Thursday, February 26, 2009

"One of Freedom's wars"

After finishing Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy it is not possible not to feel that something absolutely profound has been said about the First World War. Not everything there is to say of course, that would be an impossibility, and one can legitimately see flaws and inaccuracies in the text but one cannot avoid a recognition that something deeply meaningful has been posited, a meaningful dialogue opened. That is what fiction is able to do: to bridge two experiences. One would think that the study of history as an academic discipline would aim for the same result only using different methods and being bound by stricter and narrower rules. It doesn't though. Good, profound historical research is exceedingly rare. The discipline is defined in practice in a way to preclude any attempt to profundity, any centering of human experience, the wildness of our human experience.

The study of history is largely an elaborate kabuki play whose relation to actual human experience is tortuous and distant. This comes from aiming to "scientific" respectability. It is an old axiom that history as a discipline is the closest to literature. Well, most historians are deeply ashamed of this claim instead of seeing it as an accolade that it is (and those that are enthusiastic about it are that for all the wrong reasons). There is a difference to human sciences - and this statement comes from someone who largely does accept that history only happens in the physical and material world and that historians should aim for explaining causation. Still there is a difference that comes from our own nature of being aware creators of meanings. Not only do we need to map out the material boundaries but also their meaning to our passionate lives. So, this is where academic history fails: we no doubt have a long queue of angry historians defending the generals against Barker's powerful indictment, defending power and its distortions - or being entangled in the absurd complexities of the radical theory, not seeing the deepness of the tragedy, leaving all profundity to fiction. A strange spectacle.

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