If…we substitute a series of deductions, we are merely writing the history of the battle in our own way…
Well, Christmas was restful, as I cultivated the sense of being at home. Now it’s back to work.
I’ve been saying versions of the best thing I read today for a few years now, ever since, I suppose, I began to admit to myself that I love history perhaps as much as I love languages and philology. It was written by Hippolyte Delahaye, S.J., a Bollandist (and probably the most famous of the Bollandists), in 1907, in his book called The Legends of the Saints:
“If, the day after a battle, we were to collect the narratives of eye-witnesses, we should find the action described in twenty different ways while identical details would be related from the most diverse points of view with the same accent of sincerity. The extent of this information, the sentiments and impressions of the narrator and the camp to which he belongs, all affect his account, which is neither wholly false nor yet wholly in accordance with truth. Every man will relate his own legend. The combined result of these divergent narratives will again be a legend, and should we insist on disentangling the pure historic truth, we shall have to content ourselves with the two or three salient facts that appear to be established with certainty. If, in lieu of the remainder, we substitute a series of deductions, we are merely writing the history of the battle in our own way; in fact, we ourselves then become the creators of a new legend, and we must either resign ourselves to this necessity or elect to remain in ignorance.
The truth is that in daily life we are perpetually taking part in that unconscious labour from which legends are evolved…
“Every one is agreed as to the special difficulty of giving a precise account of any complicated action that cannot be taken in at a glance. It must not however, be assumed that putting aside these exceptional cases there is nothing more easy or more common than to give a faithful description. The truth is that in daily life we are perpetually taking part in that unconscious labour from which legends are evolved, and each one of us has had occasion to testify a hundred times over, how difficult it is to convey, with absolute precision, our impression of any complex incident.”
There is no simple recipe for good history.
And yet, simplicity is the first virtue of the historian. If we attempt to relate our own experience with our own voice, we will have been simple, even if our talents and discipline, or the immediacy of our experience with a keen understanding of it, lend an artistic complexity to our voice which nevertheless reveals rather than embellishes the beauty of the thing depicted, in the manner of a well-made portrait or a song.
We will have made a history that is good, serious, and true.
The image is truth, and it is for the historian, as it is for any other kind of poet, to hold the mirror up to nature so that we, instructed by his exhibition, may see the truth.