How Did “We” Become The Wonders Of Creation?

There are two ways of writing history, which I call “we” history and “it” history. The second tries to answer the questions, What actually happened, and why? The first, however, is only interested in “How did WE become what WE are today?” The “we” may be a value consensus, as in the Whig Interpretation of History as “a process of continuous improvement, culminating in Us”. (Yes, Fukuyama, I’m looking at you.) Usually, however, the “we” is a nation. I have been aided to understand this by the fact that, whereas “we” history died out in Britain around the Great War, perhaps with an exception for Churchill, in Norway it lasted into my own day.

“We” history is not really interested in what actually happened, and has absolutely no interest in what happened somewhere outside the national community. It is the antithesis of history as “one damn thing after another”, because it is utterly teleological. Or historicist, as Popper put it. That is, it conceives of history, not as a study of what happened, but rather as some sort of force, what the Germans might call Geist, that has an agenda – which funnily enough always promotes one’s own national group and not some other bugger’s group. Although valid generalisations cannot be made about a thing there is only one of, this does not stop the “we” writers, because their generalisations are really only pats on the back.

An extremely influential Norwegian historian picked up a line from a wartime poem by Nordahl Grieg and hung it on a series of radio talks and later written essays. The line lives on even now, being the name of a museum exhibition. It is “Slowly the land became our own”. What is wrong with this? It presupposes a known “we” that gradually took possession of the land. Whereas an “it” historian might retort that, had the one-damn-thing-after-another fallen out differently, there might not be a “we” now, or the “we” might be someone other than the “we” now speaking. There is nothing inevitable about it becoming this “we” that the land slowly belonged to, unless you believe in a World-Spirit that loves only us.

Similarly, the founding poet of the movement, Henrik Wergeland, proclaimed, “We must make Norway as Norwegian as possible”. So, then, Norway wasn’t Norwegian before your efforts? What was it then? Apparently you need a Wergeland to make something into what it really is.

I do not know for sure, but it would not greatly surprise me if “we” history is very, very strong in the Balkans and points east. I once got caught between a Magyar and a Romanian discussing ethnogenesis in Transylvania, and on the whole, I’d rather have another colonoscopy than do that again. It’s dangerous stuff, just ask the Ukrainians.

Another feature of countries dominated by “we” history is that people tie themselves in knots finding autochthonous origins for what is plainly imported. They do this the more readily because they typically know nothing and care nothing about what was out there to be imported or borrowed or imitated from other cultures in the first place. And for them, absolutely everything is uniquely national, expressing the miraculous genius of the Rutabagan people, blah blah blah.

I have, for example, seen Romanian wooden churches touted as the only ones in Europe, abolishing at a stroke of the pen all the Norwegian stave-churches; I have heard the musical instrument the ney described as native to Romania and Ukraine both, with no awareness that the instrument is also Persian and Turkish, the Turks being the colonial power for both at various times. I remember a Swede peddling a pure Old Norse explanation for why a horse-race held in medieval Uppsala on December 26 was called something-or-other with the word stephanos, in blissful ignorance of the fact that December 26 was (and still is) the Feast of St. Stephen. If such people tried to explain the Golden Arches in terms of pre-Christian Scandinavian art, with no reference whatsoever to any American hamburger chain, I should not be in the least surprised.

Posted on February 28, 2015 at 07:48 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: CULTURAL ODDS AND ENDS, Odds And Ends, Miscellaneous

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