Jewish World Review June 13, 2002 / 1 Tamuz, 5762

Paul Greenberg

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Amateur hour | Dear Diary,

Went up to the University of the Ozarks the other beautiful day to talk to Phi Alpha Theta, the history honors society. They wanted a keynoter and I wanted to see the dogwood.

Truth to tell -- and what other reason would there be to make entries in a diary? -- there were reasons other than the dogwood that got me on the interstate to Clarksville, Ark. As a frustrated historian, I wanted to be around real ones, and give vent to a few grievances left over from university days. So I headed out of town and into the past, that other country where they do things differently.

In my time, history has been transformed from an art, a craft, a search, into a pseudo-science. I say pseudo because the essence of any science is its reliability. To be valid, a scientific experiment has to come out the same way every time. History doesn't.

That's why the with-it name for history, social science, is a swindle. It raises false expectations. It implies we can predict the future from the past. We can't.

We may learn much from history, like how to conduct ourselves in unpredictable and unjust times, but not to predict them.

History is an art, but, contrary to all the glib assurances about the past repeating itself, history is not a black art, a way of looking into the entrails of the past to foretell the future. To quote Gertrude Stein, "Let me recite what history teaches: history teaches."

Yet the impression persists that history is a form of necromancy. Note these opening lines from a Gothic novel by Patrick McGrath: "It is a black art, the writing of a history, is it not? -- to resurrect the dead, and animate their bones, as historians do? I think historians must be melancholy creatures, rather like poets, perhaps, or doctors."

Well, that all depends on the historian, and on the past he's delving into. What is tragedy for those living through it can be elevation and catharsis for those reading about it, as the Greeks well knew.

The most tragic aspect of history may be what can happen to it in the hands of those of us who, forever exiled in the present, cannot fully enter the past. We may be content to snatch and grab only the part of it that interests us.

Clio, muse of history, tends to be either neglected altogether or pawed over by one generation after another. Ever attend a seminar at which historians debate their political views in the guise of arguing history? Ever hear a political speech in which we are assured that History Will Show That whatever the speaker wants shown, of course.

Poor Clio, always being clipped and trimmed for our own purposes. Not just historians are in search of a usable past, but the polemicist, the politician, the citizen and voter looking for a guide. Each plucks a hair from Clio's bristling scalp, and displays it proudly, proclaiming History Shows That whatever one wants shown at the moment.

I tell these budding historians in the Ozarks: Don't ever do that. It isn't worth it. Years later, on reading some trial transcript or a yellowed piece of newsprint, you will be mortified to learn that what you knew you didn't.

But the temptation to use history rather than be instructed by it will always be with us. In dealing with history, we instinctively act as judges when we should be detectives. No wonder history is the most contemporary of the arts, and tells us so more about the time when it is written than the past it describes.

A better, if anguished, model is that of the unwilling historian. The true prophet never wants to be one. Consider Jack Burden in Robert Penn Warren's "All the King's Men," who finds what he doesn't want to find. Every historian, and lots of us who aren't, know that revelatory moment when we hit upon the clue, the evidence, the documentary proof that won't let us be.

You never forget the moment when the past comes alive, the sense of exhilaration and dread. It is a terrible thing, historical truth. Yet we still go searching for it. The search is an act of faith.

And afterward, when you've found it, when you've got the slip of paper in your hand, like Winston Smith in "1984" holding the photograph that wasn't supposed to exist, it seems like fate. As if the discovery had been inevitable. Predetermined. Which is how faith is seen backward.

Historians share that faith, and so must newspapermen, who write the first rough draft of history.

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