I have a friend. She’s lovely, and quite mad – in the very best way. She’s also an historian which means she’s as close to time travel as I’m going to get – and I’m a huge fan of time travel. Most of Western thought believes that time is linear: past, present, and future. In the words of Doctor Who, explaining time from his point of view as a Timelord: “people assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint – it’s more like a big ball of wibbly wobbly… time-y wimey… stuff.” So what can history teach us about temporality? I asked Zara to give us her perspective.
The most interesting thing about time is how it affects the people who exist within it
Whatever your conception of time is, it’s likely that you do have some notion of its passing, even if this isn’t clearly defined. It seems to me then that peoples’ conception of time forms a fundamental part of their worldview. Much like other differences in worldview, the differences between these conceptions have often resulted in societal clashes. Time is most interesting because of the different connections it effects.
Time periods cannot be divorced from their social contexts
Microhistories are small, focused cases, which teach us something about the broader realities of society. Examining contemporary reactions to a particular person or event often reveals trends or attitudes about the norm. Once these are established, a microhistorian will need to “fill in the gaps”. I don’t mean they guess wildly about context or intent, but rather that they make informed, thorough estimations of plausible motivations, all available information considered. There’s a degree of cultural relativity that has to be applied when looking at contentious events that might be unpalatable to present day readers. It’s important to clarify that this doesn’t entail “excusing” the people involved. Rather, judgment is temporarily suspended in order to better understand the society in question.
There are multiple truths in any one time period
I reject the notion that there is one absolute truth about any historical event. All texts are imbued with their authors’ worldview and preconceptions, no matter how hard they try to avoid it. So as explanatory primary sources are often lost to time or non-existent, this is an interesting (and often enjoyable) attempt to make sense of the time you are exploring.
History is alive
I’m completely fascinated by memory, and its effect on the stories that people tell about their experiences.
Alessandro Portelli, an Italian historian, was one of the pioneers of a particular approach to oral history which shifts power to the storyteller, as he/she can choose the way in which they want to portray their story. One of the things I like most about this approach is the fact that it values “misremembering” as much if not more as “accurate” remembering (what is accuracy, anyway?) In other words, the way in which people remember is affected by a wide variety of factors, and this approach illuminates the fact that history is subjective and collaborative, just like real life.
Portelli wrote, “Oral history… refers [to] what the source [the narrator/storyteller] and the historian [the interviewer/listener] do together at the moment of their encounter in the interview” (The Battle of Valle Giulia, 1997: 3). Exactly as Portelli noted, in the moment of interview (and indeed after, when the interviewer/historian is writing up his/her research), “history” is actively being created. Even on a smaller scale, when we read, reorganize, and then assimilate or reject what we have seen, a living process is undoubtedly occurring.
The illustration above is by the talented Nan Lawson (my fave).