Historical Sensationalism. On the Morality of History

Yesterday evening, Marita Mathijsen, one of the leading Dutch literary historians, gave the 38th Huizinga-lecture at the St. Pieterskerk in Leiden. An elaborate version of this lecture has been published in a print edition, and a summary of the lecture is available at NRC Handelsblad (both in Dutch). Underneath my rendering and translation of her amazing talk.

Mathijsen begins her lecture by using the metaphor of a blind dog who has to rely on his memories to survive. In a way, we are all dependent on the past to survive. In the present we are all blind. Every action we perform carries its fare of memories within. And this also applies, even stronger perhaps, to our collective past, as a civilizing process (Elias). But where does historical awareness stem from, Mathijsen wonders, when does it start?

Hans Goedkoop argues historical awareness is congenital (it is Nature, not Nurture). It is an instrument that is implanted on our hard drives by evolution. It is a human survival strategy. Historical knowledge gives an evolutionary advantage. It provides cohesion (like religion did in the past). Mathijsen wonders whether this means that those with the best historical knowledge also have the best chances to survive? Goedkoop states that historical awareness is part of men, the notion that historical awareness might be declining is thus nonsense. However, as Mathijsen argues, much of our historical interest is a dissimulation, it does not strive, as she states, towards capturing the historical sensation, it only provides historical sensationalism.

Johan Huizinga’s notion of historical sensation has thus been reduced to historical sensationalism. As Mathijsen states, it is necessary for historical awareness to spread into society, however, this should not have to lead to distastefulness. Serious historiography should not have to be adapted to the needs of the masses. In that case everything becomes a cliché. Mathijsen mentions several examples of this development, for instance the soon to be reopened Dutch Museum for Literature, which will no longer put any original manuscripts on display, only copies. Mathijsen explains that this has nothing to do with historical sensation, it is fake, the people are being misled, they are fooled. The same problem arises, she states, in the discussion on the still to be established Dutch Museum of National History. Erik Schilp, one of the directors of the museum has proclaimed that ‘history should take a humble position’, it should thus not rise above the average. Valentyn Byvanck, the other director, pleads for a rebellious mentality. Mathijsen feels this shows no historical knowledge at all and wonders how they will combine a vision of a modest past with a rebellious one.

But the question remains: where does historical awareness originate? To explore this question a little deeper, Mathijsen makes a distinction between history and memory. Memory is something that both humans and animals share. History is a story consisting of sequences: it is uniquely human. However, Nietzsche states animals do not even have memories. According to Nietzsche, humanity is glued to the past: it walks on its leash. Children, like animals, are still chainless; they are blissfully oblivious. Historical awareness starts with the introduction of the past tense in language: ‘once upon a time there was…’. This is the end of innocent ignorance. When does memory become history? When memories are ordered into a story, into language, into an image. When chronology is introduced. Memory is Nature, history is Nurture. Children develop historical awareness trough stories, stories are used to generate an interest into the past. History serves as a means to retain the past. From memories, images of the past arise. And from these images, historical awareness grows. Historical awareness needs a level of abstraction, which needs a certain age, a certain sense of culture to grow. A culture or society can also have a historical awareness. Historical awareness originates in a transition. A culture with a highly developed sense of historical awareness, is a culture that gives a good rendering of the orderings, of the chronology of the past. It is a culture that takes care of its monuments, of its national heritage, and in which a historical canon is a natural entity that is regularly adjusted. The acknowledgement and appreciation of the historical dimension is something that needs to be supplied. However, this should not be that difficult, since it is something inherent to us, to our nature: everything bears an amount of history within.

When does historical awareness turn into historical sensationalism? When it loses its profundity. In primitive cultures historical awareness starts with a longing to chronicle events. When stories are told, when myths are written down. But not with Homerus, but with Herodotus historical writing truly starts. But making a record of history is still not the start of historical awareness, where this can also have juridical or heretical reasons. Historical awareness needs something more, both on an individual as well as on a cultural level. As Johan Huizinga has shown, historical awareness needs a feeling of emotion, a feeling of being moved, or thrilled, when you encounter something new or special. But in the case of Huizinga, this awareness was even lifted to a higher level, to the level of historical sensation, where the researcher becomes one with the object: the sublime moment or instant when the past and the present collide, when they become one and the same and a deeper insight into the past emerges. This goes even further than remembering or reliving history, it is a seizing of the past, a resurrection. As Frank Ankersmit has stated, in the historical sensation the past and the present come together, as Huizinga said, object and subject, past and present merge. The historical sensation comes before the historical experience, it is the characteristic moment needed to achieve historical understanding, when we start to consider and understand the past as part of our daily life. Our memories about the past unite the present and the past, both on an individual level as well as on a societal. We can even see a collective turn to the past in certain periods, for instance in the 19th century, the period in which normal, regular things turned into objects of remembrance: lieux de memoires. History turned into a stimulant, something you could not get loose from, something that, since the French Revolution, had become available to everyone and had turned our way of looking into a historical view. The past was no longer worthless, it became valuable. The historical sensation opens ones eyes for the historical dimension.

According to Nietzsche however, this could also lead to excesses, to an overvaluation of history. This is where historical knowledge turns into a disadvantage, into a defect, into a shortage. Nietzsche experienced how at the end of the 19th century history was transformed into a mass product, harmful to life. Historical interest can thus quickly turn into historical sensationalism. As Mathijsen claims, this interest in historical sensationalism in the Netherlands these days does not mean things are going well on the level of historical awareness. But what exactly is wrong with historical sensationalism? Isn’t this taking on an elitist viewpoint, stating history is from the few and for the few? No, Mathijsen states, for she does believe history should be available for everyone, however, that does not mean it should hide under the guise of historical stupidity. Mathijsen sees a lack of true authenticity, of attention for deeper insights instead of superficial thinking. Popularization should be substantiated with knowledge and research. Historical awareness is more than nationalism. Without our past we do not have a future. Our search for the past is a struggle against forgetting that what has passed.

George Steiner once wrote a book entitled Dix raisons (possibles) à la tristesse de pensée, on why thinking makes you sad, echoing Schiller’s Schleier der Schwermut. Thinking makes us sad because we never seem to find adequate answers. It also makes us sad that we will never be able to think the past again in such a way that it actually comes to be again; our inability to conquer the past is what makes us feel melancholic. Compared to Steiner, Huizinga is an optimist: he believed in the possibility to think the past in the present, in, or through, the historical sensation. The disenchanted world (Entzauberung der Welt – Weber) can again be enchanted by actually seeing the past. For to survive and evolve into our future, we are all dependant on our past.


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