Over the last couple of months I have been reading history. Simon Sebag Montefiore’s The Romanovs: 1613-1918, Orlando Figes A People’s Tragedy: the Russian Revolution 1891-1924, and Ian Kershaw’s Rollercoaster: Europe 1950-2017.
All of this reading has been valuable and fascinating to me. The intricate catastrophes of the Romanov dynasty, the myriad tragedies of the Russian revolutions, and the institutional complexity of the formation of modern Europe. I have stored in a gallery in my mind a thousand portraits of remarkable individuals, twisting events, peculiar psychologies and extravagant cultural expressions.
I suppose this might mean that history for me is in a way the habit of a collector. I store away in my mind a cabinet of curioisities. In the privacy of my study, I open up this cabinet, and have an infinite conversation with my imaginary friends, strangers and enemies. This conversation is precious to me, but how does it help me to act in the world?
I see fewer and fewer companions in the world for this journey into the underworld of our times. History as an academic discipline is in steep decline. Enrolments are falling. Publications are dull. The ideas of the discipline have suffered the strangling of postmodernism and the new tribes of bullying thought. It has turned on itself, and alienated its own practitioners and students. My own attempt to reconnect to this discipline late in my career has been spurned. When I look over the bookshelves carrying my own country’s history I am astonished by their poverty: military history, populist history like Girt, and a reliance for serious history on the greats of the 1950s to 1970s, such as Manning Clark and Geoffrey Blainey.
And the people I encounter in the bureaucracy are astonishngly ignorant of history. Worse: they have a narcissistic belief that history is an irrelevance in these times of constant change. History in the eyes of the radical manager is a redundant encumbrance, a stuffy pedantry that can be ignored in pushing out the messages of the day. And so they march aimlessly into traps, proclaiming themselves inanely the first, the best, the largest, the fastest ever. They march cruelly to the horizon, blinded by the disappearing sun, while their grand armee dies in the deep winter of human frailty.
I long to find other custodians of the sacred past, who believe with Faulkner that the past is not dead; that it is not even past. But where in our decaying culture, do I find companions in the dreaming of ruins?
One place is the words of Felipe Fernandez-Armesto. Asked about conservatism in the “Age of Trump”, he says let us think a little more about longue duree. After all, Trump, like all American Presidents is a “blip.” These words resonated with me after a visit to the bookshop where the shelves were full of books about Trump, and the extraordinary conflation of American domestic poltiics with the fate of the democratic world.
And another is the cultural adventure – the new ways through the ruins – pioneered by Jordan Peterson. The institutions that have carried history for so long – especially the university – are slowly dying. The last druids of the past might make their way to the sacred grove again, and there through affectionate curiosity for the lives of the dead, reimagine a true life of the mind.
Image source: photographer Renee Robyn