Why Write About History?

Originally published at The Humanist (print issue, July/August)

There was an old and solitary man who spent most of his time in bed. There were rumors that he had a treasure hidden in his house. One day some thieves broke in, they searched everywhere and found a chest in the cellar. They went off with it and when they opened it they found that it was filled with letters. They were the love letters the old man had received all over the course of his long life. The thieves were going to burn the letters, but they talked it over and finally decided to return them. One by one, one a week. Since then, every Monday at noon, the old man would be waiting for the postman to appear. As soon as he saw him, the old man would start running and the postman, who knew all about it, held the letter in his hand. And even Saint Peter could hear the beating of that heart, crazed with joy at receiving a message from a woman.

This parable in Eduardo Galeano's Book of Embraces (highly recommended) taught me an important lesson about the retelling of history, or rather, why history should be retold. Before the theft, the letters of the old man sat in the pitch black of his cellar, unread and rarely thought of. But when the thieves began mailing the letters back to the old man, the old man felt the same as he did when he received them for the first time. To write about history is to be like one of these thieves. We take the tales of human triumph, pain, happiness, love, and loss that are forgotten, neglected, taken for granted, and sometimes even dreaded, and— with whatever writing skill we possess— make those tales anew. Our aim is for people to run toward these tales as the old man did his letters, which have always been possessed by us, yet lie in the cellars of our imaginations and concerns.

This leads further to the question of why we should care about making these tales anew. In the context of Galeano's parable, why would the thieves take the trouble to reawaken a part of this man's dormant spirit? The answer— for both the thieves motivations and our own— is that at our core, no matter who we are, the central themes of life (which can also be seen as the "meaning" of life itself) are found to be worth preserving by us. Themes aforementioned: triumph, pain, happiness, love, and loss. By seeing clearly that the states of being that are a part of people we read about in history transcend culture and era, we also see that the saga of man will always contain hope. Even when devastation is all around, even when victories are in no way assured, there will always be hope as there has been in the past and in the present. We write about history to make hearts crazed with joy and old men run.

But when we come to the recognition that history is indeed the saga of man, we also come to a stern warning. We cannot let our revived interest in the events of previous times become glorification or obsession. In his classic fantasy Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien writes of the land of Gondor:

Kings made tombs more splendid than the houses of the living and counted the names of their descent dearer than the names of their sons. Childless lords sat in aged halls musing on heraldry, or in high cold towers, asking questions of the stars. And so the people of Gondor fell into ruin.

Our telling of history must not come from a place of runaway nostalgia or idealization, but should come rather from a desire to instill in people an appreciation of the here-and-now through tales of those who lived (and felt) before we did. In essence, we come to better understand and appreciate our own existence by learning about the existences of others before us, and, if we are wise, we will be prompted by this to hold dearer the names of our sons than our descent.