The historian’s dilemma
- October 18, 2022
- Daisy Dunn
History writing is a solitary existence and far removed from the dynamic world of news reporting. And yet the line between the two is often unclear. Historians such as Thucydides demonstrate the importance of still having an ear to the ground.
A fear of missing out is often said to define our times. I would even go so far as to wager that FOMO is among the most widely used acronyms of our age in everyday conversation. When technology and transport make it theoretically possible to be on the pulse all the time, missing out is a choice we must make, rather than something we merely have to endure, and our lives can seem all the more fraught as a consequence.
For authors, FOMO is an important part of daily life. If you’re going to publish a book, you need to spend hundreds of hours in quiet solitude — only you, your words and the occasional email from your editor, who’s just wondering how near you are to delivering that final manuscript. All of us question from time to time whether we’re in the right profession, not because we’re unhappy in our jobs — far from it — but because some of the things our work requires of us are so obviously at odds with who we are. If you are innately sociable, spending so much time in your company is a skill you have no choice but to learn.
The conflict between socialising and isolating is all the more acute for those who write history books. You become increasingly sensitive to the strangeness of cutting yourself off from the world in order to write, when the sources you’re using would not exist had their authors not done the very opposite and put themselves on the front line. A question then forces itself upon you. Where, really, is history written? Is it at the kitchen table, between mountains of books, or in one’s private study, with the radio off and rolling news on pause? Or is it where things happen, in the throng, in the noise, in the kind of place a fear of missing out propels you to be?
It’s interesting how many historians have seen action in the events they have chosen to write about. Thucydides, for example, found himself directly involved in the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta and their respective allies after beginning to write his monumental history of the same. His perceived failure as a general precipitated his twenty-year exile from 424 BC, about seven years after he began work on his book. He survived the plague of Athens, which erupted in the second year of the war and carried Pericles and thousands of others to their deaths. His first-hand experience of the disease makes his description of its symptoms and course all the more valuable.
Thucydides’ History of the Peloponesian War indeed reads like an early form of reportage. It is a reminder that the transition from reporting to history-writing has always been a natural one. I myself began my career as a news reporter. The point at which a piece of reportage becomes a work of history is usually indeterminate but quick. Why is it, then, that reporting and book-writing feel so utterly incompatible, the one requiring you to be on the ground, alert, switched on, the other to be isolated, zoned out, aloof? Would we serve history better by joining the fray like Thucydides? What distinguishes a journalist from an historian?
These questions are constantly on the modern historian’s mind. I personally found it impossible to tally a life on the news beat with my preferred career as an author, and yet, old habits die hard. I will begin each day with a handful of newspapers while listening to one radio channel, then another, before switching off to focus entirely on my work in progress. My hunger to remain on top of things is my biggest distraction. Other authors would probably say the same.
The historian is all too aware that each day’s events are history in the making. The one thing we can count as on our side is perspective. There needs to be a gap between witnessing and interpreting. We need time to understand how events slot into the broader narrative. We need solitude and space to work out how something should be written. We need to take a step back.
Classicists, such as myself, habitually take 2,000 steps back, so you might wonder what we are worrying about. We are unlikely to miss very much that is of relevance to our work by locking ourselves in a garret for a day. To be a good classicist, though, I would argue that you need to be attuned to events just as Thucydides was. It may be productive to observe how current affairs are reported so that you can understand a little better what was going through ancient historians’ minds like his when they wrote their accounts. In many cases, they, too, were describing events hundreds of years before their own time, but their interpretation would have been coloured in turn by what was going on around them. They tended to tap into the zeitgeist.
In the foreword to his riveting 1967 memoir, Point of Departure, the journalist James Cameron talks about what it means to write from experience. While dismissive of autobiographies on the whole, he excuses them as ‘by-products of historical usefulness’, and proceeds to offer less a personal retrospective than an analytical look back through his earlier writings on the bomb tests at Bikini Atoll and numerous war zones ‘as an itinerant journeyman’. His is history written out of lived experience with added hindsight. It is, too, a valuable example of what is possible when you step back from the front line.
For most of us, there’s no easy way of reconciling the daily battle between our dedication to the past, and the lure of the present, other than to compartmentalise. FOMO may be an ever-present foe, but it’s also a powerful incentive to open our ears every hour or two to the outside world. It was there, after all, that the histories we are making began to be written.