Is American History Cyclical or Progressive?

It’s a classic historian’s question, but Ken Burns rejects it, insisting that “human nature is the only given.”
  • Transcript


Question: Is American history cyclical or progressive?

Ken Burns: American history is neither cyclical or progressive. There is an attempt in our desperate need to superimpose some order into the random chaos of things to see things as cyclical or to see things as getting better, but in fact, human nature is the only given here. It’s always the same and it’s got some very, very complicated things. The fact that we detect patterns is only because human nature is so much the same. We’re like tendencies. That means there is no hope that wars will disappear until human beings disappear. That’s what we’ll do. We hope it won’t be true, but it’s part of the nature and it’s going to take some real evolutionary progress before that isn’t the case. That people will fall in love, that they will be sexually attracted to other people inconveniently as well as conveniently, that will always be true. That people will… some people will always crave a kind of power over other people. That other people will accept power imposed on them by others is also true. So we can recognize cycles in American history. We can see progressive movement, but at the same time what it is, is just a series of events into which it becomes the artist of the historian’s or the combinations of both attempt to find some sort of narrative form on that either through a life or through a series of lives, through an event like a war, the Civil War or second world war to try to find something meaningful. I mean that’s all it is.

I think it was Tolstoy who said that art is the transfer of emotion, I would say love, from one person to the other. So let’s just say emotion—it does get half your audience terrified about the word love—that if it’s the transfer of emotion from one person to another what is that about? It’s almost a kind of courage. It’s almost as saying look Cezanne painted Mount Sainte-Victoire, the mountain outside of his small town’s bedroom window and he painted it over and over again as if to say here, here, let us find some steady place that we can know and to see its luminosity, to see it in different seasons, to understand it. It was the thing he returned to again and again and I sort of feel like I’ve made the same film over and over again. Each one asks the deceptively simple question who are we? Who are those strange and complicated people who like to call themselves Americans? What does an investigation of the past tell us about not only where we’ve been, that’s history most people think, but where we are and where we’re going because in point of fact history… The past is gone. We’re never going to get it back and those who want to get it back, the buffs, are nostalgic and sentimental. That doesn’t work, but history is the set of questions we in the present ask of the past and so it is informed very much subtly or not so subtly by what we fear, what we love, what we wish for, what we’re anxious about and therefore history paradoxically is very much about now and very much about the future. You can’t have a future unless you know where you’ve been. You can’t even have a present unless you know the sequence of movements that brought us to this present.

Recorded November 25, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen