‘The Curse of Living in Interesting Times’, Historical Materialism, and the Synod of Brefi

Reflections on the need for historians to reflect on their own historical materialism.

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The story goes that there is a Chinese curse, wishing the recipient to live through interesting, or exciting, times. Like many oft-quoted nuggets of ‘wisdom’, the attribution has proved impossible to confirm, and likely false.[1] Whilst this pseudo-authority is probably largely based on early-twentieth century ideas about ‘the Orient’ (a backward belief in curses, and purls of ancient wisdom), that its use emerged in the years leading up to the Second World War,[2] and seems particularly pertinent to describe the first half of 2020, demonstrates something about how we perceive crises. That interesting times place extraordinary pressure on leaders seems so obvious it hardly needs repeating: normal ways of doing things are no longer possible or satisfactory, and decisions are required swiftly and with rapid execution. This stress, of constantly needing to adapt and find new ways of doing things, is something I have definitely felt taking on the position of School of History president.

‘Interesting times’ certainly have also affected us all as researchers. Superficially we have faced challenges, some certainly more than others. We have had to go without libraries, with their books, and labs, with their equipment. We all miss the comradery that both contain. We have learnt to go without the usual rhythm of university life, the ability to knock on a friend or supervisor’s door and have a quick chat. Social gatherings for ‘Friday Cake’ which once happened in the library collaborative space are now reduced to zoom calls. This is all on top of the personal burdens, of (mental and physical) health and family, that we have all struggled to carry over the last few months. A challenge is never a one-way street. These struggles, even if as as insignificant as being unable to get hold of journal article or bag of flour have shaped our perspective to different extents.

For the historian, who makes it their business to try to understand how people in the past acted in their own ‘interesting times’, a moment such as this for methodological reflection shouldn’t be overlooked. Historical materialism,  which at least indirectly informs a good deal of social history, is based in the idea that ‘it is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness’.[3] Often this principal is applied to justify the study of economic conditions, and linking them causally to social structures and ideology. However, we must also be mindful of what implications it has for us as scholars. Our social existence has certainly been shifted. Our movements, locally and further afield, have been restricted. Many of us have lost family members without being able to say fare-well. Some of us face financial uncertainty. These shifts in consciousness have indeed been mapped onto pre-existing differences in social existence. Restrictions on movement are more tolerable when pleasant surroundings are close on hand, working from home is more feasible in ‘professional’ roles, and the morbidities of Coronavirus map onto pre-existing health inequalities of class and race. Our consciousness has been shifted, and therefore so has our perspective.

This must serve as a reminder to the historian, that just as the past was material, so is scholarship. Whilst we might sometimes act like it, entering an institution of higher education does not grant us occupancy of an ivory tower on which to gaze upon our subject. Rather we are like the bishops at the Synod of Llanddewi-Brefi (itself called in response to the ‘interesting times’ of the Pelagian Heresy), pilling our garments together to form a mound, desperately trying to make ourselves heard. A few are like Saint David, who was able to miraculously act unaided by his material context: ‘the ground beneath him grew higher, rising to a hill’.[4] But most of us are not saints. Our viewpoints are shaped by the garments, our privileges and biases, which we carry with us and mound up. This cognitive baggage naturally weighs us down, and makes the desire of the good historian, to be able to look upon the face of the past upon its own terms, a lot easier to say than to do. However, having experienced probably the largest material crisis in the West in a generation (if not, since 1945), we must take stock of how the ‘interesting times’ through which we live influence our view of the ‘interesting times’ of the past.

Shifting our perspective shifts our viewpoint, and what we see.

Originally published on the Laidlaw Scholars Blog: https://laidlawscholarships.wp.st-andrews.ac.uk/2020/07/06/the-curse-of-living-in-interesting-times-historical-materialism-and-the-synod-of-brefi/


I would like to thank Lord Laidlaw, and all those involved in the running of the program at St Andrews, for making this opportunity available. A particular ‘diolch yn fawr iawn’ goes to Dr Alex Woolf, my supervisor, whose advice and assistance has been invaluable in my Laidlaw work, and the preparation of an article I am preparing for submission to a journal. I also would like to thank the rest of the Laidlaw scholars, who have provided a stimulating and cogent network of discussion.

[1] Fred R. Shapiro (ed.), Yale Book of Quotations , (Newhaven, 2006), p. 669.

[2] Garson O’Toole, ‘May You Live In Interesting Times’, The Quote Investigatory, Blog, 18th of December 2015, accessed online https://quoteinvestigator.com/2015/12/18/live/ (accessed 3/07/2020)

[3] Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, (Moscow, 1977), accessed online https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1859/critique-pol-economy/preface.htm (accessed 3/07/2020)

[4] Rhigyfarch, Rhigyfarch’s Life of St David, J.W. James (ed. & trans.), §49, §52, pp. 44-5.

The Illustration is my own work

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