History is vice. Suffering, murder, rape; history tells a tale of human darkness and depravity. At the same time, history is romance. Happiness, bravery, and love all hold leading roles in this play. Sometimes, violence and killing show man’s power, as with Napoleon; other times however, it shows man’s weakness, as with Hitler. Debauchery and love can mean nothing, or everything, depending on one’s vantage point. This dissonance and frequent contradiction may dissuade people from studying the subject, for fear that they will never unravel an enlightening Marx-style ‘truth,’ that they will waste away at a desk, staring at this majestic web of irony and illogic: history. They are right: as long as humans continue to exist, we will never discover a meaningful understanding of our purpose, and it is very likely that, if they choose to study history, they will sit paralyzed at a desk all day, in awe of the limitless tapestry before them. In fact, they will almost certainly live in madness and delirium. However, this suffering will only arrive once they recognize what history is: our state of perception.
How, you ask? Well, we define history as the past. We also live in the past. Our sensory perception is a time-bound process; nerve signals take some defined length of time to travel from receptor to brain. Thus, when we touch something, there is a lag between when we actually touch it and when our brain receives that sensory information and creates the perceptual experience we call “touching.” Although we may be in the present, we can’t perceive it. Thus, by our perception, we live in history. Although we may live only a femtosecond away from the present, that detachment from our own existence, our state of being, philosophically accomplishes a great deal. Most importantly, this revelation that we perceive our life as it’s already occurred places us closer to those historical figures that previously were sectioned off from us. We perceive our life in the past, and so did every human, ever. Rather than separating ourselves from history by living in the “present” we now recognize the fact that we are living in the same history textbook as Julius Caesar, Abraham Lincoln, Susan B. Anthony, and that group of cossacks from 1562. Therefore, history binds us all.
If history serves as our “state of perception,” and if perception is subjective, then how can we study history objectively? Well, we can’t. Howard Zinn, a renowned historian, states in an interview that “history is always a selection from an infinite number of facts and everybody makes the selection differently, based on their values and what they think is important” (Zinn). Not only do we select from an “infinite number of facts,” we also create them ourselves, through language (Zinn). For example, let’s posit one writes about Paul Revere’s ride. Describing his alert to the townspeople as a “shriek” versus a “yell” presents two different images for the reader, depending on their personal associations with those words. Thus, studying history is a balancing act of imagining scenes or even societies given descriptions, yet restraining that imagination with an inherent linguistic skepticism of those descriptions. The skepticism reaches beyond language’s natural obscurities however; when examining a source one must gaze into the life of the person writing it. Is there any reason this person would consciously lie? Or even omit certain truths? Given their position in society, would this person’s truth even be credible? The answers to all of these questions lie in the historian, and their own biases. Therefore, history is a subjective enterprise, and given its definition as our “state of perception,” both neurologically and philosophically, this logically computes.
Thus, how does history inspire madness in the individual? Well, it’s infinite, basically subjective, and a ‘true’ understanding of it is incompletable. For many, this freedom of belief and interpretation constitutes a seemingly mad situation. Of course, others revel in this subjectivity. However, history, unlike a creative discipline such as writing, sets boundaries on this freedom; loose as they are, they dictate that whatever one notes as history must have actually happened. Most of the time what happened is up for reasoned debate. Thus, claims that posit Columbus’ vessel to the Americas as a unicorn in search of rainbow goo disintegrate under their unreasonableness, to the dismay of the Bronies. Therefore, the limits on historical interpretation collapse the psyche and imagination of those comfortable with absolute intellectual freedom, and induce a sort of madness in them as well.
History is our “state of perception”; it is everything we perceive, in every society and period in time: essentially, life. Furthermore, something or nothing programmed our minds with a capacity to reason; if we study history, this capacity will frequently face abuse, and a sort of madness will illuminate itself. Therefore, if this madness is a symptom of history, then it must be of life as well. As humans, we work to understand life. Thus, even if we never truly absorb or defeat this madness, this incongruity between reason and humanity, this ubiquitous fact of our being, we must never desist from the pursuit of understanding its mother, history, and, synonymously, life.
Zinn, Howard. Interview. Conducted by Barbara Miner, 1994. https://www.zinnedproject.org/why/why-students-should-study-history/