Devil In The Details

About a decade ago, an Irish historian of America pronounced to me that every historian must have a motivation. After a slight disagreement in interpretation about a subject of mutual interest, he then pronounced to me a diagnosis of what my motivation was and then declared that he found me to be an entirely obnoxious individual. There are employers like that because there are human vanities like that. Historians often subject other historians to scrutiny as much as journalists scrutinise politicians in an attempt to “suss them out”. It seems to go with the territory, but it can certainly make the profession an uncomfortable one and make any attempt to address a contested subject seem very foolhardy indeed. Interpretation and responsible scholarship are often seen to be dependent on completing another’s join the dots puzzle.

I remember liking some old spontaneous “jive” written on a jazz record sleeve:
‘The democracy that is America’s truest and too often undiscoverable heritage voted new forms into being: in a music sometimes thought elitist, great rooms for the free intercourse of individuals were opened: if you could speak the language, there was a nearly infinite freedom of speech and a lot of new things to say. Not a bad vision of community, I’d say.’ (Question and Answer, 1989)

“Yeah, man…” But does every community have a vision? I remember around the same time as I first read and heard that “jive” talking to some depressed young American scholars about “the historical community” in the USA and they told me that “hiring fairs” for young scholars exist in the USA that are no less than “a human cattle fair” according to the principle of “is your brain for sale and does your body look good for lecture-theatre cameras? Yes? Well, then walk this way”. It is almost worthy of the old Maupassant tale of the young art lover who becomes totally disillusioned with art as soon as he meets some artists.

A real challenge in attempting to write about Irish history is how much people are inclined to see all Irish history as contemporary history or, in other words, politics under another name. Recently, with my pet idea of doing a general history of Ireland, I have tried to write about earlier and later periods to my old research speciality and, by now, I am actually attempting to put together a chapter that covers a timeframe that will also cover the year of my birth. This creates a little existential dilemma for me because it has often seemed to me that the cardinal sin for a historian is to be not writing about history, a bit like the way I remember witnessing a financial manager of a library break into a hysterical laughter of disbelief when he heard of a guy who had been born in the 1960s and yet was writing “a history” of the 1970s. Spot the contradiction right there. It has seemed to me that if I were to write about something as recent as the 1980s (I was alive then) then, the fact of Free Will notwithstanding, it would only be divine justice if my hands withered to dust as soon as I put my pen to paper, for historians “just don’t do that”. It is called ethics. Yet a simple trip to a bookshop could remind one of that old expression “if everyone else is doing it, why can’t I?” For it often seems more history books exist that reach “the present” than those that do not, I guess because of the old perennial question that runs through many people’s minds: “how on earth did “WE” (whoever we are) get from “there” to “here”?” From this vantage point, any attempt to draw a straight line between the two dots in time is perhaps worthy, even if it is not always entirely clear at which end of the two dots the straight line began. Makes things “kinda confusing”, doesn’t it?

In itself, the question of Ireland in the 1970s is bound to be controversial because of certain “troubles” on the island and, with a surface glance, it is clear that even in the ultra-polite world of diplomacy there were tensions: in fact, the expression of a dissenting voice in international relations by the Irish government was often treated by a nearby power as intolerable not only because of competing ideas of justice but because it was suggested that the Irish government should not even have the right to have a dissenting voice. In a sense, this dynamic, were it small or large in the greater scheme of things in its day, directly mirrors the patronising tone evident in much Irish historical scholarship ever since, as if one joined up some dots to a slightly different pattern than the expected one, an alien presence has somehow come into being. Can a guilty conscience be as intolerant of criticism as much as a critic can be intolerant of art? Perhaps, but that is hardly the issue.

In a comic short story written during the 1970s, Woody Allen once summed up the enigma of blind spots in Irish historical studies with the phrase of “Parnell had the answer but nobody would ask him the question”. Some people have actually seriously made that argument, as nonsensical as it is. The ‘question-answer’ line of enquiry may be of less consequence, however, that the old ‘trees and the forest’ idea because sometimes I think historians’ potential, or most frequent, original sin lies in that old idea that “the devil is in the details”, as if being preoccupied with too many details prevents one from seeing the bigger picture and just makes one’s mind as heavy as sin. That’s a trick that can bite many people on the ass, I suspect, regardless of their profession.

The only potential absolution I can think of offering myself in attempting to write about periods in society’s living memory as a form of history is to think in terms of a jigsaw. Doing a jigsaw is like building a house. If it has got firm foundations, then designing the roof to fit on top becomes a practicable task because the pieces have somewhere definite to fall onto. So if all my jigsaw pieces for the period up until my own lifetime can be credibly fitted together to my own satisfaction (no doubt after a number of redrafts or reshuffles of the pieces) and seem solid enough to jump up and down on their contents relentlessly and yet they still remain in place somehow, then the idea of assembling a final 10% or more of pieces to fit on top of that construction is perhaps forgivable because, at least, the construction, or base, is still there. Fingers are crossed anyway, because nothing is worse than stepping back quickly to get a better view of something only to discover that that single motion is enough to cause a house of cards to fall apart. There are better three little words in life than three little pigs, but we do not always get an appropriate chance to express them with reason. As it is, I am still having a hard time in convincing myself that I can reasonably write historically about a time period that is still in people’s living memory and, perhaps, I never will be convinced, even if I complete the puzzle in mind with a certain degree of ambivalence, unsure which idea of history—the dusty or the contemporary—is the dumber, or more fictional, form of navel gazing to emanate from any one single author’s pen. Perhaps that makes me a little too hesitant for my own good, as one former employer who did not employ me once obliquely explained to me after the fact.

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