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Thursday, 18 April 2013

History well invented


History, for instance, is partly a science, since it contains archæological and antiquarian lore and a study of documents ; but it is also, in most historians, an essay in dramatic art, since it pretends to rehearse the ideas and feelings of dead men. 

These would not be recoverable even if the historian limited himself to quoting their recorded words, as he would if he was conscientious ; because even these words are hard to interpret afterwards, so as to recover the living sentiment they expressed. 

At least authentic phrases, like authentic relics, have an odour of antiquity about them which helps us to feel transported out of ourselves, even if we are transported in fact only into a more romantic and visionary stratum of our own being. 

Classic historians, however, are not content with quoting recorded words : they compose speeches for their characters, under the avowed inspiration of Clio ; or less honestly, in modern times, they explain how their heroes felt, or what influences were at work in the spirit of the age, or what dialectic drove public opinion from one sentiment to another. 

All this is shameless fiction ; and the value of it, when it has a value, lies exclusively in the eloquence, wisdom, or incidental information found in the historian. Such history can with advantage be written in verse, or put upon the stage ; its virtue is not at all to be true, but to be well invented.

George Santayana - Scepticism and Animal Faith 

5 comments:

Roger said...

Made me think of a recent R4 interview with a couple of classics dons discussing the ancient Amazons and what they did do, did not do and maybe did or did not do. All terribly interesting but gradgrind that I am I could not help but ask myself 'how much do these folk cost us'? and 'I wouldn't mind this tosh if history professors were only paid say £5/week'.

But the proof of the pudding is in the eating, take a look at the job adverts, classics grads and science grads start at pretty much the same and the classics types (and those who jump ship) go into management - the rest as they say is history. Plainly Santayana and the market is telling us something - people prefer fictions.

Demetrius said...

Ah, The Rise And Fall Of Gibbon.

A K Haart said...

Roger - yes, fictions sell in all kinds of fields, especially marginal fictions where facts are mingled with a goodly dollop of dramatic art.

Demetrius - I'm afraid I fell - I didn't finish it. Can't remember why but the bookmark is still there!

James Higham said...

Classic historians, however, are not content with quoting recorded words : they compose speeches for their characters, under the avowed inspiration of Clio ; or less honestly, in modern times, they explain how their heroes felt, or what influences were at work in the spirit of the age, or what dialectic drove public opinion from one sentiment to another.

Often the bias is reassuring though because at least the historian is not trying to be evenhanded and objective whilst not being in the least.

A K Haart said...

James - yes it is reassuring and feels authoritative.