History and

I read a lot of stuff, bouncing from thing to thing via fortuitous serendipities, offhanded references, bloggy recommendations, self-propelled curiosities and sheer accidents. Lately (in the wake of theTurkey trip) I’ve been reading Christopher de Bellaigue’s Rebel Land: Unraveling the Riddle of History in a Turkish Town, and this passage came along to broaden my conception of History:

I had dozens of hours of interviews… Many of these hours were worthless except as an illustration of history’s imprecision –not science at all, really, but the landscaping of churned ground so it looks nice.

We are not in the realm of historical interpretation. Under discussion are the bare facts. I had heard diametrically opposed accounts of things that happened 100 years before or last week. Concerning a single event dividing families or communities, I might be told three or four versions. Sometimes I sensed that all sides were lying or deliberately omitting things and I would be convinced that even on so simple a question of who started a riot, I would be unable to work out what happened. ‘It does not follow,’ the Cambridge historian E.H. Carr once wrote, ‘that because a mountain appears to taker on different shapes from different angles of vision, it has objectively either no shape at all or an infinity of shapes.’ And yet that is what I saw: an infinity of shapes.

Here in the reserve store, rummaging through facts that no researcher had yet privileged with his attention, far less threaded into a coherent narrative, I got a new impression of the past: as a chaotic series of emotions, of outrage and guilt, scornful of chronology and very often founded on gossip, hagiography, or slander. A second obstacle was the tendency of my interviewees to dramatize things and turn them into a pageant; they shamelessly versified the most prosaic people and events. Every story had its ‘hero’, but often I found that the hero was spotted with villainy… (pg. 74)

Of course it’s not just History; the same could (should, even) be said of the data an anthropologist elicits from informants.

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