On history and humanity

In his concluding chapter to Time and Narrative, Paul Ricoeur observes that, behind the use of the term history as a singular noun lies the presupposition: one time, one humanity, one history (vol.3, p. 238).

The other night I was reminded of this quote twice. One was a phrase in an announcement for a post-Holocaust Symposium, Under Glass: Museums and the Display of History: “…the masses of migrants who do not necessarily share the culture and history nor partake in the privileges of citizenship?”* The other was a reference in an H-France newsletter to an article by historian Shannon L. Fogg “They Are Undesirables”: Local and National Responses to Gypsies during World War II. **

Idly listening to music on the radio early the following morning, I was struck by how over the past millennia, the Romani people or gypsies have contributed – almost silently – to music in Europe. Yet, some would vehemently deny that, in the words of the announcement above, they “share the culture and history nor partake in the privileges of citizenship” of Europe. Dani Karavan’s elegantly simple and haunting monument to the Porajmos, that took place concurrently with the Shoah attests, albeit tragically, that they are very much part of European history.

As are the generous individuals in far-off countries, including foreign diplomats from other continents, who helped Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi-occupied Europe, and all those men and women of non-European ancestry who joined the Allied armies and fought in North Africa, Italy and German-occupied Europe and Japanese occupied Asia and the Pacific against the Axis powers.

Some of these individuals could easily be the very ancestors of those human beings from the Middle East, Asia, and Africa seeking refuge in Europe, North America and Australia today. If we were to reflect on the concept of humanity, and its development, and how we got to be the human beings we are today, we may wonder and imagine how our history would have been different, if our ancestors since time immemorial had not found refuge elsewhere in times of trouble. Would humanity even exist today? (See e.g. a general history of human migration and that of early human migrations).

Historians, according to Ricoeur, undertake the historiographical operation of enquiring into events, understanding and explaining them, and writing about them (Memory, History, Forgetting, pp. 136-138). This we can do only in relation to their context. Both in terms of other contemporaneous events and of those that occurred earlier or later in history. This presupposes our acceptance of “…a permanent foundation in human nature and in human society…” in the words of Marc Bloch (The Historian’s Craft,p.42) as mentioned in my previous blog post.

Thus, to gain a meaningful understanding of who we are as historical beings requires us to accept our common humanity.

Notes: *The entire sentence reads as follows: “Does the generally stated purpose to carry the “lesson of history” and be relevant to contemporary human tragedies that resonate with those of the Nazi-Fascist past, still hold its meaning in relation to the masses of migrants who do not necessarily share the culture and history nor partake in the privileges of citizenship?”

**Special Edition of French Historical Studies on War, Society, and Culture. 31:2 (Spring 2008): 327-358.


On curiosity, the gathering of knowledge, and human nature

The other day I was privileged to be part of a discussion group on Marc Bloch’s posthumous work, The Historian’s Craft. While I had read the book a few years ago, my attempt to speed read it in what little time I had was to no avail, as the first chapters contained so much that one had to simply stop and reflect on. However, I turned up at the class out of sheer curiosity.  Especially as I thought it could prove useful to me in my work on Ricoeur, as some of his reflections in Memory, History, Forgetting were inspired by Bloch.

The small group of postgraduates were part of a slightly larger BA/MA course on the World of Alexander the Great taught by Maria Papadopoulo and Marie-Louise Nosch. Among the intriguing questions raised by the students, was one about the rhetorical device that Bloch begins with: “Tell me Daddy” (1953, p.3), and Marie-Louise Nosch who led the discussion group explained to us that it was a device common to ancient texts.

This set off a train of thought afterwards. Recently, I had been reflecting on pioneering activities in gathering knowledge. During my 11 years copyediting at the university, I have seen how some projects that successfully receive funding have gestated for years with researchers receiving one rejection after another. An emeritus ethnologist once wrote of how the main project that funded his own smaller, but pioneering fieldwork for his master’s thesis was cancelled by the funding authorities. And at the Local History Archives where I volunteer, can be found a collection of taped interviews of local Dragør fishermen who had been involved in helping Jews to safety as well as sailing for the Danish Resistance, that today by our more sophisticated standards of interview techniques may appear to leave something to be desired.  All in all, I was struck by how pioneering knowledge gathering and a child’s curiosity are driven by the same facet of human nature.

As Martin Buber lovingly describes in his I and Thou, an infant can engage in a conversation with a simmering kettle or become aware of a teddy bear by touching its contours (1923/2013, pp. 18-19). We explore and converse with the world around us. A tiny baby can gaze at something for a long time. A slightly older baby can crawl over to explore something of interest. Before confidently walking upright and running around, the human infant falls down many times. Similarly, the successful scientist, whether in geology, ancient genetics or chemical engineering has a large number of failed experiments, and the mathematician, several false trails, before finding an elegant solution to a complex problem, as I know from having observed from afar several young scholars over the years, either at work at CTR or in our own family.  Without falling down, without failed attempts, without trying new, untried ways, that either mystify one’s surroundings – and potential funding authorities- or are seen to be amateur efforts by more sophisticated people in later times, human knowledge cannot advance.

And Marc Bloch, writing The Historian’s Craft while desperately fighting for his country, his life and identity, pleads on behalf of the fundamental nature common to all human beings. For without it, we cannot further our understanding, which requires comparisons against a common basis: However, there must be a permanent foundation in human nature and in human society, or the very names of man or society become meaningless (p. 42).

On enigmatic traces

Marc Bloch states in The Historian’s Craft that the primary characteristic of historical observation lies in the reconstructing of knowledge from tracks or traces:

Whether it is the bones immured in the Syrian fortifications, a word whose form or use reveals a custom, a narrative written by the witness of some scene, ancient or modern, what do we really mean by document, if it is not a “track”, as it were – the mark, perceptible to the senses, which some phenomenon, in itself inaccessible, has left behind? (1953,54-55).

Thus, the trace stands for or takes the place of the past. An indirectness, which according to Ricoeur gives an enigmatic character to history from a philosophical point of view. Something that does not concern historians much, as their priority lies in their engagment with verifying the value of a documentary trace to a past event (TNIII, 143; MHF, 278).

Yet, history based on documents is meaningful, according to Ricoeur, so long as historians, in contrast to collectors of mass data banks, hold on to the idea of a debt “to people of flesh and blood to whom something really happened in the past” (TNIII, 118).  He sees the historian as providing a useful and nuanced corrective to collective memory, the final result of mass data collection. In view of today’s huge collections of big data and data mining, it is salutary to remember Ricoeur’s reflections from the mid-1980s.

The concept of traces was something Ricoeur reflected a great deal over in both Time and Narrative as well as Memory, History, Forgetting with the help of the writings of, among others, Bloch, Le Goff, Foucault, Derrida, Heidegger, Bergson and Lévinas.  In his notion of historical time, as a connecting bridge between phenomenological time and ordinary time, he sees time as being refigured by historians through reflective instruments, such as calendars, generations, and archives, documents and traces.*

Of these, a trace is accepted as one, only when historians can recognize it as such, by rethinking, re-enacting, and retracing its significance, thus enabling a return to the past (TNIII, 146, 183, 77).

Traces are fragile. They may be altered, effaced, destroyed, made inaccessible or forgotten (MHF, 415-416, 472, 284). They indicate a here and now – of past events or activities of human beings. They mark the passage of time;  give a temporal distance. They are datable, and thus inscribed in time (TNIII, 229).

Ricoeur identifies 3 types of traces: the physical, material trace, which along with archived documents and the questions of historians constitute the basis of historical knowledge (MHF,177); the affective, the existential that we experience as impressions through encountering traces; and the cerebral, cognitive traces of memory (MHF, 415, 427).

Traces disturb, by their very presence. With Lévinas**, Ricoeur believes that traces imply an Other, a historical Other (TNIII, 124-126), thus attesting to Bloch’s “evidence of witnesses in spite of themselves” (Bloch, 61).

*See also my previous posts: On Calendars and Historical Time, and On intertwining history and the Other.

**Levinas, “La Trace”, in Humanisme de l’autre homme, 1972,  57-63.