January 3rd, 2021

History can be written only at a distance... (1930)


History can be written only at a distance from the matters it seeks to record; therefore history, in the full sense, cannot be written at all. We do not know the truth about the past; we are too far from it to catch the tones and sensations of actual living. Nor do we know the truth about the present, because of our own opaque prejudices, illusions, and desires. The difficulty of writing history was less when historians were content to register certainties – lists of dates and facts – but the more recent quest of “the living past” has given us, in mass production, a series of illusions of the past dressed in the shape of the historians’ own predilections. From history according to Macaulay and Green and Freeman we have passed to history according to Belloc and Chesterton; to history political, rationalistic, pacifist, militaristic; history with a class bias; and history with so complete an absence of bias as to be bloodless and lifeless.

Alfred Charles Ward, The Nineteen-Twenties: Literature and Ideas in the Post-War Decade (1930)

Image: Cathedral School Fun Fair, Shanghai, 1939. LMU.