Wednesday, November 17, 2010

So Maybe I'm Not an Historian

Recently I tried to write a blog post here about the interconnections of some cultural, political and economic phenomena of Western civilization in the 17th century, and failed. After taking a lot of notes and writing an unusual amount of drafts, I had to conclude that I was spinning my wheels, and I hit "delete."

That's unusual for me, and it was discouraging for a while. But soon after this attempt failed, I think I suddenly grasped why it failed, and so the whole experience was not a total loss. The problem, essentially, was that I was trying to write an historical article, when the pieces I usually write are much more in the form of personal essays. One of the first pieces I posted on this blog posted the question in its title, "Am I an Historian?" At the time I answered the question: yes. Ironically, that piece was clearly a personal essay. Now I think I would answer that question, no, I'm not an historian, or at most I'm rarely one.

Not that personal essays can't contain a lot of interesting and useful historical information. It's a matter of approach and form. An historical work, for example, might say, "On July 4, 1187, knights and foot soldiers of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem fought against Moslem forces led by Saladin near the town of Hattin in present-day Israel," and proceed to tell the story of that battle, with appropriate footnotes. A personal essay, on the other hand, might tell how the writer was made aware of the works of Steven Runciman,and how Runciman describes the battle of Hattin near the end of the second volume of his History of the Crusades, and how reading Runciman inspired the writer to seek out and read some of the medieval source material relating to the Crusades and work hard on improving his Latin and feel more keenly his lack of fluency in Greek, Arabic, Hebrew and other languages. The historical piece synthesizes the source material, the personal essay points out a better historian, in this case Runciman, who has already covered the subject, and attempts to communicate and make contagious the writer's excitement in reading the historian and some of the historian's sources.

I don't have any brilliant brand-new insights into 17th-century Europe and its colonies. If I wrote, "The new freedom which existed within the Dutch republic in the 17th century, freedom for example for painters and poets and other artists and thinkers to function as free agents, with no need for aristocratic patrons, as they had never been able to do previously in Europe, with the partial exception of Michelangelo, was paradoxically made possible by an economy which ran on colonial exploitation and slavery, with thousands of slave ships passing through the port of Amsterdam," that might be wholly or partly correct, but it would not be new; no-one acquainted with the cultural and economic history of 17th-century Europe would slap his forehead in amazement upon reading this passage, rising to his feet and shouting, "New worlds open up before me!" I stopped attempting to write that historical treatise because I realized that it would contain nothing new.

But I, like everyone else, am unique. And so in directly relating my experience to the reader, I may have a greater chance of telling him or her something original, something new. What may seem at first like egotism in the form of the personal essay, I, I, I, I, may reveal itself upon closer inspection to be modesty, the realisation that the author has nothing particularly special to offer BUT what is personal.

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