History as Honest Narrative Memory and the Problem of Millennialism:
Reflections at the Edge of a Millennial Cusp
Richard Landes, Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University
In Honor of Mr. Alden: My Latin and Medieval History Teacher at Commonwealth
How a culture remembers its past orients it in the present. All cultures handle this with myths – poetic narratives that describe how we got where we are, what it "makes sense" to do and not to do, where and where not to act, and, of course, what follies – hubris, greed, anger – have brought low even the mightiest. There is much "truth" that lies behind such stories, and we can, in every generation, turn to them and find matter for excellent discussion.
But the mythic mode has a downside. Power corrupts and its first victim is our memory. History, or memory not of gods and heroes but of people, constantly struggles against the demands of denial, against the insistence of the powerful to tell the tale "their way." Indeed, the early historical narratives often have difficulty distinguishing gods, heroes, and rulers – a problem that reflects the rulers’ own confusion with divinity (e.g., Akhenaton, Alexander). Obviously, royal biography is the hardest. The art of remembering the past honestly is history, and given the natural imperfections of people, including our vanity, that is and will ever be a difficult one.
The first clear-cut efforts at what we might call history come from the two most explicitly demotic cultures of the ancient world – the Hebrews and the Greeks. We normally think of the 5th century BCE Greeks, Herodotus and Thucydides as the origins of history (=inquiry). But the whole point of this inquiry is that it is honest – we look for the errors and faults as well as the victories and virtues. If we are to learn from the past, we must inquire into its lessons, and the more honest the inquiry, the more valuable the product. Good history is a symptom of a culture with a strong learning curve. And if we shift attention from the inquiring analysis to the honesty, we find the earliest piece of history in the 10th century BCE, the royal biography of king David as recorded in the later-canonized "Book of Samuel." Dissent is a cultural vital sign, an index of reality-checking, a guarantee of staying in touch with "others." History is one of the ballasts of such a dissenting tradition, a meditative dissent, a disciplined iconoclasm.
Christian culture has always had a profoundly ambivalent attitude towards history. No religion has demanded so much of history: God became flesh in historical time and space, in this natural world; Jesus Christ is an historical event. No religion has paid such detailed attention to dates and times (in this sense modern culture is the direct offspring of this Christian obsession). No religion has so developed a tradition of historical writing and polemic – from the Gospel accounts a mere generation from the time of the founder (cf. 6th century BCE Buddhism [centuries], and 7th century CE Islam [over a hundred years]) to the "historical Jesus" analyses of the 20th century. No religion had more mythical investment in the composition of historical texts than Christianity – a salvific truth depended on how we told ourselves the tale of the past. Lying, for the sake of souls, was doing God’s work.
Modern, "scientific" historiography began as a rejection of this Christian commitment to sacral history; it attempted a radical secularization of the discussion, a systematic exclusion of the "sacred" from the narrative. In its scientific zeal, it adopted as its methodology, a positivist belief in an objective reality, so that history was the inquiry into "what really happened." No more moral agendas, morality tales, propaganda. With the help of "scientific" techniques – chronology, paleography, comparative and quantitative analysis – modern, professional historians set about to tell the "real" story. This "revolution" in historiography dates from the later 19th century, the time when the "Positivists" overthrew the "Romantic" historians, and excised exalted exegesis from acceptable professional norms. The results were rich and promising: an entire revision of our past, a new and more accurate grand narrative was within reach. From the archives, that quarry of history, graduate students would go to cut the stones of historical fact, and prepare the great edifice of accurate history.
A funny thing happened on the way to the great structure. The more honest we got, the more we realized that whatever the nature of "objective reality," narrative, and certainly a single narrative, will never come close to describing it. Not only do our sources give us access to only a small fragment of the narratives that, at any time, events have generated; but our own tales, our own analyses, however accurate, however honest, can only begin to touch on the complexity that, at any moment, suffuses human social existence. If, for extended centuries of past history, we have no testimony to what commoners thought, does that mean they didn’t think? Of course not. If it is not written, however, how can we reconstruct it. And if it is filled with moral indignation – for example the anti-aristocratic popular song, "When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman" – should we not avoid the matter, lest we ourselves fall into the error of judging. The last great propagandists, after all, were the Marxists with their burning social indignation. Objectivity, rather, demands that we renounce judgment. To the positivist, such "conjectures" into the experience, the hypothetical narratives of a peasantry whose voice does not appear in the documents, these are dangerous ventures. And since we can’t do it well, we shouldn’t try. To reconstruct such silent voices – women, commoners, heretics – from fragmentary hints, would call for too much guess work for a responsible "scientist." Indeed, one might argue, if it’s not in the documents, it didn’t really count, it’s not worth thinking about.
Such methodological prudence is much like the joke of the drunk under the lamppost looking for his keys, even though he lost them in the bushes, "because thish ish where the light izh." We can study our documentary cobblestones in the light of our scientific methods forever, and they will continue to yield interesting results. But what about what’s in the bushes? Is it important? Surely some of what past generations of literates "chose" not to tell us is important. Were we to go to the court of the emperor a week after he had paraded naked, would we find out what happened by listening to his courtiers version? Would we be good journalists if we didn’t visit the taverns? So what’s a historian, who can’t visit the taverns of yesteryear, to do?
This is a particular problem for the historian of millennialism, or the belief that, at some future time, the world will be radically transformed from the current one of injustice, suffering, and violence to one of justice, freedom, and peace. Most of the time the belief in this coming world lies dormant, a pipe dream daily crushed under the feet of daily bustle and long-range stability. But at rare moments, it flames up, not only seizing the imaginations of a few wild visionaries, but spreading to groups, and even, in rare cases, to whole cultures. These apocalyptic beliefs in the imminence of the millennial transformation have all proven wrong – at least by the expectations of the millennial hopefuls – but they have rarely been inconsequential. Something did happen to the "hegemonic discourse" of the emperor after he paraded naked; the Western European world was not the same after the passage of 1000 and 1033 and the waves of pilgrimage and peace of God assemblies that accompanied its passage. And we have a long way to go before we have figured out and absorbed the lessons of that mad Nazi lust for, the "millennial kingdom" that awaited once they had exterminated their cosmic enemy and conquered the world..
So how do we do millennial historiography? How do we reconstruct movements that rewrite the past, either mocking the failed apocalyptic believers (the "false Christs," the "pseudo-prophetesses," the mountebanks and madmen), or cleaning up the record of the successful ones. Thus Jesus, Charlemagne, Newton, our culture heroes, cannot be "tainted" with the brush of apocalyptic error and millennial enthusiasm despite how (mistakenly) meaningful it might have been to them at the time. Jesus the "founder" of Christianity, Charlemage, the "father" of Europe, Newton, the "father" of modern science. The positivist medieval historian responds to a question about 1000 by claiming people neither knew nor cared about the date, that it was a year like any other, and that any cultural mutations that may or may not have happened at just that time have nothing to do with so insignificant and irrational a force as apocalyptic millennialism. The positivist modern historian responds to a question about the Nazis as a millennial movement by dismissing the apocalyptic language (dritte, tausandjähriger Reich, Führer) as "mere rhetoric" and pointing out that Nazism is a secular and millennialism a religious phenomenon. .To a millennial historian, such analytic approaches are hopelessly outdated, superficial Aristotelian mirages of an objectifiable, categorizable reality.
So how does millennialism challenge the historian, the academic? It forces us to probe what seems irrational, to empathize with people who say and believe things that radically challenge our "take" on the world. They are bent on radical change, and they want, at all costs, to shake us loose from our comfortable certainties. They are at the cutting edge of dissent, of a "different" narrative, a counter-narrative. And most often, by the time they come to our attention, they are so deeply committed to an alternative reality, that their discourse seems to have gone off the deep end – conspiracies, secret cosmic forces, magical times and powers. It is our job to hear the voices of these believers, to listen to the insights which they, in their radical break with our conventions, manage to see, however darkly, however painfully. Once we begin to understand them, we can begin to perceive the impact they have had on our culture; and in order to understand them, we need to move beyond the dry world of rationality and order, beyond the safe agnosticism of secular historiography, and begin to recognize that, whether we believe in God or not, religious beliefs do matter, have mattered and will continue to matter. And ultimately, whether those beliefs work for good or ill depends less on whether they cling to or reject some kind of deity, than if they – secular or religious – are embedded in honesty, and the moral courage that demands.
The apocalyptic hopefuls are roosters, crowing wildly that dawn is breaking, the day of Reckoning is here. Their opponents are the owls, hooting that the night is still long, the dawn distant, the master asleep and the foxes afoot. Normally, owls dismiss roosters and Chicken Littles; and roosters denounce owls as ostriches. The hard part is to get owls to listen and roosters to articulate. At one level, to paraphrase Augustine, that great horned owl who argued that we have divided wills, irreparably split between good and evil impusles, we are divided souls… at once owl and rooster. And the ability to listen – to our divided selves, to others, to the many voices of the past and present, and to express our understanding in ways that communicate, is a critical component of any successful civil society, of any effort to substitute discourse for violence in dispute settlement. The world is not made up of good, sane owls and bad, mad roosters; it is made up of responsible and irresponsible people, people committed to honesty no matter how painful for themselves, and people committed to denial no matter how painful for others, and we find both roosters and owls in both those categories.
We are justifiably afraid to pass judgement, given how badly, self-centeredly, aggressively, self-righteousness has been used in the past. But the lesson, I think, is not to gut our intellectual life with a schizoid split between intelligence and judgment, and in the end pass judgments about peoples rationality and sanity even as we deny that that’s what we are doing. Rather it means that we must become more mature, more capacious, more just in our judgments. For freedom to bring peace there must be justice. The choice, good history teaches us, is ours.
Good history, good millennial studies, then, is one way to strengthen the honesty and responsibility of our culture, of fostering real communication about the past, the present, and the future. It is a good vocation.
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