The Impossibility of History

by Akim Reinhardt

A Prologue to Prologue | National ArchivesIs the Past Prolog? I’m not convinced. I say this as a professional historian.

The main problem, of course, is that there are many pasts. They are defined by temporality, by subjectivity, and by the limits of knowledge.

The past is ten seconds ago. Ten minutes, ten days, ten weeks, ten years, ten centuries. Which past is prolog to which present?

There is no one past. There are countless pasts. Mine. Yours. The billions, or at least millions, of people who were alive at any given moment. The great, great majority of them never meeting or even knowing of each other, having no discernible influence on each other. Humans can be worldly, but never really universal. Whose past is prolog to whom?

Yet even the shared pasts are contested. Because the past is no different than the present in at least one important aspect: it is experienced subjectively. Like the classic Akira Kurosawa film Roshomon, or the countless sitcom shows that borrowed its premise for a chicanery-riddled episode of mutual misunderstanding, there is no one version. Each person had their own. Their own vantage point, their own experiences, their own filters and agendas, their own limits and baggage, their own abilities and inabilities to understand what they see, feel, hear, and hear of. And even under the most favorable circumstances, every person does what every person must do: interpret.

There is a science of life, but life itself is no science. We need to invent and give meaning to what we do and experience. It is an unavoidable feature of the human condition. Our perceptions and understandings of human affairs are subjective. What contested past is prolog to what contested present?

This is not to say that the past cannot be prolog to the present. I did not deny it. I said I was unconvinced. Undoubtedly we all have countless small examples in our own lives of how A led to B. Tales of cause and effect that we craft into lessons and certainties. But perhaps such concrete connections are more the exception than the rule. Perhaps they are very specific and personal. And perhaps we imbue them with more meaning than they deserve, as is our way. We, the same species given to superstition and shibboleths, to fantasies and foolishness, to dreams so real we believe them. Perhaps we espy, with straining scope, a selective sliver of the past, and cast upon it the overwrought meanings we cherish and fear.

Or perhaps, worst of all, we are making it all up.

The Impossibility of History, Part 1: The Past is Mostly Lost

People in the past, as they do now, talked. But sounds are fleeting; spoken words are no more than scented breeze. And the great majority of people in the past did not leave any lasting record of their lived experiences. That’s not simply to say that they could not and did not write, which is correct. Or that they may have written some things down, but those are since lost, which is also correct. Rather, it is to note that most people did not leave any form of document or text, written or otherwise, of what they saw, felt, believed, or experienced, no lasting record in any form, whether drawings or maps or carvings or some other thing. The vast majority of historical people left behind no words or thoughts for us. They created no lasting story of themselves or their society. Or if they did, it has since evaporated into dust.

They did leave some things behind, of course. Mostly garbage. And their own skeletons. Physical anthropologists and archaeologists tend to recovering those things. But those things are not the stuff of human history, at least not to any large degree. If they were, then physical anthropologists and archaeologists would be historians. But they’re not. They’re physical anthropologists and archaeologists. I am not being dismissive or territorial. I’m acknowledging that their important work is different from our work. They have different methodologies, tools, and skills, and pursue largely different aims. Historians’ work and theirs overlap somewhat. But so too in some way does the work of the historian and the geologist who studies the history of the physical Earth, or the astronomer who studies the history of the universe.

We historians greatly value whatever insights into the human past we can garner from other disciplines such as anthropology, archaeology, and geology. However, in the end, they are very limited for our purposes. The truth is that, generally speaking, the further back you go, the less there is. And as every historian understands, the historical record is fragmentary and incomplete. It is a jigsaw puzzle, and most of the pieces are missing. We do the best we can with the few and fractured bits we have. There is no reliable master narrative for us to pull from. There is no whole cloth to unfurl. Only the scattered scraps that we stitch together as best we can into an imperfect quilt. All we can do is take what we have, not nearly enough, and fabricate a narrative, as do all breathing people as they strive to understand themselves and the world around them.

The Impossibility of History, Part 2: The Past is Unknowable

Some of us study recent history. There is a relative plethora of source material. Words, words, words of all kinds. Diaries, newspapers, memoirs, journals, court records, government documents, and now internet pages. Words that are spoken and turned to transcripts, or into microphones and recorded for posterity, actual voices we can hear. And oh so many images. Still photographs and moving pictures, actual footage we can see of things that happened.

Yet even with the best of records at our disposal, there is a finite limit.

Statistics don’t lie, pictures don’t lie, so they tell us. But they often don’t say very much, leaving out far more than what they include, and thus misdirecting us to flawed or even false conclusions. All source material must be thoroughly interrogated, not accepted at face value, just as only a naif would stumble through life believing everything he sees or hears.

We must be critical, approaching records with care and skepticism. But even then, when we, as trained professionals, track down and gather up all the sources we can, and do our very best with them, it is sill not enough. There is always one very real limitation we can never overcome: no one can ever actually experience the past.

It is such an obvious truth that is bears stating. Even a professional fireman, trained and equipped, cannot be immune to fire. Even a professional seaman, skilled and experienced, cannot breath the ocean water. Even a professional historian, armed with sheepskins and archival records, cannot travel back in time. The fire will eventually burn you. The water will eventually drown you. The past is gone forever.

The past is not a foreign country; it is lost worlds. We can never inhabit it; we can only imagine it. Historians cannot bring you to the past; they can only reconstruct it. And so no one can ever really know the past. Trust me. You can’t even really remember it. All you can do is shroud yourself in the visions historians concoct for you in an act of informed faith.

If the past is prolog, then our introduction to the present is mostly the vast silence of what we do not and cannot ever know. If the past is prolog, it is because there is only forward, and no backwards. If the past is prolog, it is because we fear what the epilog will reveal.

Akim Reinhardt’s webpage, which has existed for days uncounted, is