The Use and Abuse of Australian History
By Graeme Davison. 
Sydney, Allen & Unwin: 2000
Pp. 326
$29.95 paper

Graeme Davison, in deriving the title of his third book from Friedrich Nietzsche’s 1873 essay ‘On the Advantage and Liability for Life of the Study of History’, has confirmed its author’s suspicion that the ‘quality of the historian’s mind becomes apparent whenever he has to express a general truth or restate a familiar one’. Hence, from Nietzsche’s opening pages, Davison extracts the triad of monumental, genealogical and critical approaches to the writing of history. From that point, ‘seeker’ and ‘epigone’ part. Whereas Nietzsche went on to meditate upon the historical, the unhistorical and the supra-historical, Davison is content with the three initial distinctions as headings under which to file data for a defence of objectivity. Nietzsche, however, ‘can imagine a historical writing utterly devoid of simple empirical truth, but which can still make the highest claim to objectivity’.

Nietzsche feared that his era suffered from an excess of historical information which turned his contemporaries into spectators of all times, not least their own. Davison, by contrast, sees a generation being deprived of history by managerialists and post-modernists, and blames critical history for the spread of cynicism. Nietzsche saw that fault deriving from the plethora of historical data. The difference between the two essayists is not over the quantity of history, but its source. Today’s excess comes from the mass media, so that Nietzsche’s ‘disconnected facts’ are now the news on the hour every hour. Davison’s regret is that the professoriate, Nietzsche’s adversary, is no longer in charge.

Missing from both Davison’s title and his essays is the element that motivated Nietzsche, namely, life. Apart from one sentence of quiet humour about the statue of Burke and Wills, Davison’s prose becomes animated only when he protests his own working conditions. His scepticism about Peter Drucker’s managerialist history is deserved, yet by treating the present as history Drucker came closer to Nietzsche’s quest for an ‘horizon’ that is neither telic nor terminal than does the academic who passes up his chance to experiment with literary form, say, by shaping his material into a travel guide through the ideas he has encountered in preserving environments, physical and cultural.

Nietzsche called his collection Untimely Observations. In eliding class, Davison is a man for these times. Hence, he sides with the Portland (Vic.) cleric who replied to an agnostic conservationist that ‘our view of history is people-centred and not object-centred’. Davison does not probe the parson’s people-centredness to see whether he would give the proceeds from the sale of his church property to people in need, or invest the money in another object. Davison shows no awareness of Walter Benjamin’s charge that civilisation is purchased by barbarism.

Davison’s wariness of theory means that his fourteen essays remain surveys of the literature. He finds that David Lowenthal’s contrast between history and heritage ‘oversimplifies their complex relationship’, but his own unraveling of their connection proceeds no further than this assertion of intricacy. He discusses place names without Antonio Gramsci’s hegemony, and mocks the authenticity of replicas without Theodor Adorno’s dissection of its jargon. Even at the level of extrapolation, Davison does not perceive how Genealogical Societies could contribute to prosopography.

Davidson is not adept at sustaining distinctions between different aspects of a process or the variant meanings of a term. By failing to recognise that saints are often redeemed sinners, he has trouble with heroes, such as Sir Edward Dunlop, who, though sometimes plastered, are not always saintly. Similarly, Davison has difficulties with myth because he does not delineate the false from the exemplary. This want of precision mars his treatment of his key concern, history. No sooner does he distinguish ‘history’ from ‘the past’ than he slips back and forth between history as it is written and the past as it is lived. For instance, his Conclusion opens by asking ‘Why does history matter? Not the past, mind you. The past … is always with us. In truth, the past can never be with us. Only our recollections of the past affect current judgements, as Davison elsewhere perceives. Confusion also follows his identification of history with ‘the critical, methodical, consecutive study of the past for its own sake’, for he immediately asks: ‘What is it useful for?’ If the past is to be studied ‘for its own sake’, how can it have any other use?

Davison treats history as an actor who ‘tells us who we are’, and is now ‘on the defence’, forgetting that it is historians who do these things, not a genre. After declaring that history’s ‘single most compelling feature is the narrative’, Davison puts into practice Nietzsche’s belief that happiness requires forgetfulness by not apologising for his editorship of the anti-historical 1888 bicentennial slice. But Davison writes of historians as ‘they’.