Issue 4, January 2007 | Louise McLeod

Review The Past is a Magic Pudding

In The Screwtape Letters, a senior devil in the lowerarchy of Hell advises his nephew Wormwood, a junior devil, about the best ways to damn the soul of his assigned human. Screwtape instructs Wormwood that amongst Hell’s most effective arsenal is the ‘Historical Point of View’, which has been successfully inculcated into humanity to prevent them from acquiring wisdom. The Historical Point of View means that ‘…when a learned man is presented with any statement in an ancient author, the one question he never asks is whether it is true. He asks who influenced the ancient writer, and how far the statement is consistent with what he said in other books, and what phase in the writer’s development, or the general history of thought it illustrates…thanks to this, great scholars are now as little nourished by the past as the most ignorant mechanic who holds that ‘history is bunk’.’

In his Australia Day speech of 2006, John Howard made clear his views on the current state of the history professions, and it sounded a lot like he thought he had figured out Screwtape’s deception.  ‘History, along with other subjects in the humanities’, he said, ‘has succumbed to a postmodern culture of relativism where any record of achievement is questioned or repudiated.’ It is being taught, lamented the Prime Minister, as a ‘fragmented stew of ‘themes’ and ‘issues’.’ In order to revive history teaching, John Howard and Julie Bishop initiated a ‘History Summit’ to which they invited what Bishop called the ‘sensible centre’ of history professionals.

Just days before Julie Bishop convened the summit’s first meeting, Inga Clendinnen (one of its distinguished attendees) published her Quarterly Essay on The History Question: Who Owns the Past? In it, she puts forward her answer to this question and her views about what history is and how it should be taught. Howard’s vision of an upbeat national story is beguiling, she writes, but a critical discipline eschews singularity of perspective. For this reason, ‘it will be difficult for John Howard to arrive at his ‘objective record of achievement’’. Above all, Clendinnen’s Essay is an elegant and sophisticated exposition of her conviction that whilst they each have their place in public and individual emotional life, the historian’s job is qualitatively different to that of the novelist or the myth-maker. ‘[H]istory’s social utility depends’, she writes, ‘upon it being cherished as a critical discipline, not as a tempting source of gratifying tales.’

Clendinnen begins her exploration of history and myth with her own experience of Anzac Day. It is primarily emotional, shaped by her childhood visits to the Dawn Service with her father in the 1930s when, ‘too young to count as female’, she ‘had only the vaguest notions of the history’ but ‘felt and still feel[s] the emotions of the men standing around [her].’ A handwritten fragment of a speech her father wrote for one of these childhood dawn services still makes her cry. 

Clendinnen does not expect us to understand or adopt ‘her’ anzac day. It is a ritual produced by her own particular circumstances; a ‘portmanteau of past experiences and of present emotion.’ No official and timeless version of this legend can exist, but this is not a weakness. Without this fluidity it will die; ‘…every generation will take the old legends and make them real’. We should value both legend and history, she argues, without conflating them.

The same is true, she continues, of storytelling and history. Clendinnen does not object to the historical novelist per se; she objects to the novelist performing what she calls the ‘practiced slither between ‘this is a serious work of history’ and ‘judge me only on my literary art’. This slithering is exemplified, she writes, by Kate Grenville’s 2005 novel The Secret River. Grenville researched The Secret River as a work of history, but wrote it as a novel. If Manning Clark could call his ‘shamelessly personal’ writing ‘history’, Grenville thought, why couldn’t she take it one step further and call a novel ‘history’ if, by examining the evidence, she could faithfully reconstruct the inner lives of people who had really lived? ‘What would I have done in that situation’, she asked herself, ‘and what sort of person would that have made me?”

Clendinnen’s answer to this question is that ‘Grenville would not have been Grenville in ‘that situation’…people really did think differently then.’ Anyway, whether they did or not, the ‘insights of empathy are untestable.’ Some things are beyond being reliably understood; ‘we have to be content’, she writes, ‘to watch: to think ‘how terrible. How strange’. History is different because people do not behave ‘in character’ or conform to a plot. ‘The novelist’, Clendinnen writes, ‘might surprise her readers. She will never surprise herself’.

Novelists’ primary duty is ‘not to instruct or inform, but to delight’. Even chaos in a novel is artistic chaos. Historians may use aesthetic techniques, but their primary duty is, Clendinnen argues, a moral one – to tell the truth. Why? Because it is ‘useful in the world now’. Morality and truth are both essential to Clendinnen’s idea of history. ‘Telling the truth’ is ‘adhering to the iron rules of the discipline’ and carefully gathering and considering the evidence. It is historians’ particular moral duty, distinguishing them from novelists and politicians. But the role of morality in history does not end there. ‘Moral vision’ drives the best history, she writes, and it is at the heart of history’s social role. In ‘rescuing’ past voices from being distorted or ignored, the historian can restore the balance of social justice. ‘Objectivity’ and good research are still essential; it is by ‘the sequencing of topics, the interspersion of comment, the selection of particular moments for deeper inquiry’ that the historian’s ‘moral vision’ is manifest. Thus, she explains, E.P. Thompson rescued the poor stockinger and the Luddite cropper and the other ‘lost causes of the people of the Industrial Revolution’, manifesting his ‘moral vision’ without abandoning meticulous research techniques.

Clendinnen has, until this point, succeeded in carefully separating and defining a nuanced and sophisticated catalogue of the roles of the personal and the public, the fictional and the factual in dealing with past events. We should teach good historical methods rather than a glorified national story. Most of all, we should avoid rush judgements and interpretations. When she starts talking about truth and morality in the latter half of the essay, however, my understanding falters.

She would like historians to emulate the scientific method and (she quotes Darwin) ‘give evidence to the best of [their] ability’. Through this ‘anatomising of past situations’ we can ‘hope to increase our ability to recognise what choices were available to men and women in past situations, however coercive those situations might have appeared to be’. Such insight can then, she writes, be applied to our present situation, whatever it may be.

‘It might be true’, she writes, ‘that humans are impervious to reason and compassion, and are therefore unredeemable. If they are, history is indeed ‘bunk’, because its intrinsic purpose is to increase the role of reason and compassion in this world’. Does she mean that this is the intrinsic purpose of history in general, or just her own work? On one level, it’s difficult to disagree with such a statement, but it is out of step with her previous emphatic assertions that history is a critical discipline and not to be confused with fluffy, pleasant things like myths and stories, and that historians ‘are not concerned with hopes and fears, only with truth as far as our reason allows us to discover it’.

Mixing the scientific method with ‘moral vision’ in the way she seems to do it inevitably produces the implication that if we are cool and rational enough, eschew fanciful ‘gratifying tales’ and adhere to proper ‘historical methods’ of observation, the moral truth encoded in past events will ineluctably be revealed to us. Thus, she hopes that her intensive study of the torture of the Spanish Inquisition will ‘identify what it is in a particular situation which could make the obscene intimacies of torture possible’, allowing us to understand and prevent contemporary abuses like those at Abu Grahib. It’s an admirable ambition, but here she seems to contemplate fudging the complexities of context in a similar way to that which she accused Grenville of doing. Anyway, as she has already argued, historians always sequence and select their material according to a ‘moral vision’; the past is too immense for them not to. Given her convictions, how could her ‘scientific’ methods of observation give rise to any other moral truth than proof of some variant of her original ‘faith…that humans will injure each other less when they understand each other better?’

In a free society, Clendinnen writes, the past is a ‘magic pudding belonging to anyone who wants to cut themselves a slice, from legend-manufacturers through novelists looking for ready-made plots, to interest groups out to extend their influence.’ Her essay is, for the most part, a forceful defence of history’s integrity as a critical discipline against those opportunistic pudding-eaters who, like Screwtape or John Howard, think that the point of ‘history’ is its influence upon the soul. Such strict views about the sanctity of the historical method as an almost scientific discipline are, however, incompatible with her winged pronouncements about moral vision and moral truth.