One Semester Down

I just finished my first semester as a graduate student at Harvard, a semester that began with me standing in a bathroom, the night I landed, staring into the mirror and repeating the phrase “hello, my name is Henry—I’m a graduate student in History at Harvard University” at least twenty times. It never felt right. I fell asleep to “Once in a Lifetime” by the Talking Heads.

Now I’m on a flight back to LA. I’m listening to “Going Back to Cali” and thinking about all the freaks on Venice Beach. I just finished my last paper, a hulking 50-page monstrosity that sprawls over several topics and touches on problems I didn’t know existed three months ago. I’ll email it in when I get home. I’m almost home.

What did I learn? A lot. A lot of history, which I won’t bore you with, but also a little bit about what it means to do history at a high level. Two themes emerge. The first is that we stand on an incredible edifice built with tireless dedication and care by generations of scholars. The other is that the foundations of this edifice are in many places unstable, and the only person who is going to tell you when you are building your parapet on a castle whose foundation ultimately lies in the sand is you.

I also realized that I have a problem with trying to find the truth, with trying to find out what really happened. I don’t know if this is a problem with me and my scholarly constitution or just something I’ve picked up by reading too much critical discourse theory. Was there even something that really happened? I don’t know—I sometimes don’t know if I care. But I want to care. Otherwise, it’s just bullshit.

The problem that I’m having was put quite nicely by a friend of mine. He asked whether I could imagine the people I study—so long ago, and in that other country, the past!—as real people. As moral actors. I thought for a bit and admitted that it was very hard. He nodded. “It’s like they’re just little bundles of meaning,” he suggested, and I assented.

Bundles of meaning. Words on a page. Words on a page that can be logically fitted together in ways determined by rules of historical action that, on some level, determine what is and is not possible. Sometimes you realize that a rule can be broken—ships can sail in the winter!—and the pieces can fit together in new ways. But it’s just a semantic puzzle, and the task of the historian is to try to fit the puzzle together in the most aesthetically pleasing way without breaking any of the pieces. Sometimes you can tell when someone thought two pieces fit and forced them to, hoping no one would look too closely and realize a little bit of the meaning on one had had to be clipped to make it work.  

I don’t want to do that. I want to find out what happened. I want to evaluate arguments, and make my own arguments, based not just on what hangs together as a coherent elegant argument but on my best approximation of what actually happened and why. 

And that takes historical empathy. I have a hard enough time empathizing with other people today, let alone people in the past. Sometimes I sit there and I try really hard to think about what the person sitting next to me on the train thinks about the world, her life, her choices. Sometimes I try even harder to think about what Alaric or Justinian felt like waking up every morning. But I can’t. Was the floor cold

I am building the skills to be a great historian. How to find and read manuscripts, judge between differing interpretations of texts, and use the hottest new techniques of computational philology to discern how exactly someone meant a word. But I can’t imagine what it was like to be that person, and my great project must be to find that radical historical empathy. 

© Henry Gruber 2013