Dreaming History (preface)

Shirley and Fred Granger (my mother and her brother) c1921

There is an old bluegrass song, Death is Only a Dream. I borrow (and adapt) this line for my life as a historian. History is only a dream. The borrowing doesn’t stop there, for the pursuit of history is, itself, a kind of death wish. Not only must the historian seek the dead and the lost (who were these people of the past?), but this already futile search possesses an interiority too. The more time we spend looking for those who are gone, the greater their haunting — as traces, ghosts, omens. They become a shadowy presence in our closest spaces and they enter us.

There is more to this interiority that the historian grows. The limits of human memory mean that our early childhood is as dead as the dead we treat in our research. When we look to the past, are we not also asking, “Who am I?” “How did I become the mystery that I am?” But after Freud, we know that like the past itself, we are mostly a changing, unstable, elusive archive-self. In a state of permanent longing, we look inward and to the times/places of fallible memory. We interrogate our dreams, our lost childhoods, and our families. We visit our old houses the way we visit castle ruins. We pick ourselves up before every locked door, every lost document or buried treasure, every unending and unreliable trail of evidence.

Having chosen History with a capital H[1] as our subject, we study the lives of others, the events, doings, and deaths of those who went before us. We know they will die. We sense played out, over and again, Freud’s remark that “the goal of all life is death.”[2] And we, the seemingly powerful historians writing up our narratives of the past, are no exception. We will have no choice but to follow them, all of us waves breaking on a shore. They say grief comes in waves. Perhaps, history does too. We don’t realize this at the beginning of our studies. But after we grow a little older, spend hours in archives, visit the arrivals, acts, and departures of one generation after another, write our books and essays in the full knowledge that there can never be a ‘last word’ on our topic, we are finally humbled. Historians are not the holders of truth and we are not exempt from dying. We might do well to lift our pen from the page, stop writing, and realize that history is a great leveler and we have nothing more conclusive than that to say. Like those we once studied with a cool detachment that gradually melted away, we’re just in it. In history.

Of course, none of this is strictly true. But nor is it strictly untrue. If some of what I have just written would be disavowed by many a practicing historian, I accept every disavowal as a cautionary note. For let me be clear: this is no manifesto against the profession of History with its basic practices of research and writing. Nor is it a denial of History’s capacity to tell us something about our past and shed light on our present and future. No, it’s none of these. Think of it as a memoir of sorts, a series of posts and scenes selected to illustrate something of what has made History (the field) and history (the past) so tantalizing in their promises and illusions.

Studying the past has long been and continues to be my dream. But as with all dreams, the rules of conventional storytelling don’t hold. Dreams are more like cinema than stories. If I descend into storytelling here and there, tell stories as prompts, it is because I am regularly tempted by Joan Didion’s remark that “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”[3] Yet if I pull myself back from storytelling with its ‘beginnings, middles and ends,’ it is because I also recall the larger context of Didion’s comment, together with Louis Mink’s more specific warning to historians: “Stories are not lived but told.”[4] When we try to think about ourselves, are we each a story? Or a life that can’t possibly cry out for narrative coherence? Can we be both? If this tension works to create an unfolding memoir of my unfulfillment, it’s not an unhappy outcome, but a productive one. To put it this way (or to borrow from another popular song), when it comes to the frustrations of History, I am awfully glad to be unhappy.

Many social historians cite Jules Michelet as giving us a first sense of going to the archives to be with the dead and with the past. But of course, the dead and the past are not really there. We are alone, dreaming again. Carol Steedman writes that Michelet “was the first to show us this capacity among historians to be alone, not only in the act of writing, but in the Archive itself.”[5] Yet here, in the posts to come, I will return to those thinkers who have given me good company over the years. Some are historians or philosophers; some are poets. A few of them are both. Woven through this account, the reader will find them: Walter Benjamin, Nietzsche, Freud, Michelet, Vico, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Toni Morrison, Proust, Rilke, Sebald, Foucault, Derrida. Roland Barthes, Dominick LaCapra, Hayden White, Arlette Farge, Carol Steedman, Gaston Bachelard — and others whose writings speak to the troubles of this happily unhappy soul.

[1] History is the field of study; history is the thing, the past.

[2] “If we may assume as an experience admitting of no exception that everything living dies from causes within itself, and returns to the inorganic, we can only say ‘The goal of all life is death’, and, casting back, ‘The inanimate was there before the animate.’” Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920).

[3] “We tell ourselves stories in order to live…We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the “ideas” with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.” Joan Didion, The White Album (1979.

[4] “Stories are not lived but told. Life has no beginnings, middles, or ends; there are meetings, but the start of an affair belongs to the story we tell later, and there are partings, but final partings only in the story. There are hopes, plans, battles and ideas, but only in retrospective stories are hopes unfulfilled, plans miscarried, battles decisive, and ideas seminal. Only in the story is it America which Columbus discovers…” Louis Mink, “History and Fiction as Modes of Comprehension,” New Literary History, Vol. 1, №3, (Spring, 1970).

[5] Carol Steedman, Dust, Manchester UP (2001) p. 72




A blog by Amy Kenyon, historian/writer/photographer. For further publications (books/essays/short stories), see https://amykenyon.net/

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A blog by Amy Kenyon, historian/writer/photographer. For further publications (books/essays/short stories), see https://amykenyon.net/

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