“I am more than ever of the opinion that a decent human existence is possible today only on the fringes of society.”
“Woe unto the defeated” lamented Nicholas Salmanovitch Rubashov in Arthur Koestler’s Darkness At Noon, “whom history treads into the dust”.
He was acknowledging the overwhelming power, the sheer weight and ruthlessness, of the state as it manipulates the historical narrative to create a 'useable past'; necessary, as Orwell pointed out, because whoever controls the past, controls the future; and whoever controls the present, controls the past.
Darkness at Noon is set in 1938 in an un-named state (which we know is the Soviet Union during Stalin’s purges). The show trials of that time were an attempt to control the past by controlling the present. They were part of what Hannah Arendt called “a mass re-writing of history” in order to create “a consistently lying reality” which she argued was a - perhaps the - central goal of the totalitarian state. Rubashov accepts this reality and his powerlessness to oppose it:
“I have only one justification before you, Citizen Judges: that I did not make it easy for myself. Vanity and the last remains of pride whispered to me: Die in silence, say nothing; or die with a noble gesture, with a moving swan-song on your lips; pour out your heart and challenge your accusers. That would have been easier for an old rebel, but I overcame the temptation. With that my task is ended. I have paid; my account with history is settled. To ask you for mercy would be derision. I have nothing more to say.”
But for historians and political theorists there is a great deal more to say on behalf of this particular Rubashov and a thousand other Rubashovs, because the work of narrating history never ends. As Christopher Hill pointed out, “History has to be rewritten in every generation, because although the past does not change, the present does; each generation asks new questions of the past and finds new areas of sympathy as it re-lives different aspects of the experiences of its predecessors.”
"An exemplary validity"?
Factual truth may be vulnerable, relative, subject to opinion and interpretation; but history in the form of concrete reality, established by records, eye-witness testimony, documents, monuments, all those elements gathered together in the famous Archive beloved of Jacques Derrida and Carolyn Steedman, must be written over and over again, because it is the narrative itself which gives validity to the actions of individuals. It is the act of telling which imparts truth and significance, which preserves the actions in our memory and, as the Greeks believed (Homer was "the educator of Hellas"), acts as a source of instruction for future generations.
Hannah Arendt calls the narrative process “old-fashioned story-telling”. And Carolyn Steedman characteristically goes further when she speaks of history-writing “as a form of magical realism … the everyday and fantastic act of making the dead walk and talk”.
Nowhere is this more crucial than in our histories of the defeated - those movements, philosophies, revolutions, rebellions and revolts which coruscated briefly before failing and falling into the footnotes of history. As EP Thompson pointed out in The Making of the English Working Class, "only the successful (in the sense of those whose aspirations anticipated subsequent evolution) are remembered. The blind alleys, the lost causes, and the losers themselves are forgotten."
But they are, despite that, and in my opinion, of "exemplary validity". The phrase was coined by Hannah Arendt, to whom this project owes a great deal. Not least because she sees history as being driven by human action, "the only activity that goes on between men without the intermediary of things or matter".
That's why my chapter on the Weather Underground, for example, is entitled Joe and Rose: it is 'about' Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn specifically as well as the Weather Underground in general; why the story of the Baader-Meinhof Gang is seen through the eyes of Ulrike Meinhof; why the 'freeborn' John Lilburne is the focus of the piece on the Levellers; and why Béatrice de Planissoles takes centre stage in my discussion of the Cathars. These are the people who embrace, who exemplify, the lost causes which attract my attention; these are the people whose "choices" and "actions" make my kind of history.
Like both Arendt and Steedman, I am not 'disinterested' in my story-telling. There will be objectivism (names, dates and all that good stuff) in so far as is possible, but there will also be prejudice and outrage, sympathy and empathy.
But judgement is a different matter.
If a ‘pure’ historical judgement, the equivalent perhaps of Kant’s ‘pure aesthetic judgement’, is possible, and I doubt that it is, this is not where it will be found. If I get close to making a judgement, or you believe I have, it will be an incidental, accidental, consequence of my telling of the story; that is, what I decide to include and omit, the tonality of the language that I use, the sources I choose to believe and those, including the first-hand accounts of participants, which I choose not to. These are judgments, of course, but not with malice aforethought: the needs of the narrative take priority.
And in any case, we need to go one step at a time. I believe that to make an historical judgement of any degree of purity (or honesty or integrity), one must first acquire an historical understanding. Not because "tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner" ("to understand all is to forgive all") - Auden has told us this is not what History does, despite what Madame de Staël probably didn't say. But because, as I suspect Arendt - who described herself as "a kind of phenomenologist" - would argue, judgement is itself an integral part of understanding.
My focus is more modest. It is to relate the facts and understand my protagonists, the actors in the dramas I describe. In so doing, it occurs to me that I shall be writing what is effectively a series of police procedurals, looking in each case, each story, for motive, means and opportunity. Perhaps with a plea in mitigation as an epilogue.
And although I think I know what I shall find in the stories I tell, I won’t be surprised, as I sieve the “Dust”, to be surprised: I do not know, at this stage, what I shall find, identify and conclude from my reading and research because
"... all sway forward on the dangerous flood
Of history that never sleeps or dies,
And, held one moment, burns the hand."
Annabel Herzog, in an essay on political story-telling, observed that in Arendt’s writing about Eichmann, she intended “not to commemorate the defeated and the dead, but to write from their standpoint.”
If I find myself writing in this way, then so be it. It will not be a conscious act: It will be because, in the process of reading and writing, of learning about these histories, I have taken on their voice. I will have become part of the story I am telling.
I invite my readers to maintain a healthy and sceptical distance at that point. Not least because I will have become that fixture of post-modern fiction, the unreliable narrator, as unreliable as the accounts of the participants themselves and those professional historians who have covered the same ground.
To the extent that I am an historian at all, I am "an accidental historian", and the (short) stories I will tell are not fiction and not post-modern. They are - another Arendt word - 'traditional'. They are a series of thematically linked stories about people who tried and failed but whose actions have, perhaps, an "exemplary validity" for all of us.
Or do they? At this point, this is merely an aspiration, because I’m not clear myself.
But I am clear about this: If I have any aspiration beyond the writing itself, it is to ensure that, at the final sentence – itself an arbitrary marker in any narrative, at least as arbitrary as the first - I and my readers will agree with Maurice Merleau-Ponty, the third of the four great regulars at the existentialist café, that “nous avons appris l’Histoire et nous pretendons qu’il ne faut pas l’oublier” (“we have learned history, and we proclaim that we must not forget it.”).
That’s one. The other aspiration, and infinitely more difficult to fulfil, is to emulate Carolyn Steedman. I want to engage in “the everyday and fantastic act of making the dead walk and talk”.