QUARTERLY ESSAY 23 The History Question



Alan Atkinson

Inga Clendinnen’s essay offers an intriguing and powerful argument about the way genuine History works. I’m not sure that she really answers the question as to who owns the past. Maybe we can use a kind of Lockean logic and say that whoever makes historical understanding most fruitful is the true owner. But it’s more interesting to wonder why such a question should be asked at all. Probably, it’s just another way of asking who owns the present and the future. 

Of course, “contest” is one of the favourite words of current debate in the humanities. In earlier times, such as the 1960s and ’70s, the equivalent was “struggle”, a word with Marxist connotations – although when Marx himself was writing, “struggle” was part of Darwinian thinking, as in “the struggle for existence”. Somehow, we are attuned now to the idea that the human past was a kind of game, more virtual than real, so that “contest” seems more fitting. The more urgent reality now is in the way historians fight things out among themselves. No doubt this is partly a result of the impact of journalism on scholarship, which makes delicate and complex disagreements into prize-fights.

In these circumstances, Clendinnen’s argument is certainly a breath of fresh air. When I was about two-thirds through my teaching career, I convinced myself that most undergraduates, when they start learning history, don’t really believe in the distinct reality of the past. Without concentrated effort and without trained or self-trained imagination, it is often too hard to comprehend the existence of human beings through long periods of time different from our own. A proper intellectual grasp of remoteness and of distance, whether of time or space, is difficult enough in itself. It is something which began to be attempted by the mass of educated people in the nineteenth century. Taking on board the lived experience of human beings fundamentally like – but also fundamentally unlike – oneself in such faraway circumstances is even harder. The task of teaching and of writing history is to persuade students and readers that the past is equally real with the present.

The current campaign against academic history is peculiarly depressing because it seeks to undermine the intellectual and imaginative process central to this effort, which is the hard work of generations. It is an attack on the whole purpose of historical research and training. In this respect, it’s surprising that Clendinnen doesn’t explore the current complex, frequently fertile but often acrimonious relationship between scholarship and journalism. Journalists come in many kinds, with many points of view, and no doubt it’s wrong to think that the history wars are simply a “contest” between scholarship and journalism. However, journalism is not much concerned about the long term, except insofar as it can be immediately related to the present. Its intellectual methodology is intricate and important, but it is therefore radically different from that of academic history. And yet journalism now seeks to set the standard for history writing – sometimes deliberately and explicitly. And it has the upper hand because it is much more closely attuned to the needs of the market.

Clendinnen’s discussion of historical fiction, however, is spot-on. It’s extraordinary, and surely symptomatic of larger movements of thought, that someone so highly literate as Kate Grenville should have such a superficial and negative understanding of the purposes of academic history. Her statement, quoted by Clendinnen, that historical scholarship is an intellectual and never an imaginative process, has no basis in truth. It suggests an almost wilful blindness in reading the best work of historians. In July, at a conference in Canberra, I heard another equally famous writer of historical fiction suggest (to an audience of historians!) that they were geologists when it came to understanding the past, whereas people like himself were artists. How is it possible, among a population more highly educated than any other since the world began, for the understanding of scholarship in the humanities to be so impoverished?

It may be that academic historians are badly out of step with the times. If so, in the long-term interests of good scholarship we need to be able to convince ourselves that, at least occasionally, the times are out of step with us. Clendinnen is an historian of unusual ability, and her essay is a crucial reminder of what the discipline at its best stands for. The past, as she says, is a very strange place. Understanding it in anything like a satisfactory way calls not only for prodigious quantities of accurate information. It also depends on sustained and rigorous imaginative effort. It requires a difficult balance between sympathy and detachment, and, on top of that (as Clendinnen makes beautifully clear), an understanding that there are some aspects of the human experience which it is impossible to penetrate.

At the same time, there is one remark in the essay very hard to agree with. Novelists, she says, have one advantage over historians. They can relay conversations, whereas “historians can’t do conversations at all”. Ejaculations and last words they can manage, such as “Liberty or death” and “Such is life.” Also, she says, “They can sometimes make monologues out of formal speeches or secret diaries or confessional statements. But the informal verbal interactions of daily life? No,” she concludes. “They are lost to us.” And yet, in my own university library there is shelf after shelf of recorded dialogue from the past – trial proceedings, parliamentary debates, question-and-answer evidence before official inquiries.  Maybe in many cases these are only roughly symptomatic of “the informal verbal interactions of daily life”, but to say that this fundamental aspect of the human past is “lost to us” seems perverse. Also, where does this leave the massive literature on oral history?

In fact, we know a vast amount about “the informal verbal interactions of daily life” in the past. Interpreting it and presenting it in a way that makes sense in the present, and as dialogue, is another matter. But in fact, this is precisely the kind of intellectual challenge that, as Clendinnen says herself, is central to historical scholarship. The strangeness and self-sufficiency of the past is nowhere more obvious than in the conversations its inhabitants had with each other, free of any sense that their remote descendants might be listening in. Similarly, the intricate difficulty of writing well about the past is nowhere more painful than when we try to decode what we hear, especially when there are two or more voices in play. Clendinnen might have presented an even stronger case for the human importance of good history had she not suggested that this part of the job is not worth the effort. 


Alan Atkinson is an ARC professorial fellow at the University of New England and the author of The Europeans in Australia: A History, Volume 1: The Beginning and Volume 2: Democracy.


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 23, The History Question. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 24, No Fixed Address.


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