A Brief History of History

The most difficult question any historian has to face when preparing to delve into a new topic or event is invariably: where should I start? Let’s say we want to examine the American Revolution, where do we begin? We could start with the Boston Tea Party, which really kicked off the tensions that would eventually lead to war, but riots don’t come out of nowhere do they? We could start at the arrival of Columbus to be safe but then wouldn’t we be obligated to talk about the European political climate that so badly wanted overseas exploration in the first place? Surely we would because it was this system that the Founding Fathers so badly wanted to get away from. Actually much of their ideas on government were inspired by Ancient Rome and….  

I think you get the point.


This illustrates the main problem of historical record. History books are, inevitably, a list of stuff that happened and perhaps a little speculation as to why. Whereas everybody with a brain knows that the past is so much more than that.


This failure of history is something that both Austerlitz and Riding the Trail of Tears address in some way. Of the two, Hausman takes a more cynical view of history. To him history is a big joke, a sham, a plaything. History a bit too violent for you? No problem, we’ll tone it down. Want bigger genitals? Sure why not? Christopher Columbus was a hero? Hey, whatever makes you happy. That is of course not to say he’s a complete pessimist. In the end the Misfits overcome their history, their programming and even their little Nunneheh spirits find their way into reality. History is like Pandora’s box. Once the Misfits’ reality is acknowledged, it cannot be kept only in a historical device, it must permeate into the world. Either you live in the blissful delusion that Christopher Columbus was a great guy and that Natives were an obstacle to progress, and you live a happy little life. Or you realize the truth: Columbus was a sadistic slave trader and the Natives got slaughtered for no good reason, in which case try not to cringe the next time you hear the words “unceded Musqueam territory.”


Sebald, I think, looks at history with a bit more reverence. Austerlitz is incomplete without his past, but as he comes closer to it it hurts him. In fact, unlike Hausman, Sebald does not see history as something you do or do not have (that may be an oversimplification but this is just a blog post). Austerlitz learns much, but he does not fully connect with his past, which means he cannot fully come to grips with his future. And he knows he will never fully reconcile his history because it is not possible. Like the photos in the book, his fixation on architecture symbolizes an attempt to find something concrete, solid, objective that he can cling to. But in the midst of it all lies a sea of uncertainty.
This is the kind of thing that rolls around in my head, as my seventy year-old boss and I try to discuss history. He tells me we should look forward, not backward. He says that “the past is ancient history”. Pfft, “the past is history”, what a fatuous thing to say!

One thought on “A Brief History of History

  1. Your analysis of these two texts’ approach to history makes sense–though we have to think about history in more than one way. In one sense Hausman is cynical re: history, and how it can be toned down for the sake of profit or for other reasons. But in another sense there’s something going on with the Misfits wanting to go to North Carolina, which Tallulah says earlier in the book is the “motherland” of her people (53; one of them calls it the “motherland” again on 123). Maybe this is mostly a focus on “mother” but it also feels like it might be a return to the past in some sense, a return to a place that Tallulah also calls “the cradle of our culture” (53). It’s also possible I’m romanticizing here, thinking that the idea is for them to go back to their old traditions or something. Still, there’s “history” in the sense of how it has been told and then there are other histories that haven’t been told as much but have value to those who have emerged from them. And I suppose that’s partly what you’re referring to when you talk about the quaint, happy history of colonization versus the shudder felt regarding the truth.

    And a similar thing is going on in Sebald’s novel, I think. There is the official history of the Holocaust, and all the works in the Bibliotheque Nationale that are on top of the buried warehouses of stolen Jewish household goods, and then there is the buried personal history of Austerlitz and others like him. In this case, it’s the history of those who didn’t experience the camps but were nevertheless directly affected in other ways. And they find themselves cut off from their past. Perhaps not unlike someone like Sebald, who seem to have felt cut off from his own home of Germany and not feel at home anywhere either.

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