History is a Story

At this point most readers don’t think of history as “the exact factual record of what definitely happened in the past.” Though there are as many different ways to phrase the idea as there are people expressing it (“History is written by the victors,” for example), I think it’s generally agreed upon that what we call “history” is a group project filled with agendas, biases, contexts, compromises, and broad agreements, that strives to help the present and the future through a better understanding of the past. But what does that idea look like in practice? How do you write history with an awareness of that nexus of noise that surrounds any effort to figure what happened and what it all means? Three relatively recent books explore this question.


Cover of A Ghost in the ThroatJune staff pick A Ghost in the Throat tries to rediscover and in many ways reclaim the life of Eibhlin Dubh, author of a classic of Irish Literature whose official biography has become little more than a footnote in the story of a more famous male relative. Despite almost obsessive effort over a number of years Ni Ghriofa isn’t able to discover much more about Dubh, but that is almost besides the point. Though she doesn’t learn much about the facts of history, she uses her quest to grapple with the present facts of her own life such as her relationship to motherhood, her own poetry, and the nature of translation. In some ways, Ni Ghriofa models an ideal use of history, taking the materials of the past--or the absence of materials--and applying them in ways that teach her about the present and the future. 


Cover of Foucault in WarsawAnother new book that explores absences in the historical record is Foucault in Warsaw by Remigiusz Ryzinski. Ryzinski set out to answer what should have been a simple question: Why did Michel Foucault leave Warsaw suddenly despite seeming to be successful there? One the one hand, the answer was simple; Michel Foucault was a Western intellectual in a communist bloc state in which homosexuality was technically illegal. Said that way, it almost feels like a foregone conclusion that Foucault would have trouble in such a space. But there are two problems with that answer; other Western intellectuals who were known--or at least suspected--to be homosexual were not drummed out of Poland the way Foucault was and, despite the obsessive record keeping of the surveillance state, no one seemed to know exactly why Foucault was driven out. Though Ryzinski eventually discovers some specifics, to me the answer is less interesting than the journey. This is a story of minor characters; the people we’re friends with for a little while, the friends of friends, the flings, the local legends. Michel Foucault and Communist Poland may have been the engines of the story, but the heart is in the many people Ryzinski interviewed looking back on their past. There is a type of history that is created by the records of the surveillance state and there is a different type of history that is created when you share a few cups of tea with a stranger telling you about their youth. Ryzinski is able to put those two types of history in conversation to produce something that is fascinating in large and small scales.


Cover of Wayward Lives, Beautiful ExperimentsWhereas A Ghost in the Throat and Foucault in Warsaw come at this question of the nature of telling the story of history through the specifics of their projects Saidiya Hartman confronts that question head on in Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments. In this book, Hartman seeks the stories of those directly and tactically ignored by the official historical record; the young black women who refused to conform to gender, sexual, race, and class norms, who sought, found, and created joy in the face of many layers of oppression, and who through that process directly helped shape what we think of as urban culture today. Sometimes Hartman needs to imagine those lives because no records exist. In some ways, this technique is as important as the more familiar history she is able to excavate. Whether it’s a memoir, a dense, definitive history (shout out to The Power Broker), or a willfully experimental work, anything that tries to bring the past into the present requires some imagination because there will always be a fundamental gap between the past and the present. Records and documents can only do so much. Without imagination they can never be a story and if they are not a story it is almost impossible for them to be meaningful.