‘I hate the man, I can’t watch any of his films or read any of his books. I just can’t!’, a friend recently told me. Many are indeed finding it hard to separate the author from the work, especially when one or the other clashes with deeply-held views and beliefs. If an author has sinned in his private or public life, his or her work will be sacrificed. If the work appears to have sinned, then the man or woman will suffer the consequences.
We live through the age of identity, but not just one of identities claimed by individuals and groups who wish to gain acceptance and promote their own values and views. Ours is also the age of an identity crisis, one where the categories get blurred, and one in which the plurality of views are reduced to single, sweeping narratives. This is the identity crisis of those who cannot see the complexity of human history, the various rivers and rivulets which have fed into who we are as a culture or cultures today. Reductionism becomes the heuristic principle of discovering historical truth and establishing guilt or innocence in the present age. Historians are wary of offering causal explanations for historical developments and often show epistemological defeat before the complexity of the historical record. Yet, mythology has always been more potent than any historical enquiry, and more are won each day to the cause of reductionism. Many historians are unable to reach the general public (their books are too scholarly, too expensive, too arcane), and those who do bring historical ideas into the marketplace are rarely sensitive to the complications of the historical method. ‘Histories’ of everything have taken over the bookshops and everyone claims to understand how A led to B and then to Z. The vacuum left by professional historians has been filled by eloquent yet impatient writers, whose work hypothesis, if they have won, serves as both prologue and conclusion.
We rarely get to talk about the identity crisis of our own past. When Columbus is dismissed as a proto-imperialist, or at best, as an enabler of one of the most regrettable systems of exploitation the world has ever seen, we forget that our ability to cast judgment on him and on so many others along the same lines was made possible by Columbus’ legacy of exploration and discovery. Perhaps the time has come to bracket off bracketing off and to embrace the entanglement as well as the grandeur of human history. We’d spend more time sitting in discernment and less time standing in summary judgment.