Saturday, November 14, 2009

Saturday Morning Musings - Leviathan and the practice of history

During the week a colleague gave me John Birmingham's Leviathan: The Unauthorised Biography of Sydney to read. It's really well written, she enthused, more like a novel. I had had a stressful morning, and decided to treat myself at lunchtime by sitting down to a proper meal and a good read.

Birmingham does indeed write well.  The book opens with an interesting device, the story of a Vietnamese boat family. Good stuff I thought. Twenty or so pages later I shut the book and returned it to its owner, saying that it was a-historical and that I did not want to read it any more. This is most unusual. When I did a search on reader comments and reviews, I found that it was most often compared to Robert Hughes' The Fatal Shores, another of the few books that I have not been able to finish.

One of the problems I face with a book like Leviathan is that I actually read a lot of history. In doing so, I am always conscious of the need to understand the author's particular perspective. To me, reading history is a dialogue between the author, the evidence and myself.

One of the major difficulties in writing about the past is the way our own views of the world affect our judgments in ways often hidden from us. We simply cannot see or understand.

To be human is to make judgments. We do this all the time. Many of those judgements deal with the mechanics of day to day life. Will that light change, is an example. Others are judgements about likes and dislikes; do I dislike this? Still others involve judgements about values; is this a good thing?

To the degree that the historian's role is to explain what was, how it worked, what it meant, then his or her own mental framework creates a fundamental difficulty.

The fact that history is of some degree of the present has been well argued. The questions asked, the evidence selected, are all determined by the historian's interests and perceptions. To a substantial degree, history is no more than the past interpreted and re-interpreted in the light of current interests and mental attitudes.

What is, I think, less well recognised, is the obligation placed upon the historian to find a way of removing or at least penetrating the veil created by his or her own perceptions.

The fact that we all write about things that interest us just is. Otherwise why bother? But once we select a topic, we need to look at the evidence in an objective way. We also need to try to understand the sometimes subtle differences between the way people thought then and now.

This may sound terribly purist and perhaps it is. However, it reflects my own deeply held views about the practice of historiography.

I approached Birmingham's book in the wrong way. Thinking of it as history, I approached it wearing my professional hat. Suddenly, reading the material on London in the early part of the book, I thought oh oh, I've seen this before.

Yesterday on the bus I sat down beside a woman. I had seen her before on the bus and thought that I recognised her from many years ago. Excuse me, I said, but I think that I know you. She looked at me blankly. Aren't you LB? Yes, she said, but the blank look was still there. I'm Jim Belshaw, I said. Her face lit up. Good lord, Jim, I didn't recognise you. The last time I saw you, you had long black hair and a beard!

LB and I actually shared a room in the history department at the University of New England. I had come back to postgraduate studies in history after a longish break as an economist and senior public servant. This made me a little different to begin with. I approached my research and writing in a different way. Then, too, I was very interested in the philosophy and method of history, an interest dating back to the very high intellectual standard set by people like Ted Tapp who taught the philosophy of history course that was then obligatory for UNE history honours students.

Because I had been out of the history loop for some time, I set myself the task of reading the journals, looking especially at the theoretical and methodological stuff. Hour after hour I sat in the library reading eye-glazingly bad writing linked to concepts that had, to my mind, little to do with history. I realised that the intellectual debate had shifted in a very odd way to the imposition of intellectual constructs on history; the history had to be interpreted within those constructs.

In the Department itself, I found that the focus had shifted from method to topic. I was interested in the methods and associated philosophical arguments that applied independent of topic, but there was not much interest in this.

As I read the London section of Leviathan I was carried back to this period. This was almost classic underdog class analysis.

I am not opposed to the use of class based constructs. I use them myself, including especially Ron Nehl's analysis of the middling class. Ron, the Professor of Economic History at UNE, wrote from a marxist perspective. I found his ideas helpful and interesting just because of his different perspective. My problem arises where things are twisted to fit the construct.

I said that I read Leviathan from the wrong perspective. I simply did not pick up the clue in the title, "the unauthorised biography of Sydney". This is not history as such, rather the biography of a city. Without getting caught in the difference between history and biography, my point is that biography is a different craft. The rules are different. Further, in using the word "unauthorised" the author is very clearly signaling his intent.

So I will try the book again with my historian's hat at least partly off, looking at the book more as a yarn with Sydney as a person. 


maximos said...

I'm interested in the conclusion you reach. Having found myself writing similarly subjective excursions into the past, I'm most conscious of the difference between academic history and biography. See particularly my work on our relationship with Asia and Melanesia

Jim Belshaw said...

Thank you RD aka m. You reminded me that I had meant to go back to your blog, but then in the way of the world I got sidetracked.

You have done some interesting things that fit (as I suspect you know)with my own interests. Connections willing (we have gone onto a WiFi system and its hopless in the room where I work)I will put some time properly browsing your writing before I respond.

Winton Bates said...

Hi Jim. I found that post very interesting - so interesting that I went to Amazon to read some other reviews of the book.

Those reviews made me wonder whether you will be any more impressed if you take off your historian's hat.

Jim Belshaw said...

You may well be right, Winton. Still, I almost feel obliged to read the the dratted thing just to see!