Thursday, October 29, 2009

Read No History

Someone famous—I forget who but the enterprising reader can Google this—once said that you should read no history, only biography. I take that to mean a couple of different things. First, that biography is can be inherently more interesting than history, insofar as readers can relate more easily to the triumphs and tragedy of individual people than to the broad brush strokes of grand economic, political, social, and cultural processes that occur over long periods of time and overlap one another. Second, biography is in some ways more honest than history. Human beings are subjective creatures and life is experienced more than it is lived. That is to say, subjective experience may matter more than objective reality. Your life may or may not be easy or hard in relation to the lives of other people in America: yet how you feel about your life—your attitude about it, your personal propensity toward happiness or bitterness—is often more important than the objective or comparative reality of your situation.

The superiority of subjective over objective experience is debatable. What is not debatable is that there is a discrepancy between the general and the particular in history. For instance, America is in the midst of a severe recession. However, if one focuses on the lives of individual people rather than writing history, one might well find a subject whose individual life was one of economic success, a rapid ascendancy into a higher tax bracket, and indeed a move off unemployment and into the shrinking ranks of the fully employed.

In Russia, the paradox of biography and history is particularly unsettling. While you read about the millions of people who lost their lives to the Soviet police state, you know that many others prospered under it at any given time. Although workers as a class were oppressed under the Soviet dictatorship, many of them were given access to higher education and professional employment and ceased to be workers. Soviet history is so brutal and tragic, it’s hard to know whether or not to give any credence to the biographies of many Soviets who remained enthusiastic and supportive of Communism for a very long time.

One thinks of the death of Stalin, when, despite the fact that many in Russia must have secretly or at least silently hated the man, most Russians seemed to have mourned, shocked at the passing of a man they thought had embodied the virtues of the Revolution and had carried them safely through the German invasion.

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