Nocturnal Metahistory, Part One
These two senses of history tend to generate a pair of antinomies with regard to how it is viewed. Looked at in one way, we can say for all intents and purposes that History consists of an infinite number of particular events, more than any mind could ever begin to retrieve, much less know. After all, History is not just the great wars, inventions and political movements, but what Napoleon had for breakfast before the battle of Waterloo, what sort of carpenter Jesus was, and what an anonymous slave was thinking about as he dragged giant stones across the desert to construct the Great Pyramid. Judged by this criteria, the overwhelming majority of History is not even remotely recoverable.
But although historians write as if they are dealing with historical facts, this isn’t so. No historian worth the name would operate in such a fashion, trying to additively assemble a thing called “History” by piling fact upon fact, and then calling the pile “History.” Rather, the historian is guided first of all by an intuitive sense that there is a thing called “History.” No one actually makes observations of the world and leaps to the conclusion, “ah ha, History exists!” Nor does the historian regard all historical facts as being of equal importance. Rather, historians again simply apply a sort of heightened common sense to pull out facts that appear meaningful or significant for any number of reasons, some explicit, others implicit. But if written history is nothing more than that, what good is it?
The nub of the problem is whether there is a spiritually real History anterior to history, whether History is on the same plane as history, or whether there is no History at all, and history is only something imaginatively derived in a posterior way by means of abstraction. In the modern world, there are many scientific rationalists and logical positivists who would maintain that History is simply history -- just a material process, a journey of many roads leading from nowhere to nothing. Likewise, academia is dominated by deconstructionist types who not only do not believe that real History exists, but that history is whatever they make it out to be. Nothing in History exists as an objective reality; rather, there are only subjectively biased historical texts concealing some ulterior motive, generally the drive to dominate and oppress others.
In the neo-Platonic view, History, the Aeon, is thought of as a sort of rotating, hyper-dimensional object that throws an illusory shadow we experience as history. When eternity breaks into time, it bifurcates into a left side and a right side, or more exactly a day side (the horizontal) and a nocturnal side (the vertical). In reality, History cannot be understood without reference to these horizontal and vertical streams.
The horizontal aspect of History is well known to us, consisting of the “stream of time” that historians dip into to retrieve facts, documents and events. Contemporary historian who focus exclusively on the horizontal have forgotten all about the vertical -- about the womb of History where things inwardly incubate before becoming events in time, and where events in time go to be “worked over” in the dream logic of the night. But all historians at least unconsciously operate vertically, in the sense referred to above. That is, they approach the historical enterprise with a “topdown” view which organizes their search and allows them to “see” what is significant in History (at least to them).
What does it mean to say that something has historical significance, that it is important? Only that the fact in question is a particular that illuminates, or is illuminated by, the values of the historian. But if that is true, then History has only the value given to it by the historian, and is only valuable as long as the illusion lasts.
Is it possible to look at this problem in another way? History had a beginning, of that we may be certain. Regardless of where you situate the point in time, there was a moment when a particular species on a particular planet violated all that had happened before, broke with nature, and “lifted” itself out the stream of mere duration, so that the stream could be observed. Up to that time there was only the stream, then suddenly humans discovered that they were “floating” on the stream that carried them along. By virtue of this fact alone, we see that we are not equivalent to the material stream. But at the same time, our lives are lived in and on the stream, and the stream appears to be antecedent to our having been there.
Since the selection of historical facts is guided by what the historian regards as important or meaningful, I would like to suggest that the most important historical fact is the presence of both history and historians, and what makes them possible, specifically, another dimension of History operating perpendicular to the horizontal flow of time: vertical history. This type of history is not a product of history, but is the origin of history, the basis of history, and the ultimate point of History. What this approach attempts to do is look at horizontal, exterior history for evidence of vertical, interior history.
The analogy with an individual person's history is exact. For example, patients come to therapy with a narrative of their past life, chronicling their experiences with parents, their education, their friendships, loves, passions, conflicts, etc. But as a psychologist, I am not so much interested in this horizontal narrative as I am of evidence of influences coming from a vertical dimension called the unconscious. All along, their lives have been shadowed by this unconscious, which has continuously created, shaped, sabotaged, or prevented events in the horizontal, even (or especially) if they have been completely unaware of it. Similarly, a historian is like a dreamer trying to interpret the dream, without knowing it is a dream and that he is one of its dreamers. Is it possible to be in but not of the dream called history?
The great discovery common to all religions is the existence of a vertical influence operating both personally and collectively, this one coming from a “higher” dimension rather than from the unconscious below. It is what the Book of Genesis refers to in mythological terms when it says that man was created in God’s image (in that we are “mirrors” of the One who exists outside horizontal time), or in the Gospels, where John the Baptist bears witness to the (vertical) light, when the spirit “descended like a dove” on Jesus. In fact, the figure of Jesus is regarded as the essence of the vertical energies deposited into horizontal time, or the “word made flesh.” What is salvation history but the attempt to look for the meaning of History in light of its ultimate vertical perspective, the “exclamation point” or (eschclamation point) at the end (or top)?
Time for human beings is not the mere abstract duration of physics, but the very substance of our being, the “form of inner sense," as Kant put it. The soul is a mysterious point of potential freedom in space, while the human species is engaged in a sprint toward the realization of this freedom in historical time. History is really only one great event: the attempt to become conscious and return to God, opposed at every step by deterministic forces on the horizontal plane and by lower ones on the vertical.
The time allotted to us is analogous to the shutter of a camera; it opens with our birth, allowing in the small amount of light we must work with before it closes and the universe vanishes. With that light we must enter our “dark room” and develop our conception of existence--what we are, why we are here, and what is our relationship to the whole. There are photographs laying around that others have left behind--scripture, books, images and institutions. Some of them were successful in capturing the Light, others only darkness.
There is so little time, but time is literally all we have: we must work while it is day, for the night cometh, when no man can work. Saying you have no time is logically equivalent to saying that you have no life, light or freedom. If you are not free, then your time really is nothing more than duration. And if you have no light, you are free in the illusory way that an animal is--free to be led horizontally by your instincts and learned behaviors.
Time. Freedom. Light. If you don’t have one, you really don’t have the others either. Your life is history.