History in Three Keys Essay

History in Three Keys Essay Paul Cohen writes in his book A History of Three Keys that there are three different kinds of historical consciousness; history as an event, written by professional historians, history as an experience, based on people who were alive and involved with the actual event, and history as a myth, a manipulated past to serve in today’s world. This is the only way history is written according to Cohen, three distinct and very different forms of history.

He argues them while explaining the events of the Boxer rebellion in China. Cohen argues that the three forms are very different in their very nature and have no bearing on each other. History as a myth has a direct purpose. Cohen writes, “When good historians write history, their primary objective is to construct, on the basis of the evidence available, as accurate and truthful an understanding of the past as possible. Mythologizers, in a sense, do the reverse” (pg. 213).

I’d like to argue that although these forms of historical consciousness have their differences, they have a distinct bearing upon each other and are greatly intertwined. I’d say that historians and people with direct experience to an event distort history as greatly as mythologizers do. Take Cohen’s “history as an event” as an example. This kind of history is written by professional historians. Their job is to find the truth about the past. So the historian takes in all kinds of information and tries to make sense of it the best he or she can.

Taking the Boxer event, Cohen writes, “The Boxer episode, too, formed part of a plurality of larger event structures, including (but not confined to) the pattern of recurrent domestic violence in the late imperial era, the growing problem of rural breakdown, this history of conflicts between Christians and non-Christians from the mid-nineteenth century on, and Sino-foreign diplomatic relations”(pg. 9). He writes that there may be more reasons than the reasons mentioned, but why focus just on those?

By not mentioning all of the reasons that he’s aware of isn’t he skewing the knowledge presented to us? A historian picks and chooses what information to analyze. By leaving out some information it is also a form of manipulation and twisting the past. I think that this shows a direct link between a historian and a mythologizer, whose job it is to twist history for another purpose. The link between mythologizers and people who experience the past is even more unclear.

Many of the people who were involved with the Boxer movement were not interviewed, or had not given out information, till many years later. I think it’s safe to say that that information that was given out at a later date is far different that the information given out during the exact moment of the event. The memories the experiencers had could have changed drastically over the years, whether by the outside world view of the event, or their own personal change of thought.

Cohen believes that the people who were directly involved with an event take up a certain “cultural space” that cannot be described outside of the event. He writes, “Unlike the historian, whose object is to understand and explain, or the mythologizer, who draws energy from the past to accomplish purposes of a political or rhetorical or profoundly psychological nature in the present, the direct participant’s consciousness embraces the entire range of human emotions and goals” (pg. 64). The person involved understands everything about that time, and that understanding cannot be reproduced.

But because the Boxer incident involved so many different types of people, the Boxers themselves, the Christians missionaries, et cetera the “range of human emotions and goals” differs from one person to the next. So if a person retells their story of the Boxer uprising from their point of view, with one set of goals and emotions, couldn’t they be trying to manipulate the situation their way? If a person tells a story about their past, they are always the victim, or the hero. They are never the villain or the victimizer.

I believe that in this way, the experiencers are just as manipulative of the past as the mythologizers. If the experiencers place an angle on the past, and the historians analyze that skewed version of the past, than the analysis already has an angle put on it. It’s inevitable that no matter what kind of historical consciousness is being looked at, there will always be other angles, views, and reasons for events that are not being presented. Everyone writes, reads, experiences, or analyses history deals with as much manipulation as the mythologizer.

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