By Rana Dasgupta
Now that the BBC has started showing another new adaptation of Dickens, it is perhaps timely to publish this reflection on why so many people in the affluent West -particularly in Britain and America- continue to consume a version of the past as a static period drama
Though we possess more information about the past than ever before, our ability to imagine it is waning. Most of what passes for «history» is just 21st-century conversation in period dress. Of course there are still some great historians. At this point when the present is exhausted, in fact, the past contains crucial lessons, and «real» historians are producing some of the most important insights of all.
But the mainstream is primarily concerned with keeping the past safely in its place – since in reality it is beginning a terrifying and savage return. «Historians» who can neutralise it are therefore rising in social – and financial – value. Newspaper reviewers, who grew up reading great works of history, now recommend deliciously-designed books which offer the past as just another object of well-to-do consumption. The fatal, alien past, pregnant with other futures than what we ourselves represent – this has disappeared.
This morning I read a thread about the British empire. A “historian” was vaunting his “research” which proved, he claimed, that Britain had made India modern: fighting superstition and barbarism, introducing technology and efficiency, etc. Many commentators vehemently disagreed: the British were racist and had no right to be in India in the first place; any such achievements therefore meant nothing.
The thesis is tautologous. Britain was the main agent of capitalist modernity; if you judge historical progress by the standards of capitalist modernity, therefore, Britain will obviously excel. Here the “historian” fails the first test: are you capable of disowning the values you inherited from the victors of your story? Otherwise your history will always be rigged against the losers. It will also be monstrous: all violence will appear natural and good, because this was necessary in order to produce «you».
Particularly popular in declining Britain is the Downton Abbey approach: take 21st-century middle-class English people, give them picturesque clothes, big houses and outsized influence over the world. Leave them otherwise identical to the intended readers/viewers, for maximum narcissistic appeal (the same banal concerns, budgeted libidos, repressed hatreds, etc.)
But the anti-thesis is equally vacuous, because the dissenters are as incapable of imagining the pre-British world as the “historian” himself. They are not indignant about the princely granary systems whose destruction by Britain’s markets brought such catastrophe – because they themselves are entirely market-oriented. They are not entranced by India’s own, pre-existing, industrial modernity – because they are themselves the products of its destruction. In fact, they do not have any good «reasons» for their objections to British imperialism – except that it stands in the background to other conversations about race, and must be opposed on those, completely ahistorical, grounds.
Here the “historian” fails the first test: are you capable of disowning the values you inherited from the victors of your story? Otherwise your history will always be rigged against the losers. It will also be monstrous: all violence will appear natural and good, because this was necessary in order to produce «you».
By the way: this is why there is so little competition for far-right nationalists who mythologise the indigenous past. India’s prime minister Narendra Modi: long before foreign invasions, Indians had invented space travel, computers, etc etc. “Ha ha” cry the liberals with contempt. Possessing neither affection nor instinct for the past, they are so caught up in their own story of “progress” that they fail to realise it is just as mythological as Modi’s. It also has nothing useful to say about historical wounds – which is why Modi’s history is performing so much better.
Right and left appear to differ, but they are in full agreement, in fact, on the purpose of the past: to supply a trite morality tale. It has no existence independent of us, and though it may contain surprising details – every lavish new hardback tells us how “astonishing” and “unexpected” are its contents – it is, in essence, absolutely predictable and banal. It can never deliver truly significant revelations because it has been entirely domesticated by the present.
In the process, while the battles rage over how we should word our autobiography, the immense danger of our own moment escapes us. Now: if only there were someone who could tell us how to understand history…
Rana Dasgupta is a British novelist and essayist. He is a contributor of The New Stateman, Granta and The Guardian. He has written two novels: Tokyo Cancelled (2005) and Solo (2009). In 2014 he published the non fiction Capital: A Portrait of Twenty-First Century Delhi. Le Monde listed him as one of the seventy people who is making the world of tomorrow.