Instead of whipped cream
It seems to me that the infatuation with pseudo-history - and I refer here to the interest in the subject of ordinary, relatively sane people, not of fanatics like Doutre and Bolton - is related to a wider problem in the way that contemporary Western societies relate to the past. In a lecture I gave earlier this year, I argued that we encounter the past authentically when we 'meet it halfway', by bringing our own contemporary questions and needs to it, while at the same preserving a sense of its otherness and distance. Just as we need to find a balance between listening and speaking whenever we talk with a friend, so that we avoid either dominating or withdrawing from the conversation, so we need to find a balance between the present and the past whenever we study history. The German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer called this precarious, precious balance 'a fusion of horizons'; the English historian EP Thompson, who wasn't given to such extravagant continetal phraseology, referred to it as 'a sense of engagement with the sources'.
The inhabitants of modern capitalist societies seem to struggle to find ways of attaining the balance which Thompson found so easily. Instead of engaging with history as an equal, we either assimilate it entirely to the present, or else prostrate ourselves before its otherness, and refuse to relate it to our contemporary situation. I've just been half-watching the latest instalment of the TV series called The Tudors , which turns the smelly, pot-bellied, misogynistic tyrant Henry VIII into a handsome, impeccably-dressed, misunderstood hero capable of melting the hearts of twenty-first century teenage girls.
Perhaps in reaction to the crass attribution of contemporary traits and fashions to the past, Western societies produce a stream of books, movies and television programmes which reverence history in a thoroughly antiquarian manner. In the lecture I gave earlier this year, I fingered Mel Gibson's The Passion of Christ as an example of this genre. By making his actors speak a dead language and attempting to tell the story of Christ's last few hours in as 'objective' a fashion as possible, Gibson produced a movie of impressive coldness, with little to say about the dilemmas and anxieties of Christians living in the twenty-first century. Of course, for Gibson and for others on the conservative end of the Catholic spectrum, this lack of relevance is precisely the film's point: the modern world is evil, and so any depiction of sanctity must remain untainted by it. As Pope Benedict likes to say, the Catholic church can be contemporary by being anti-contemporary.
Mel Gibson's religion is an acquired taste, but the longing to escape from the present into the past is evidenced in many other contemporary cultural artefacts. Antiques Roadshow, which my old supervisor Ian Carter described with his usual wit as 'the world's first reality TV show for middle class people', is one secular example of the longing for escape.
Gadamer and Thompson were able to recognise that the historical method - and, perhaps, the method of all of the arts and human sciences - requires a mixture of subjectivity and objectivity. Immersion in facts is important, but so is the ability to make imaginative leaps over the gaps which will always separate the facts which the historical record bequeathes to us. The Making of the English Working Class, Das Kapital, Redemption Songs and the other great works of history are the products of a deep familiarity with the facts of the past, but they are also visionary masterpieces.
In the famous section of The Making of the English Class that deals with the Luddite rebellion, Thompson handles a variety of historical documents - the reports of spies, statements taken by magistrates, the hysterical texts of the popular press - with admirable delicacy, but he also makes a series of speculations that demand to be justified on aesthetic as well as historiographical grounds. Thompson's insistence that the Luddites were a rational, forward-thinking group of workers who utilised sabotage as a tactic, and not a violent gang of reactionaries inevitably scandalised conservative historians, but it has become an orthodoxy in many quarters, and it has influenced the interpretation of contemporary movements against the harmful uses of technology.
The triumph of Thompson's interpretation has something to do with his fidelity to the historical record, but it also has something to do with the volcanic imaginative power of The Making of the English Working Class. Like so many other judgements in the book - the condemnation of early Methodist fervour as a form of 'psychic masturbation', the insistence that the productive gains of industrialisation do not excuse the miseries the process created for real human beings - Thompson's interpretation of Luddism seems truthful in the way that great works of art are truthful.
In works of pseudo-history like the ones that Jack Ross' post considers, the 'subjective' element necessary to successful scholarship - the element of speculation and personal obsession - has been working in isolation from the 'objective' element which is equally necessary. Speculation does not proceed from facts, but instead of facts. The desire to validate presuppositions becomes wish-fulfilment.
Pseudo-history is, then, an extreme form of the desire to put the past at the service of present fashions and obsessions. And, because it is so rooted in the needs of the people who create it, and so tangentially connected to the real past, pseudo-history dates extremely quickly. Von Daniken's visions of ancient astronauts look today like nothing so much as a bizarre projection of the excitement of the early space age back into prehistory. Thor Heyerdahl's hyper-diffusionist fantasies about an ancient white seafaring people erecting statues on Rapa Nui can now be seen as the vulgar expression of Norwegian chauvinism they always were.
I can't agree with Jack Ross when he says that he enjoys consuming the tests of pseudo-historians. For me, the experience is a little like eating whipped cream. The rich taste of fantasy soon becomes cloying, because it is so devoid of substance and variation. Eventually it becomes sickening.
Skyler needs the computer now for her geneaological research - I'm not sure if I have the courage to classify that pursuit as a form of antiquarianism - so I'll finish this post, but when I get the time I'd like to present a list of real-life mysteries about the prehistory of Aotearoa and the Pacific which are as deliciously strange as the imaginings of the pseudo-historians, and which don't end up leaving a bad taste in the mouth.