Friday, March 18, 2011

What history is...

I was always fascinated by history, and the study of it. The only problem I ever found was that it is a difficult subject to be studied in class. Add to that the resiliently charlatan poise of some of our professors, I do not regret having dropped it for my Third Year in graduation. How indicative of Plato's metaphysics! An ideal hidden away from us to observe is promised representation by so flawed and pretentious an impostor. I remember, in this situation, the class of Prof. Hasnain Naqvi in junior college – he did care about delving as deeply in the past, in spite of what the format allowed for. And because one had assumed, due to the unfortunate circumstance of his being rather misoriented with us students, that one would find nothing in those lectures, it was a delight to sometimes pay attention and find a treasury full of ideas.

I had begun writing with another more important though in mind. I always thought that conservation of historical sites is a presumptuous and anti-historical thing to do. I was always opposed to the graffiti or cheap palimpsests of a million loves at such sites. But one day, I saw some people inhabiting some really old caves, now fallen to administrative neglect, near my house. A documentary I saw some days later talked about the nuisance these settlers cause to our heritage, and I really felt a need to stand for those deprived dwellers.

My argument ran thus: we have developed a curious interest in history, which has separated our past from our present, and we have started to consider our heritage a precious possession in peril, to save which we are willing to sacrifice even such precious concerns of those living. Why not let this be considered as part of the historical trajectory of the place, and leave it for future historians to discover that at one time, poor people had nothing to turn to but our forefathers of antiquity. Even though, by implication, I had to accept the pile-up of love declarations at these sites (couples are often perplexed to find their names already etched in the hearts they intended to draw, but they don't realize that this defeats their purpose) as legitimate in the flow of history, I still believe it is a well-motivated idea that we need not make a distant fetish out of history.

I now realized that I was contradicting myself for exactly the same reason. If I must endorse cave-dwelling as the course of history, why must I disallow the conservationist's stance towards our past? Is that not a part of today's history? That would be too risky a gamble to make for an argument. But then, should that worry me? No, because I myself am not separate from history. This addendum, then, seems sensible: I started the case for the de-fetishization of history in the light of what is important today, however myself poised at the periphery of it. This small contradiction taken care of, I can now address another important issue.

We have come to agree, if we reflect, that the debate from and for history cannot be a debate for lawlessness or nihilism. Rather, because we are immersed in it at all time, it becomes the debate for what is most consequential for us. In a sense, history has this mechanism to regulate the freedom of our actions and the forces that act upon them. Therefore, some understanding of our past must be central to realizing our present in a better way. However, I notice that in this regard, lessons of history face grave threat at the hands of our present. Artifacts and culture of the past are systematically being relegated to a past which is more or less irrelevant and rather full of tedium to be considered for an appraisal today. Consider, for example, the auction of historical objects: they say, on one hand, that history is meant for the attic, for some pseudo-aesthetic value that is suspiciously close to pecuniary strife, and on the other hand, they deny a majority of the population to witness that which is part of their collective past. Similar is the ideological attack on history, except that it is more subtle, not visible in manifest objects. It seeks to make the product of historical culture inaccessible to people by denying its potency. Either history is, then, something to be proud of, unitedly (like the golden and civilizational era rhetoric), or it is something to find in one's present and which one must, equally unitedly, emancipate or extinguish to usher in progress. More often than not, such historical musings are justifications for that which would find no justification in the present. To this, they also serve the drudge supplement of supplanting truth, or rather the search for it, by force. Perhaps a truly historical revolution would be that which approaches history not through present concerns, but with some amount of autonomy. The rationale behind it would be “Look, all this has happened till date, and all this has been happening. Make your calculations accordingly, and godspeed.” Instruction, more than pride, is the real potential of knowledge of our past. Employed to argue for sense and nonsense likewise, Santayana's indictment refuses to lose its punch (that forgetting our past condemns us to repeating its follies).


1 comment:

  1. Naqvi was, and is, a damn good teacher; perhaps the very few who seem so dedicated to their subject (Nadkarni is among them).

    Truth is, if we don't give a damn about the present, what's happening here, and now, we have no right to speak about 'preserving' our past; attitudes go a long way in this.
    Besides, I have a somewhat cynical notion (not often, but at times) that what's past has passed, there's no purpose in invoking rhetorics, or glorifying events and people.

    What they did, in World War II, let's say, was indeed an act of bravery. Does that then vindicate the shoddy and pathetic state of our present. Hell no, if you ask me.

    History is history in it's place, and as students of it, I believe is our efforts of understanding an era that was (so) different from ours, there are lessons we can learn from it...and, I don't know the whole implication it has on the future and all, but if your present sucks (and happens so for a LONG time), then you can be pretty sure that yoyr future will, too...that is, unless the misery of the present can be a thing of the past, a topic learned in history (in the future), if I can put it that way.