Coming to terms with magic

Our age has found itself a historian concerned to save us from the new Year Zero illiteracy
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The Independent Online
History usually has a star, a writer who dominates the subject in the popular, if not always the academic mind. One generation had Macaulay, another had Taylor, and soon it looks as though ours will have Simon Schama. His books - particularly Citizens, his account of the French Revolution - are events. They sell and are discussed in the same sort of non-academic circles that are also likely to be discussing the latest Amis or Barnes.

But, like AJP Taylor, Schama has his influential critics, especially among those who resent his star status. As one admiring historian said to me, he has "an extraordinary capacity to rile mediocrities". And he does not, yet, have household name authority. Perhaps that will come with his new book, Landscape and Memory, accompanied as it is by a BBC2 television series.

The problem for the contemporary historian is twofold. First, a good deal of modern academic history has gone the way of modern literary studies - turned itself into an area of arcane expertise. The great appeal of history used to be that it told stories that happened to be true. But, as in literature, narrative went out of fashion and the stories were replaced by statistics and dull political commitment. Systems and theory replaced people as the heroes of history.

Second, the idea of history itself is under siege. Neophiles and techno- freaks have, as I have written here recently, adopted a Year Zero approach which rejects the past as a boring irrelevance when confronted with the thrill of the future. A younger generation has emerged which sees the present as a given, a stepping stone to the technologically enhanced future, rather than as an organic outcome of the past. In this they are backed by the politically correct who wish to eliminate traditional history as yet another example of the imperialism of the West.

Schama, to his infinite credit, addresses both these problems. On the one hand he tells stories as if his life depended on it. Landscape and Freedom is, in essence, simply a pile of stories so vast, so strange and so resonant that much of the time it feels more like an anthology than an individual vision.

But, more importantly, he is concerned to save history from the new Year Zero illiteracy. This, although he does not say as much, involves an assault on political correctness. At a personal level this cannot be easy. Schama teaches at Columbia University in New York, one of the American institutions most spectacularly crippled by PC do's and don'ts. There, as at a depressingly large number of other Western academies, a new self-loathing has taken hold. All that is white and European is felt to be tainted - either because of its racist or sexist overtones or because, and this is the issue Schama does directly address, the industrial West is thought to have raped the planet.

"For if," he writes, "the entire history of landscape in the West is indeed just a mindless race toward a machine-driven universe, uncomplicated by myth, metaphor, and allegory, where measurement, not memory, is the absolute arbiter of value, where our ingenuity is our tragedy, then we are indeed trapped in the engine of our self-destruction."

Schama likes complications. So do I - they make life worth living. In particular, he likes the complications that have accumulated over time to form the almost infinite number of layers, nuances and associations into which we are born. We are stuck with these layers whether we like it or not. As he writes in his closing pages: "Whether we scramble the slopes or ramble the woods, our Western sensibilities carry a bulging backpack of myth and recollection."

What Schama is trying to do is to find a contemporary way of coming to terms with magic. He does not use the word - probably because it would be academically and rhetorically disreputable - but when he speaks of myth and the strange accumulations of memory, he means all that cannot be quantified, easily defined or accounted for. He means all the irrational, arbitrary material that combines to constitute our sense of ourselves and of the world. He means magic.

His enemies are the simplifiers. In the context of this book they are environmental fundamentalists who see the Western legacy as simply an excuse for the domination and destruction of nature and who would take a single-issue axe to the West's fabulously complex tree. In an ecstasy of self-loathing, they wish to indulge a fantasy of nature untouched by the imperialistic ambitions of Western man - though probably not, to be absolutely correct, Western woman.

Such eco-fanatics are, of course, not alone. Cultural self-loathers can come to hate their past through obsessions with race or sex or, in the case of techno-freaks, with a world transformed beyond recognition by digital systems. But whatever the starting point, the conclusion is the same: history, meaning Western history, is a mess and now is the time to clean it up either by substituting alternative histories or by destroying the entire edifice.

Yet, wrong as such people palpably are, arguing against them is not easy. They have strong, simple, sound-bite slogans; the opposition, if it is to be honest, can only advocate nuance, complexity and the subtle virtues of memory.

And there is a further problem, as Schama acknowledges. Magic - myth in his terms - has a bad name. The Nazis were magicians and mythologists, they embraced racist irrationalism and a bizarre form of history. If memory and myth can play such tricks, maybe it is safest to stick to the mundane, mechanical truth. Perhaps, Schama suggests, those who would document myth and memory should be granted certificates of ideological purity to show that they are "not doing dirty business with the Devil under the pretence of learned work". Or perhaps all discussions of myth should be surrounded by "a cordon sanitaire of protective irony" to keep the subject in its place as an area of study rather than a functioning fact in the world.

The point is that we employ irony or dismissal because we do not "believe" in any sense. We find it almost impossible to ascribe contemporary significance to the eccentricities and imagery of myth. Schama's encyclopaedically documented tales of wood, water and rock may entertain us before sleep, but his insistence that they are still firmly connected to our lives is harder to accept. We do not build monuments in sylvan glades, we build National Trust cafs; our leaders do not think they are descended from Osiris, they think they're just like you and me.

But, writes Schama, "not to take myth seriously in the life of an ostensibly `disenchanted' culture like our own is actually to impoverish our understanding of our shared world." Substitute "history" or "memory" for "myth" and the point is even stronger. Schama is in the business of reclaiming memory in a world that wishes to forget. Failure in this task would do more than "impoverish our understanding", it would, as he is smart enough to know, destroy us.

`Landscape and Memory', by Simon Schama, is published by HarperCollins at £25. The BBC2 series begins on Saturday 22 April at 8.05pm.