History 297: 19th-Century Urban Chinese Death Ritual Literature Review

Paul Cohen’s Main Points in “History in Three Keys”

Prompt 2, September 19, 2017: Outline the main points of Paul Cohen’s History in Three Keys. 

Historiographer Paul Cohen argues that every history exists in three facets, experience, myth, and event – all of which are brought together by historiographers, and that what we as a society deem as “important history” may change over time.

Cohen argues that the purest form of history is the event. The event can never be understood by a historian or reader in the same way in which it occurred because the context simply does not exist. Historians often “impose a historical perspective that is alien [to the event itself,]” (4) as our writing is so often influenced by the culture in which we live. One might argue that it is easier to write about history in a homogenous society in which there is a set of commonly shared values because otherwise, it is easy to fall into a trap of merely retelling perspectives in an uncertain manner.

Secondly, there exists the history as experience. The experience is best told by the individuals who were present at the occurrence of an event. Historians may wish to discover primary sources such as journals or newspaper articles that detail says, what a Confederate soldier claimed he was fighting for, or what the daily routine of an upper-class woman in England during World War II might have been in order to understand why a cultural phenomenon may have occurred. Cohen chooses the Boxer Rebellion as his area of study, using the event as an “example”

Finally, there exists history as myth. The myth is the grander, more eye-catching facet of history that often takes the form of a movie or historical fiction work. Myth is a combination of the memory of those who experienced an event, and how an event has been told and retold through time. Memory is “constantly revising” itself, leaving social historians to “fill in gaps” that were not carefully recorded at the time of their occurrence. In order to demonstrate the role of myth, Cohen uses the religious fervor of the Chinese Boxers as an example. The Boxers were strongly religious, citing “spiritual possession” as an effect of drought and famine that they believed was caused by Christian Westerners. (74) As a result, many firsthand accounts of the Boxer Rebellion cite “spiritual possession” as a reason for certain chains of events. Are we, as historians, obligated to stay true to that tale? Or should we search for other explanations for an event, because our upbringing is not one that includes spiritual possession, demons, or other religious entities as real, valid explanations for phenomena?

Cohen further points out that as historians, we must be aware of the Rashomon Effect, which is the way in which a story is told differently by various individuals, even if each individual experienced the same event. Myth is often the story of an event that is most well-known or well-cited by the general public, however, it is also merely the history that historians write about, making it “fundamentally different from the history that people make.” (15)

Cohen raises various questions for his readers in regards to history in historiography. Cohen prompts the reader to contemplate what the task of the historian is, and how what historians write about may differ from the actual subject being studied. Further, we are forced to contemplate what the difference between bias and perspective is. Generally, “bias” refers to that which is unfair, while “perspective” is more neutral.

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