I’ve often thought of history as being like a series of rooms or interiors in which everyday life is played out and conversations turn upon the news – the now historic events – of the day. In contemplating the past, I’ve often turned to a quote from George Lukács who said that ‘the “world-historical individual” must never be the protagonist of the historical novel, but only viewed from afar, by the average or mediocre witness.’ When seeking to empathise with those who lived long ago, I have tried to re-see – and re-feel – historic events in terms of their everydayness, or their nowness; to see the events as a backdrop to the everyday world.
One can imagine a husband and wife sitting down to dinner, talking about the day; what such-and-such a person said about such-and-such another (names which we might find today clinging on to wearied graves, or tangled up in inky knots as unintelligible on the page as death itself); a folded newspaper rests on the arm of a chair, in which the news begins its slow absorption into history. A clock ticks on the mantelpiece.
Last week I read Patrick McGuinness’ memoir, ‘Other People’s Countries’, and came upon this rather beautiful passage:
“When I’m asked about events in my childhood, about my childhood at all, I think mostly of rooms. I think of places, with walls and windows and doors. To remake that childhood (to remake myself) I’d need to build a house made of all the rooms in which the things and the nothings that went into me happened. And plenty of nothing happened too: it’s The Great Indoors for me every time. This house of mine. this house of mind, would be like a sort of Rubik’s cube, but without any single correct alignment or order: the rooms would be continuous, contiguous, they could he shuffled and moved about, so that its ground plan would be always changing. Just as they build for earthquakes or hurricanes, creating buildings that have some give in them, that can sway with the wind or sit on stilts in water and marshland, that can shake to their foundations but still absorb the movement, so the rooms in the house of a remembered childhood take on the shocks and aftershocks of adult life, those amnesiac ripples that spread their blankness along the past. Trying to remember is itself a shock, a kind of detonation in the shadows, like dropping a stone into the silt at the bottom of a pond: the water that had seemed clear is now turbid (that’s the first time I’ve ever used that word) and enswirled.”