.)

These are statements that can be determined to be true with relative certainty. Motley left a lot of impressions; he was a popular author both in this country and in the Netherlands (although a Dutch historian Robert Fruin, who viewed the discipline more as a science than an art, believed that Motley tended to invent colorful facts ).

People have witnessed his address; it has been reported and noticed. Accounts have been published. Motley himself cannibalized the speech in his 1869 book Democracy: The Climax of Political Progress and the Destiny of Advanced Races.

On the other hand, you could argue against all of this.

You could insist that Motley never existed, and that all evidence of its existence was fabricated and planted to deceive us. It’s hard to say why anyone would want to do this, but if you don’t want to believe in Motley, it certainly can. People believed foreign theories and even supported some of them in law.

There are undoubtedly people around you who sincerely believe that the war between states was waged over the issue of state rights – the right of a state to determine for itself whether its citizens should be able to owning other people or not. . Some of them might be fond of a more euphemistic construction: the South fought civil war to protect its “way of life”.

It is not entirely their fault. This is what they were, or were not, taught in schools. Much of what we think we know is what someone in authority told us, or what we thought they told us. Teachers have a great deal of latitude in their lesson plans, and while my high school experience was something typical, there are many contingencies that combine to dictate the course of any curriculum.

One teacher may follow a specific text more or less strictly, another may take a more discursive approach. My wife remembers that none of the various American history classes she took in high school and college ever got past WWII – they just ran out of time before they ran out of history.

There are good teachers, good teachers, and bad teachers, and maybe the best we can hope to do is raise the bar.

And the story they came up with was, as Motley lamented, a mosaic of selected details – handpicked “facts” and privileged over others to form a compelling and understandable story about where we came from. and how we got here. There are many stories we can tell ourselves about the past, and some that are never told are just as valid (perhaps more so) than those that have become our intellectual furniture.

We must begin by recognizing that there has never been a time of innocence. There was never a time when we all got along or reason reigned. Mayberry is a whitewashed myth; there was nothing charitable about the possession of slaves, and we all owe the greater part of our comfort to the misery of the invisible and the unforgettable.

America was founded on genocide, assuming it was okay for white Europeans to take over the land from indigenous people of color too backward to have developed any notions of reality. Our ancestors were, on the whole, the poorest in Europe, coming to a New World for a new beginning, a new beginning, and they were ruthless in their quest for a better life. Their crimes positioned their posterity, in the same way that older crimes built older nations.

That said, the preservation of slavery was not one of the main reasons the American colonies revolted against the British. It is fallacious to suggest that this was the case.

In many ways, The New York Times’ Project 1619 is a significant fix to simplistic American mythology, but there is nothing complimentary about substituting one oversimplification for another. History, like science, is a continuous process of discovery and revision – all history must be revised whenever the evidence calls for it – but the truth tends to lean towards nuance and ambiguity.

As Motley understood, the story is ultimately a mission impossible. The past is a distant and foreign land which refuses all passports and does not honor any treaty. There are those whose names we will never know; the best we can do is try to analyze what we think we know, to craft a story that might prove to be instructive. We understand that objectivity is illusory, that there will always be holes in our understanding.

Yet we have to be brave enough to try to figure out how things are and how they happened. We have to try to understand because we believe that there is such a thing as “the truth”, and we have the faith that “the truth” has value, that it can be useful as human beings try to understand. improve and improve the world.

Perhaps we owe nothing to the dead, who do not need statues and cannot feel defamed. But we need the future.

Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at [email protected] and read his blog at

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