Making choices is not an easy thing.
In an attempt to “sort everything”, one starts to pull on a thread, following its taunt, fragile line until the next thing you know, you now have a pile of thread at your feet and an even bigger entanglement than before. If there are other people in the mix, chances are they’re not going to regard that thread pile in a high light. You’ll probably have to spend even more energy to convince them that the whole endeavor was a good idea to start with.
So how does this relate to history?
It’s easy to latch onto something you like–an idea, a sentence, or even a footnote–and try to following it to the source. After all, getting back to the source is what good historians do, right? Like Indiana Jones, they’re on a quest to get to the bottom of it.
But, as Indy found out time and time again, the “bottom” one eventually encounters is often not a bottom or an end at all. It’s really just a pause. For instance, once Indy found the Holy Grail, it turns out that it wasn’t what was important or relevant at all; rather it was his father. He had to make a choice to use the Grail for himself–and seek the glory and alleged immortality that came with it–or use it the way it was intended, namely to bestow the gift of life on someone other than himself. That was the real find at the end, not the item itself.
I find that I’m often at fault for viewing history as more of the former than the latter. In an (possibly misguided) attempted to justify to both myself and others for the choices I make, I frame the pursuit of history as a means of achieving something “lost”. Admittedly, I haven’t posted much here because I feel that I need to have something to “show”, some fact or some bit of information.
Yet the word “history”–and by extension, the discipline–doesn’t mean “to show”; rather it means “to inquire”. Sure, “showing” is an aspect of “inquiry”–it’s hard to inquire about something if you first don’t lay out where it is you’re starting from–but that’s not the end result. It’s not a thing, but rather a process aimed at helping you acquire greater knowledge.
There I go again about gaining more for personal glory; sorry about that.
So here’s a choice that historians have to make: will I use my powers for good or for evil? That is, will I pursue my interests, will I follow that thread and seek to unravel the fabric of time, space, and place so that I know what happened–and can feel superior? Penelope Trunk would argue that this is no way to grow a career.
Or will I be more careful in choosing which threads to unravel? Will I look at the larger world around me and use its parameters to help answer the question of what to study?
Right now, there’s a whole lot of talk going on about the idea that America needs to “get back to its roots“; as such, it might be a good idea to focus one’s attention on what exactly those roots were, how people have interpreted them over the centuries, and what that mean’s for today. Ditto for religion.
With that in mind, what choices will I make?