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History: Why does it keep repeating itself?

Does history repeat or is it a rhyme, a repetitive cycle of same-same but different events?

The concept of history repeating was explored at the Byron Bay Writers Festival in a discussion between author Clare Wright and journalist Greg Sheridan, who, though very different, found they were also rather same-same.

Wright is also a historian and documentarian, and recently released the 2014 Stella Prize winning The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka. Wright’s primary interest is inquiry into the untold and rarely documented areas of history, or, “what we fail to tell”.

To Wright, the question as to why history keeps repeating itself hinges on an understanding these untold areas, while not widely documented, remain important, as the histories of people. In this way, history is a combination of memory and narrative.

Sheridan, foreign affairs editor for The Australian, has released a memoir, When We Were Young and Foolish. When asked if history repeats itself, he replied with Twain’s famous quote “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes”.

Sheridan explained he is “philosophically opposed to any form of determinism” and history is “constructed by thousands of individual decisions”. The common denominator, to Sheridan, is that history has shown human nature never really changes.

Wright was surprised to find she agreed with Sheridan’s opposition to history being determinant, being politically opposed on other fronts. However, their political differences were made clear as the session progressed, as was the left lean of the audience and its reception towards discussion of Australia’s political history.

By taking the view of history as determined, Wright believed people would become passive and complacent, not bothering to work towards change.

Wright gave the examples of women’s suffrage in Australia and the Eureka Stockade, illustrating the perpetuation of history does not have to necessitate the way things are. She highlighted that, at the time, the people involved in these historical movements did not necessarily know they would play an important role in shaping the nation.

History is written by those who win the history wars, according to Sheridan. He spoke about his Irish heritage, observing that while the Irish were often ‘the losers’ in history, they were the ones who wrote it – their stories and songs are the ones remembered and celebrated.

Similarly, Sheridan recalled, Gough Whitlam’s landslide losses at two elections did not stop the Labor party from winning the history wars and celebrating his legacy.

Wright agreed with Sheridan’s notion of history wars, but disagreed that Whitlam’s was not just remembered for his spectacular downfall, but for the social changes that he helped enact.

Wright concluded “history is a process of asking questions” and Sheridan noted that in writing his memoirs he often found much of what he remembered happening was actually false. There is a tension, then, between what is historical and what is based on memory. Perhaps the two aren’t so dissimilar?

In any case, history is not a static and untouchable aspect of human nature, and we are all involved in telling it.

Lachlan Rutherford is a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) student at Southern Cross University. He is writing his Honours thesis on David Foster Wallace’s fiction.

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