Wednesday, February 20, 2008


I have always thought that history is, at heart, a literary subject. Here George Szirtes, author of some of the most sumptuous prose in the blogosphere, reflects on the poetry of exile.

But the past has made you. All exiles carry ghosts within them, those ghosts of first things, first real things, the ghosts of primary worlds. The smell of walls, the half-recognised noise outside the window, the taste of a madeleine. It is not nostalgia (if only it were so simple!) it is life crowding up from the back as well as from the front. People don't like it because the past carries obligation and responsibility with it. It can shrink you and bend you. If you don't want obligations and responsibilities and fear being shrunk and crippled you won't want much to do with the past.

And for me, this is history. The past has made us and the historian, like the poet, seeks it out and shudders at the responsibility that knowledge brings. This too is the theme of Christopher Hitchens' brilliant review that deals with the malign spirit of anti-Semitism, now rising from the stinking sewers of the past. It is the obligation that Deborah Lipstadt carried with honour.

Szirtes continues,

There is, most crucially, the ghost in language, the feeling that life haunts language in a ghostlike fashion, glimpsed now here, now there, offering a shudder here, a shudder there, but that when you put out your hand through the words to grasp it, it escapes you. Your hand passes straight through it.

The poetic enterprise - I have said this so often before - is not to do with prettiness or fancy talk. It aims to be the clearest, plainest speech available given the specific apprehension of specific events. Take a few words jammed together in a pattern that is close to heartbeat and song, and see whether those words can start becoming a house the ghost may enter and inhabit (but it's only a ghost in there, even so!)

And this is what the historian does. From papers and letters; from newspapers, pamphlets and journals; from long forgotten books; we conjure up the ghosts of the past, trying to breathe life into the dead. We fail. The dead are dead after all, but still they haunt us. The myth maker and the 'revisionist' try to exorcise the past through convenient lies; the historian builds an ornate residence for the phantom, so that it can inform the present with its tales. And, rather like Hamlet, we hope and pray that our ghost is telling us the truth.

(Hat tip to Will for the Hitchens and instructions to everyone else - read George's blog daily, it will enrich your lives)

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