History and Tragedy

These past few days have been difficult for my country. And I say that as someone who is neither African-American nor a law enforcement officer, so I cannot fathom the depth of grief, fear, and anger that others are feeling. But I have felt those things and the helplessness that accompanies them.

Sometimes in moments like this I tell myself how fortunate I am to be a historian, that I have a ready-made and totally legitimate reason to get away from the world of the present and “escape” to the past (and that of a country on the other side of the world, no less). I wish that everyone could be in a profession that allows/requires retreating to the haven of history in the face of personal, national, and global tragedies.

But what kind of haven is history? Can it render us emotionally invulnerable to the “sea of troubles” that we find in the present? The answer is no, because in history we find human tragedy on just as great a scale as in the present. I was reminded of this yesterday, reading about a man born in seventeenth century China whose biography begins with his mother and sisters drowning themselves in a lake out of fear of an invading army. I still haven’t figured out what to do with this intellectually or emotionally. Does this kind of tragedy (and similar ones) belong in a history of one of Jinan’s most famous scenic spots and centers of literati activity? How can it not? Can I let myself feel genuine emotion about this one story and hope to maintain my sanity through the research process? Can I keep my emotions in check without forfeiting my humanity?

Unlike current events, though, the study of history generally affords us the time to answer these questions for ourselves without the demand for immediacy imposed by what we read/see on the news and social media. If you read a history book and don’t have an opinion right away, that’s ok – no one you know is talking about it and no one expects you to distill your thoughts into 140 characters or less. Studying history affords us the opportunity to recuperate morally and intellectually from the bevy of situations in our lives that require snap judgments and offer immediate consequences. It does so not to the end of allowing us to permanently avoid the present but rather to confront it with greater compassion and discernment than we had before.

In “On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life” Nietzsche argues that history is useful only insofar as it is incomplete, that forgetting is essential to our liberation and inspiration. In other words, Nietzsche suggests that in writing history it is necessary to sacrifice truthfulness for efficacy. As a professional historian, of course I cannot endorse that particular view. I don’t think that writing a history that is incomplete should be an aspiration, but I do think we should recognize it as an inevitability. And if it is inevitable, then we should seek the value in it.

Unlike the present, where we find ourselves over-saturated with feelings, thoughts, and words that demand immediate release, we discover ourselves as strangers in the past. We find that we lack the knowledge to understand it and that the voices that would tell us the whole story are not forthcoming. We encounter problems that should be examined from different perspectives, but never all at once. History is never at our fingertips. It is a haven but only because it forces us to confront and remedy the same deficiencies that affect how we live in the present without the fear of being judged by those we are studying.

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