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History and Myth in Romanian Consciousness

Lucian Boia

Introduction to the First Edition

Texte intégral

1Any intellectual project presupposes a prior definition of the concepts with which we are operating. In the present work we are dealing with history and historical myths. Let us be clear, therefore, about what we understand by history, and what we understand by myth.

2The word history has two distinct meanings, which the general public, and indeed many professionals, often tend to confuse. History refers both to what really happened and to the reconstruction of what happened; in other words, it is both the past in its objective unfolding and discourse about the past. These two histories are far from being equivalent. The first is cancelled out as one event succeeds another, while the second lacks the means to “resurrect” events in all their fullness. What we usually call history is our discourse about history, the image, inevitably incomplete, simplified, and distorted, of the past, which the present never ceases to recompose.

3In relation to real history, history as discourse presupposes a drastic filtering of the facts, their ordering in a coherent whole, the “dramatization” of action, and its investment with a well-defined sense. Real history is an unordered and inexhaustible deposit. Out of this deposit the historian (or, more generally, anyone who speaks about history), selects and orders. Historians are untiring producers of coherence and significance. They produce a sort of “fiction” out of “true” materials.

4The same historical processes and the same facts are treated differently, often very differently, according to the standpoint from which they are observed. School textbooks published in different parts of the world amply demonstrate the impossibility of history being the same for everybody. Many things contribute to the differentiation of the discourse: the zone of civilization, the cultural inheritance, the mental context, the historical circumstances, the training of the historian, and, decisively, the spectrum of ideologies. Ideological and political pluralism is inevitably translated into historical pluralism.

5Let us grant—for the sake of the demonstration—that it might be possible to establish the “absolute truth” of facts. Even then, their selection and their organization in hierarchy and sequence would still remain open to a variety of solutions. In reality, “facts” are themselves constructed by the historian, detached from a much broader context and set within an explanatory schema elaborated by the same historian.

6It must be understood that objective history does not exist. Indeed, not only does it not exist; it cannot exist. This is the end of an illusion that has been sustained and amplified by the scientism of the last two centuries. The “critical school”, convinced as it was of the historian’s ability to squeeze out of documents what Ranke called “history as it really was”, and Marxist theory, with its impeccable setting of all phenomena in a complete schema of human becoming, are the two extreme points attained by the myth of a perfect and objective history. “The historian is not the one who knows, but the one who seeks”, said Lucien Febvre. His effervescent dialogue with the past cannot possibly crystallize into a single truth, which would, in fact, mean the end of history.

7Indeed, the time for absolute truths has passed even in what were previously considered exact sciences. Contemporary epistemology has seen an appreciable infusion of relativism. It would be strange if history, which is in any case a less structured discipline than physics, were to continue to claim an access to the “absolute” which physicists no longer invoke.

8There is something else which sets history in a place apart. Physics is the exclusive domain of physicists; the gifted amateur who may occasionally stumble on a new theory generally counts for little in the dynamics of the science. But that is not how it is with history. History is not just the work of historians. It represents a privileged expression of the self-consciousness of every community or social group. Everyone participates, in one way or another, in the elaboration and endless adaptation of the stock of history which is imprinted in the collective consciousness. Oral tradition, literature, school, church, army, political discourse, press, radio, television, cinema—all are sources of history that act, sometimes in contradiction and with variable intensity and effects, on the historical consciousness. The professionals of history are themselves caught within the net. Their influence should not be underestimated, but nor should it be rated too highly. A historical novel or film may often prove to be more influential. A school textbook has an impact on an incomparably larger public than a masterpiece of historiography addressed to an elite. Nor should the resistance of historians to mythology be overestimated. Historians cannot detach themselves, at least not completely, from the “historical environment” in which they have evolved, with its stock of traditions and with the prejudices and constraints that it implies. The historian is fed by the ambient mythology and is, in turn, a producer of mythology.

9There is thus, at all levels, an inevitable process of mythologizing of history. Now that we have reached this point, it remains to clarify the second concept, by answering the question: What do we understand by myth?

10Myth is a fashionable word. Its ever more frequent use, and often abuse, conceals a high degree of ambiguity. Current usage and dictionary definitions suggest a wide range of meanings. Basically anything which deviates to a greater or lesser extent from reality seems liable to be called myth. All sorts of fictions, prejudices, stereotypes, distortions, and exaggerations can be brought together under this convenient label.

11However, this is not my conception. First of all, I do not see any inherent contradiction between the imaginary (in which myth my be subsumed) and reality. To distinguish, in the case of myths, between the “true” and the “untrue” is the wrong way of looking at the problem. Myth presupposes a certain structure, and it matters little, fundamentally, whether this structure incorporates material which is true or fictive, or a combination of the two. All that is important is that it arranges it according to the logic of the imaginary. There is a myth of Napoleon, and a myth of Michael the Brave. It would be ridiculous to reproach someone for using the concept on the grounds that Napoleon and Michael the Brave really lived! The mythologizing of these figures can be seen in the setting of real facts within a model which belongs to the imaginary (historical or political). When Michael the Brave appears as the forger of “national unity” we are in the presence of a process of mythologizing, for the simple reason that onto his real actions there is being projected the ideology of the national state, an ideology of the last two centuries that did not exist in 1600.

12The definition of myth which I would propose is the following: an imaginary construction (which, once again, does not mean either “real” or “unreal”, but arranged according to the logic of the imaginary), which serves to highlight the essence of cosmic and social phenomena, in close relation to the fundamental values of the community, and with the aim of ensuring that community’s cohesion. Historical myths, of course, involve the treatment of the past in the way described in this definition.

13As a result, not every distortion, adaptation, or interpretation is a matter of myth. Myth presupposes the extraction of an essential truth. It has a profoundly symbolic meaning. It offers both a system of interpretation and an ethical code or model of behavior; its truth is not abstract but understood as the guiding principle in the life of the community in question. The myth of the nation and the myth of progress, to name two fundamental myths of the contemporary world, offer in equal measure a key to historical becoming and a system of values which create solidarity and shared projects.

14Myth is highly integrative and simplificative, having a tendency to reduce the diversity and complexity of phenomena to one privileged axis of interpretation. It brings into history a principle of order, attuned to the necessities and ideals of a particular society.

15My field of research here is the Romanian society of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. I am interested in the way in which the ongoing elaboration of the historical discourse, examined at all levels so as to embrace (making appropriate distinctions but without any exclusion or artificial separation) historiography, school textbooks, literature, and political propaganda, has attuned itself to the evolution of Romanian society itself, with its spectrum of ideologies and projects of all kinds. I do not note every distortion or adaptation, but only those accents of the historical discourse that are truly rooted in the structures of a national mythology, those that give meaning, through the past, to the projects of the present.

16Romanian historiography is currently in a phase of necessary critical revisions, in which the relation between the imaginary and history cannot be evaded. The present study may appear unusual. In other historiographies there is no longer anything “revolutionary” about such a treatment of the historical discourse. The problem in Romania lies in the deep-rooted illusion of the objectivity of history, an illusion which communism, as the promoter of the unique and incontestable truth, only served to consolidate. What Guizot knew a century and a half ago—namely, that “there are a hundred ways of writing history”—does not appear at all evident in Romanian culture. A simplistic logic is in operation: either communist ideology did not substantially distort history, in which case there is no reason to give up the existing schema; or it did, in which case our mission is to establish the Truth at last! The fact that distortion is inevitable and truth relative seems to be hard to understand and accept.

17My aim here is not to demolish historical mythology. This does not mean that I do not reserve the right to point out the way in which certain historical and political myths are maintained artificially, and even currently amplified, which, despite the declared patriotism of their promoters, serves only to hold us back from what a large majority desires or at least says it desires: that is, the modernization and democratization of Romanian society and the integration of the country into European structures. Nationalist myths which carry an authoritarian and xenophobic message are not the best companions on this road. But, I repeat, there can be no question of the demolition of mythology as such. We cannot live outside the imaginary. The life of any community is organized around certain mythical constellations. Every nation has its own historical mythology. Nothing is more revealing of a society’s present and its chosen paths into the future than the way in which it understands the burden of its past.

© Central European University Press, 2001

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