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History and the Human Condition
A Historian's Pursuit of Knowledge
By John Lukacs
ISI Books Copyright © 2013 John Lukacs
All rights reserved.
HISTORY AS LITERATURE
History — is it art or science? "History is an art, like the other sciences": a felicitous paradoxical epigram crafted by Veronica Wedgwood, a very erudite and charmingly modest English historian, not inclined to produce epigrams. Here my question is somewhat different. Is the writing of history literary or scientific? Is history literature or science? Well — it is literature rather than science. And so it should be. For us.
In the eighteenth century Veronica Wedgwood's epigram would have been a truism, since in that century people did not regard the difference between art and science that is customary to us. We have seen that during that time they saw history as a branch of literature. But we do not and cannot return to the eighteenth century. Our consideration of history is not a return to history as literature but a — somewhat — new recognition.
The emphasis is on letters and words. Let us imagine that at some future time the printed word may cease to exist (except in remnant books or microfilms or other reprintable devices). Will then a film, or any other series of pictures, reconstructing — or, rather, confecting — a then recent or past historical episode amount to authentic history? No, because it will be a necessarily complicated technical construction. History writing (and teaching) are reconstructions too, but their sources are authentic, from men and women who really lived, their acts and words being retold but not reenacted. And described and told in a common and everyday language, comprehensible to their writers and teachers as well as to their readers. History writing does not depict; it describes.
In the beginning was the word; and then the letter; and then literature. Does history consist of Facts? Yes, there are "facts." The house was burning. The dog did not bark. Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon. Napoleon lost the war at Waterloo. But "facts" have four limitations at least. One: for us the meaning of every fact exists because of our instant association and comparison of it with other facts. Two: for us the meaning of every fact depends on its statement, on the words with which it is expressed. Three: these words depend on their purposes. There are statements in which the "fact" may be true, but the meaning, the tendency, the purpose of its statement may be false. Fourth: "fact" has its history too. Five or more centuries ago the word fact (as also such words as objective and subjective) meant not what they now mean or are assumed or pretend to mean. Fact meant "feat," something done.
Words are not finite categories but meanings: what they mean to us, for us. They have their own histories and lives and deaths, their powers and their limits. Let us imagine (it is not easy, but imaginable) that at some future time human beings may communicate with each other mostly by pictures, images, numbers, codes. When words will hardly exist, people will not: but their consciousness of history, including their own history, will.
* * *
At this late date the recognition that history is literature, rather than science, runs against the determinable inclination to render history more "scientific" — all-encompassing, useful, concrete. The realization (which is not a re-cognition) that the historian must deal with subjects wider and deeper than the records of states and of governments and powers, with more and more people, had led to all kinds of erudite explorations, including social history at its best, but also at its worst. A move in former direction was the French Annales school, with superb historians such as Marc Bloch (killed during World War II in 1944) and some of his colleagues and successors producing valuable representations of small as well as large subjects ever since. But now read what the highly reputed French historian Lucien Febvre, once a colleague and then a successor to Bloch, write at the acme of his career, in 1949:
Like all the sciences history is now evolving rapidly. Certain men are increasingly endeavoring, hesitating and stumbling as they do so, to move in the direction of team work. The day will come when people will talk about "history laboratories" as real things.... One or two generations ago the history was an old gentleman sitting in his armchair in front of his index cards which were strictly reserved for his own personal use and as jealously protected against envious rivals as a portfolio in a strongbox; but Anatole France's old gentleman and all those described by so many others have come to the end of their curious lives. They have given way to the alert and flexible research director who, having received a very broad education, having been trained to seek in history material with which to look for solutions to the great problems of life which societies and civilizations come up against daily, will be able to map out any investigation, put the right questions, point to precise sources of information, and, having done that, estimate expenditure, control the rotation of equipment, establish the number of staff in each team and launch his workers into a search for the unknown.... In a word we shall have to approach things on a far larger scale.
Well — this was (and is) not what happened. During the past sixty years much excellent history has been written and is still being written not by teams but by individual men and women (and by "professionals" as well as "amateurs"), some of them using a computer and yes, many of them their index cards. So much for Lucien Febvre and his "new kind of history" — as, too, for Fernand Braudel and his "total history." Learned historians they, and not devoid of imagination; but, as the French bon mot puts it: faux bonhommes, not quite good men ...
However, they are not our problem. That problem is that the broadening of historians' perspectives so often led not to a deepening but to a shallowing of their craft. "Social" (and "gender," "economic," "religious," "intellectual," "sexual") histories are now manifold and rampant. Here is a — very random — list of articles and books recently published and reviewed in the American Historical Review:
"The Foreign Policy of the Calorie" (Cullather), April 2007
"Clockwatchers and Stargazers: Time Discipline in Early Modern Berlin" (Sautner), June 2007
"The Discomforts of Drag: (Trans) Gender Performance Among Prisoners of War in Russia" (Rachmaninov), April 2006
"Picturing Grief: Soviet Holocaust Photography at the Intersection of History and Memory" (Shneer), 2010
"From 'Black Rice' to 'Brown': Rethinking the History of Risiculture and the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century Atlantic" (Hawthorne), February 2010
"Thinking Sex in the Transnational Turn" (Canaday), December 2009
"Latin America and the Challenge of Globalizing the History of Sexuality" (Sigal), December 2009
"The Triumph of the Egg" (Freidberg), Annual Article Award, The Berkshire Conference of Women Historians, 2008
"Eye Appeal: The Politics of Sexual Looking in a Consumer Society" (Lindsley), winner of the Aldon Duane Bell Award in Women's History, University of Washington, 2008
"Orgasm in the West: A History of Pleasure from the Sixteenth Century to the Present" (Muchembled), 2009. Reviewed by James R. Farr: "This is a bold book by a great historian."
Alas! These titles need no further comment. Alas! They are not untypical. They prove how low much of the professional historianship, searching for subjects, has sunk.
But what must shock us involves more than the selection of such subjects. What are the sources for these kinds of topics? What are their evidences? The latter are, practically without exceptions, insufficient and inconsequential. Jacques Barzun said in the 1970s that the current practices of social history are hardly anything more than retrospective sociology. Now let me add that they are, often, not even that. Sociology, with all of its limitations, can be serious and valuable: an exhaustive (and sometimes comprehensive) study of a society or of a definite portion of it. But the above-listed examples are not that. They are attempts at a scientific sociography (which is almost a contradiction in itself). The aims of sociology is definition. The aim of sociography is description — whence it is, inevitably, literary and historical.
Literary, rather than "scientific." There is a concordance here (at least partial) between history and the novel. Just about every novel is sociographical; it tells us the things about people and their society in a certain place at a certain time. Not every history is sociographical: not every historical subject does necessarily include the description of a society of a certain time. But description is what they have in common. ("Description," even more than mere "narrative.") A choice of words, phrases, sentences, nouns as well as adjectives or adverbs, of significances and sequences, of meanings: choices that are more than stylistic — they are moral. There may be a moral purpose behind a scientific statement, but there is nothing that is moral or immoral in its mathematic accuracy. But the purpose of history is understanding even more than accuracy (though not without a creditable respect for the latter).
And this is at least one reason why historians ought to read literature, and even more than statistics: to truly widen and deepen their acquaintance with their chosen subject, but also to recognize that their main task is a kind of literature, rather than a kind of science. The converse of this desideratum has been stated recently by the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski:
I am not a historian, but I'd like literature to assume, consciously and in all seriousness, the function of a historical chronicle. I don't want it to follow the example set by modern historians, cold fish by and large, who spend their lives in vanquished archives and write in an inhuman, ugly, wooden, bureaucratic language from which all poetry's been driven, a language flat as a wood louse and petty as the daily paper. I'd like it to return to earlier examples, maybe even Greek, to the ideal of the historian-poet, a person who either has seen and experienced what he describes for himself, or has drawn upon a living oral tradition, his family's or his tribe's, who doesn't fear engagement and emotion, but who cares nonetheless about his story's truthfulness.
"His story's truthfulness." Ah! there the dog lies buried. (And there too the dangers lie.)
Yes, the state of academic history writing is bad, though not quite how this good Polish poet states it. There are still many historians (with their index cards). Zagajewski's exhortation is: "Literature! Writers! Get into, get with history!" My exhortation is the reverse: Historians! Get into, get with literature!
* * *
Well-written history is still being produced (and will be produced) by professional historians. More well-written history is, and will be, produced by "amateur" — that is, nonprofessional — historians. Because of this I must sum up something about the relationship of "professionals" and "amateurs" writing history.
Some things ought to be obvious. The distinction between professionals and amateurs writing history may exist, but it makes less sense than it does in other disciplines. A professional brain surgeon should perform a brain operation, an amateur not. But to say that a poet must have a PhD in poetry is an absurdity. To say that a historian must have a PhD in history is not an absurdity, but somehow in between the case of the brain surgeon and that of the poet. The other, related but also obvious, matter is that "amateur," that is, nonprofessional, nonacademic, noncertified historians have often produced excellent, on occasion magisterial books, better than those written by professionals about the same or related subjects. So we may go as far as to state that when it comes to history writing (and also to historical research), a distinction between professionals and nonprofessionals may exist, but it is not a categorical difference.
After all, the instrument of their craft is the same: everyday language. We have seen that in England the literary tradition lasted longer, and the consideration of history as a science came somewhat reluctantly later than in most other countries. But during the twentieth century the relationship between academic and nonacademic historians became more complicated, even in England. Professional historians have been (and often are) jealous of the public success of their amateur confrères, while nonprofessionals, on occasion, reveal a sometimes uneasy respect for established professionals. Yet in some countries, Austria, for example histories about the first half of the twentieth century, and especially about Hitler, are by such master historians as Friedrich Heer and Brigitte Hamann, who have no academic appointment. (Hitler remains a particular case. Of the almost one thousand books and biographies written about him, the best are not by professional historians, including even the excellent and conscientious Ian Kershaw.)
There are reasons for this. One is that the "amateur" historians are often more literary than their academic competitors. (In so many instances their love for literature led them to history, whereas for many academics their interest in history may lead them to consider, here and there, literature — but not necessarily so: their main interest may still be the reading of the works of other professionals.) Another reason (or, rather, condition) is that some amateurs may know more of the world — including human types — than do professionals, ever so often confining their lives within their academic circles. Here is an example that, in a moment, struck me like a splendid spark. In the second volume of his magisterial work about the Franco-Russian alliance of 1894 (The Fateful Alliance: France, Russia, and the Coming of the First World War, 1984), George Kennan described the chief of the French Army Staff, General Boisdeffre, better than Boisdeffre's portrait limned by no lesser novelist than Marcel Proust in Jean Santeuil. The latter was not at all a book about the Franco-Russian alliance; but Kennan read it.
Historians: please hear what Jacob Burckhardt told his (few) students in Basel, that history has really no method, but you must know how to read. (What, how, and when.) Three hundred years ago Lady Mary Wortley Montagu: "No entertainment is as cheap as reading, nor any pleasure so lasting." (The first past of this sentence is no longer so [television, movies] — the second, yes.)
In 1932 Christopher Dawson replied to Alan Bullock (in "The Problem of Metahistory"), "The academic historian is perfectly right in insisting on the techniques of historical criticism and research. But the mastery of these techniques will not produce great history, any more than a mastery of metrical technique will produce great poetry." "Bisogna saper leggere": poetry, anecdotes, jokes, all kinds of stories may help to understand a past.
So historians must read and know what to read — a knowledge and an interest and, yes, an appetite that will not only enrich their minds but guide and inspire their writing. In the long sad history of mankind, we know of a few genius poets and writers who read little. But good historians? No. Yet I know many historians who have deprived their minds and their research of their topics by ignoring the literature of that period. An acquaintance of mine whose main professional interest was British liberal politics in the 1960s consistently refused to read Trollope. Another acquaintance whose "field" was the Enlightenment did not read Tocqueville's Old Regime and the French Revolution.
Tocqueville is a good case in point. Those who occasionally recognized what he in the Ancien Régime attempted (successfully), who saw that in his going beneath the colorful surface of events he was doing something profound and new, were French literary critics, not historians. There has been evolution here, but even now Tocqueville is classified as a social and political thinker rather than a historian. Or consider his brilliant memoir of the 1848 revolutions (originally written only for himself and then discovered by a nephew forty years later in a desk). These Recollections of 1848 are exceptional in their perspicacity and style.
What happened, and what people then thought and perhaps still think happened, may be found in a variety of sources, in some places (and times) hidden, in others not. To search for them is, or should be, the unavoidable duty of serious professional historians. And even those among them who respect literature must understand that the quality (and even the style) of writing is more than a matter of literary technique. A historian (and a good one) once said to me that, yes, historians often refrain from employing adjectives that could enliven their narrative accounts. True — even though the mark of good writing resides less in adjectives than in verbs. (James Joyce in Dubliners: "She sat at the window, watching the evening invade the avenue.")
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