“If on a winter’s night a traveller, outside the town of Malbork, leaning from the steep slope without fear of wind or vertigo, looks down in the gathering shadow in a network of lines that enlace, in a network of lines that intersect, on the carpet of leaves illuminated by the moon around an empty grave – What story down there awaits its end? – he asks, anxious to hear the story.”
Italo Calvino, If on a winter’s night a traveller.
The above quote (which inspired the name of this blog) from Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveller expresses, for me, something of what it is to be an historian, a ‘traveller’ seeking an understanding of the past.
The historian stands at some remove from the scene of their focus we are ‘outside’, looking back on the past, straining our eyes against the shadows which will always obscure our vision to some extent – archival gaps, textual ambiguities, our own personal situations and beliefs, and so on. What we do actually see is ‘rarely pure and never simple’ as Oscar Wilde might put it. This is not only because of the limitations of the evidence or our personal biases, but also because the past is ‘a network of lines that enlace in a network of lines that intersect’. History has a texture, or rather multiple textures, and lots of layers – like onions and cakes. You could say that we are searching for stories, but that sounds like an oversimplification. It might be more appropriate to say that we are cartographers of the past, we are trying to trace out the lines of the landscapes of events, identities, changes, and how these connect and relate to one another.
Every map is different; two historians can look at the same topic or event and even the same evidence, yet they can trace two utterly different landscapes. And, to me, that is part of the beauty of what historians produce, our maps can be useful and impressive on their own, but they can also be placed one over the other to create a network of lines that intersect and enlace, creating a deeper understanding established from multiple viewpoints.
If historians are travellers then I am a traveller at the very early stages of my journey. (If you were to conceive of it in terms of Frodo & co’s journey from the Shire to Mordor I would say that I am currently somewhere in Bree, which is, incidentally, the name of the village where I grew up.) I am a PhD candidate and this blog is intended to provide a textual map of my reflections on my research and of what it is to “do” history. ‘What story down there awaits its end?’ – I don’t know, but it’s the journey that’s important.
P.S. I tweet from @monaob1.