The Fragility of History: Historical Truth between Interpretation and Iconoclasm

vandalised statue

It would not surely be too outrageous to claim that history is nothing but the artefacts of the past. The actors of the past have disappeared from history; of their thoughts, dreams, loves and lives nothing remains but whatever is recorded in their bones, their books, pictures and possessions, which become the future texts of archaeologists and historians. Modern archaeologists armed with ever more sophisticated tools increasingly find, even in the minutiae of the detritus of a culture, significant facts about how people of ancient times lived and how their societies were organised. This fuels the view that history as a branch of the human sciences daily approaches the kind of exactitude that the physical sciences have attained, in revealing the past as it really was. Such a view is illusory. History is, and always has been, a task of interpretive imagination reflecting the concerns of the present age rather than simply the recreation of the past.

To deny that history is factually objective, however, is not the same as saying that it is meaningless or that it is merely a projection of our values. History can be said to interpret us as much as we interpret it. What this means has been best articulated by the philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer. In his seminal book Truth and Method Gadamer postulated that we never come to the interpretive task as a blank slate, but with already-formed views, or what he termed ‘prejudices’. These prejudices are not to be discarded as they constitute the foundation of knowledge, a pre-understanding that is the possibility for understanding. Neither should they simply be confirmed by studying the past, but a new understanding should emerge through the ‘play’ of the past with the present, what Gadamer called a ‘fusion of horizons’.

Gadamer sees, then, in the fusion of horizons, the possibility of the emergence of truth; truth, that is, not as objective fact, but as a type of moral truth, of the sort associated with sacred scriptures, myths and legends, though Gadamer himself finds the exemplar in the great work of art. Truth emerges in the contemplation of the great work of art. An obvious question here would be what exactly constitutes the greatness of a work of art that the concept does not fall into tautology. Gadamer’s answer is that this is established by ‘temporal distance’, the time that has passed between the original event of creation or the event depicted in a work of art, which has allowed a critical tradition of appreciation and interpretation to build up and the contemporaneous brouhaha accompanying novelty to fade away.

While there are endless possibilities for interpreting the evidence of the past into a coherent, if partial, historical narrative, there are those who, through irrational impulse or lack of confidence in their own articulacy or conviction, seek to reshape the historical imagination by eliminating the artefacts, texts and symbols of the past, in acts of cultural vandalism. From the burning of the library of Alexandria, Savonarola’s bonfire of the vanities, Nazi book burnings to the dynamiting of the Buddhas of Bamiyan and the Bulldozing of Palmyra, ideological fervour and a singularity of perspective that denies alternative interpretations has attempted to narrow our historical vision by destroying the very evidence upon which it draws. We are rightly appalled by the destruction of world heritage; but we should also be concerned by political acts of history-cleansing, such as we see increasingly at our universities. In what is either an example of transcendent self-denial or breathtaking hypocrisy, just this week a young Rhodes Scholar from South Africa has been fronting a campaign for the statue of Cecil Rhodes to be removed from Oriel College, Oxford, following a similar successful campaign at the University of Cape Town.

In 1990, amid demonstrations in Sophia I discussed with young Bulgarian scholars the wisdom of destroying the statues of Georgi Dimitrov, the former leader of the Bulgarian Communist Party. I ventured the view, though it was clearly not my call, that communism was a part of their history that it was better to build upon, to mine for its virtues and transform into a non-virulent strain within their culture, rather than simply destroying its vestiges and risking forgetting the lessons of history. Nothing that has happened since has caused me to substantially revise that view. The case of Iraq is an extreme example where wholesale looting and vandalism were merely a prelude to the collapse of social order.

The Bulgarians and later the Iraqis had at least the immediacy of the oppression or terror under which they had lived as their justification for wanton destruction of the symbols of the former regime. I have less sympathy for the would-be iconoclasts in the case of the Rhodes statue. In South Africa after the end of Apartheid and the transition to majority rule, there was no clamour for wholesale deconstruction of the history and culture bequeathed by colonialism. The fact that this arises twenty years later is a sign of the failure of South Africa to capitalise on its legacy of economic vigour and institutional strength. The case in Oxford should be more perplexing, as Rhodes is hardly a symbol of oppression for the British, yet I find it less so; Rhodes has become the latest victim of the susceptibility of the postmodern mind to vicarious resentment, compounded by what Habermas has characterised as ‘an exquisite sensitivity to imagined slights’.

I have no particular view about Rhodes as a man. He was surely a product of his time; certainly a man of accomplishments, but within a historical context – colonialism – that is almost universally vilified today. There is no reason to suppose, though, that Rhodes was any more or less an example of the ‘crooked timber of humanity’ than, say Bill Gates, Churchill, Gandhi, or Florence Nightingale, great but flawed personalities all. In my view they should leave the statue there. Another age should have the opportunity to reassess his legacy. In the meantime, he can be cursed, spat upon, perhaps subject to a few missiles, as a reminder of the evils of imperialism and a reminder to the young not to repeat the mistakes of the past, but forge a more equitable and just world. History-cleansing may be satisfying but it reveals a shallowness of perspective and a lack of emotional robustness that we are yet to grow out of.

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