I aspire to write history not like a dry professor, but more like the shimmering mysteries of the past evoked by writers like W.G. Sebald or the sometimes ponderous but often astonishing Roberto Calasso.
“There is no essential reason for history to be distinguished from literature,” he writes in the most enigmatic of histories of modernity, The Ruin of Kasch. In itself this thought is not so much a conclusion as an invitation, and it is with the following thought that Calasso springs his surprise. Historical research is the gradual reconstruction, through untying archival boxes, of an artificial memory. And the historian who clings to his prior ideas leaves the past imprisoned in the present’s preconceptions. “History finds itself when it decides to let the sources alone – and understands that these sources can be anything at all, can be whatever there is.”
So a thousand dull lectures about the holy trinity of race and class and gender, a thousand dull homilies about a political, a critical reading and purpose behind the interpretations, the text as an act of power, are discarded. What is left behind is the more mysterious purpose of the true historian – how do I reanimate the voices, the bodies, the minds of the dead? How can they walk amongst us again?