By Mark Derricott, former editor of the OHS Newsletter
I recently re-read a couple of my favorite books: The Histories by Herodotus and Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.Aside from realizing that I was much too young when I read them last time, I happened to read those books as my personal life underwent some relatively dramatic turn of events. One repercussion was my leaving the Olympia Historical Society board and turning over the newsletter editorship to someone else (who shall remain nameless until such time as that person steps forward). These developments gave me reason to consider, and here I will relate, some of my thoughts on the three major problems that studying history presents.
As we’re all aware, we don’t have time machines that take us to the place we’re studying and that makes recreating history or even a particular timeline within history extremely problematic. Even though that ideal is impossible, it is the ultimate motivation behind the study of history. Amateur and professional historian alike, it drives the work. Let us turn to this example from the Father of History himself:
“So much for what the Persians and Phoenicians say; and I have no intention of passing judgment on its truth or falsity. I prefer to rely on my own knowledge, and to point out who it was in actual fact that first injured the Greeks; then I will proceed with my history, telling the story as I go along of small cities no less than of great. For most those which were great once are small to-day; and those which used to be small were great in my own time. Knowing, therefore, that human prosperity never abides long in the same place, I shall pay attention to both alike.” (Emphasis added.)
Herodotus here defines my first problem, the historian chooses the story to tell from sometimes unreliable sources. Herodotus describes the delineation of his narrative from the broader fabric of history and he was even kind enough to define the limits of his discretion. He explains what he is going to pay attention to within the sources at his disposal. He clings to the notion of provable facts, while still acknowledging that there are reasons to doubt the veracity of any given source. Of course, he also reveals a general personal worldview of city-states pulsating through the years in declinations and ascensions. Whether that in actual fact occurs we shall not here pass judgment. Suffice it to say that Herodotus was one of the earliest Western historians, and his stories still provide the typical template of telling and re-telling history all the way to our own time. We have embraced subjectivity just like Herodotus’s because over the years we have fallen in love with the spaces between a historian and a storyteller and we can’t help but celebrate the latter’s yarn spinning.
Herodotus’ method of presentation is perhaps his most important legacy. This is the narrative mode of the omniscient narrator. This is the voice that relates everything it sees, and if it were present in your room (as opposed to a book or computer in your lap), it would be able to fill in every single detail that the inquiring mind might have the desire to ask. We see this omniscient narrator often, and particularly in our histories, both in the novel and scholarly form. It’s natural but also powerfully authoritative. Rarely does that narrator betray any deficiency in telling the stories. In history retelling, this is extremely important because who would want to doubt the certainty of someone explaining the story?
The narrative mode appears in the form of Dostoevsky’s narrator in The Brothers Karamazov. How different would the story be without him? Would the story still be a story without the narrator? It certainly would not have been the same story and may not have become the classic that we know it as today. The author, in the voice of the narrator, just as the trial was about to begin explains his method:
“I will say beforehand, and say emphatically, that I am far from considering myself capable of recounting all that took place in court, not only with the proper fullness, but even in the proper order. I keep thinking that if one were to recall everything and explain everything as one ought, it would fill a whole book, even quite a large one. Therefore, let no one grumble if I tell only that which struck me personally and which I have especially remembered. I may have taken secondary things for the most important, and even overlooked the most prominent and necessary features…But anyway I see that it is better not to apologize. I shall do what I can, and my readers will see for themselves that I have done all I could.”
The second problem is people don’t always get it down as it happened and may not remember acurately what they saw. On the more brightly human side, nothing is more lovable but frustrating than the personable historian who might have left out a critical detail, or whose story is derailed by putting salient moments out of order. Those winding and erractic tales make getting to the point all the more exciting as we consumers experience the story. Our narrator apologizes and then recants the apology. Let no one grumble, indeed!
We adore the narrator who fully acknowledges his inability to capture everything because they remind us of a beloved relative telling us the story we love—the one that gets hazier as the years progress, but is still as wonderful as it was when we were young. The imperfect story-teller forces us to realize that there was more to the story than we’ll ever be able to know. There are angles unseen, sounds unheard, and bits of the events that anyone and everyone else there may have experienced absolutely otherwise. We are left with the product of a single individual for the events that interest us because we don’t usually get panels in the same room to describe these things, (though there are exceptions).
I find Dostoevsky’s apology just before the trial fascinating even more so because I can see in my mind’s eye that all those who were in courtroom then, all of their children, and their grand-children have long since passed away. I imagine that this story and its imperfections have become the only link we have with that trial—the crescendo of a spectacular story of a little town in Russia. If I were to study that trial as a historian I would be filling in the blanks as best I could knowing that the sources are every bit as questionable as those that Herodotus questioned 2500 years ago. That is one of the legacies and tragedies of the historian.
Much earlier in the same book is my favorite example. If you’ll forgive me for being so personal—aside from indulging me in writing about fiction in a historical newsletter—I’d like to present another passage. I have included along with it my reaction in italics last time I read it. I do this because this passage presents the third problem of the historian, to be shortly introduced.
“The house of Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov stood far from the center of town, yet not quite on the outskirts.”
A house not far from downtown must be like any house in almost any neighborhood adjoining Olympia’s downtown.
“It was rather decrepit, but had a pleasant appearance: one storied, with an attic, painted a gray color, and with a red iron roof.”
Not too big and decrepit—must be in the Eastside Neighborhood.
“However, it had many good years left, and was roomy and snug. It had all sorts of closets, all sorts of nooks and unexpected little stairways.”
I don’t know of many one-storied houses with “unexpected little stairways”, but nooks are fun.
“There were rats in it, but Fyodor Pavlovich was not altogether angry with them: “Still, it’s not so boring in the evenings when one is alone.” And indeed he had the custom of dismissing the servants to their cottage for the night and locking himself up in the house alone for the night.”
“This cottage stood in the yard. It was spacious and solid; and Fyodor Pavlovich also appointed his kitchen to be there, though there was a kitchen in the main house; he did not like kitchen smells, and food was carried across the yard winter and summer. As a matter of fact, the house had been built for a large family: it could have accommodated five times as many masters and servants.”
Oh, so it’s some kind of mansion! Up until this point in the book, I didn’t get that Fyodor Pavlovich was a wealthy man living in a huge mansion. One storied?
I’ve even spent a considerable amount of time in Russia and this passage still drew a bright line between my experience with the concept of a house in Olympia and upper-class living standards in mid-nineteenth century Provincial Russia. The realization came that this verse actually describes us (the subject) just as much—if not more—than it describes its own object, the house in which Fyodor Pavlovich lived.
Along with questionable sources and stories, along with questionable memories of the sources, there is further the questionable interaction between the historian and the object of her study. These interactions are the moments that have become narratives, pieces of stories, and presentation of circumstances that humanity–across all languages and every other social barrier–has come to love. This is history. And this is the presentation of history. History is not only the object but the subject; and they together are intertwined and wound inextricably. And to grasp a small part of it, we must multiply the millions of objects by the billions of subjects who have ever lived over the ages.
But I am discussing art and historiography should be scientific! What if we adhere to a scientific principle fit for the scholarliest of scholarship? We can, nay we must, do better! Consider if we’re studying cooking methods from ages ago, even if we use the same instruments: the wood for the fires, the pots that they used in the age we’re studying, and the ingredients taken from the most reliable sources; we still cannot replicate the same food because the trees are hundreds of years older, the pans are hundreds of years degraded (or fashioned newly for experimental purposes and never really used for anything else), and the food itself certainly cannot be reproduced as it would have been long ago. Let us not forget our object: the taste of the food would be compared with a subjective palate that has likely experienced McDonald’s and Starbucks. Would the comparative study be useful for us at all?
Just as if an ancient and untouched village whose centuries old traditions remain intact, where the people speak languages the modern world has never heard, was suddenly discovered. As soon as that modern world enters, flooded by those seeking answers to the questions that vexed academics—whether it’s cracking the code of an ancient language, or revealing extinct engineering practices—everything changes. Those objects interact with those subjects and those people then change how life is carried on in the little village. The residents begin to eat Snickers bars and drink Coca-Cola. They wear different clothing and change their ambitions from farming to moving to a city to experience life in a different way. Even if the changes aren’t dramatic enough to be visible, people act differently or at least not authentically. Our mere presence in our fictional village changes the composition in the village. Regardless of how this happens that village can never return to what it was. The same thing happens when we discover an unknown chapter of history to study.
We can talk and even dream about history, but we cannot recreate and cannot re-live it. It’s simply far too personal. One final, personal example: shortly after my father’s sister died a few years ago, I had a conversation with my dad. He began to talk about his father and I started asking him about a specific event of which my dad had no first-hand knowledge. Before he was able to say, “Your aunt would know” we both fell into silence and realized that a particular moment of my own relative’s life literally had been banished to dustbin of history. That banishment happens every hour of every day.
My family’s history is insignificant, but our collective history is made up of millions of individual moments that disappear over time like a beautiful tapestry slowly falling apart. And all that remains in that tapestry are the moments for which the time becomes known, pieced together from whatever shreds remain. Those remains ultimately form the historical narrative that defines the past—the stories of Herodotus and the unreliable tales of someone hastily taking down notes at the trial. Perhaps, we now live during the Gregoire and Inslee eras. Someone will write about that someday and will shed very little light on our time, now darkened by the passing years. It will be defined from the desks of our politicians and other powerful people but our worlds actually revolve very little around whomever those people happen to be, much less the predilections of whoever decides to write about them.
History is so much more, just like our personal lives are so much more. These stories can be captured, preserved, and protected through thousands of little organizations just like ours. This work will be so much more effective—it can only be effective—with your participation both as a consumer but just as importantly as a producer. It was wonderful to have been a part of this one for last few years.