Digging through the archives can be a bit like trying to find your keys in a junkyard. You dig and dig for hours and when you’ve finally found something, you still aren’t sure if you’ve found anything. The dream for most of us is to find a stash of papers that have been totally forgotten and make something out of it. The trick is to make something from the sources and not make something up from the sources, to read the sources and not read into the sources. There have been a number of histories written that were more creative than sound.
Detective work always looks more interesting in the movies than it actually is. What it really involves is cobbling together a handful of scattered facts and trying to establish a pattern with them. It’s as much fictionalizing as it is truth-telling. We have a responsibility to tell the truth, but in those gaps where the truth falls out, we fictionalize in order to maintain the consistencies that make sense to us. This, incidentally, is also how we upright primates maintain our idea of the world around us on a daily basis.
When you get into the archives, it’s actually amazing how dull and unimportant most of the archived items actually are. We tend to think of our lives as much more interesting than they are, and the time we live as being far more momentous than it actually is. For the most part, our record is left in flotsam and jetsam, and most of the crises of our time thankfully amount to very little.
I think some people get depressed by this. I’ve read historians talk about pouring over journals of long-gone people who genuinely believed that the Fourth Lateran Council or the Citizen King Louis-Philippe would change the face of human civilization only to wonder if the things that seem weighty and monumental to them will also be revealed as trivial à la longue. (Answer: Yes) Maybe the end result of historical awareness is a sort of radical nihilism. Nothing is true, everything is historicized.
And yet, I see no reason not to take our dreams for reality. When I study history I am often amazed at the fecundate imaginations of human beings. We seem to have fictionalizing in our blood; we create these vivid and complex realities, all of them a little bit different from every other one. It’s not that any of them is necessarily wrong; it’s just that all of them describe only a small part of the world. When I see something as vast and complex as Catholicism, for instance, I don’t see the “mind forged manacles” that other non-believers tend to see. Instead, I am taken aback by the immense construction of centuries of human dreams.