History. That shared memory, sustained by the written word and whispered back to life by its remnants all around us. Did you know, as you stand with your Friday pint of craft beer upon the pavements of Southwark, that William the Conqueror’s men were burning, raping and killing on that very spot nearly one thousand years ago? Or that another thousand years earlier, Roman settlers prayed and traded and loved on a crossroads where you now ponder your own week? Do you think about how the Elizabethans – not so different from us – enjoyed the darkly unsavoury life on this freer side of the Thames? These people lived in the past, but they are right beside you. What does the separation of time matter, when you share the same space with your ancestors? If you are aware of history then you can enjoy the present even more.
Yes, I am being romantic. But not too romantic. This aesthetic experience of the past is a real phenomenon. In his book The Aesthetic Brain, neuroscientist Anjan Chatterjee describes how “bringing knowledge to bear on whatever we are looking at has a huge impact on our experience of seeing.” Specifically, we find the experience more rewarding:
“Late visual processing recognizes objects and the meanings and memories and associations triggered by these objects. Along the way from sensations to meaning, emotion and reward systems are activated.”
History adds this meaning, and we love it. The British Museum attracts seven million visitors each year, yet it contains mostly everyday objects. We do not usually take much interest in combs, but the one pictured above is different. There is nothing visually exciting about it. Its aesthetic value lies in its provenance: it belonged to someone living in the 11th century. And so this comb sits proudly inside a glass case at the British Museum, to be viewed at our pleasure. We find it rewarding to see simple objects knowing they passed through the hands of our forebears.
Even things which are beautiful in themselves can gain added value from historical meaning. For example, look at the little portrait pictured above. It depicts Victorian art critic John Ruskin, and holds two levels of fascination. First, examine its surface features, and it is a beautiful painting. The artist, John Everett Millais, took care not just to represent Ruskin himself, but also to achieve absolute realism in his rendering of the rocks and water that make up his surroundings. The result is perhaps more pleasing than reality itself. This is not all, though. It gets better. The second level of fascination lies in the peculiar history of this portrait. The artist described painting it as “the most hateful task I have ever had to perform.” The reason? During the many hours spent finishing the fine details, the artist Millais had fallen in love with John Ruskin’s wife, Effie. Sitting in the same room as this man who had vocally and financially supported his struggling beginnings as an artist, Millais was left to ponder the dark betrayal he was about to inflict by destroying his marriage and taking Effie for himself. Everyone involved in the affair is long dead, but this portrait remains. It was there, its very brushstrokes moved by perfidious hands. We are left viewing the same portrait as before. But this time mere historical knowledge has enhanced our experience of it.
Being near the objects our predecessors touched is the closest we can get to meeting them in person. Places too. The Victorian novelist Thomas Hardy once described himself as a kind of ‘ghost-seer’. The same expression appears in his writing, to describe those who dwell in romantic connection with the past. Reading the way Hardy renders yesteryear into near-poetry, it is hard to resist becoming a ghost-seer oneself. He describes the experience of first seeing Oxford’s medieval architecture:
“The saints and prophets in the window-tracery, the paintings in the galleries, the statues, the busts, the gargoyles, the corbel-heads – these seemed to breathe his atmosphere. Like all new comers to a spot on which the past is deeply graven he heard that past announcing itself with an emphasis altogether unsuspected by, and even incredible to, the habitual residents.”
History is everywhere. As Peter Ackroyd writes in his new history, “There is scarcely one spot in England that does not contain memorials of an ancient past.” But knowledge is the thing. We need knowledge to experience its allure. The late historian Arthur Marwick underlines the importance of history by appealing to the emptiness of life without it:
“Without knowledge of the past we would be without identity, we would be lost on an endless sea of time. The simplest answer to the question, ‘What is the use of history?’ is: “Try to imagine what it would be like to live in a society where there was absolutely no knowledge of the past.’ The mind boggles.”
None of us has a comprehensive historical knowledge which would enrich our experience of every place we visit. That is why we have statues, memorials and blue plaques. They gift us that knowledge, adding meaning and enhancement to otherwise plain spaces. We are enriched.
Must Rhodes fall?
A disturbing student movement puts this enrichment at risk. With a 2,500-signature petition, the group Rhodes Must Fall seeks to remove a statue of Cecil Rhodes from one of Oxford’s oldest colleges. They claim that its presence is “an open glorification of the racist and bloody project of British colonialism… As long as the statue remains, Oriel College and Oxford University continue to tacitly identify with Rhodes’s values, and to maintain a toxic culture of domination and oppression.” The principle is that we should censor these representations of history to prove we have moved on from it.
It would be a dangerous precedent. History is full of imperfect characters who deserve destruction under the same principle. We commemorate them with statues, memorials and plaques all over the country. But for the most part these statues were erected by admirers long dead. So their survival does not imply continued endorsement of their actions or philosophies. Instead, they serve a different purpose now. Even though those men and women who were respected in their own time might look bigoted to modern eyes, knowledge of them adds depth and texture to our experience of the history-infused world around us.
We have lived through a period of censorship not dissimilar to the kind proposed by Rhodes Must Fall. During the 16th Century Reformation, churches were sacked to enforce conformity with the new theology. Gloriously coloured windows smashed, sublime artwork burned, and precious tombs vandalised. We mourn that destruction now. Just when we could be enjoying a profound link with the beauty of our ancient past, we find that long-forgotten politics has snatched it from us.
Much better to live with our history. Today’s peaceful and prosperous existence is the unlikely result of a long, juddering journey. Representations of our imperfect past remind us of that, and enhance our present. Leave Rhodes standing. And everyone else for that matter.