I came across an old text book from my highschool years portentously entitled: The Western Tradition, Volume II, by Eugene Weber. It’s a thick, stocky little book, a blue glossy paperback with a pointillist painting of 19th century men standing before a steel furnace which gushes lava-like flames into the tumultuous sky. Curious, I salvaged it from the pile and took it back to my room, where I sat down and read the Introduction, fully expecting it to be dry and pedantic. Instead, I found it erudite and intriguing.
While discussing History as a field of study, Weber says:
“Stendahl, the great French novelist, once suggested that the relationship between books and readers is like that between the bow and the violin it plays. The book is the bow; the violin that makes the sounds is the reader’s spirit or, if you prefer, the reader’s personality. With certain reservations the same may be said of history and historical documents…”
All is subjective; all is interpreted and the ideal of ‘Truth’ is illusory, or beyond human conception. The best that we can manage is the sweet sawing of the bow across our violins, performances that entertain and perhaps even illuminate and educate, but which perhaps ultimately reveal more of our own preconceptions, understandings and beliefs than those of the historical figures we read about. Proust looms: our understanding of history is akin perhaps to the exercise of our own memory. We seek to construct a solid, linear whole through which we understand our past and how we have come to our present, but this is but a utilitarian and shoehorned approach to something that is beyond our grasp.
If our sense of self is informed by our past, by our understanding of what we have done and what we have experienced, and those experiences are in turn subjective and seen through the myopic lens of our present understanding and fragmentary remembrances, then one must wonder if our sense of self is no more than our conception of history: a utilitarian and perhaps illusory construction that allows us to operate and exist, a convenient artifice with which we conquer the overwhelming complexities of life.
If our lives are tales, if our constructed memories are bows drawn over the violins of our souls and minds, than is perhaps one’s sense of self the richest and most tragically flawed creation that a human can conceive?