“You climb to reach the summit, but once there, discover that all roads lead down.” –Stanislaw Lem
When Historians Go on a Camping Trip …
If you’ve read my previous blogpost, you’ll know that my friend Alex and I embarked on a journey to the mysterious land of historiography, inhabited by an odd tribe called ‘Historians’. As we wandered through hills and forests, we came upon a cozy valley, with numerous streamlets littering its sides and bottom, a refreshing sight for both body and mind. It was a wonderland of intricate bush and funnily shaped rocks, hosting a tremendous variety of shapes and colors in a relatively small space. Of course we decided to camp out there. Alex quickly set up tent and fire, while I, being the expert guide of this expedition, took up an essential task: providing good campsite entertainment. As a historian, what else could I do if not telling a story?
Me: I’ll tell you one of my favorite stories, a true story, maybe the funniest and at the same time saddest story about mountain hikes. And of course, it has a lot to do with historiography.
Alex: Okay, I’m all ears! If it’s also sad, I hope it’s not the story of our hike …
Me: Quite the opposite! It is the story of a couple of two guys who disdained valleys and plains, and thought they could get to the bottom of things by aiming high.
Rock Bottom on Top of a Mountain?
Me: In 1824, two British explorers led one of the most remarkable and intriguing expeditions of all times, traveling through the uncharted territories of eastern Australia. Their journey was not exactly pressure-free. The Governor of New South Wales commissioned the expedition with specific orders as to the “purposes of civilised men” – that is, for colonial expansion. But after the first month of exploration, duty gave way to passion. They had been marching such long and monotonous distances that they started to dread their death either by boredom or exhaustion. In a surge of personal colonizing fervor, Hamilton Hume and William Hovell decided to conquer an unexplored mountain. From this they would be able to admire Port Phillip Bay in all its splendor – at least according to their calculations. It was a tough climb with hard-to-find holds, but they made it to the top.
Me: As they were finally standing there however, conquerors of the mountain summit, one brutal feeling came over them. Not weariness or dislike, but disappointment. A huge, bitter, and expensive disappointment. The mountaintop was a surprisingly fully forested site. No exciting view, no breathtaking scenery. Just two men who could barely see past the end of their nose. They could do nothing but grudgingly retrace their steps downhill. Our two heroes were nonetheless determined to leave their mark and have at least a consolation prize for their unsatisfied ego. With a tragicomic ricochet of protagonism, Hume and Hovell made history not by gaining new knowledge or developing new perspectives, but by baptizing a nameless mountain. That’s the story of how Mount Disappointment in Australia got its name.
The Mountaintop School of Historiography
Alex: Gee! True stories are always the most unbelievable … But now, how is all this related to the work of a historian? I mean, did Hume and Hovell even know what historiography is?
Me: Well, maybe they didn’t, but their climb to Mount Disappointment is very representative of one of the most successful historiographical approaches, that I like to call the “mountaintop school” of historiography. This trend found its most effective and eloquent expression during the 19th century in the so-called Whig tradition of academic history, but has always existed and probably will always exist.
Alex: Hmm … “Mountaintop historiography” is not a very clear concept to me. What do you mean exactly?
Inside the Historian’s Valley
Me: You’re right. Let me elaborate on that. Let’s imagine that Hume and Hovell were two historians who set out on a journey to explore a historical period or phenomenon, such as the fall of Rome. They start reading primary and secondary sources on it, having in mind a few particular questions that they need to answer in order to develop an improved mapping of this event. After months of hard work in archives and libraries they find themselves in a valley, just like us. They are mentally exhausted and thoroughly frustrated. They read, they analyzed, they wrote. Still, nothing really engaging seems to come out of their pens. They start thinking that what is really interesting about the fall of Rome cannot be comprehended by a flat sight alone. They need a vantage point from which to view the ultimate causes and effects of it. They want to get to the bottom of things and extrapolate the meaning and direction of history.
“After All, What’s the Point of Any Historical Inquiry if it Doesn’t Teach Us a Good Lesson for Mankind?”
Alex: Yeah, I’d say that too … I know that the Romans used to say ‘Historia magistra vitae’. Don’t you agree that the work of historians should be useful to mankind?
Me: Yes, of course. And it certainly is. But when the historian places herself out of history and tries to explain and describe a chain of events in response to ideological, aesthetic, or religious imperatives, she ceases to be a historian. If Hume and Hovell were actually studying the fall of Rome, they would be extremely disappointed in realizing that no matter how hard the historian tries, history does not provide ultimate truths. The rise and downfall of kings and states cannot but disappoint the historian’s interest and wit if she tries to see in them the unfolding of Providence or Reason or Progress. The mountaintop historian though is motivated by extra-historical preoccupations and is perfectly satisfied with labeling things and assigning roles, just like Hume and Hovell had to do.
About the Ultimate Meaning of Life, the Universe and Everything Else …
Alex: So you’re saying that for history to be truly ‘magistra vitae’, the historian must always be aware of the limits of her discipline.
Me: Exactly. History, intended as past events and phenomena, can fulfill a pedagogical function only if historiography is emancipated from searching the ultimate meaning of human existence and its final destiny. So the work of historians is most useful to mankind when it’s not focused on giving answers, but rather questioning the past, the present, the future …
As the campfire was slowly dying out and our attention gradually dimming too, a quiet ember in our mind kept us awake. It was a question on our future. Were we supposed to keep wandering farther and farther away from valley to valley?
Something, maybe the desire to sleep on a real bed and let our head sink into a plush pillow, told us that to complete this historiography boot camp we needed to head back home. And we did. Ready to take on new challenges armed only with our bold and overactive imagination. Ah, and food & booze of course 😉