Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Gloom and doom?

As someone who had indeed spent a fair amount of time researching and writing about the darker side of human life, I thought there was much to think about in Mark Mazower's FT review of David Cannadine's new book. (Though I've not read the book yet and can't say whether Mazower is fair to it or not.)

Such as this:

It is true that many historians will find themselves occasionally pondering why they spend so much time describing human nastiness and so little on virtue or beauty. Yet the best example we have of a genuinely cosmopolitan history with an ameliorist agenda – Unesco’s History of Humanity – hardly constitutes strong evidence of its intellectual viability. On the contrary, it was way back in 1965 that historian Jack Plumb described one of the volumes in that series as having the effect of “an encyclopaedia gone berserk, or re-sorted by a deficient computer”. As for the European Union’s own efforts to fund cheerleading histories in the spirit of e pluribus unum, they have been a complete waste of money and certainly don’t seem to have furthered the cause of integration.

The Plumb quote alone is worth the price of admission; however, the rest is definitely worth reading as well, even if there is a substantial amount of history being written that emphasises 'virtue and beauty' and stresses some (at least long-term) good news about the human race.

Historians aren't really all that grim a bunch.


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