What is History? And the party pooper gets serious again

Now, it is difficult to imagine that anyone who lists Andrew J. Bacevich’s, ‘Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War’, Richard McGregor’s, ‘The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers’, Slavoj Žižek’s, ‘Living in the End Times’, Andrew Feinstein’s, ‘The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade’ and Illan Pappe’s, ‘The Forgotten Palestinians: A History of the Palestinians in Israel’, as their last five reads, can be the life and soul of the party.

Therefore, actually being quite a sociable chap, the author of this post turned to Julian Barnes’s ‘The Sense of an Ending’ for a light hearted, not so cognitively challenging, read; a something to talk about when a little bit more than the state of English football was required, but, more importantly, a something that might be just a wee bit more fun to read than any of the above.

However, it is not always that easy and there on pages 16, 17 and 18 of Barnes’s book, the ever so serious ego was distracted by one particular answer that the history teacher, Joe Hunt, elicited when he asked the question, “What is History”? “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation,” Adrian Finn answers. A good answer but with obvious limitations and the temptation is to advise any budding historian to read the dialogue that ensues between Hunt and Finn rather than the 158 pages in E.H.Carr’s ‘What is History?’

Almost everything we need is in these three pages and when Hunt explains that, “historians need to treat a participant’s own explanation of events with a certain scepticism”, isn’t he only echoing E.H. Carr who wrote, “the facts speak only when the historian calls on them: it is he who decides to which facts to give the floor, and in what order or context”?  Nevertheless, while almost everything we need is in these three pages there is another factor that both Barnes’s “Joe Hunt” and Edward Hallet Carr appear to have missed. What if, the historian calls on the facts but presents the facts in a context that we can only find morally reprehensible? What if, someone were not to deny the holocaust, but rather to argue that it was necessary? Would this not upset our sensibilities to such an extent that we had no choice but to put the book down?

And so it is with the Zionist historian, Benny Morris who correctly concludes that there was indeed an ethnic cleansing of Palestine. What a genuis! Unfortunately, he then argues that this was necessary in 1948 and that  David Ben-Gurion’s failure to expel all Arab Israelis might mean that it might be necessary to finish the job in the future. Yes, Barnes’s “Hunt” is correct whe he says, “historians need to treat a participant’s own explanation of events with a certain scepticism”, and Carr is, of course, correct when he says, the facts speak only when the historian calls on them: it is he who decides to which facts to give the floor, and in what order or context.” However, what do we have when the historian puts ethnic cleansing into a context where it is morally justifiable?

Finally, if this has developed into another party pooper post, my apologies. However, if you are an undergrad who wants to get to that disco at the student’s union on friday you might want to thank me. You may just have been saved the torture of reading not only the 158 pages of party pooping E.H. Carr, but also, and more importantly, you might just have added Benny Morris to your list of “historians to avoid. Anyway, I will now read Mr Barnes’s novel as it is meant to be read, you can confine yourselves to pages 16, 17 and 18 of the book and enjoy the party.

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About sanculottist

There are a lot of poor bastards out there being used and abused; it is just not cricket "old bean". Something tells me that ignorance is not bliss, but is, in fact, simply ignorance and in the global village we cannot look the other way.
This entry was posted in History, Palestine and the Middle East, Politics, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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