Whose History is it Anyway?

Not a substantial amount of time passes by without the clamour of some dispute over some historical reading or the other. There are multiple self-appointed morally policing watchdogs who think they have the sole authority to dictate what happened at a particular period of time. And then there is a rich scholarly community with its own idiosyncrasies and debates that doesn’t reach out to the masses. There are writers and publishers of history textbooks enmeshed in a system that encourages rote learning. There are students with no other choice but to swallow what their textbooks say and spit it out verbatim in the dreadful thing called Examination.

There are political campaigns run by various ends of the political spectrum – the Left to the Far Right, each exploiting in its own way the thing we call History. Then there are the sellers of History – the guides at Qutub Minar, for instance – who package History and sell in her shiny golden wrappings to unassuming tourists. There are those who come out to witness History – often travelling long distances – to get a glimpse of all that Was.

In this hodgepodge of tourists, guides, booksellers, scholars, politicians, archaeologists, does the true essence of this thing called History get lost in the crowd? Does the saying too many cooks spoil the broth, apply to this otherwise delicious and excellently cooked broth called History?

Or, is History itself something elusive far reaching and out of hand?

These are complex questions indeed.

The image that comes to mind is rather metaphysical, taken from the iconic philosopher of history, Walter Benjamin:

A Klee drawing named “Angelus Novus” shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe that keeps piling ruin upon ruin and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.  — Walter Benjamin, Ninth Thesis on the Philosophy of History

All this and then suddenly a thought: what if this thing called History doesn’t have an essence, a core that we can get to the bottom of? What if History is each and all of this and nothing of this at the same time? What if History is all of the above in its entirety and always plus something? What if History is always seemingly close at hand yet always already out of reach?

Complicated? Indeed. But there is something about Life itself that begs to be asked the same question. Defining something, trying to keep it within grasp and in control is always an act of aggression, an act of totalitarianism.

And it is this that we must resist at all costs. What are your thoughts on this?