7 min read · Oct 23, 2017
7 min read
Oct 23, 2017
Our book club of amateur historians had decided to read ‘The Landscape of History’ by famous Cold War historian John Lewis Gaddis for this month. We are trying to gain a more stronger understanding of methodology in history and Gaddis’ book seemed like an apt choice. While reading the book, I was reminded of Chetan Bhagat’s recent comments about what historians actually did.According to his Twitter comments, it went something like this:
What do historians do? I am genuinely curious. This happened. Then this happened. Then this. Ok work done for the day.
Well, Twitter did manage to troll him hilariously for his comments. But despite all of that, I think Chetan Bhagat did have a point to make. The way he described the role of historians, is actually the way most people perceive academic research in history. Bhagat just asked a question that everybody is thinking. How many times have I been plagued with questions like, “Oh, you are studying history. You must have to memorize a lot of stuff” or “Why are you studying history? Go study something that will get you a proper job in society. Don’t waste your parent’s money on useless endeavors”and so on. This is where I admit, Gaddis’ book made a lot of sense to me.
The Wanderer above the Sea of Fog by Casper David Friedrich
The book starts off with this famous painting ‘The Wanderer above the Sea of Fog’ by German Romantic artist Casper David Friedrich. As one can easily see, a lone figure is looking onto a vast endless landscape. According to Gaddis, the Wanderer pictured is the historian and the landscape he overlooks is the past. As a historian standing at a height, one can see all the major topographical features of the landscape. What I see from a particular height and angle, would clearly affect how I understood this view and how I chose to perceive it. Gaddis says that the past is like a landscape and when one is writing about it, one is not trying to replicate it. Instead we are trying to represent it just like an artist would try to represent the natural scenery through his canvas and paints. From where we stand and choose to view this landscape, allows us to represent the reality of the past in a way that would be quite different from another wanderer looking below. No two historians can produce the exact same work (unless one wanted to plagiarize the other!!) because each brings a different experience when trying to represent the past onto their canvas.
As historians, we are unable to reproduce every minute detail that occurred in the past simply because we were not there when the event occurred nor do we have tangible sources in the present to reconstruct the exact reality of the past. But once again, one wants to contest that whether our job is to piece out all details as much as possible. First of all, its not even humanely possible, the past is like the bottomless sea. No matter how much you try to put together details, there will always be a missing piece. At best, you get only a distorted image of the past. Secondly, this method of history is long passe but somehow the perception among the common people has remained that this is what we still do. For this I blame the lazy and robotic way in which humanities is taught and tested in our schools today. Most children continue to carry this mindset into their adulthood where like Chetan Bhagat, they remain mystified with what actually is the role of humanities in general.
Like in the painting, the historian is trying to watch the landscape from a distance. Such a distance helps her to focus on the main details and features of the past that she is investigating even when all details are not always present. The job of the historian is to work out macro trends through micro analysis. But as historians, we are also wary of making generalizations and hypothetical models which most other social sciences generally prefer. As Gaddis points out, our generalizations is subservient to our narrative which itself is dependent on our primary sources. For example, one can never say that the Partition of 1948 never happened. We have written documents, both official and non-official as well as oral testimonies of those who lived through that time. So obviously, as historians we have to build up the outline of the past we want to study through these sources. But it does not mean we do not use our imaginations and structural processes to wean out trends within these events. When you bring sources, say of the Partition together, it does not mean you are planning to write every detail that occurred. As we discussed earlier, that is not a possibility. First you think from what perspective do you want to understand this particular landscape. Do you want to see the political trends involved over a period of time resulting as a consequence of the event in a particular location? Do you want to bring to focus certain voices such as voices of women that are often silent in these documents? Or do you want to merge the silence/relevance of the voices mentioned in the archive to the larger politico-economic climate of the event? Then the most important question that you can ask after thinking is, what is the story that I want to tell ? How do I piece the relevant details and represent the past in a way that conveys the big picture which is equivalent to the ‘Sea of Fog’ in the painting.
By representing I am not purposely creating a ‘unreal’ reality of the past. Instead one has to understand that there is not just one kind of truth. Gaddis puts it rightly that many kinds of truths can coexist in the same field of time and space. As humans, we may all react similarly to say, fall in price of a commodity. But it does not mean we will all react exactly the same to that phenomenon. As per Gaddis, both the linear as well as the non-linear exist simultaneously. One cannot be ignored in favor of the other. And that is why historical methodology often seems like a huge mess but it works because it’s a huge mess. No one historian will look at his archives the same way. The archives will answer those questions what is asked of them. And most wonderfully, neither the questions nor the answers are ever the same. And that is why being historian is so much fun. It’s like being a detective. piecing out clues to a puzzle. But the best part is that you get to piece together the puzzles the way you think makes the most sense to you. You are the star of your own show but at the same time your source materials prevent you from getting carried away in your flights of fancy. (That job is best leftto writers like Chetan Bhagat, I feel!). Really, as a historian you are both master and servant to your work. It is always a give and take.
However, because of the fluid and unique nature of historical research, it also makes it susceptible to misunderstandings and misuse. Research in history is never apolitical or ahistorical. To think that research is a neutral zone is a gross misunderstanding of the meaning of research and politics. However, when you deliberately ignore what your archive says or try to destroy those sources that reflect contrary views in order to appease a particular political motivation, then there is the misuse of history. You don’t force the archives to speak to you the way you want them to. Instead they are like little pixies and fairies giving you clues on how to find you way through the enchanted forest that is the past. When you add your own predetermined answers to the archives, it shows that you have stopped listening and in effect, stopped yourself from really looking at the landscape of the past. Instead the past has been recycled to meet the needs of the political present. The historical narrative then becomes part of partisan politics and departs from its original objective which is to showcase the past in its own terms. The past then ends up being the monopoly of the present.
Gaddis blames historians for living in a methodological island and never sharing their work in a way that is accessible to the public. I would add to this and argue that the inaccessibility of academic research in history to not just the public but also to other disciplines, have allowed for certain political interests to misuse it for their convenience. It has further allowed other disciplines to label study of history as irrelevant to research. Thereforethere should be an attempt among us historians to change this status quo. What we need is a more ‘activist’ and ‘accessible ‘ kind of history that also values good research methods and techniques while encouraging diversity in representations .