Halton on the Human Element of History

Reflecting on a post entitled “The Spiritual Ground of History,” Charles Halton describes a poignant moment in his own research:

. . . as I was going through the cuneiform tablet collection that belongs to the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh. I was bogged down in trying to read from broken tablets and keep track of the accounts mentioned in the various texts when, as I held a 4,000 year old tablet in my hand, I saw a fingerprint. It was a powerful sign that reminded me that as I read the tablet I was not merely reading a “sheep text” but a record of the work of a real human being. Someone who probably enjoyed his work some days and other days found it difficult and frustrating. Someone with parents who loved him or was he abused? Maybe he had a wife and child at home and worried about feeding and clothing them and about buying a new house, and so on. This tablet was no longer just about sheep, it was about the humans who engaged in these tasks.

A few lines later he has this description of history from a novel:

in Julian Barnes’ new novel, A Sense of an Ending, in which this definition of history is attributed to one of the characters:

History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.

The whole thing.

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  1. Ah, history. I read Douglas Southall Freedman’s 4 volumes on Robert E. Lee at about he age of 9 and his 3 volumes on Lee’s Lieutenants around that same tine back in ’48, ’49, or ’50. History was and is fascinating. I had a living reminder of it in my grandmother who told me about her grandfather’s adventures in the Civil War. Years later I would figure out that the man suffered from PTSD. Sone has said history is never really past. After all, it does continue to live in memories and effects on others. One historian told me that one is never ready to write on a subject until he has read everything written on that subject (a rather humonous undertaking on some issues. He got me to doing research in church history…6 years and 3000 5×8 notecards later, I wrote a thesis in American Social & Intellectual History on one little period and subject in all of that vast research. It gave me insights and depths of understanding that I am persuaded can be had in no other way. As to understanding what you are recording, bring as few set ideas to the observation as possible. Truth has its own way of forcing one to change one’s opinion from utter falsehood to one that is more reflective of a fact-based understanding of reality. It is here that one begins to grasp that there is more to life than the ordinary secular perespectives suggest and imply. There is a depth of insights that originate in another realm and intrude into this one which we inhabit.

  2. Very interesting piece. The quote from the novel particularly resonated with me. I’m curious about your motivation for posting this, Jim.

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