Wednesday, December 16, 2009

"Dangerous Games"

Books devoted to the subject of historiography seldom make it to the best-seller list. Did I say seldom? Make that never. It came as quite a surprise, therefore, that Margaret MacMillan’s slim volume, Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History, seemed to be enjoying some sort of popular success this summer. MacMillan is the author of highly regarded works on the Paris peace talks that ended WWI, and on Nixon and Mao. Glowing reviews of Dangerous Games carry terms such as “smart,” “wise,” “persuasive,” “compelling.” I put my name on the waiting list at the Hennepin County Library, and became 24th in line for the three copies that the nation’s 6th-largest library system had seen fit to purchase. Four months later I was 17th. In the end I gave in and bought the thing. That was a mistake.

MacMillan’s book isn’t a compelling read, but it makes for an interesting skim. It isn’t really about the uses of history—only the abuses. She never asks herself what history is, or how it works (though I have little doubt she has pondered these issues) but limits herself to exposing the ways that it can be misused. These fall into various categories—defenses of nationalism, ethnical identity, territorial legitimacy, gender oppression, museological controversy and correctness, Israelis and Palestinians, Serbians and Albanians, Germans and Frenchmen, etc etc. For those who can read between the lines, the book suggests that whenever politicians draw upon history, they are likely to be abusing it, because history offers no easy answers. It is never anything other than complex, and should those complexities be successfully diagramed and illuminated, the result would be utterly absorbing but not necessarily relevant to other times and circumstances.

We can be thankful, I guess, that although the study of history has never been shown to be useful, many find that there is no substitute for the realness it offers. I am not referring here to entertainment value, but to truth value. Historians are cautious creatures, by in large, more concerned to get the details right than to speculate about the overarching meaning of things. Yet there is a strong, albeit largely implicit, moral current to the best historical writing. Most historians would be unable to articulate what that current consists of, and we ought not to expect that from them. It would be like killing the goose that laid the golden eggs. Like asking the artist to explain how he (or she) goes about his work, and what it all means. That’s for others (like us) to judge.

History is the only truth. That is not an absolute mystery, but it’s a tough nut to crack. MacMillan makes no attempt to crack it, though her flutterings around the periphery are sometimes thought-provoking. They make us want to read a real history book. Even one of hers. Yet there is also place on the shelf, and in our hearts, for a book that’s really about historiography. (Yes, but who is going to write it?)

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