The Movement of History

The movement of history is heavy, and slow. The movement of history always takes place behind one’s back. As your gaze is fixed upon something immediately in front of you — the object of your anger, for example — history makes a slight, almost imperceptible slither, or shudder, in a direction of its own choice. The distinguishing mark of this direction is that it is not the one you had anticipated. How history does this is not known. Because history is made up of the will of all individuals taken together, because these oceans of individuals are mostly, or always, in conflict, the movement of history is at one and the some time tightly bound, and outrageous. . . . Study of the previous behavior of history does not prepare one for these shifts, which are discomfiting in the extreme. Nothing prepares you.

Donald Barthelme, “The Angry Young Man,” Guilty Pleasures (1974).

This most certainly true, “great men” trying to remake the world in their own image (and lesser men who consider themselves great) notwithstanding. I believe history is a fundamentally conservative profession for this reason, despite the fact that 90 percent of historians are liberals. The knowledge that there are forces out there with a will beyond individual human control should be humbling and disabusing of any utopian schemes, right or left. What makes us believe we can direct or fight history through the assertion of will? What evidence do we have that the world can be perfected? For course, this historical conservatism is a very different animal than the individualist libertarianism that passes for conservatism in the United States


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