‘The Future of History’ by John Lukacs

2011, 177 p

There’s a new John Lukacs book out, I see.  I like books about history, written by historians. As a reader, they make me feel like an eavesdropper and novice rolled into one. This small book felt as if it were perhaps compiled from a series of lectures, similar to Margaret Macmillan’s The Uses and Abuses of History or Inga Clendinnen’s True Stories. But no- these are chapter-length reflections on historianship as a way of viewing the world and as a profession, and its relationship with literature.  They are written for their own sake.

I don’t really know all that much about John Lukacs.  I have only read one of his books- Five Days in London: May 1940- and I was very impressed by its close attention to just five days spent before and after Dunkirk, when Churchill decided that Britain would continue the war against Hitler after the fall of France.  It was a closely-focussed history that looked at just a few days (although VERY important days to be sure) while addressing big questions and issues.  After reading this latest book, I realize that it exemplified two of the big themes that Lukacs has explored over his long publishing history. First,  Five Days in London was an analysis of the personalities who were involved in the choice to stand up to Hitler, and the aspect of choice is important to Lukacs.

“Choice” is the operative word: because people, as well as their individual components, do not “have” ideas; they choose them. (p.30)

There is an emergent quality in events and decision-making as well: that perhaps the question is not “why” something happened, but “how” and “when” something became to be as it was:

Notice the emphasis on process in the syntax: not how “was” but how did it “become” (p. 39)

His second theme, again exemplified in Five Days in London is that of public sentiment. In the case of Churchill’s decision in 1940, it was set against the perceptions of the British people that were being monitored through the Mass Observation project.  He draws a distinction between Public Opinion which ostensibly can be measured and quantified and Popular Sentiment which is a more subtle and less graspable thing. I guess, in an Australian context, this would be the difference between  a Newspoll with its stark black and white choices, and a Hugh McKay survey .  He notes the dangers to democracy of government driven entirely by public opinion- and don’t we all know about that in Australia at the moment.

Lukacs is dismissive of statistical-based history, psycho-history and counterfactuals, and even more scathing of recent gender,  subaltern and other “faddish” histories.  However, it’s rather a cheap shot to mock journal papers from their titles alone, which are often framed to attract interest through their quirkiness.  There’s an element of grumpy-old-mannishness over the use of computers in research as well. He notes that there has always been more of a problem with spurious papers being inserted into an archive than papers being removed and that technology makes falsification even easier. He warns against the “insidious” practice of

“the presentation of a scholarly apparatus, listing or citing microfilm numbers or other archival “sources” that are not easily ascertainable- or, even if so require careful reading by a professional historian to eventually reveal that they do not prove the  “fact” or statement that they are supposed to confirm”. (p. 58)

To my mind, false claims can be made for both digital/technological and paper-based sources, and digital data-banks of journals and digitization have brought otherwise obscure journals and sources into a brighter light.  A microfilm is more accessible to many more sets of eyes than an individual archive will ever be, especially on the other side of the globe.

He notes that history is not science, and that it is much closer to literature.  Fact and fiction are related to each other, but not identical, and he champions not so much the fictional nature of history, as the historicity of fiction- that “every novel is a historical novel in one way or another” (p. 120)  He is open to the work of amateur historians and aspects of what-if histories that acknowledge the potentialities that lie in any situation.

“…the historian’s recognition that reality encompasses actuality and potentiality reflects his propensity to see with the eye of the novelist rather than with the eye of the lawyer” (p 124).

He closes the book with an Apologia and a greeting to his ‘good, serious’ historians.  He is, indeed, an “old” historian- eighty six years old, and by his own admission he spent much of his career working in small universities.  Although his list of publications is exhaustive, many were published by ‘trade’ presses with an eye to a wider audience and  he senses the ambiguity in the term “prolific” that his academic peers use to describe him. There is, as he admits, an element of  vanity in his chagrin at his marginalization.

Lukacs has elsewhere described himself as a reactionary and certainly elements of this come through here.  He is dismissive of the shortsightedness of American liberal historians, and there is an implicit assumption that the historians and the profession are male.  But I sense that he does not fit easily into any one political box.

He describes his book The Thread of Years as his “most extraordinary book”. It has 69 chapters, each consisting of two parts- the first a vignette about episodes in the lives of various imaginary people existing because of the historical realities of their places and their times.  The second part of each chapter is Lukacs’ own dialogue with an imaginary conversant who challenges either the historicity or the accuracy of the vignette.  He says that it is not a new kind of history, because almost all the men and women within it are imagined, but the times and places are not. He sees it as neither a history nor a novel.  And it’s sitting over there on the shelf, third row down, eight from the left.  I think he would want me to read it.

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One response to “‘The Future of History’ by John Lukacs

  1. I read 5 days in May a few years ago and liked it muchly. I particularly liked the idea that people sensed the tide of events before their leaders. I am not sure of its title-I can’t find it at the moment-but I read another history of the negotiations up to the start of the war, which had a similar theme that suggested that Chamberlain wasin imminent danger of losing his job in the days before the declaration of war and that he suddenly realised war was going to happen and that the British public understood that and accepted it.

    As for the man, I like a bit of grumpy old whoever. Iconaclasm is even tastier. I think even professional historians are sloppy sometimes, and fail to check their sources.For instance AGLShaw in his A History of the Port Phillip District: Victoria before Separation, Melbourne 2003, p. 197, has one of Niel Black’s partners, Thomas Stewart Gladstone, as brother of the British PM WE Gladstone, whereas he was a first cousin. I have just finsihed re-reading War and Peace which crosses that line repeatedly between fiction and history, and Tolstoy very effectively uses his fiction to destroy Napoleon’s history. However, Tolstoy’s lectures on history are not as good as his deployment of history in his novel.

    As for whether history is a science, perhaps it is a science of unrepeatable events, as a friend once said.

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