The Problem With Writing History

March 5, 2010 § Leave a comment

I just finished Orhan Pamuk’s brilliant novel, Snow.  It tells the story of a hapless Turkish exile poet, Ka, who returns to Turkey from Frankfurt.  Ka is a poet without poems.  He’s not written one for years when he accepts an offer from a friend who edits a Republican newspaper in Istanbul to travel to the distant eastern city of Kars.  In Kars, there has been a wave of suicides by young women wearing the hijab, which is seen as a challenge to the Turkish republic of Ataturk.  They were expelled from their university studies for refusing to remove them.  And so a group of them killed themselves.  But nothing is at seems in Kars, and Ka is drawn into the city’s murky underside, in part due to a bizarre coup led by an actor, in part because he falls in love for the beautiful Ipek, in part because of the radical Islamist terrorist, Blue.  Kars is a poor city, isolated, and caught in its place in history on the borderlands, caught between its Russian, Turkish, and Armenian pasts.  And Kars is isolated during Ka’s visit, it’s snowed in.  It’s a mountain city and all roads in and out, as well as the railroad, are blocked by heavy, heavy snow. This isolation has its own in-built tension between this forgotten borderlands city and the cosmopolitan capital of Turkey, Ankara, and its interntionalised largest city, Istanbul.  This tension within Kars echoes that of the Turkey that Pamuk presents, between this Europeanised cosmopolitanism and traditional Turkish culture, to say nothing of Islamism.  And Ka, as a westernised Turk living in exile in Germany, is a focal point for this tension.

Anyway, I don’t want to give away the plot, because if you’ve not read Snow, you should.  It’s not for nothing that Pamuk won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006.

What I want to point to is a discussion the narrator of the novel has with an associate of Ka’s, Fazil, at the end of the book.  The narrator, Pamuk himself, responds to Fazil’s early declaration that he can only write about him in the book Pamuk is writing on Ka’s visit to Kars if he agrees to include what Fazil wishes to say to Pamuk’s readers.  He says this:

‘If you write a book set in Kars and put me in it, I’d like to tell your readers not to believe anything you say about me, anything you say about any of us.  No one could understand us from so far away.’

‘But no one believes in that way what he reads in a novel,’ I said.

‘Oh, yes, they do,’ he cried. ‘If only to see themselves as wise and superior and humanistic, they need to think of us as sweet and funny, and convince themselves that they sympathize with the way we are and even love us.’

Fazil’s words have resonance for me as an historian.  I study the working-classes, I study people by-and-large excluded from, or oppressed by, systems of power.  The community I study is one that was an inner-city, working-class slum.  The people who lived there, grew up there, they’ve escaped, moved up the social ladder.  But that history is still there.

A few years ago, I was hired as a consultant by an advertising agency working on behalf of Devimco, the development company that was planning to radically re-build Griffintown.  Devimco was trying to make its plans more palatable, so they hired this advertising agency, as well as a consultant, an American living in London.  This consultant has done some impressive things with shopping malls across the UK and in places like Dubai.  Anyway.  He prepared a text for all of us to ponder for our 2-day summit on the future of the Griff.  Basically, he wanted us to come up with a marketable narrative for Griffintown, which was why I was there; the historian.  In this text, he wrote:

Griffintown represents the next generation in Montreal’s long history of bold waterfront stewardship.  What makes it unique is that it restores the public’s access to the waterfront, making it home for a real community, instead of simply an industrial workforce.

Leaving aside the fact that Montréal actually has a long history of the opposite of “bold waterfront stewardship” (Autoroute Bonaventure, anyone?  How about all those port facilities?), the part I’ve italicised, dismissing the former residents of the Griff as simply an industrial workforce really just echoes what Fazil says in Snow.  This consultant is dismissing these real people, arguing that because they were the working-classes, they couldn’t have culture or community.   We’re supposed to feel superior to them, we’re supposed to see ourselves as better than them.

This is something that plagues historical scholarship, going back to the days of Herodotus.  Even despite E.P. Thompson’s entreaties to be fair to the working-class (or any other subaltern group, really), to “rescue them from the enormous condescension of posterity” (to quote from his masterful The Making of the English Working Class), it’s a hard road to hoe.  Indeed, Thompson himself is partly to blame for this, by taking on this providential charge to “rescue” the working-classes.  We shouldn’t do that, either.

Instead, what we strive to do is to take our subaltern, down-trodden, excluded, or what-have-you, people is to take them for what they are/were: people like us.  This is hard to do, it is hard to be sensitive to our historical actors, to recognise them as multi-dimensional actors, with agency, just like us.  Joy Parr helps us see that in her The Gender of Breadwinners, wherein she reminds us that the roles our historical actors play were not sequential, but simultaneous.  We are many things at the same time, and so, too, were our historical actors.

This is something I think historians of the subaltern need to be reminded of regularly, it’s not something we can read in a book once and keep in mind when we’re actually doing our work.  This point needs constant reinforcement.  It’s easy to forget, really.  For me, that Devimco session helped.  So, too, does doing oral history.  And so, too, has the reading of Snow.  I must keep Fazil’s words in mind.

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