Sunday, October 25, 2009

Instead of whipped cream

In a post prompted by the ongoing controversy over allegations of institutional racism at Dargaville museum, Jack Ross admits to being 'instinctively drawn' to 'books of pseudo-history', even though he knows these books are the repositories of 'ridiculously unlikely theories propounded by ignoramuses'. Jack is referring not to the explicitly racist books of ideologues like Martin Doutre and Kerry Bolton, but to more whimsical works which posit links between ancient Polynesia and 'lost continents' like Atlantis and Lemuria. What, Jack wonders, is the source of the fascination which pseudo-history exerts? Why do the tomes of Erik von Daniken, Thor Heyerdahl, and Gavin Menzies outsell the books of real historians and archaeologists?

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.

19 Comments:

Blogger Jack Ross said...

Well, you'll find no argument from me on the "whipped cream" analogy - very well put, I'd say. But it's a little like comparing War and Peace with The Da Vinci Code. I, too, prefer Tolstoy to Dan Brown - Judy Binney to Thor Heyerdahl. The difference between works of permanent human value and fluffy desserts is a profound one.

But I've seen you scarf down the odd ice-cream, too, Maps. And these books do sell awfully well. I think you have to have a bit of pulp in your soul to understand just how appealing they can seem, such a naughty pleasure. Like excessive carohydrates, they're certainly bad for you, but that doesn't stop the odd bit of binging.

If you lack that secret, sneaky taste for the trashy - and many people do (natural intellectual marathon-runners and weight-trainers), then all I can say is kudos to you. I'm not so gifted. I can't explain just why I get such a kick out of reading American Indians in the Pacific. I enjoyed Vikings of the Sunrise, too, but it's amazing how similar they're starting to look as the decades go by and research methods improve.

I think Walter Pater put it best, finally: nothing that has ever interested human beings can be considered unworthy of attention or study. You never know what you'll find.

8:14 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Maps is an anti-white fanatic.

10:14 am  
Blogger HORansome said...

I agree with what you say, but... The young Henry the Eighth was a slim, well-dressed man who was said to be the most attractive man in Europe (admittedly, by the English); The Tudors plays on this by showing Henry before the bloat set in. I find this interesting because people seem to do exactly the opposite to Che; we only ever see icons of young, svelte Che and never images of fat Che.

10:21 am  
Blogger Jayne said...

I've collected a fair few incorrect but then-popular Aussie history books published from the early 20th century up to the 1970's which contain so many inaccuracies and outright lies of events regarding our Indigenous People it's sickening.
BUT they paint the picture of the time, of what the general public were led to believe was factual, what the Govt spin doctors were reporting in the media, etc, so it gives us an idea of how big a battle of enforced ignorance the Aboriginal People had to - and still have to today - face on a daily basis just to gain their civil rights that we all take for granted.
The sugary-spun fluff is a necessary evil medicine to be taken, at times, to show the truth in the correct context.

1:21 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

maps is

1:47 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

When I'm feeling lazy I enjoy reading The Protocols of the Elders of Zion for fun. It's like delicious cream. And hey after all lots of people have believed in it over the years. Hey who am I to question popular taste. I'm not elitist see.

Dr David Irving

2:17 pm  
Blogger Richard Taylor said...

"Aku Aku" by Thor Hererdahl is one of my favourite books, adn a ltof the information in that book is very useful and enlightening (people SHOULD propose alternative systems and ideas - the official "politically correct" brigade can be as dangerous as the Doutre's of this world ) - I was fascinated by it Aku-Aku (and his other books) teenager...now I also had feeling or I knew that he had a fairly right wing agenda but that doesn't stop me from finding his book interesting - fascinating indeed.

People love mysteries and myths.

And "pop psychology" isn't as bad as Keri Hulme implies. There is a lot can be learned from "how to" books.

One can learn in fact from "wrong ideas" almost as much as "true " ones.

As the great leader of the only truly successful socialist revolution of this century - the great Mao Tse Tung, said - "Let a hundred flowers blossom, and a hundred schools of thought contend..."

3:01 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Surely Richard's constant favourable references to the dictator Mao are a wind-up?

5:06 pm  
Anonymous Keri h said...

Snap! Jayne! I also collect old history books, ANZ ones from bygone times...they are nasty but enlightening (especially considering that some of my Pakeha rellies read these as primary school children, and havent read any other ANZ history since-)

Thor Heyerdhal was thoroughly taken in by local people - very creative local people- who supplied the artefacts he documented in "Aku Aku" (o yes, I have all his books, including the 2 quite rare ones). I have gone on record, several times, about my delight as a child in being bought, at my request, "The Kon Tiki Expedition" by my Nana, and the deep enjoyment I derived from that book. Those very real feelings did not cloud my adult judgment.

As for Richard T's comments apropos 'pop psychology' - I am at a loss to understand them.

5:26 pm  
Anonymous Keri h said...

"like to present a list of real life mysteries"-

O Maps! Please do! They may include 4 of my own that I've never been able to figure out/learn stories/ *anything* about...

Jack Ross -"If you lack that secret sneaky taste for the trashy" - yeah, I totally do, and loathe sweet food too (except for honey...)

7:08 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Belief that Mao supported free speech

=

pseudo-history

8:19 pm  
Blogger Richard Taylor said...

I like chocolate and ice cream. But I like to have a good - say - rice, meat, and curry; or whatever, before I consume said ice cream - at the local Turkish or Iranian or wherever.

There are some great books on self improvement and so on - now my daughter is doing a PHD in Psychology but she still takes an interest in such books.

Dr Wayne Dyer's book "Your Erroneous Zones" is a marvelous book.

But I also keep my Little Red Book beside me at all times. I reach for it simultaneously as I draw my vicious and ever oiled and waiting Luger* when I 'hear' Jack Ross and other brainy boxes veering too much into their Bourgeous-Liberal weaknesses and bad mouthing the Great Helmsman. Or if I hear too much about Trotksy - who did nothing for revolution or human advance except get an ice pick thrust through his skull...

Having said that I have to concede that "I have long since ceased to care, having fought the Bosch in two world wars..."

I don't really care about anything - I just like making comments.

*And I MEAN Luger - I mean no symbolic Freudian rubbish.

11:25 pm  
Blogger Richard Taylor said...

"Maps is an anti-white fanatic."

Do you mean he prefers mauve or yellow or red for a colour?

11:27 pm  
Blogger Richard Taylor said...

(Belief that Mao supported free speech

=

pseudo-history)

= Wrong = simplistic understanding of history.

And there cant really be any pseudo history.

11:31 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Did Mao allow the publication of books critical of him Richard? Can you name one?

How many flowers bloomed?

8:48 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My late and very kind uncle was a member of the NZ Communist party - he read Marx while working as a shepherd in the South Island high country during the Great Depression. He travelled to China in the 1960s and lost his faith. Say no more. Social justice - YES. Social injustice - NO.

2:37 pm  
Anonymous Henry Failing said...

Stein lager.

12:39 pm  
Blogger Olivia Macassey said...

As someone who can happily consume mountains of whipped cream (so long as it is chantilly), I thoroughly resent the analogy.

4:10 pm  
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6:55 pm  

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