Tis' the season for travel. Usha and I will be away for 15 days to Northeastern Europe: Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. Our mutually negotiated itinerary begins in Warsaw and takes in Krakow, Oswiecim (Auschwitz/Birkenau), Zamosc, Kaunas, Vilnius, Trakai, Riga, Sigulda, Tartu, Tallin, and more. Consequently, new posts may not happen at all (unless of course VP springs into heroic rearguard action).
A terrific book I'm reading in preparation is Walking Since Daybreak by Modris Eksteins. Here is an excerpt:
Death of History
The understanding of human behavior in the past has always been the raison d'etre of history. Because of this, history has prided itself on being a progressive discipline. Historians like to think that they have been to the modern world what theologians were to the age of enlightenment. They have provided meaning. In so doing, they have made the world a better place. History has been not only a subject of study; it has been a moral force. History, one could argue, has been the essence of the Enlightenment project.
Historians have been conceptualizers and explicators, and since their mission has been to bring the unknown and the marginal into the fold of knowledge and understanding, they have been empire builders too. Thomas Carlyle called history "the only study," and likened it to the "universal Divine Scripture." History would be the basis of universal understanding and of a universal morality. History would achieve transcendence.
Our century, however, has not been kind to conceptualizers and empire builders. Our century, likewise, has not been kind to history and historians, though it did take some for the sense of crisis to seep into the guild itself. Michel Serres once called history the last ideology, the last and most stubborn of them all.
But all that has changed. History has died a thousand deaths of late, at least history as progressive vision and imperial dream. History has become at most histories, accounts that point less to the order of things than to their disorder; accounts that place their emphasis on questions rather than answers, on the quest rather than the discovery. History has become, in the words of Pierre Nora, "the deciphering of what we are in the light of what we are no longer."
After all the horrors spawned by ideological rigidity in our century, the notion of a variety of histories, as opposed to a single history, is to be celebrated. Friedrich Nietzsche had such a vision, as did Ernst Troeltsch and Martin Heidegger. Troeltsch, the prominent German historian and theologian, admitted in an essay written in 1916 in the midst of the war that he could no longer adhere to any concept of the unity of history. Not only that: the various histories that would be written in the future would not understand one another. Heidegger went further. The dismantling of pretense he saw as the fundamental development of the West, and that would also invariably include the dismantling of history. "Nihilism," he wrote, "is the world-historical movement of the peoples of the earth who have been drawn into the power realm of the modern age." If for an earlier generation the loss of a sense of unity was an admission of intellectual crisis, for our own era, more than a half century later, such visions of diversity can be interpreted as appeals for humility and respect.
We must accept a variety of histories, but we must also accept variety within our history. It is not possible to write history without preconception. It is possible, however, to write history with layers of suggestion, so that history evokes, history conjoins, it involves. History should provoke, not dictate meaning. It should be a vehicle rather than a terminus. Beware, in Jacob Burkhardt's famous admonition, the terrible simplifiers. "I believe it to be a barbarism," he added elsewhere, "to keep birds in a cage."