Reflections on 2018… a year of history

Looking over my posts for the year I am struck by the recurrence of history in my material. I have read more history than literature this year – although of course I would believe that history is one branch of literature. A quick recap of my year’s reading, before some reflections on what all this history means.

I read:

I also watched television dramas, documentaries and movies, some fictional but glorying in the recreation of past worlds, and not all of which I can recall:

It has been a history feast this year. I am not sure I have read a single fictional novel, although I have enjoyed fictional television dramas. No, I recall now I did read Proust’s Time Regained; but that is it for fiction, and that great artwork is somehow almost in a different plane than mundane storytelling. I read a tiny bit of Gerald Murnane’s A history of books, and Blanchot’s The madness of the day, again not the usual fiction. I tried reading a couple of H.P. Lovecraft’s stories but did not get through more than one or so of the shorter stories.

It is as if I am not willing to take the fictional bargain, the willing suspension of disbelief, and take on the reader’s burden, the making together with this text of an imagined world. By contrast, I willingly project myself into past real worlds through empathy, attention and invented dialogue with the figures of the past.

I want to believe that one day I might return to enjoying fiction. I heard Bernard Cornwell, the historical novelist, say that the fascination of reading a novel if to find out what will happen in the end. I remember that feeling, and spending hours immersed in Trollope, Dostoyevsky and many other books. But maybe the fascination of history, that spreads into great literature for which the stories are known and established,  is not what will happen in the end, but how and why will they get there, and what twists and turns will there be on the way. And truth is stranger than fiction, and the minds of many that you hear in any well-crafted history are always richer than the single writer’s voice of any fiction. The invented is of less interest to me than the discovered. The documented is more compelling than the dramatised.

History, or good history, has a power of insight into the dilemmas of our times that cannot be found in the private mirco-troubles of some fictional character, who so often these days is a caricature of identity – or so I suspect, since I read too little contemporary fiction to know. History helps me to orient myself in the world, and to place my own dramas and the melodramas of our republics in distress against a greater story and a more vivid canvass.  History teaches the virtue of patience, and the lesson that this too will pass. It teaches that empires fall and rise, and in the spaces of their negligence the life of the mind can flourish and leave an unanticipated legacy. History teaches that culture is an unruly garden, and the schemes of the great to protect their status after death rarely succeed. The worms and the termites of the world eat away at the registers of wealth; the wind and the sand of the desert overtake every fortress of magnificence; memory and the meaning of the past spread like bizarre underground rhizomes in directions no gardener can plan.

Let me close then with Shelley’s Ozymandias

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

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