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 images of greatness in history

Winston Churchill (1874-1965) is considered one of the greatest leaders of all time. And rightly lauded for his leadership during WWII in freeing the world from tyranny and darkness. Yet, in the first elections in peacetime, the British electorate rejected him. For, the definition of greatness, i.e. the greatest or common good, had shifted.

Extolling the greatness of Absolute monarchs like Louis XIV (1638-1715) was, according to Paul Ricoeur, the ultimate praise found in history. Its diametric opposite being absolute blame as in the writings on the Shoah.  In Memory, History, Forgetting (261-274) Ricoeur explores Louis Marin’s work, the Portrait of the King* on the prestige of the image. Here, a shiny golden image of the king in a medallion is a flash of his glory, exuding the king’s power in his physical absence, and perpetuating it long after his demise.

Such a portrait demands and receives recognition on the part of the beholder. This derives from both reason and the heart. When we accord greatness to individuals as leaders, we do so by using our imagination to define greatness.

Ricoeur asks if this concept of absolute praise still exists, if only as a trace, in the constitutional state around which historical communities are organized today. He considers it is especially visible in extreme situations when the existence and the moral integrity of the state are in danger and a true leader steps forward, deserving our praise.

Yet, in peacetime, where we take a state’s safety for granted, the battle is rather for the improvement of the welfare of the country, with justice in the social and economic sphere as the greatest good. And here, it is other kinds of warriors that are required.

Once, soldiering was at the top of the hierarchy of a state, with its leader being the foremost warrior, but today, in the imagination of the general populace, it is different, taking our defence and security for granted as we often do. This causes a dilemma for today’s soldiers who battle on behalf of freedom in faraway countries. As such, a distant war is not quite real for their own countrymen; the personal experience of war and the more difficult battle in settling back into peacetime communities become an even greater challenge for many soldiers and their loved ones today, with our faraway wars, than it is perhaps for those who return home after fighting for their own country.

Yet, in this very act of generosity, in being willing to sacrifice one’s own life for others, as for example Ejler Haubirk Jnr (1920-1944) , a member of the Danish resistance  or Sophia Bruun (1987-2010) , a professional soldier did, or sacrifice one’s well-being as countless surviving veterans in Denmark, the UK, USA and elsewhere do today, lies greatness, too. Encapsulating, what Ricoeur terms “the common good at the heart of being-with-others” (273).

*Le Portrait du roi (Éditions de Minuit, 1981)

On Historic Curtains

Curtains can be flimsy things. Or as in old theatres, heavy items to prevent fires. The other day, rereading a book by John Grenville, I came across the phrase, “The curtain of the Holocaust”.  My thoughts immediately turned to the more familiar expression from the Cold War, the ”Iron Curtain”. And Grenville who, in the mid-1970s, taught us Contemporary History at Birmingham University, may have had this metaphor in mind when he wrote these concluding sentences of his (posthumous) book:

”The curtain of the Holocaust lies between the past and the present, impeding easy relationships. What has gone, the death of a civilisation cannot be replaced. A new civilisation has to be rebuilt on the foundations of understanding the past.*

Understanding the past and explaining it is what historians do, in turn enabling others to understand history. Thus, historian Martin Gilbert, Churchill’s biographer, explained in a speech in 1981 the background to Churchill’s speech in Fulton, USA which contained the metaphor of the Iron Curtain symbolizing the divided world of the Cold War. 

Grenville certainly knew what he was speaking about when using this metaphor, as the curtain of the Shoah separated him, the successful professor of modern and international history, from his 11-year-old self, the boy Hans Jurgen Guhrauer from Berlin, who experienced the destruction of his family and all that he held dear.

He witnessed the humiliation of his father, Adolf Abraham Guhrauer, a Landgerichtsdirektor (presiding judge of a state, regional or district court) who lost his job as a result of the anti-Jewish legislation of the Nazi state, and who was incarcerated in a concentration camp after Kristalnacht, coming home a  few weeks later a broken man, obtaining a visa and leaving the land of his birth to become a factory worker in a munitions factory in England for the duration of WWII, but who was unable to save the life of his wife.

Grenville’s  mother, Charlotte Guhrauer, née Sandberg last figures in a deportation list on a freight train from Berlin-Moabit station to Riga, Sonderzug Da 401 (18. Osttransport) on the 15th August 1942.  And the boy himself, was sent away with his 2 older brothers in the spring of 1939 on a Kindertransport to England, there to be separated on arrival.**

The contemporary history course taught us by Grenville and Jonathan Haslam took place in the backdrop of the Helsinki Accords, and Charter 77, when the Cold War was beginning to thaw and informal contacts were being made across the divide.

Among the many who thus made contact was Paul Ricoeur who was in touch with Czech intellectuals involved in Charter 77, like Jan Patocka and Vaclav Havel. That the thaw was only a beginning can be seen in the obituaries Ricoeur wrote  on the untimely death of Jan Patoka, who was mistreated by the Czech police and died shortly after in March 1977.***

It took 12 years more for the Iron Curtain to fall in November 1989. But fall it did.

*The Jews and Germans of Hamburg (Routledge, 2012), 270.

** John Grenville’s interview with Bea Lewkowicz, Refugee Voices, AJR Audio-Visual Testimony Archive, interview no. 150, 19th March 2007, London; John Grenville, From Gardner to Historian, in Peter Alter (ed.) Out of the Third Reich. Refugee historians in post-war Britain. London,1998, 57-72.

*** Paul Ricoeur, Jan Patocka: A Philosopher of Resistance, The Crane Bag, Vol. 7, No. 1, Socialism & Culture (1983), 116-118; Ricouer, Patocka, philosopher and resister, Telos, 31, Spring 1977, 152-155.

On making and crafting history with Paul Ricoeur

This semester I am presented with a unique opportunity – an offer of a desk and computer as a guest scholar (from August–December 2016) at my previous place of employment, CTR, the Centre for Textile Research (SAXO Institute, University of Copenhagen). This enables me to work on my long term independent research project enquring into how Paul Ricoeur (1913-2005) can enhance our understanding of history.

Working as a copyeditor over the decades for academics has given me insight into the methodical and logical thought processes of highly intelligent human beings as well as to the craft of writing. What this new opportunity gives me is the possibility to discuss with researchers and museum personnel and weavers what the verbs making and crafting means to them.

For sometime now I have been reflecting and writing, or rather attempting to write, about Ricoeur’s conceptual network, mainly using his two works on Time and Narrative and Memory, History, Forgetting. Now I can also gain some practical insight into the processes that lie behind the making and crafting of history.

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.

On a moment in history

As historians, we look backwards, as human beings, we live life forwards, but sometimes we hold our breath, for a long moment in the present.

Who forgets the first time one casts one’s vote? The very first time I used my vote was as an 18-year old in 1975, more precisely the 5th June as Wikipedia reminds me, in the UK referendum to remain in what was then called the European Community or Common Market. As part of a voter turnout of ca. 64%, and as one of the 67% who overwhelmingly voted yes: 17,378,580 others + me.

It was perhaps another Britain 41 years ago, but some of the arguments were the same as now, and as a brand new voter, though I knew in my heart and head how I would vote, I still reflected over the arguments of the other side and admitted that one or two  of their points did make sense. However, my decision to vote yes then was made with a look at history, geography and politics: Britain has always been part of Europe both historically (and archaeologically), as well as geographically. And the best way for Britain to maintain its influence in the world  was, I believed, through its membership of the EU.*

Today this first referendum is part of history. Just as the results of the referendum of the 23rd June will be. How will this decision be seen in a year’s time? In 10 years? In 41 years? And thereafter? How will its impact influence events in time to come? In the UK? In Europe? In the world?

No one knows. A moment can seem a long time. The moment a politician was tragically murdered in her constituency; the moment a sitting prime minister gave his notice to resign; the moment a vote was cast – history is made of such moments.

Change is part and parcel of being human, as Ricoeur** reminds us. Our personal histories are entangled with those of others. As individuals we have the capacity to say, to engage in conversation with others; we have the capacity to act; we have the capacity to recount our histories and those of others in ever changing ways; we are able to take responsibility for our actions, when others are harmed by our actions, we have the capacity to make reparations; and we are able to make and keep promises about the future. All this we do in the company of others.

For we need the recognition and good will of others to function as human beings in society. To continuously negotiate our differences of opinions, to generously concede a point when we have a difference of opinion, and equally generously hold out a helping hand. In the face of the other, we see our fragile selves. Without the other, we cannot be in this moment in history.

*Four decades later, I’m still of the same opinion and would have voted to remain, if I had been eligible to vote this time.

**In its original French, this speech was more elegantly titled Devenir capable, être reconnu.