I didn’t watch the Oscars on Sunday, but because I live in the world, I have heard quite a bit about them. Of course the big story was the kerfuffle over Best Picture (to which I say, yay, Moonlight! you know this without me saying it, but wow, you are a gorgeous movie!), but I find myself coming back to the very beautiful speech Viola Davis gave as she accepted her award. I adore her metaphor of what she wants to do with her job: exhume the stories of individual lives, of “ordinary people.” I’m not sure I’ve ever put it in quite those words, but that is absolutely one of the things that most motivates me as a historian. (I’m also fine with exhuming the lives of not-so-ordinary people, too, though, particularly since they’re the ones who tend to leave things behind.)
But I keep coming back to another line in her speech: “I became an artist… because we are the only profession that celebrates what it means to live a life.” I think I keep coming back to that because it brings up a certain tension I feel in what it means to be a historian. Historians don’t usually think of themselves as artists, really, even those of us who see ourselves firmly on the humanities side of the humanities/social science divide. We may try to be elegant stylists in our writing, but that’s not quite the same thing. It’s artistry, but not being an artist.
Perhaps the difference is imagination. Even if we don’t think of ourselves as aiming for radical or defiant objectivity (or even believing that objectivity exists), we don’t conceptualize its opposite as imagination. We are analytical, not imaginative. Of course we know that whatever the calls to teach or tell history as just “the facts,” facts rarely speak for themselves. A single fact lies there saying nothing—it needs to be linked to others, to be analyzed, in order to mean something. That’s what we do, and that is absolutely important. But sometimes there are facts that cry out not just for analysis, but for the exercise of the imagination in order to say anything at all.