AB&H Dictionary: Is History a god?


Late last week, I visited the Public Records Office in Kew Gardens here in the UK for some archival research. The building – which is pictured above – feels and looks so much like a church that I suspect many visitors feel impelled to speak in hushed tones once they drive into the compound. After a few hours of browsing the records, I was struck by how common phrases regarding history’s opinions were: History will judge; it will absolve; condemn; favor; and even love…

This topic came up at my dinner with English acquaintances who regularly rub shoulders with their countrymen in high office. One of them revealed that the frequently issued media warnings of ‘History condemning’ one politician or the other are actually felt as a weighty moral judgment on a personal level. I tried to imagine a Kenyan politician suffering sleepless nights worrying about History’s judgment (maybe for ordering commando raids on a newspaper) and found it impossible to believe that it would even count as a mild concern. So let me suggest this: History in these Isles is a kind of god who influences behavior and condemns or praises with the Historian as priest or prophet. By contrast, for us in Kenya, and much of Africa, academic (written and stored) history is mostly an act of ideological recovery that attempts to break away from the European orbit (‘We are human too’ it says; ‘we also had kings and queens’; ‘look, here are the records of how badly you treated me’). It seems to me to be purely reactive, especially since most of our historians’ obsession with the history that they are trying to erect is merely a rebellion against the history as deity that they encountered in the Makereres and the Cambridges.

The PRO contains public records that span an unbroken period from the 11th century to the present. It is this mountain of paper, which of course represents an exceedingly small proportion of the human actions that occurred during those 1000 years that looms over today’s official actions. Its foundational assumption is of a linear progression, in which every (super)man has a role to play ushering a trans-generational narrative onward, higher, toward the end of the world (a heaven or a hell.) As has increasingly become the case, everywhere I look and much of what I hear in this most secular of societies is deeply religious; this being the case as well in socialist systems that retained the very same sense of an unerring march toward an end-point. How else could one justify such teleology when a truly secular system of intellectual inquiry would I think more accurately regard history as characterized by discontinuity, rupture and lacking in an inherent direction?

What of those who have ‘no history’ in the sense that their archives only carry records spanning a couple of hundred years, if that, and even the efforts of the oral traditions investigator yield little knowledge of life a few centuries ago? How fitting it should be that it is in the very societies lacking the massive backlog of records that religious feeling is at its most intense. Perhaps all those prayer sessions in Jeevanjee Gardens and in the thousands of Kenyan churches are about building a history and even a nation. ‘In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth…’ says the book of Genesis rushing onward to the creation of the world, of man and eventually of the nation of Israel which has been the idealized model for Christendom’s nations.

Whether indeed we Gentiles can graft ourselves into this history is supported by the epistle of Paul and Galatians which promise that Kenyan Christians can in fact become a ‘new Israel’. Perhaps this is why when I visit my grandma’s digs in Nyeri I encounter frequent signage on churches and roadside posters proclaiming a New Israel to be at hand. These in the context of history as a narrative with its spiritual beginnings and endings (parallel – and so perhaps inspired by – the birth and death of the individual) imply that the popular history of Kenya mostly exists in the charismatic and not bureaucratic-rational realm. Why I am saying all this? To merely suggest that the drive and the need for history in Kenya has found biblical soil to be more fertile than the archive and furthermore that this is what history has always been about anyway.

(I may also have written this post because I wish this to be so, so that I can stay out of the archives:-))

BTW: If you are not a Eastern European mercenary leading commando raids on the Standard Newspaper, and therefore frown on such antics, please send an email to State House Kenya (president@statehousekenya.go.ke) expressing your opposition to the events of recent days. Also, take a look at a great post in Thinker’s Room on the subject.

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About bulletsandhoney
I read my first book when I was three, then my second one a few weeks later. It has carried on this way for decades with only temporary distractions of eating, fighting, loving, heartbreak and other such irrelevant biographical details.

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