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The old historian

  • March 31, 2018
  • Ana Luna San Eugenio

Please note that this is an automatic translation of the original Spanish entry. We apologize for any errors. We appreciate your understanding.

When the old man rose, after a short pause, the auditorium was again silent, expectant at the most eagerly awaited speech of the solemn closing evening of the History course.

—Are you satisfied, then, with your studies? —he asked, looking at the young people, relegated to the back rows of the bleachers.

A murmur of strangeness ran through the room. After the initial bewilderment, one of the young students dared to answer in the affirmative, although he expressed his regret for the general incomprehension he had received from his entourage for the decision to take that way. The student affirmed, not without a certain tribulation, that it cost him a great deal of effort to combat the idea that his studies were of no use. His companions, almost unanimously, nodded with understanding.

—In fact, those people are right —replied the old man.

The answer profoundly puzzled the audience, who undoubtedly expected an exciting speech in which the former professor made a fierce defense of the usefulness of history.

—In reality, the History that you write, or the results that you obtain when you carry out your research, will never be of any use. I know you will try to answer me with ideas about the value of life through memory, the survival of culture and the identity of peoples, or you may even resort to the cliché that history is the best method for not repeating the mistakes of the past. None of that is true. First of all, because the vast majority of the people who make up our world are not interested in history. And, unfortunately, most of those who claim to have a penchant for it are really only interested in a convenient myth from the past. And that’s natural, because the truth is an uncomfortable traveling companion.

The old man looked back at the student who had expressed his regret:

—Why do you think it’ s useful?

The student, surprisingly animated, said with great enthusiasm:

—Because it is our duty to those who lived before us and who fought to make today’s world better than yesterday’s world.

—Oh, what you say is an important matter, no doubt about it. But don’t lose the perspective of those who doubt the usefulness of their studies. What good are they to them? Absolutely nothing. Knowing precisely the circumstances in which the events of the past took place, remembering the work of the men of yesteryear or symbolically repairing the damage that went unpunished will not, in all probability, allow you to opt for a job or have a better car or a bigger house. But perhaps you believe that the matter is far above money, and you will think of supreme values such as Justice, honor or duty to the victims. And that’s a wonderful thought. You may even think of the usefulness of knowledge as a vector of social transformation. But History will not be of any use to you. For these matters, my dear young man, History is of no use because it inexorably succumbs to myth and propaganda.

The old man paused, but got no answer.

—Many of the things you are probably thinking about thrill you because of their closeness in time and the impact they still have on your life or that of your family. But there are two elements that will blur that impact, and that not even the most powerful History will be able to save: time and space. In two or three generations after theirs, when there is no longer anyone alive who has a direct relationship with that bloody war or that bloody dictatorship, no one will care at all about the most terrible killings or the most atrocious injustices.

On this occasion, however, several of the students managed to gather encouragement to refute the teacher.

—It’s very sad what you say —said one of the boys.

—It’s a really cynical thought —said another boy, who looked really disenchanted with the professor’s words.

—I agree with them —added a young student with some energy—. With this position, you are on the margins of injustice and suffering. History brings meaning to life. What can answer this to me? What can be more useful than giving meaning to life?

The answer came immediately:

—Let me turn around your question: what could be more useless than trying to give meaning to life? You say that you want to combat injustice or improve the world, but in order to do so, for some reason, you want to apply exactly the same mechanism that has produced injustices or tragedies: to use resources to achieve their ends. For this purpose, they will have to overcome the obstacles they encounter, and for this it will only be enough to provide whatever is necessary with a marvellous covering that is useful to justify an action or an omission. Oh, that is undoubtedly a path that can be very dangerous: if the time comes, if necessary, you will have it extraordinarily easy to turn virtue into vile or vile into virtue. To want to give usefulness to the useless is sometimes an innocent exercise, but it ends up breaking the essence of things. History is genuinely useless, just as our lives are. There is nothing more wonderful than the useless. There is nothing more magnificent than what is useless.

Before those words, a former colleague from the front ranks intervened:

—These good boys need to make a living. And what we are sure of, dear professor, is that uselessness does not give money. Giving usefulness to knowledge is not, I think, a dangerous path, but rather a convenient one.

—That sounds great, dear colleague. But it’s a deception, an artifice. You do not speak of knowledge, but of convenience. And History, on more occasions than many would wish, is deeply inconvenient. I agree with your concerns, but what you are referring to is something else. You would do well to ask that the name of this noble discipline be changed to ‘Convenient knowledge of the past’. In that case, it matters little whether it is myth, legend or history, because it will serve the same purpose. If so, will they hesitate to make the inconvenient convenient?

At the end of the evening, the old man met one of the young students in the courtyard and the two exchanged smiles.

—And you, why do you do this? –asked the old professor.

—The answer will probably seem rude and very unintellectual.

—I’ll be able to resist it.

—Because I want –she said with a slight smile–. Everyone I asked agreed to tell me that it was a gigantic waste of time and a mistake. But who cares about living his absurd time? If I have the opportunity to do what I want, why would I do what I don’t want for fear of having to do what I don’t want to do? It’s so elementary that organizing a discussion about it is grotesque to me.

—I understand what you’re saying, and you’ll imagine that I agree with you. But they will tell you that you may lose your bet and end up doing something worse than you could have chosen. The least bad choice of the bad ones.

The young woman meditated for a few moments before answering.

—“She could and she didn’t dare”. A great epitaph.

The old man smiled with satisfaction, and despite his notorious eloquence, on that occasion he only managed to say one word: «Thank you».

Cedrus Histórica is a non-profit academic and cultural organization based in Spain

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