On Tzvetan Todorov: A Personal Recollection

By guest contributor Richard J. Golsan

Tzvetan_Todorov-Strasbourg_2011_(1)Early one morning last February, I received a text from a friend in Paris telling me that Tzvetan Todorov had died. The text concluded with the word “Désolée,” which captures so well feelings of regret and sorrow, and also empathy. My friend knew that I had known Tzvetan for twenty-five years, that I admired him tremendously, and that from an intellectual mentor Tzvetan had become a close friend, whom I looked forward to seeing every time I went to Paris. Although I had known that Tzvetan suffered from Parkinson’s disease, and I had been shocked by his condition when I last visited him last September, I never really imagined that he would die, and so soon.


Devoirs et délices (photo credit: Seuil)

I first met Tzvetan when he came to Texas and stayed in my house for three days while he lectured and gave a seminar for the Interdisciplinary Group for Literary Historical Study at Texas A&M University. Unlike so many other visiting scholars of his stature who fly in, give their lecture, dine with faculty, stay at a nice hotel, and fly out the next morning, Tzvetan wanted to get to know the people he visited, and not just the academics. At my house, where he wished to stay even though we only knew each other through correspondence, he spent as much time talking to my wife and two sons as he did to me. Later, in his autobiography, Devoir et délices he would speak about how the birth of his first child changed his life as well as the trajectory of his intellectual interests, and it became clear to me then why he wished to spend time with my entire little family. For many years Tzvetan was married to the novelist Nancy Huston, with whom he had two children. In conversations he would refer to “my Nancy” and “your Nancy” when talk to turned to family and daily life at home. As so many of his works confirm, for Tzvetan, “life in common” with family and friends was the cornerstone of a rich and happy life as a public intellectual who was respected and admired around the world. In the first years I knew him I visited Tzvetan in his study in his apartment near the Bastille. His daughter Léa and especially his son Sacha were very frequently around, and his tenderness for them and attentiveness to their needs was always evident. Later when he had moved over to the Left Bank and we would take long walks in the Jardin des Plantes or chat in a café near his apartment, he would speak fondly and proudly of his children, now grown. His daughter Léa had become a documentary film maker, and at our memorial conference for him at Reid Hall in Paris this past July, she showed parts of a documentary she was making on Tzvetan during his last visit to his native Bulgaria. Unfortunately he died before the film could be completed.

In our many conversations we ran the gamut of family, politics, books we had read and admired, travels, and many other subjects. He was generous with me in every way—he offered advice on my life and career, told me of important events or debates in Paris, often before they happened. For example, involved early on as an advisor in the Livre noir du Communisme project—which was very close to his heart, given his youth in Communist Bulgaria—Tzvetan told me months before it appeared about the controversy it would generate, and what his own views were.

Tzvetan frequently expressed admiration for friends and intellectuals he admired, and was always circumspect about those whose ideas or views he disliked or found dangerous (in Devoirs et delices, he is open about his dislike of Jacques Lacan and André Glucksmann). Always seeking to live the role of the “responsible intellectual” rather than the “engaged intellectual” of which he was suspicious, he was cautious about the positions he took in the public arena. He wanted to make sure that they measured up to his high standards of being truly thoughtful and reasonable. He was, he told me, discouraged by the often shrill intellectual polemics in the French media. After he published Le nouveau désordre mondial, which obliged him to become involved in these polemics, he said he was done with plunging directly into heated controversies of the moment. He would later, of course, change his mind in the face of new situations and what he perceived as new dangers.

One of Tzvetan’s many qualities was his ability to sum things up with just the right phrase or observation, which he pronounced with a kind of sympathetic detachment. Once when I was overly dramatic in my estimation of the meaning and impact of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s first-round victory in the presidential elections in 2002, Tzvetan stated simply: “Joe, the world is not getting to be a better place.” The phrase, bracing in its simplicity, punctured my apocalyptic pronouncements on the spot. Near the end of his life, he told me that he did not despair of disturbing or even devastating global events and developments, because he did not believe in grand or overarching historical narratives that supposedly gave meaning to these developments while placing them in an imaginary and fictitious “grand scheme” of things. He believed that these crises or disasters had to be dealt with one at a time and on their own merits.

Tzvetan’s ability to capture things in their essence and their profundity was also apparent in more personal things he said to me. In summer 2012, he invited to me to lunch, a break with our habit of walks in the park or café stops. After a long and pleasant lunch in an Indian restaurant near Jussieu, he confided in me that he was worried that he had Alzeimer’s disease. As we left, for the first time he hugged me and said: “You have to promise to come see me next time you are in Paris, even if I don’t remember who you are.”


Javier Cercas (photo credit: Albin Olsson)

Looking back on our encounters in the last years of Tzvetan’s life, it was clear to me that his life was becoming increasingly difficult, and painful. His marriage of many years ended abruptly, and what he feared was Alzheimer’s disease turned out to Parkinson’s disease. From the wiry, fit man I had known he became thinner and moved with increasing difficulty. But there were things that he very much enjoyed. He had received an award in Spain, and as a result spent a few days with the tennis champion Rafael Nadal, who had also received an award and whom he found delightful. He began watching Nadal’s matches on TV when he could. He also told me of his meeting with the Spanish novelist Javier Cercas, author of Soldiers of Salamis, many of whose ideas he shared and whose company he enjoyed. His admiration for figures like his friend the ethnologist, Resistance fighter, and Nazi camp survivor Germaine Tillion, never waned, and he wrote a lovely essay about her in May 2015, when her remains were placed in the Panthéon, alongside other luminaries of France’s Republican past. Tzvetan also still found pleasure and comfort in his work, writing and completing his final book, Le triomphe de l’artiste, shortly before he lost the ability to type.

I last saw Tzvetan in September 2016, when we spent two evenings together recording an interview that covered his entire life and work. There were so many things I did not know about him, despite years of friendship, and this made the visit all the more moving. When he had come back to Paris the month before, after spending the summer with friends in the country while completing his last book, his condition had worsened dramatically. He could no longer leave his apartment, and had difficulty walking about. While the interview went on, friends called repeatedly to ask after him. His daughter Léa hovered discreetly about, and this appeared to please him a great deal.

At the end of the interview we said goodbye at the door. As I left the building I was frightened for Tzvetan, and yet it did not occur to me that I would not see him again. Now that Tzvetan is gone, however, in looking at his books on my shelves, and thinking back to Léa Todorov’s brief film of him in Bulgaria, I remember the man and his ideas. Despite the sadness of his demise, he lived the life that he wished for, and lived it better than most. His legacy, and the memory of his friendship remain, and that is some comfort.

Richard J. Golsan is Distinguished Professor of French and University Distinguished Professor at Texas A&M University. His most recent monograph is The Vichy Past in France Today: Corruptions of Memory (Lexington/Rowman & Littlefield, 2017). He also recently edited a collection of essays with Sarah M. Misemer, The Trial that Never Ends: Hannah Arendt’s “Eichmann in Jerusalem” in Retrospect (University of Toronto, 2017). Last summer, he went under the FHN spotlight. The interviews with Tzvetan Todorov mentioned above are forthcoming in South Central Review.

The state, and revolution: A site-specific view of centenaries. Part I: The revolution reshuffled: Statelessness and civil war in the museum

By guest contributor Dr. Dina Gusejnova

The introduction to “The state, and revolution” can be found here.

Museums and libraries are the kinds of places that promise to transport you to any other time or place. But some people experience their structure as a constraint on their imagination. One reaction to their static and state-centered character might be to give up on the structure of museums altogether and resort to watching films instead. It is not surprising that this medium was most successful in marking the first decade after the October Revolution—celebrating it as a leaderless movement, without an obvious protagonist and certainly no national teleology. In fact, most of today’s museums have embedded films in their displays. Yet if you want to resist path-dependent constraints in interpreting revolutions, films are hardly a solution: they are the products of fixed scripts, of a specially built set, narrative music, and so on. (October was first performed to the sound of the Marseillaise, before new tunes could be composed).

Is a museum of the revolution necessarily an oxymoron? As a type of space, most museums have the advantage of being physical sites. In such places, visitors can recognize what they thought of as ownership of the present as a mere tenancy, which places them not only in a subordinate relationship to the landlord, but also in an imaginary relationship to the previous tenants, who may even have left things behind. From then on, it is up to them how many degrees of separation they establish between themselves and this past.

The Russian Revolution exhibition at the British Library—its interior designed in the style of a grand opera set — is one example of this kind of possibility. The Communist Manifesto is placed at the entrance as a relic of one of the Library’s most famous users, yet it is as feeble a guide to the Russian Revolution as Rousseau had been to the French. If anything, the curators emphasise, the Manifesto discouraged the Communists of its time from transporting ideas of revolution to unsuitable locations like Russia. Like the gimmicky poster of a Bolshevik, it functions merely as a hook, because what you find instead of a party line is an aspect of the revolution as the product of a social process of intellectual contagion. Connoisseurs of magical realism will appreciate this opportunity to trace how the revolution as an idea “became” an event in and through the library itself. What sorts of studies in the library collections led Lenin, who, between 1902 and 1911 identified himself to the library as Jacob Richter, supposedly a German subject of the Russian empire, to call for a revolution in Russia six years later under the more ubiquitous pseudonym of Lenin? For Marx, contemplation itself had been a kind of action, since he preferred a Victorian library to the barricades of Paris. But where did Marx’s theories of how to “change the world” connect to the Bolshevik practices of terror and violence? The exhibition hints at the unlikely friendship between the Victorian library curator Richard Garnett, Dostoyevsky’s first English translator, Constance Garnett (his daughter-in-law), and the exiled Popular Will activist Sergei Stepnyak. Without connections like this, would Lenin have found sufficient reading material on “the land question”?

Finally, how did readers decide where to change the world? Ideas did not just migrate from book to book in a Republic of Letters, nor were they confined to their author’s “home” states. In a postwar world governed by new frontiers, visas, and immigration detention centres, it was the librarians who mattered. In the twentieth century, you are more likely to find a folio edition of counter-revolutionary thoughts than a revolutionary manifesto, but the exiled socialists made sure that ephemeral pamphlets also got collected. Lenin’s wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, had been a librarian in St Petersburg before the 1905 revolution, working together with Nikolai Roubakine, who is introduced in this exhibition only as a social statistician of the late Russian empire. As an exiled revolutionary of 1905, Roubakine had started a new library in Switzerland, which also supplied Lenin with reading material during this time of his exile.

Instead of a state withering away, the visitor is confronted with the notion of a civil war that is only “Russian”  in inverted commas. The protracted statelessness of the “white émigré” exiles in the West coexisted alongside a Bolshevik-run Soviet apparatus in the East, which was eventually signed out of existence in a Byelorussian forest with the Belavezha agreement of 1991, as Katie McElvaney reminds us in her timeline. At the end of the magic, there is also the reality of censorship. Apparently, in 1922, a British library consultant concluded that some materials calling for revolution beyond Russia were not “desirable to be released to readers.” We may not know if the Library caused this or any other revolution, but we can certainly see that it had tried not to cause it.

To get away from issues of representation to the memory of revolutionary action, however, I had to travel further, to Finland, where, in March 2017, Tampere University had organized a conference called “Reform and Revolution in Europe, 1917-1919.” Like many attendees, I was struck by the range of new insights into the Revolution that Russia’s former periphery offers, through the transnational perspective of the First World War in the work of Richard Bessel, and the concept of civil war as contextualized by Bill Kissane. Formerly an underdeveloped outpost of the Russian Empire, Finland had risen to the status of an autonomous Grand Duchy by the time of the Revolution. As such, it was the first post-imperial polity to gain sovereignty from the Russian empire, by Lenin’s decree—and to keep it, for the most part.

In the summer of 1917, Lenin was in Tampere as he worked on The State and Revolution. Eleven years before that, he had his first fateful encounter with Stalin here. The site of their encounter, a former Workers Hall, is the space for a newly redesigned Lenin Museum, which first opened here in 1946, under the close watch of Soviet authorities—one of the more visible effects of what is now called “Finlandization.” Its new curators have resorted to a combination between history and humor to tell the story:

Reproduced with kind permission from the Lenin Museum, https://museot.fi/en.php

The rest of the Lenin Museum has little to do with Lenin, and more to do with the history of Finnish democracy and the vicissitudes of European integration, after decades of civil war, partial Soviet occupation, and collaboration with National Socialism, before the gradual emergence of a Finnish brand of Social Democracy.

Seeing the city itself, surrounded by its stunning landscape, also offers other opportunities to reflect on how ideas might relate to the places in which they are formulated. How could this ethereally calming landscape inspire someone to work on a book called The State and Revolution? Could Lenin have instead become a twentieth-century Lake Poet?

9 Tampere Lake 1

Photo by Dina Gusejnova

10 Tampere Lake 2

Photo by Dina Gusejnova

11 Tampere Lake 3

Photo by Dina Gusejnova

As I walked through a working-class neighborhood of today’s Tampere, I noticed that its outer lake was still frozen, so I borrowed some skates to have a final look at the skyline: two days, two seasons. Lenin, of course, had missed the Finnish ice-skating season, with the revolution gaining speed in Petrograd just as the ice had begun to thicken. I thought about the remarkable contrast between the long-term outcomes of the revolution for Finland and for Ukraine—another imperial province, but with a much shorter history of post-imperial sovereignty, and an incomparably higher death toll in the twentieth century. This is a complex issue for historians, and one which, perhaps, will always call for the assistance of a writer like Vassily Grossman.

In the Labor Museum, a three-year long exhibition (2014–17) marks the cultural memory of the revolution of 1917 from the perspective of the Finnish Civil War of 1918, which the exhibition laconically identifies to its visitors as “a short, but traumatic and sorrowful period.” This exhibition is a unique, if slightly quixotic, place. The visitor will look in vain for any kind of partisanship here, with the Reds or the Whites, the Russians or the Finns, workers, peasants, or bystanders. What they see is a memorial to civil violence, a focus on human experience. It is challenging to try to capture a war inside the walls of a museum, but Tampere has clearly learned from commemorative practice in France and other countries, with their focus on reconciliation. The site of the museum belongs to one of the largest cotton weaving halls in the Nordic countries, Finlayson & Compagnie, a focus of socialist mobilization in 1917. The last Finnish factories were closed in 1995, but the company continues selling its products in Europe. Founded by the Scottish industrialist James Finlayson, it is also a reminder that a civil war always has not just local and imperial, but also trans-imperial dimensions. At the museum, I met social historian Richard Bessel, a first-time visitor to the city, and social theorist Rebecca Boden, who has recently moved there.

Rebecca Boden is a professor of critical management. She is interested in the effects of regimes of accounting and management on sites of knowledge creation, and the relationship between individuals and the state. She recently joined the University of Tampere as the Director of Research of the New Social Research Centre. Professor Boden also attended the conference “Reform and Revolution in Europe, 1917-1919,” held at the University of Tampere in March 2017.

I’ve never lived in this part of the world, and as a British person, I know very little about it. So what strikes me is how little people brought up and educated in Britain know about Central and Eastern Europe. I’ve felt ashamed about some of the questions I’ve had to ask about the Finnish Civil War, in terms of understanding this part of the world. And I suspect, during my upbringing, it was during the Cold War and the Iron Curtain, so Central and Eastern Europe as very much an unknown quantity to people in the West.

What’s interesting to me is, in Britain, you’ve got a reversal of trends in history. There is greater and greater interest in British history, especially British imperial history, and that becomes dangerously xenophobic, and insular, and parochial. And I think the thing for Finland is—and I can say this as an outsider, they never would, because they are quite humble, quiet, understated sort of people generally—Finland has so many interesting things about it, it is such an interesting geopolitical space, it achieved so much so well, that I am urging people to get to know the Finnish story quite urgently.

A lot of the quiet places—very far from anywhere, on the periphery, small population, very thinly spread—they have to move themselves to make themselves heard.  All the isomorphic tendencies, policies and practices and cultures tend to move in the other direction. And it would be quite good to have the quiet places listened to. But part of it is, the quiet places have to find their voice. And that’s partly what I am doing, helping Finland to find their voice and engage with the outside world in a really proactive kind of way.

Richard Bessel is professor of twentieth-century history at the University of York. He works on the social and political history of modern Germany, the aftermath of the two World Wars, and the history of policing, and is currently co-editing, with Dorothee Wierling, Inside World War One? The First World War and its Witnesses (Oxford University Press, 2018). In March 2017, he travelled to Finland to attend the conference on “Reform and Revolution in Europe, 1917-1919,” at which he delivered a keynote lecture.

I’ve never been to Finland, and it’s just a really interesting place to come to. And I thought it would be an interesting intellectual challenge to try to think about revolution and its relationship to the First World War, if not globally, certainly focusing more on Eastern Europe rather than on Western Europe.

I am finding Tampere very interesting, and … this is my first time in Finland! To be in a city which, as we see here, had such a fundamentally different history, with violence right in the middle of it. The differences, I just hadn’t thought about the differences to that extent. What in many ways looks and feels similar to Sweden, but then you scratch the surface, and you realize it’s not. And that surprised me, I hadn’t really quite expected that.

As I get older, it becomes more important both to me and also to colleagues: we talk about our families a lot. When I was younger, I wouldn’t do that professionally. When I was younger, we wrote history in the third person, and now we use the first person.

I’ve just been working through a book, an edited collection on ego-documents of the First World War, with a colleague of mine, which is also very much about the East and the South.

There is one question that I always wanted to get it on an exam, but nobody would allow me to do it. And the question is: when did the twentieth century begin?

Dina Gusejnova is Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Sheffield. She is the author of European Elites and Ideas of Empire, 1917-57 (Cambridge University Press, 2016) and the editor of Cosmopolitanism in Conflict: Imperial Encounters from the Seven Years’ War to the Cold War (Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming later in 2017).

What We’re Reading: Week of 7th August

Here are a few interesting articles and pieces we found around the web this week. If you come across something that other intellectual historians might enjoy, please let us know in the comments section.



Rudrapriya Rathore, “India’s Imagined Worlds” (Hazlitt)

Natalie Diaz, “A Native American Poet Excavates the Language of Occupation” (The New York Times)

Lauren Michele Jackson, “We Need To Talk About Digital Blackface in Reaction GIFs” (Teen Vogue)

Cyrus Schayegh, “Switch Cities, Decolonization, and Globalization: Singapore, Beirut, Dakar” (Medium)



Cord Aschenbrenner, “Albert Speer – Hitlers Architekt” (Neue Züricher Zeitung)

Elizabeth Bruenig, “Notes on Locke (against this critic)” (ESB).  

Anthony Madrid, “H.D. Notebook, Part 2” (The Paris Review).

Matthew J. Smith, “Overpowered: Control and Contingence in Haiti” (LARR).



“How The Kellogg Brothers Revolutionized Breakfast“ (Fresh Air, podcast)

Daniel Dreisbach, “Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers” (New Books Network, Podcast)

Dan Chiasson, “Susan Howe’s Patchwork Poems” (The New Yorker)



Larissa Pham, “Agnes Martin Finds the Light that Gets Lost” (The Paris Review)

On passion, professionalization, and the disciplinary and economic structures that scaffold the production of art and knowledge: Molly Nesbit with Jarrett Earnest, “Close Encounters: A Conversation” (The Brooklyn Rail)

Susan Sidlauskas, “On Graduate Education: A Primer (with Memoir) For the Art History Graduate Student” (Rutgers Art Review)

Sharon Louden, “3 Examples of Proactive Artists Creating New Opportunities” (Creative Capital Blog)

Miya Tokumitsu, “Completely Unprofessional” (Frieze)

In Memoriam, Judith Jones: Julia Moskin, “An Editing Life, A Book of Her Own” (The New York Times)



Steven Salaita, “A Few Thoughts on Leaving Academe” (Jadaliyya)

Alex Mayassi, “Of Money and Morals” (Aeon)

Gayatri Spivak, “On Teaching Reading” (ICLS Columbia, lecture abstract)

Suzy Hansen, “James Baldwin’s Istanbul” (Public Books)

John Hutnyk, “Marx in Algeria 1882” (Trinketization)



Marina Warner, “Back from the Underworld” (LRB)

Ian Sansom, “Jane Austen, on the money” (TLS)

Ariel Sophia Bardi, “The Soft Nationalism of Amma, India’s Hugging Saint” (LARB)

Lewis Lapham, “Petrified Forest” (Lapham’s Quarterly)

Ron Charles, “Stop dissing romance novels already” (Washington Post)

JHI 78:3 available

The latest issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas, volume 78 number 3, is now available in print, and online at Project Muse. The table of contents is as follows:

George Y. Kohler, “‘Scholasticism Is a Daughter of Judaism’: The Discovery of Jewish Influence on Medieval Christian Thought,” 319–40

Richard Serjeantson, “Francis Bacon’s Valerius Terminus and the Voyage to the ‘Great Instauration’,” 341–68

Melissa Lo, “The Picture Multiple: Figuring, Thinking, and Knowing in Descartes’s Essais (1637),” 369–99

Sasha Handley, “Deformities of Nature: Sleepwalking and Non-Conscious States of Mind in Late Eighteenth-Century Britain” 401–25

Timothy Alborn, “The Greatest Metaphor Ever Mixed: Gold in the British Bible, 1750–1850,” 427–47

Lawrence Cahoone, “The Metaphysics of Morris R. Cohen: From Realism to Objective Relativism,” 449–71

Guido M. Vanheeswijck, “The Philosophical Genealogy of Taylor’s Social Imaginaries: A Complex History of Ideas and Predecessors,” 473–96

Journal authors are always encouraged to submit a blog post about their article to JHIBlog—Timothy Alborn has already written “Gold Tried 500 Times in the Fire.” And if you’re a reader of JHIBlog, why not consider subscribing to the Journal? Subscription information is available at the Penn Press website, including information about special rates for students.

The state, and revolution: A site-specific view of centenaries (Introduction)

By guest contributor Dr. Dina Gusejnova

Editors’ Note: We are pleased to present a series of multi-media reflections on centenaries of the Russian Revolution by Dina Gusejnova, which will run for three weeks. The editors would welcome proposals for future audiovisual pieces.


2 GG queue Revolution

Entrance to the Revolution exhibition at the British Library (photograph by Georgios Giannakopoulos)

Since August 2014, centenaries have been hard to avoid. And there is no end in sight until at least 2019. London easily beats other European cities as the capital of European centenary-mania. A few years after the monumental poppies of World War I have left us, London has been truly taken over by the year 1917. Just as one ‘Revolution’ closed at the Royal Academy, another one opened at the British Library, and this is to name just two of the biggest public institutions. Revolutionary posters pursue you through the dark tunnels of the tube. Reproduced and sold on fridge magnets, notebooks, cushions and silk shawls, 1917 has become a family of brands.



Time itself has become a commodity—but not everywhere. You might think, with John Reed, that “no matter what one thinks of Bolshevism, it is undeniable that the Russian Revolution is one of the great events of human history, and the rise of the Bolsheviki a phenomenon of world-wide importance.” Not so in Russia, however, which shows no evidence of a five-year centenary plan, even though anticipated celebrations of the centenary and other anniversaries of the revolution had been an integral part of Bolshevik propaganda since the 1920s. Gingerly is not an adverb one would associate with any Russian government, yet this is the only way to describe the official approach to the centenary of the Revolution. How easy it is for the Royal Academy to tell the story of the revolution in and through Russian art from its futurist cradle to the GULAG, inviting the consumer to float out towards Piccadilly, supposedly breathing a sigh of relief!

In Russia, no major public institution has been in a rush to commemorate—despite the fact that a historian is now the country’s Minister of Culture, one who had participated in anticipatory discussions of the centenary only five years ago. To be on the safe side, Moscow’s New Tretyakov Gallery has put on a major art show devoted to the Thaw era, the age of post-Stalinist reconstruction and socialist consumer design. Access to the building is through the nearby park of discarded monuments, a tourist attraction dating back to the 1990s, replete with discarded Soviet leaders and Chekists, notably Stalin and Dzerzhinsky. But this is certainly not part of the concept behind the exhibition: Lenin remains unburied, and on the streets and in the Kremlin, the Chekists are alive.

4 Visitor at Revolution exhibit

Visitor looking at the exhibit “The February Revolution through children’s eyes,” April 2017 (Photo by Dina Gusejnova)

As for the Moscow State Historical Museum, located at 1 Red Square, the only revolution-themed hall it has so far opened is a special exhibition about the February Revolution, as seen by the children of one of imperial Russia’s last gymnasia, with most of the other programming done through discussion evenings and film screenings.

Its sister museum, the Museum of Contemporary History (formerly the Museum of the Revolution), did update its exhibition with a modern design, but the narrative leads nowhere: a few flags and caricatures here and there, some quotes from Lenin, more still from his conservative and Orthodox critics and—perhaps most jarringly—from Winston Churchill:

Version 2

Exhibition “1917-2017” at the Moscow Museum of Contemporary History, April 2017 (Photo by Dina Gusejnova)

To no state in the world has fate been crueler than to Russia. Her ship began to sink with the port already in sight. She has already experienced a storm, when all collapsed. All the sacrifices had already been made, all the work had been completed. […] Perseverance was called for; this is all that stood between Russia and the fruits of a common victory (trans. Dina Gusejnova).

Commentators have already discussed the reasons for the awkwardness about the revolution in Russia, and the way it reflects Russia’s current political situation. I have put it critically, but it is actually understandable: the British public appears in the role of a confident purveyor of another society’s crisis, whereas for the Russians, the crisis has never really ended. Marking a revolution can be nearly as dangerous a notion as making one. And how should a state mark an event which was supposed to lead to its withering away?

6 The state and revolution 1918

Title page to the first edition of Lenin’s The State and Revolution (Petrograd, 1918), published under the pseudonym V. Ilyin

By contrast to state-sponsored institutions, some of the most thoughtful reactions to the centenary have included translations of poetry and prose, reflecting a wide range of views in the revolutionary era, in Britain; and privately funded digital public platforms inviting visitors to identify their own position on the political spectrum of 1917, in Russia. In a poem composed in September 1914, the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam had written: “Imperial Europe! Ever since Bonaparte / was in the bullseye of Prince Metternich’s quill / For the first time in a century, we will / Witness your wondrous map taken apart!” (trans. Dina Gusejnova). Looking back towards 1814, Mandelstam did not see much of the twentieth century. Exactly two hundred years later, the map of Europe started to change once again, with Russia’s annexation (or re-annexation, as some might say) of Crimea. Tragically, instead of an exhibition to the memory of the First World War, in 2014 Russia had opened a new actual western front, and the conflict is still with us.

In 1922, Mandelstam had, once again, presciently exclaimed: “Beastly aeon, who will dare / Look you in the eye / Glue your back with their own blood/ Two centuries, bone for bone” (trans. Dina Gusejnova). And this was only in 1922! In that year, the fashionable English Club in Moscow, once frequented by Leo Tolstoy and other anglophile dandies, had just been requisitioned and turned into a Museum of the Revolution. It attracted foreign enthusiasts and revolutionary bien pensants such as George Bernard Shaw and Sidney and Beatrice Webb. By 1938, Mandelstam had perished in a camp, a fate which the translator Robert Chandler contextualizes in his evocative introductions to two hundred years of Russian poetry.

Among the most emblematic documents of later Soviet “horizons of expectations,” a term which Reinhart Koselleck made popular to describe past ideas of the future, is a children’s slideshow produced in 1960, which has recently gone viral online. In it, we can see how the state-sponsored media of the post-Stalin era had become increasingly optimistic about the prospects for the future. In 2017, they showed, the Soviet capital would embark on its preparations to celebrate the centenary, just as the world’s “last imperialists” self-imploded on a remote island, falling victims to their own weapon of mass destruction.

7b end of imperialism

“‘They have just reported,’ a meteorologist said, ‘that the last imperialists, who had been hiding on a remote island, have been testing the meson bomb [a type of nuclear weapon that Soviet intelligence believed was being developed by the Americans]. During the test, an explosion of an unprecedented scale occurred, destroying the whole island and causing turbulences in the entire atmosphere.’”

7c 2017 diafilm

“The meteorological station for remote weather control quietly floated above the city. The rejoicing capital was preparing for the 100th anniversary of Great October. These festivities coincided with the victory of Soviet science over nature.”

7d televidefon

“In the evening, Evgeny Sergeevich turned on his televideophone and called the steamer Kakhetia. His wife smiled from the screen, and Nina stood next to her and shouted: ‘Daddy, we’ve been having some nice, warm rain here!’”

As we know, things turned out differently: the “televideophone” belongs to the realm of the “imperialists”—and so does Russia itself; but the Georgian region of Kakhetia, once part of the Soviet Union, does not belong to the Russian Federation.

All too often, when we think about anniversaries, we naturally think about time. And yet thinking about space opens new prospects on our relationship to the past. After all, our political “horizons of expectations” and “spaces of experience” are rooted in a spatial imagination.

The more we see centenaries in geographical perspective, the more we recognize the diversity of views on this issue. The idea of a common commemorative mentality is a fiction: we remain divided in our attitudes to centenaries by place, generation, and so many other circumstances. The private, Proustian mémoires involontaires, the exposure to certain sounds, sights, sensations, or ideas, can overpower any official attempts to mold a common attitude to the event.

I have begun speaking about this to colleagues who had themselves travelled to different locations to engage with thoughts on revolutions and centenaries. I chose to concentrate my conversations around two contrasting spaces, the museum and the public square. Site-specific thinking about centenaries should not just be about cities or states, but also about spaces within cities and even houses. How do our thoughts change when we are placed in a museum, in a public space, in a private living room? How do we reconfigure our ideas of the past and its links to our present?

Dina Gusejnova is Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Sheffield. She is the author of European Elites and Ideas of Empire, 1917-57 (Cambridge University Press, 2016) and the editor of Cosmopolitanism in Conflict: Imperial Encounters from the Seven Years’ War to the Cold War (Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming later in 2017).

What We’re Reading: Week of 31st July

Here are a few interesting articles and pieces we found around the web this week. If you come across something that other intellectual historians might enjoy, please let us know in the comments section.


Zia Meral, “The Question of Theodicy and Jihad” (War on the Rocks)

Max Ajl, “Critical Readings in Political Economy: 1967” (Jadaliyya)


Michael Stahl, “A Sneak Peek Inside the National Comedy Center’s George Carlin Archives” (Splitsider)

Anna Kornbluh, “The Murder of Theory” (Public Books)

Maria Michela Sassi, “The sea was never blue” (Aeon)


Nicola Twilley and Cynthia Graber,  “Britain’s Great Tea Heist” (The Atlantic)

Roberto Suro, “Leave Emma Lazarus Out of It” (Politico)

Jenna Weissman, “Breaking the Ten Commandments: A Short History of the Contentious American Monuments” (Religion and Politics)

Alec Luhn, “Gulag grave hunter unearths uncomfortable truths in Russia” (Guardian)


David Horspool, “Theatre of cruelty” (TLS)
D. Graham Burnett, “Out From Behind This Mask” (Public Domain Review)
Bee Wilson, “I am the fifth dimension!” (LRB)


by guest contributor Benjamin Bernard

Editors’ Note: given the summer holidays, for the month of August JHIBlog will publish one piece a week, together with our regular What We’re Reading feature on Fridays. 

The mood was grim when literary historian Gilbert Chinard delivered one of five Trask Lectures at Princeton University. With sentiments similar to much of the hand-wringing of today, his colleague, philosopher Theodore Meyer Greene explained: “the whole world is drifting or being driven with ever greater acceleration into a state profoundly antagonistic to the values which the humanist method most sincerely cherishes.” Greene warned that this was due in part to “the deliberate activities of certain individuals and groups whose ideologies are monopolistic and totalitarian and who, in one way or another, have acquired autocratic power in our society.” Prefacing the edited collection of these lectures, Greene insisted that such men had “succeeded in arousing in their supporters a passionate and uncritical devotion to a ‘common’ cause. The modern scene testifies with tragic eloquence to the immediate effectiveness of this anti-humanistic strategy.”

That spring, Hitler annexed Austria.

Gilbert Chinard’s own transatlantic trajectory—born in France, he spent his career in America—mirrors the content of his scholarly work in a field he dubbed “Franco-American relations.” In what we might today recognize as an amalgam of literature, history, and international relations, he studied flows of ideas across space and time; but, alongside European intellectuals like his Mercer Street neighbor Albert Einstein, he also participated in a migration of his own. Upon Chinard’s hiring in 1937, after nearly two decades in America, The Daily Princetonian remarked on his “Franco-American accent.”

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Princeton bustled with martial activity. Some students and even faculty advocated that professors teach technical skills like engineering and military tactics in order to better prepare student-officers for war. Walter “Buzzer” Phelps Hall, the popular Dodge Professor of History and expert on Britain, advocated this position in The Daily Princetonian: “The war will not be won by propaganda; no wars are,” he wrote. History could only help “to a minor degree” in a war; he lamented that “those of us on the Faculty untrained in science and too old to act” were relegated to “guarding the treasured culture of the past.” The university surveyed professors in other departments to determine what war-related courses they might be qualified to teach. Many undergraduates opted for technical studies electives, like Professor Kissam’s popular aerial photogrammetry course, over humanities ones. Chinard’s department, Modern Languages, made a minor capitulation in order to resist more extreme changes. Around 1941-42, Princeton added a vocational French class that, even if only a summer crash course, was unprecedented. It taught a skill needed to prepare students for possible deployment to Europe: French conversation.


Princeton in wartime. Princeton University Historical Photograph Collection, Campus Life Series (AC112), Box MP208, Image No. 5496. From the Mudd Manuscript Library Blog.

Not all faculty and students, though, agreed with such changes. Chinard defended arts and letters on surprising grounds: their utility. He took to the pages of the campus newspaper on February 2, 1942 to respond to Buzzer Hall, to defend the humanities against practical pre-military courses. He argued that Americans needed critique in order to combat propaganda; without such skills, America could collapse just as France had. “Men can be well shod, clad and fed,” he wrote, but “unless they can analyze and disbelieve, in a crisis, rumors spreading like grass fire, unless they have developed what I would call a healthy Missourian attitude, they will rapidly change a partial setback into a total rout.” Old frontier skepticism serves here as a foil for a passive French imagination occupied by German political ideology. Rather than memorizing facts about the past, students should adopt a critical posture. Than the sword, he might have said, the typewriter is mightier. With wry understatement, he noted, “When Hitler’s mind seems to be obsessed by the memory of Napoleon, it may not be entirely out of time and out of place for the men who fight Hitlerism to know something about the French emperor.” Chinard’s colleague Americo Castro supported him, invoking a conceptual framework central to Chinard’s writings. “The war happens to be between two forms of civilization,” he wrote, “and people are going to kill or to be killed because they are fighting on behalf of a certain form of civilization. I do not think that there is any other place to learn what a civilization is except a school of Humanities.”

Chinard understood the process of humanist scholarship, “traditional” French culture, and the war itself via a common metaphor: as the slow accumulation and rarefication of virtue over time, leaving a stable precipitate. In 1940, Chinard had received a form letter questionnaire from Rene Taupin, secretary of La France en Liberté, a new quarterly of French refugee writers whose advisory board included Princeton’s Christian Gauss as well as Albert Einstein, Ernest Hemingway, and William Carlos Williams. Taupin asked: “Do you think that French culture can live under a Totalitarian regime?” Chinard replied in French on October 15, 1940, and took care to preserve a copy of his outgoing message:

Yes, without any doubt. All of history is there to prove to us that in a country with an old civilization, political vicissitudes cannot in any fundamental way affect the culture of the country. A political regime can snuff out a culture being born, or can prevent a still barbarous country from developing; it can make the superstructure disappear, or constitute an obstacle to the expression of certain ideologies. But what Louis XIV, the Jacobins, Napoleon I, and the none-too-liberal December 2 government all failed to do cannot be accomplished by repressive measures which, moreover, can only be temporary (Gilbert Chinard Papers [C0671], Box 12, Princeton University Library).

In Scènes de la vie française, his French culture reader for intermediate university classes, Chinard described his fictionalized, composite hometown in similar terms: “[My village today] represents the continuous effort of successive generations, tweaking themselves according to the era, but who always retained their essential traits.” Yet, turn Chinard’s historical tapestry upside down and it would tell a different, yet still intelligible, story: those same high-water marks of French culture—resistance to the baroque court, to the Revolutionary tribunal, and so forth—that Chinard interpreted as evidence for a liberal tradition could instead argue for an ancient French tradition of concentrated authoritarian power.

In light of this contradiction, I suggest that this intellectual and rhetorical position was fundamentally political. Chinard sought to understand this culture, how it developed, and how it interacted with American culture. His essay in the inaugural issue of the journal he co-founded, the Journal of the History of Ideas, serves as a useful exemplar for approaching the history of ideas in this political context. Social media-adept readers may recognize Chinard’s article from JHIBlog‘s Facebook cover photo. In “Polybius and the American Constitution,” he argued that while scholars rightly apprehended an intellectual link between French Enlightenment thinkers like Montesquieu and scholar-politicians like Thomas Jefferson, too little attention had been paid to the fact that the ideas thus transmitted originated in classical antiquity, for which Polybius and the notion of the separation of powers served as a convenient synecdoche. Chinard hoped that studying literature through the framework of the history of ideas could help make the case that, rather than the “dilettantism” of “mere questions of form… the framework of literary works… [or] the noxious and convenient divisions into genres,” studying literature could provide important raw material for understanding “the larger body of human intellectual activities.” His article underscores a particular vision of a politico-cultural heritage—in other words, a definition for true France, a concept over which French intellectuals with political clout sparred from exile in New York.

Bernard piece, France Forever membership card

Chinard’s France Forever membership card

The war reached him in many more ways, even in the relative haven of verdant suburban New Jersey. Chinard sounds indignant but matter-of-fact in his letters that allude these years. He resigned himself to never again seeing his in-laws: the Blanchard family remained in occupied territory. It would take him years to recover and renovate his country house in Châtellerault, where he had previously taken his family each summer. Although he did support the American Field Service and help find job placements for some French expatriate academics, these were not the primary target of his energies. He did engage in lecturing for elite east coast audiences and mobilized his political expertise to advise non-governmental advocacy groups like France Forever, a New York-based Gaullist organization presided over by industrial engineer Eugène Houdry.

Chinard seemed more troubled by broad political changes than by humanitarian concerns of refugee subsistence. Most distressing was the perception that an international disregard for Western values enabled authoritarian powers to trample on endogenous liberties. In one characteristic letter, he opined: “The Vichy government has allowed neither any journalist nor any neutral investigator to make a thorough investigation of the situation.” His disdain for Communism, organized labor, and a new, insular coterie of “depressives” coming to be known as “existentialists” is palpable. Instead, he located true Frenchness, in his advocacy for De Gaulle just as in his scholarship, in a particular constellation of ideas.

During the war, Chinard had the chance to implement his earlier writings about humanism’s instrumentality, which nonetheless met certain limits. As far as I know, Chinard never published an op-ed explaining how the reception of the image of Napoleon contained the key for defeating masculine authoritarianism. Yet I suspect Chinard’s pre-war sentiments about the value of studying the humanities, from his Trask Lecture of 1937-38, did not change much: that training in the “careful analysis of the elusive meaning of words… is an absolute necessity in a democracy.” Chinard’s individual influence is difficult to assess. What is clear, however, is that he contributed to a postwar liberal discourse that relied on a narrative of an ancient and Revolutionary political heritage. Wartime resistance and academic life found common cause under this banner.

A strategic dilemma for intellectuals emerges out of considering this historical moment. What if, by pursuing sweeping research into phenomena that we might take decades or centuries to influence, scholars inadvertently neglect present-day politics such that anti-humanist forces destroy the very institutions that enable their work? Theodore Greene remained at once resigned and optimistic on this point.

[Humanists] cannot, however, hope for immediate or spectacular success; they cannot avert a sudden social cataclysm, if that is the fate presently in store for us…. Now, as ever, our chief concern must be not the changing scene or the passing crisis but rather the nature of the human spirit in its eternal quest for enduring values.

For Chinard, at least, these words fell short of the role he would eventually play. He struck a balance between pursuing an ambitious intellectual research agenda and speaking to the urgent political issues of his day, engaging in work on multiple time scales.

Benjamin Bernard is a Ph.D candidate in the History Department at Princeton University, where he studies early modern European history. His dissertation investigates moral reform in France circa 1700. Elements of this research were first presented at the “So Well Remembered” conference organized by Neil Safier at the John Carter Brown Library in April 2017. All translations are the author’s.

Contested Masculinities in the Australian 1950s

by guest contributor Chelsea Barnett

In The Shiralee, a 1957 Australian film, Jim ‘Mac’ Macauley is locked in a fierce and bitter battle with his estranged wife, Marge, over custody of their daughter, Buster. For months, Buster has accompanied her swagman father as he roams around the country, looking for short- or long-term contract work. Mac wishes to retain care of Buster, while Marge wants to take her back to Sydney; each are motivated primarily by spite and hostility toward the other. In one particularly tense verbal spat between the estranged pair, Marge says something to Mac that especially stings: “You think the life you lead’s fit for a kid? You make me sick. It’s a dog’s life, even the kid herself would tell you.” Mac startles; Marge has clearly struck a nerve. Both are well aware that the swagman’s life, lived on the open road, is a far cry from the suburban frontier of the Australian 1950s. But Mac is a swagman, uncomfortable living in the confines of Australia’s cities and suburbs. Unable to continue raising his daughter on the road, not wanting to live with her in the suburbs, and not wanting to relinquish custody to Marge, Mac is caught between the expectations of conventional, postwar middle-class fatherhood, and the expectations of the itinerant, rural bushman.

While Mac’s struggle between these competing masculine types drives the narrative progression of The Shiralee, it also points to the broader tension that was circulating in the cultural world of the Australian 1950s, particularly in relation to understandings of masculinity. The difficulty Mac faces in his attempt to reconcile these competing expectations of fatherhood is precisely because these masculinities both functioned with legitimacy in the aftermath of World War Two and the beginning of the Cold War. While powerful, enduring popular memories mean that this period continues to be understood as the peak for the proliferation of the suburban dream or, alternatively, a time of oppressive gender roles and politics, clearly there was more underway than this dichotomous narrative suggests. Others have identified the social and political changes and transformations that punctuated the era; here, I turn to the cultural world.[1] I argue that the cultural landscape of the Australian 1950s was not simply an agent of social change, but rather a space of dynamism and negotiation, particularly when we consider how masculinity—or, indeed, masculinities—functioned in this historical moment. That Robert Menzies—champion of the “forgotten” middle class and ostensible embodiment of postwar conservatism—held the prime ministerial office for seventeen years (1949-1966) means that the Australian man of the 1950s, much like his American counterpart, is popularly imagined as the grey-flannel suit-wearing suburban breadwinner. But, as The Shiralee suggests, the cultural world in this period reveals a more complicated set of ideas about masculinity. If we look to Australian films made and released from 1949 to the early 1960s, it’s clear that there was more than one way to be a man in this period.

The powerful appeal with which Mac’s itinerant, bush-based lifestyle functioned speaks to the place of radical nationalism in the postwar years. Radical nationalism was a leftist intellectual movement that emerged in the 1940s but was most potent in the 1950s. The movement was inspired by literary figures of the 1890s who constructed an identifiably “Australian” ethos in the decade before Federation; this notion of a uniquely Australian identity operated with particular significance in the 1950s given the “dark hour of suburbia” and the danger that it would be “lost in the warm mists of suburban prosperity.”[2] In addition to The Shiralee, films like The Sundowners (1960) and Three in One (1957) represented and legitimated a radical nationalist masculinity, circulating ideas around mateship—the intimate bonds between men—that were especially important to the movement. Russel Ward’s 1958 contribution to the movement, The Australian Legend, declared that the “typical Australian” is “intimately connected with the bush” and will “stick to his mates through thick and thin, even if he thinks they may be in the wrong.”[3] It was his mates, then, rather than to his family, for whom the radical nationalist man held the most affection.

This understanding of masculinity functioned at odds with the ideas of middle-class manhood as championed and demonstrated by Robert Menzies, Australia’s longest-serving prime minister. Menzies in 1942 made a radio broadcast that would come to shape his prime ministership once elected in 1949; in it, he declared that the home is “where my wife and children are” and that “the instinct to give them a chance in life is a noble instinct, not to make them lifters but leaners.” In this statement, Menzies affirmed the domestic space as feminine, and the “noble” obligation of financial care fell to men. To adhere to the tenets of middle-class masculinity, men were expected to embrace the role of the breadwinning husband and father, providing stability in a Cold War climate where the home and the family unit operated as sites of Cold War defence (and anxieties).[4] Work and financial stability also held particular importance in this era, represented in films like Smiley (1956) and King of the Coral Sea (1954). These films also suggested that middle-class masculinity was accessible to those men who lived outside the suburban enclaves of postwar Australia; given that the middle class were defined more by their “values and sentiments” than by their social position, middle-class gendered ideals were shown to transcend spatial boundaries and could be enacted successfully in rural Australia too.[5]

It is between these two models of masculinity that Mac is caught. While other films (mentioned above) affirmed one model of masculinity over the other, The Shiralee’s open-ended final scene, in which it’s not sure where Mac and Buster will live, leaves a number of unanswered questions that are perhaps unanswerable. Is it possible for Mac to assume the primary care for his daughter, as he wishes to, without sacrificing the itinerant life he also wants to live? That the film does not answer this question—that it cannot answer this question—reveals something of the tension that imbued the Australian cultural landscape of the 1950s.

Chelsea Barnett completed her PhD at Macquarie University in 2016, for which she researched masculinity and Australian films of the fifties. She has been published in Lilith: A Feminist History JournalMedia International Australia, and Journal of Australian Studies, in which her paper was awarded the 2015 John Barrett Award for Australian Studies (Postgraduate Category).

[1] See: Stephen Alomes, Mark Dober, and Donna Hellier, “The Social Context of Postwar Conservatism,” in Australia’s First Cold War 1945-1953 Vol 1: Society, Communism and Culture, ed. Ann Curthoys and John Merritt (North Sydney: George Allen & Unwin Australia Pty Ltd, 1984), 1-28; Nicholas Brown, Governing Prosperity: Social change and social analysis in Australia in the 1950s (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995); and especially John Murphy, Imagining the Fifties: Private Sentiment and Political Culture in Menzies’ Australia (Sydney: University of New South Wales Press Ltd, 2000).

[2] John Docker, The Nervous Nineties: Australian Cultural Life in the 1890s (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), xxi; Murphy, Imagining the Fifties, 72.

[3] Russel Ward, The Australian Legend (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1958), 1, 2.

[4] Michelle Arrow, Friday on Our Minds: Popular Culture in Australia since 1945 (Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 2009), 16; Murphy, Imagining the Fifties, 136.

[5] Murphy, Imagining the Fifties, 7.

What We’re Reading: Week of 24th July

Here are a few interesting articles and pieces we found around the web this week. If you come across something that other intellectual historians might enjoy, please let us know in the comments section.



Adolfo Aranjuez, “Death of the Editor,” (overland)

Mary Beard, “What do academics do in the summer ‘vacation’?” (TLS)

Hua Hsu, “Stuart Hall and the Rise of Cultural Studies,” (New Yorker)

Jamie Martin, “Nudged,” (LRB)

Cathy Otten, “Slaves of Isis:The Long Walk of the Yazidi Women,”

Russell Rickford, “Neo-McCarthyism and the Radical Professor,” (Back Perspectives)



Paul Barrett, Darcy Ballantyne, Camille Isaacs, and Kris Singh, “The Unbearable Whiteness of CanLit,” (The Walrus)

A review of Enzo Traverso’s Left-Wing Melancholia: Marxism, History, and Memory:

Peter E. Gordon, “Mourning in America,” (Boston Review)

(Podcast interview) Raul Coronado, “A World Not to Come: A History of Latino Writing and Print Culture” (New Books Network)

Richard Brody, “‘Dunkirk’: A War Movie about Patriotic Ciphers” (The New Yorker)

Eric Kurlander, “A Song of Ice and Fire” (Lapham’s Quarterly)



On Cultural Analytics, or how do we make sense of Instagram:

“Lev Manovich in conversation with Hunter O’Hainan” (CAA News)

What happens when poetry meets photography:

> “America Today, in Vision and Verse” (NY Times)

> “How Poems Inspire Pictures” (NY Times)

Rebecca Fulleylove, “Art Director, Author, and Editor Steven Heller on His Favourite Books” (It’s Nice That)

Even poetry needs design and branding. Here, designers describe how they approach the task of creating a visual experience equal to the poetry itself:

> Lucy Bourton, “Pouya Ahmadi’s Typographic Designs for the Festival of Poets Theater” (It’s Nice That)

>Rebecca Fulleylove, “Michael Bierut’s new brand identity for the Poetry Foundation” (It’s Nice That)

> Fraser Muggeridge, “[The Making of a Concrete Poem: Sun-cheese Wheel-Ode” (Eye)


Junot Díaz interviews Samuel R. Delany, “Radicalism Begins in the Body” (Boston Review).

Kevin M. Gannon, “Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and a Revolutionary Praxis for Education I & II” (Age of Revolutions).

Dan Gorman, “All Things to All People? (symposium on Duncan Bell’s Reordering the World)” (Disorder of Things)

Achille Mbembe “There is Only One World (extract from Critique of Black Reason)” (The Con).

John Strawson, “Colonialism and the Jews” (fathom).



Allison Meier, “Washington Irving Bishop: The Magician Killed by an Autopsy” (Atlas Obscura)

Will Wiles, “The Corner of Lovecraft and Ballard” (Places)

Julianne Neely, “20 Literary Would-You-Rathers” (McSweeney’s Internet Tendency)

Gold tried 500 times in the fire

by guest contributor Timothy Alborn, this post is a companion piece to his article, “The Greatest Metaphor Ever Mixed,” now out in the most recent issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas.

Historians inevitably face the challenge of selecting a subset of primary sources to stand for a much larger body of research. This challenge is magnified in the case of the history of ideas, where the need to provide closer readings tends to diminish that already small sample size. My article, “The Greatest Metaphor Ever Mixed,” distilled hundreds of sources from numerous genres down to a few dozen to explore the connection between Biblical metaphors that employed gold, British economic ideas, and what Linda Colley has termed “the forging of a nation” between 1750 and 1850. A section on the various uses of the metaphor of gold tried in the fire, for instance, quotes twenty-eight sources that employ that metaphor, or roughly five percent of the sources I consulted.
To find all these sources, I pursued two parallel tracks.  The first was part of a larger project on the cultural and economic history of gold in Britain from 1780 to 1850, which will soon be published by Oxford University Press. For this project, I spent the last eight years looking for references to gold wherever they showed up: in treatises, novels, sermons, speeches, and newspaper articles, among many other sources.  The bulk of my research utilized such online databases as Eighteenth Century Collections Online (210 hits for gold tried in the fire), British Periodicals (48), British Library Newspapers (72), and Google Books. After realizing, a few years into this research, that gold appeared frequently and with interesting variations in numerous religious contexts, I did more targeted searches in these databases (see my full list of search terms below for “gold tried in the fire”).
In a blog post accompanying a different article I published two years ago in the Journal of Victorian Culture, I made a first foray into providing access to the larger cultural world that historians must curtail in order to “see the forest for the trees.” Here, I follow the model I used in that post, through the creation of a web page that breaks down my research notes for the “crucible” section of my article into several different topics (including references to affliction, illness or death, persecution, temptation, and secular uses). In the majority of cases where Google Books enabled this, I have linked these entries to the passages in the books and periodicals where I found them, to enable readers to explore their “natural habitat” (I tried to find the same version where there were multiple editions, but didn’t always succeed); and I’ve identified each author by religious denomination where I was able to discover that information.  I’ve also included a link to two Excel files I used: one tabulates my notes in order to locate patterns across these denominations (this includes some sources I didn’t transcribe in my notes), and the other (which I constructed by going through the Bible chapter by chapter using the service BibleGateway.com) identifies all 440 Biblical passages that refer to gold.

Readers should feel free to use this collection however they see fit: as a resource for their own research; as an introduction to my own idiosyncratic research methodology (and in my experience every historian’s research methodology errs on the side of idiosyncrasy); or as an entertaining anthology, with plenty of amazing book titles such as Hymns, Cries, and Groans, lately extracted from a Mourner’s Memorandums.

Search terms:

forth as gold

come forth purified

forth like gold

gold in the fire

gold from the fire

out of the furnace

furnace of affliction

out of the fire

tried in the fire

purified in the fire

purified by fire

as refined gold
like pure gold

seven times purified

purified seven times

seven times in the fire

gold shines brightest

purer and brighter

passed through the fire

fiery trial

With a few exceptions, these sources were all published in the United Kingdom (or, rarely, one of its colonies) between 1750 and 1850–including sources that originally appeared in print prior to 1750 but were published at least once between 1750 and 1850.  I have reproduced the notes I took from each source, which are organized by topic and, within each topic, chronologically by original year of publication; where available, religious denomination is noted at the end of each entry.  In most cases you can click the title to get to the book or article via Google Books; the link should land you at the section quoted, and you can fan out from there to discover its context.

Timothy Alborn is Professor of History at Lehman College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author of Regulated Lives: Life Insurance and British Society, 1800-1914 (Toronto, 2009), and Conceiving Companies: Joint- Stock Politics in Victorian England (Routledge, 1998). He has published widely on the cultural history of business in Victorian Britain in such journals as Victorian Studies, Business History Review, Journal of Victorian Culture, Journal of Interdisciplinary History, and Journal of Modern History. His Journal of the History of Ideas article, “The Greatest Metaphor Ever Mixed,” draws from research that will appear in a book on the cultural and economic history of gold in Britain that is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.