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The Nature of History and the Childish Wish to Read the Names of the Dead


My nephew, M., who is aged six, raised an air of hysteria amongst the female denizens of my household lately. He declared one of his wishes in life: he wanted to visit a graveyard. The women in the house took this news almost hysterically. They chastised him for wanting to visit the place of the dead. They told him that ghosts haunted the area. They criticised him from his macabre craving.

I asked the child why he wished to see the graveyard. He told me that his wish was in fact to be able to read the names of the dead on the graves.

Now, the child’s wish, beyond mere curiosity, is a wish that is the historian’s. The child wishes to know the dead and to do so by learning their names. And what else is the wish of the historian but to encounter the mind of the dead, the ultimate Others, and to learn about their minds? The wish of the child is not merely a personal wish, it is a wish that has been conditioned and prepared by society. The child, the would-be friend of the dead, has learnt his desire for the Other from the big Other, our society.

I was reminded by the child’s wish of an incident in his young life. I taught the child history, alongside his brother, at a war memorial in the park. On it was a list of names of the dead in the World Wars in the borough. In his mind, history is linked to the names of the dead, to writing and the identity of the Other, the dead. Hopefully, the childish wish to learn the names of the dead is perhaps the beginning of a life-long interest in history and the fulfilment of a curiosity began before the war memorial in the park.



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