While researching a story whose plot points I’ll keep to myself at this moment, I was gob-smacked by the following notion: the nature of history is bipolar.
You may of course object: Let’s be rational about this; what you’re suggesting applies to the writing of history, or the analysis of history. Surely you don’t mean history itself?
Maybe. But if I did?
No, no! you shout. Heaven forfend! History itself, the unfolding of events in time, “what actually happened in the past,” is itself incapable of structure. History is just . . . history. Structure is imposed on it by its principal observers, those peepers, those educated voyeurs: historians. History simply happens: let the historians sort it out.
But that’s just it, I maintain. Historians aren’t sorting it out. Maybe they can’t sort it out, try as they may. Nothing they’ve written seems to overcome the bipolarity I’m talking about.
So what in tarnation is this bipolarity you speak of?
Well, from where I sit, I see micro-historians and macro-historians. Some (the macros) paint on a grand canvas, laying out a sweeping narrative of events, which they organize into patterns or trends. Perfectly reasonable. Without pattern, events are un-coalesced microdots floating around the canvas (or the page). Without pattern there’s no meaning. The drawback of the macro approach, however, is that, once brought forth, these trends begin to seem inevitable.
Consider what one might remark after the breakup of a marriage: I knew this would happen! Those two should never have met! Different values, different social classes, different ethnicities. Not to mention incompatible goals. He wanted to raise a large family in a quiet suburb. She wanted to star on Broadway! Their personalities were destined to rub against one another until nerves were so raw that being in the same room was impossible. Doomed from the start.
But that’s not how it looked to the parties involved: the stars aligned, the earth moved, they fell in love.
Hey! you demur crossly. Are we talking about love or history?
Well, I’ve read historical accounts suggesting the certainty of a particular outcome that I found persuasive. Hey, it had to turn out that way! When you look deeply, the conflicts between those two countries – divergent economies, conflicting political systems, different faiths, clashing cultures, and the fact that they both desperately needed the same river to water their crops and slake the thirst of their citizens – it was perfectly clear that it would end in the bloody conflict that you saw. No other course possible.
But! When you examine things the way micro-historians do – day-to-day, blow-by-blow – you discover all kinds of chancy things. You see history as resulting from tiny individual decisions made during the course of an individual day. And you realize many things could have happened that would have led to a different outcome. The crucial decision-maker might have had an argument with his wife and arrived at the pivotal meeting an hour late, by which time the others had decided on a different course without him. Or perhaps he had a troubling dream that changed his mind? To take a different example – the assassin might have found his gun jamming at the crucial moment. Or someone had convinced the victim to wear a bulletproof vest? Or. . . well, the sun was in the perpetrator’s eyes. Etc. When what-ifs multiply geometrically, what happens to the notion of inevitability?
Question is, are the bipolar narratives gleaned from these different perspectives – the long and the short of it – merely a function of how historians assemble the facts? Or is it something inherent in history itself?
Let’s not forget the other meaning of the term bipolar. Are the historians emotionally disturbed? Or is history itself?
As the novelist Pursewarden wrote in Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandrian Quartet: “God is a humorist.”
I think I’ll leave it at that.