The Historical Shiver

November 3, 2008

It seems to be fairly standard to draw a dividing line between memory and history on the grounds that the former is affective and sensory and the latter critical and dispassionate. Even theorists who propose a ‘reconciliation’ between the two continue to see them as sitting at opposite ends of the spectrum on this matter.[1]


I accept that history and memory represent different ways of approaching the past. However, I am struggling with the idea of history as fundamentally non-affective and non-sensory. Conversations with colleagues suggest that I am not the only one to experience a shiver at opening an untouched box of archives.


Indeed, this shiver remains a staple of fictional representations of the research process. In A.S. Byatt’s Possession, the central character is so moved by the vibrancy of a letter uncovered in the London Library that he feels compelled to steal it. It also underpins amateur understandings of historical research, as shown in TV programmes such as Who Do You Think You Are?


In recent decades, the ways in which historical work should be presented and understood have been discussed ad infinitum. Yet the desire to study the past at all has been tactfully ignored.


It seems to me that the further we move towards the idea that the past is unknowable and unrepresentable, then the more pertinent this question becomes. Why are we driven to know ‘how it really was’? And, if we accept that we can never truly know, then why do we persist in trying?

[1] See for instance Barbara A. Misztal, Theories of Social Remembering (Maidenhead: Open University Press, 2003), pp. 107-8


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