A Review of Historical Consciousness, or The Remembered Past (Schocken Books, 1985) by John Lukacs
In the introduction to the new edition of his Historical Consciousness (first published in 1968), Professor John Lukacs observes of the body of academic historians, circa 1960’s: “They were interested in their profession, without paying much, if any, interest to the nature of their profession.” If there were some way that the historians to whom Lukacs refers could, like a class of recalcitrant undergraduates, be required to read Historical Consciousness and be tested on what they had learned, I am certain that the results of the exercise would confirm the continuing accuracy of Lukacs’s observation.
Historical Consciousness is an inspired attempt by a writer both passionate and disciplined to come to grips with the nature of historical thinking and what it means to us as men. A great many academic historians would be either unable or unwilling to make any response, positive or negative, to the book on its own level. For they do not grapple with ideas: they label and classify them; and they would be very hard put to find a familiar label for Historical Consciousness. It does not fit into any classification scheme that will cover the rest of the groaning shelf of books on the “philosophy of history” published in the last few decades. Lukacs has broken the rules. He has written, and even had the audacity to update and republish, a book about history that says something. Such a book is not supposed to be alive with ideas or to make connections with real life and authentic culture. It is supposed to be a ritual totem, known only to the Elect and by them to be labeled, not responded to.
I do not want to make my generalizations about academic historians too sweeping, for to do so would wrong many good men and women who do not deserve the characterization. It would also, unhistorically, ignore the differences of generations: Both older and younger historians are better than the generally execrable group that came to maturity in the sixties and is now early middle-aged. Nevertheless, in general, Lukacs is, if anything, too kind in his observations on the bureaucratization of the academic professionals. Not only are many of them not interested in the nature of history, a lot are not even interested in history—they either lack historical consciousness and imagination altogether or else consider it unimportant. Often, “history” at their hands reduces to a preoccupation with what historians have said—or even worse, what historians have said about other historians. That is to say, a good deal of what passes today for historical scholarship has as much relation to the real life of man as what Mrs. Smith reported under the hair dryer that Mrs. Jones said about Mrs. Green.
Thus, as the author remarks in his assessment of developments since the original publication, we have a strange paradox. On the one hand, historical thinking is in the blood of Western man, an inescapable part of his nature. Further, there is evidence of an increasing public thirst for history—history, in fact, is one of our few remaining means of making contact with reality amidst the frenetic vulgarity of American culture. (Witness the change that Lukacs points out in the standing of the concept of “old-fashioned.” Not long ago it was the sign of something not “with it,” to be shucked off. Now “old-fashioned” is a prestige term denoting the solid and real in a shoddy world that is remade daily.)
The paradox is that, on the other hand, despite the thirst for history and the centrality of historical thinking in our consciousness, academic historians have never been more irrelevant, incestuous, and unreadable. The public thirst must be satisfied by trashy novels or even trashier docudramas. Or by tours of government-managed historic “sites” overlaid with the canned patter of professional guides, who do for historical understanding exactly what the Big Mac does for good dining. This debacle is not in the least relieved by the periodic fads of fashionable “relevance” that sweep over the field.
What the author’s analysis holds up to an unflattering light is not scholarship; even the most esoteric and pedantic scholarship can serve a purpose and express a commitment. What is condemned is a lack of moral vision, a lack, to use a traditional term, of “vocation.” “They were interested in their profession” not “in the nature of their profession.” And, in this respect, history is only one example among many in a bureaucratized society where institutions progressively lose sight of their function as they increase their wealth, power, and consciousness of group interest.
It does not do to be too pessimistic. So far as history is concerned, there are hopeful signs that the creativity of the Western mind has not atrophied, but is rather seeking new channels. Lukacs has been early, though not alone, in pointing to and describing the re-assertion of historical vision that is taking place within literature. There are other examples, of which the works of Solzhenitsyn are perhaps the most conspicuous and persuasive. But this development is taking place outside of and even largely unknown to the academic historical enterprise.
Another hopeful sign for historical understanding, perhaps, is the republication of Historical Consciousness, which will increase the chances for the book to get into the hands of young scholars who are still capable of an earnest pursuit of meaning. In most cases their teachers are unlikely to go out of their way to bring this unclassifiable and unbecomingly passionate work to their attention.
Historical Consciousness deals fruitfully with most of the problems (sources, causation, generalization, objectivity, to mention only a few) that confront anyone who considers seriously what it is or should be to write history. Such a person will get answers, not pre-classified and conventional answers, but answers that will have to be wrestled with. If this review has meandered a bit, it is John Lukacs’s fault. His is guilty of having written a rich and promethean work in which almost every page has a tendency to send a responsive reader off on extended explorations of his own.