The Documentary Instinct

For the first (and quite probably the last) time, I think I will be attempting soon to write about Ireland and the 1960s, all according to some perfect mathematical formula of 10,000 words per decade/chapter. I think it was Erik Satie who used to say that the only way to find inspiration is to make sure that you begin with a completely blank page. I feel a bit like that when approaching a subject. When people reflect on Ireland “in” the 1960s, one of the first things they usually refer to is the growth of television and the founding of RTE. I quite like the RTE homepage and often find its RTE Archive clips interesting. There’s something about seeing old news clips that can make something that probably seemed totally banal in its day seem interesting “now”, almost as if one was seeing “original source material” (that old historical obsession) for a documentary in much the way as discovering an interesting manuscript in a library works as original source material for a book. But what exactly is “the documentary instinct”?

Over ten years ago, in a bout of unemployment, I approached a documentary making company when told they were looking for historical researchers. It soon seemed amicably clear, however, that our priorities differed a little too much. I was told, as an example, that if a documentary was to be done on the descendants of Irish aristocrats, there would be no point unless entertaining stories could be found such as “these modern-day forgotten aristos spent all their days wearing their underwear on their head and shooting goldfish with double-barrelled shotguns”. Later, some documentary makers approached me looking to do something “Fenian” related, but here again mismatching sensibilities arose: the fact that the Fenians weren’t “mad bomber types” doesn’t make for good television but, evidently, it is what audiences want or, at least, will always get.

What makes a good documentary? If a world of difference can exist between the perspective of an archaeological digger or deep-sea diver and the scholar who never left the classroom, it may have something to do with that old Nike slogan: the former “just did it”. A grandson of a founder of modern archaeology who shared his grandfather’s obsession with the natural world, Werner Herzog, intentionally never entered a classroom and his approach to making documentaries, or even eating his own shoes, very deliberately reflects that. Orson Welles never attended an acting or filmmaking class either, but when he ultimately decided to offer a reflection on his own craft, he decided to call the documentary F For Fake because of his sense that all actors, documentary-makers and artists are like charlatans, or practitioners of illusions, rather like Bergman’s magician. Seen from this perspective, the historian’s craft may seem a trifle absurd in its pretension that meaningful realities can somehow truly be documented. Certainly, when one is not in “historian mode” or is spending time talking to people who are not historians, it often becomes blazingly clear that most people consider historians to be equally as dumb as the percussionist who thought that the way to create divine music was to repeatedly bash two bricks into both sides of his head.

We tend to think of a documentary as being a film, or as something like an artistically designed exhibition, rather than being the “real substance of history”. For instance, who refers to history books as documentaries, even if they reference one thousand documents? Historians like processing texts perhaps even more than they like to talk. Does that make literary critics a distant cousin of the historian?

My first experience of jumping headlong into trying to understand a historical era involved a preoccupation with the 1880s and its contradictions. People in that decade began to celebrate “democracy” while also expressing the view that “the modern world” was becoming uglier and cruder than ever, not least because of the societal role of the journalist as a pen for hire: I tend to think of it as the Maupassant vibe. Often seen to be an even greater malaise, however, was the rise of the literary critic as an apostle of perversity, ala Huysmans ‘Against Nature’, through loving fiction more than reality and choosing to get lost in a world of talking falsely because, after all, “all the world’s a [mere] stage”, is it not?

And then, of course, here came the modern historian to set the record straight. Or perhaps not because a very noticeable phenomenon from the 1880s is that most history books henceforth tended to be “contemporary history” works written by those pens for hire, the journalists, who were working hand-in-glove with politicians. Winston Churchill’s old adage that “history will be kind to me because I mean to write it” was intentionally amusing but it was also essentially an accurate reflection of the world of letters during his lifetime.

Has anything truly changed? One of the first university debates I took part in during the 1990s was on the idea “is there a difference between the journalist and the historian?” I had done a brief journalism course and worked briefly for a local newspaper, whose editor (a very literary man, who later attained a distinguished career elsewhere) rationally explained to me how all journalism is actually page 3 rather than erudition and I definitely had a sense starting a history degree that I was involved in something entirely different. However, I remember when I argued that there was a significant difference between journalism and history, all the professional historians (i.e. salaried historians) in the room patted me on the head as if to say “silly boy, wake up to reality”. Journalists, historians and politicians, or at least those journalists, historians and politicians who have jobs, generally drink from the same bar tap or eat from the same table.

And so the instinct to write a history book, as if creating one’s own form of documentary, is perhaps more than a little absurd. Yet, can history truly be divorced from the documentary instinct? It would seem not, even if the credibility levels of documentaries do not necessarily extend much further than their own authors. Maybe that’s partly why Erik Satie’s “blank page” idea can sometimes seem to be the only practical alternative to succumbing to the sin of cynicism.