The Problem with History

History professor Joanna Bourke invokes Auden’s poem, Musée des Beaux Arts (1938), in a well expressed review of two history books by Peter Englund and Max Hastings. With few exceptions (for example, Geoff Dyer’s The Missing of the Somme) I dislike reading historical accounts of wars, and history in general. The genre’s presentation as non-fiction, all the while oozing fiction makes me queasy.

Bourke quotes Auden’s words,

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a
window or just walking along.

Reading this poem years ago perfectly captured my difficulty with reading histories (and poems) about the horrors of war. Bourke goes on to say,

This is what disturbed Auden about the response of writers to the atrocity at Lidice: the flood of poems actually served to draw attention away from the people of Lidice and towards the swollen sensibilities of the poets and their readers. It was difficult to avoid the conclusion, he concluded, that “what was really bothering the versifiers was a feeling of guilt at not feeling horrorstruck enough”.

In concluding her review, Bourke correctly adds that both Englund and Hastings serve as war correspondents, and that,”it is noticeable that elaborate recitations on the horrors of war do not necessarily translate into a politics of non-violence”.