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History, bottom-up

Mark Camilleri:
A Materialist Revision of Maltese History: 870-1919,
SKS 2016

We create history while narrating it. Of course, we do not create past facts or events, but we do create their way of presenting themselves to us according to one or more theoretical frameworks. Facts are per se neutral. What historians do is encode the facts to determine the narrative value which they would like to give them.

Mark Camilleri’s new publication, his third, if I am not mistaken, is not only a good example of this but also a valiant, deliberate and intelligent attempt to propose the basic rules of a new encoding narrative for others to follow when dealing with Maltese history.

If what Theodor Adorno says in Negative Dialectics (1966: 295) holds water, that the “objectivity of cognition”, the “experience of real objectivity”, is more evident in the “unleashed experience” of humanity than in the “prepared facts of the positivistic scientific bustle”, then Camilleri would seem to be on the right track.

It is this ‘unleashed experience’ of the Maltese people along the ages, running counter to traditional historical interpretations, that Camilleri sets out to seek in this book. While doing so, he proposes a markedly Marxist and Hegalian set of rules on which such a search should, in his view, be conducted in order to grasp the Maltese people’s ‘self-consciousness’.

The book is a challenge to double check our history books

One must not be too rash to judge the book by its weight. It is a small book. Excluding the long though fundamental introduction, which amounts to 40 per cent of the whole text, we are left with a mere thirty-six content pages, along which, as the book title promises, we are to revisit more than a thousand years of Maltese history.

Of course, this is misleading. In the large part, it does not seem that Camilleri had any intention of doing so. What he seems to have wanted is to draw a few examples from various periods of Maltese history in support of his proposed revisionist theory.

He may or may not have succeeded. Speaking from a technical point of view perhaps it would have been better if he had placed the tune at the fore and the harmony in the background, instead of the other way round.

In other words, maybe it would have been more helpful to readers still unacquainted with his proposed theory if Camilleri expounded his theory to the full throughout the essay while drawing examples, and possibly much more than he did, from known history than focusing on the examples themselves and leaving the theory, presented so articulately in the introduction, as an almost imperceptible contextual leitmotif. Camilleri’s main score, it seems, is not the harmony but the tune. And the tune might just be missed.

This would be a pity. What Camilleri proposes is a thorough revision of the entire span of how Maltese history had hitherto been interpreted and presented to the public. He is not entirely breaking new ground in doing so though certainly, I think, the first to suggest such a revision on Hegelian/Marxist grounds. Camilleri himself gives credit to Godfrey Wettinger and his reinterpretation, though on different lines, of Malta’s Muslim period. He also mentions some others who were less audacious in this line of thought. Regrettably, he did not mention Frans Sammut who strove so much, still with relative success, to reinterpret Malta’s French period.

Put in simple terms, what Camilleri proposes in his materialist revision of Maltese history seems to be twofold: one is to take material conditions at any given time as the real catalyst for change rather than ideas or the apparently arbitrary decisions of the powers to be (both of which were subject to prevailing material conditions); and two is to take a bottom-up perspective when narrating history, thus being especially sensitive to those units of society which are small (though quantitatively large) and subordinate to the larger ones in the processes of organisation and change. Camilleri submits that this two-pronged objective is best achieved by adhering to the Hegelian/Marxist historiographical structure of thought.

All of this is quite novel to the Maltese context. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of books have been written dealing with our history, both by professional and non-professional historians, and yet almost none of them have taken this perspective or suggested as much. It also seems high time that someone did so since most histories, though possibly narrated with the best of intentions, amounted – as in the Muslim and French periods mentioned above – to nothing less than pure distortions of the facts. Indeed, the perspective, or, if you like, the explicit or implicit theoretical framework underlying such research works, makes all the difference. This is what Camilleri tries to drive home with this book.

As mentioned above, the examples he draws to illustrate his main theoretical point do not all stand up square and straight. Probably, the Sette Giugno one most of all. However, apart from the tune vs. the harmony issue which I mentioned above, the best parts of the book are probably those where Camilleri presents (in Chapter 4) new empirical research and previously unpublished historical information.

This has to do with the Occurrence Logbooks of the police stationed in Valletta and Floriana during 1909 through 1912, and 1918, in which, at the end of their shifts, officers wrote their daily toils and troubles. They are exceedingly interesting, fresh and revealing. For this alone the book is worth a read.

Of course, it is worth more than this. If anything, Camilleri’s work is an eye-opener to beware accepted interpretations of history which have become stale by repetition and a sort of historical dogma. It is also a challenge to double check our history books.

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