On Objective, Definitive Historical Writing

 

Haaretz masthead in both English and Hebrew

 

I ran across the following in the English edition of the leading Israeli newspaper, written by a senior lecturer in the Department of Comparative Literature at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University, and I liked it.  Too often, I read that this book gives us an “objective” overview of So-and-so’s life, or that that other book provides the “definitive” account of a certain event.  I don’t believe that total objectivity is possible in a historian, and I don’t believe that, if it were, it would be desirable.  And I certainly don’t believe that any finite book can be the definitive account of anything.

 

“The Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges makes the following comment in one of his essays:  ‘So complex is reality, and so fragmented and simplified is history, that an omniscient observer could write an indefinite, almost infinite, number of biographies of a man’ (translation: Eliot Weinberger).  What Borges means is that one historical biography of Napoleon, for example, could be composed by choosing a chain of particular events in his life (such as his attitude toward women); another biography would address the educational institutions he attended; a third would be about his wars; and so on.  The infinite number of biographies would constitute combinatory modes of organization of the numberless events in Napoleon’s life, numberless alternative representations of his portrait.

“Drawing a portrait of an entire cultural period would be an incalculably more complex endeavor:  The possibilities of concatenation and of combinatorial assemblage stagger the imagination.”

(Shlomy Mualem, “The Pegasus of History,” Haaretz Magazine [26 April 2013], 22.)

 

Posted from Kibbutz Ein Gev, in the Galilee

 

 

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