I don’t remember where I read it, but I do remember who it was: Jeffrey Perl, professor of literature. “History begins at the moment of recognition,” he quipped. Immediately, almost reflexively (because that’s how historians read), I began to switch those words about. If “History” begins when we recognize it, then “History” ends when we no longer do: a condition commonly known as death. History happens only when we are… (insert dramatic music, here)… alive and in the present tense.

This has huge implications.

American culture does not allow much space for History’s reverence. History competes with gamers, with twerkers, with football and basketball hero-worshippers. When, by chance, attention does turn to the study of the past it’s usually not of the scholastic variety. Instead most folks learn of the past through movies, or bad television docudramas and everything else in between. But have you ever attended a public lecture by a learned professor of History…? I thought so.

But back to the implications: If “History” only exists when we live and breathe, then “History” must be in the present tense.

Wait! Isn’t history about the past?

No. No it is not.

History is the study of the past, but history is certainly not about the past.

Let’s look at it from the angle of Shakespeare. He sure did write a lot of plays; for example, Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet, to name two. If I read Macbeth, the story is about power-hungry elites who will murder and cause mayhem to get it – not about Shakespeare at all. If I read Romeo and Juliet, it’s about two young lovers from feuding families with severe suicidal tendencies – again, not about this guy Shakespeare at all. Extending this allegory to history, if I read some of it, then I am reading about past problems, social anxieties, dilemmas, and on and on – the bulk of which likely occurred prior to my lifetime: but I am certainly not reading about “History.”

"Skepticism is the first step towards truth." Diderot

“Skepticism is the first step towards truth.”
Diderot

The implication now becomes apparent: History is something I do. And, because “I am” (thanks Descartes), and because that action involves reading about the past, “History” then is firmly cemented in the here and now. History is a present tense activity.

Here, too, “History’s” purpose also becomes visible: it bows to the demand, “tell me who I am!” But such knowledge is the fruit that tempts. The serpent did not offer the apple – it slid and slithered on a diversion mission. Much the same is true, today. A morsel of self-awareness converts that stolid brow into libertine quests for truths. And herein lays history’s vulnerability: the fruit of knowledge needs self-pollination. In order for history to become actuated, someone must dare to be intrinsic: someone must dare to know.

But our culture today is filled with such diversions from red-carpeted, near-naked, perambulatory banalities; to hate-filled, scream-jousted, info-vacant news shows – and all that pips, pops, wows and shimmies in between. I sometimes wonder, I sometime slip into that mode of conspiracy theorist, something George Orwell once said, “The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.” Marketing may sell toothpaste, but the bill of sale may demand we turn over our very selves.

What bigger parts of us yet remain buried and uncovered? Will Budweiser make it so that we’ll never know? If history is, as Professor Perl indicated, awareness (“History begins at the moment of recognition”), what gives consciousness to the satiated soul? Can I, mere history instructor, augur the call in others: “tell me who I am?” With Clio’s help, with Clio’s help.

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