Think pieces

An Anti-Anti-Lachrymose Approach to Jewish History?

by contributing editor Yitzchak Schwartz

In his seminal 1928 essay, “Ghetto and Emancipation: Shall We Revise the Traditional View?,” historian Salo Wittmayer Baron argues against what he refers to in his later work as the “lachrymose conception of Jewish history.” In the essay, Baron, at the time a young historian (albeit one with three doctorates), argues that his forbears in the Jewish academy, men such as Heinrich Graetz and Leopold Zunz, had overstated the extent of Jewish suffering in the premodern world. Although the Jews had faced certain disadvantages during the medieval and early modern periods, Baron argues, their status reflected that of a corporate community in a society of corporate communities, each with its own disadvantages and privileges. Baron would go on to become the most influential Jewish historian of the twentieth century, and perhaps even in the entire history of the field. His anti-lachrymose approach, codified in his own 18-volume “Social and Religious History of the Jews,” has framed the subsequent near-century of Jewish historical scholarship, leading scholars of Jewish history to focus on coexistence over conflict and on the positive over the negative in the Jewish past and Jewish-dominant-cultural relations.

Historian Salo Baron testifies at Adolph Eichmann's trial in Jerusalem.

Historian Salo Baron testifies at Adolph Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem.

In the last decade, however, Baron’s model has come into question, as several scholars have argued that Jewish historians have gone too far in trying to paint a non-lachrymose picture of Jewish past. The first scholar I am aware of to explicitly challenge this model is historian David Engel. In his 2010 Historians of the Jews and the Holocaust, Engel tackles the question of why Jewish historians rarely incorporate the Holocaust into their narratives and theories of Jewish history. This remains the case even as it is central to German and European history and has generated the field of Holocaust Studies. Engel traces this puzzling reality to Baron’s anti-lachrymose model, which has resulted in Baron’s intellectual heirs painting the Holocaust as a “black box” in Jewish history, an aberration that they do not allow to color how they see the Jewish past before and after it. Indeed, Engel demonstrates, many Jewish historians are very frank about this and explicitly argue that the Holocaust ought not to color our non-lachrymose view of Jewish history, citing Baron as their inspiration. This is despite the fact that Baron himself urged—as both Engel and Baron’s biographer historian Robert Lieberlis note—that the Holocaust necessitated acknowledgement of the darker sides of the Jewish past.

In a 2012 essay, historian Steven Fine makes a similar argument for a less anti-lachrymose approach to Jewish history, specifically with reference to late antiquity. In the article “The Menorah and the Cross: Historiographical Reflections on a Recent Discovery from Laodicea on the Lycus,” Fine uses a column fragment found among the ruins of this ancient Roman city to question the anti-lachrymosity not just of Jewish history, but of late antique studies as well. The fragment features an etching of the menorah flanked by a palm frond and shofar, a common Jewish visual trope in the Roman Empire. Superimposed over the upper portion of the menorah is a large cross—evidence that at some point, in some reuse of this stone fragment, someone made an effort to Christianize it. Fine argues that this object speaks to a subject carefully avoided by most ancient Jewish and late antique historians, namely the violence that accompanied Christianization during this period. On the Jewish end, Fine traces this approach to Baron’s forceful arguments in his Social and Religious History for the goodwill between Christians and Jews in late antiquity, a perspective Fine sees as reflecting mid-twentieth century efforts to create a place for Jews in the American consensus.

The latest installment in this debate had the unlikely departure point of a recent exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The exhibition, Jerusalem: Every People Under Heaven, 1000-1400, on which I worked as an intern in the planning stages, showcases the role of the city in the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim visual arts of this period. Praise for the exhibition has been almost universal. In the weeks since it came down on January 8, a debate about its presentation of Jewish history has been ignited in an article published in the Jewish monthly Mosaic Magazine by Wall Street Journal and former New York Times critic-at-large Edward Rothstein. Rothstein is already well known to students of Jewish art history for his critical essay on Jewish museums’ curatorial approaches, published in Mosaic last year. In his essay on the Jerusalem show, Rothstein argues that its curators go too far in painting a picture of the city as a place of harmonious coexistence of Jewish Christian and Muslim cultures, especially with regard to Jews. Rothstein argues that although the exhibition assembles many artifacts that evoke the importance of Jerusalem in Jewish life, Jews were an extremely persecuted group during this period whose experience, especially in Jerusalem, dramatically undermines the exhibition’s narrative of diversity.

This page from a fourteenth-century illuminated Jewish prayerbook features a frame surrounding the plea from the Yom Kippur liturgy, “He who opens the Gates of Mercy” that evokes the gates of heaven and of the heavenly Jerusalem. Inasmuch as this work of art evokes a flourishing Jewish culture and Jewish longing for Jerusalem, however, it reflects the harsh realities of Jewish exile from the holy land.

In two responses to the article solicited by Mosaic, Fine and Robert Irwin, Middle East editor of the Times Literary Supplement, echo Rothstein’s assessment of the exhibition’s approach to its Jewish subject matter. Drawing from medieval traveler accounts, Irwin notes the obstacles Jews faced in the holy land during the middle ages and the difficulty many even had accessing Jerusalem. Fine traces the approach to art history evinced by Jerusalem to the work of eminent art historian Kurt Weitzmann, a dissident scholar who left Nazi Germany and settled at Princeton. In Fine’s reading, Weitzman’s 1979 exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum  The Age of Spirituality was one of the first to depict a harmonious coexistence of differing religious communities during the late antique period in galleries showcasing “The Jewish Realm,” “he Christian Realm,” “The Classical Realm” and so forth. To what degree was Weitzmann’s harmonious understanding of late antiquity, then, influenced by his own reality in postwar New York and his longings for Wiemar Berlin, Fine asks? To Fine, both Weizman and Baron’s visions, as well as those of many of their proteges in the curatorial and Jewish-historical professions respectively, have been deeply colored by their desire to create a more tolerant and multicultural society in their own times.

The debate over the role of lachrymosity in Jewish history should hold a lot of interest for Jewish historians. Although its been several years since Fine and Engel’s critiques of the anti-lachrymose approach, I do not know of any scholars that have followed their lead and worked to construct a post-anti-lachrymose narrative. What would such a narrative look like? Thinking of my own area of American Jewish history, such an approach to things might lead us to ask more questions about how anti-Jewishness has impacted American Jews, their senses of community, religious lives, and senses of themselves. This is a kind of question that is rarely asked in the field—indeed, as organizer and writer Yotam Marom points out in a recent article, it is almost a taboo subject in Jewish public discourse in general. The possibilities for a less, if not anti anti-lachrymose, Jewish history are many. As tempting as it is in politically trying times to use the past as a role model, the actual picture is perhaps much more rich and nuanced, even as it perhaps raises some troubling questions and realities.

Cogito ergo sumus

by contributing editor Eric Brandom

As insipid slogans of dubious provenance go, “be the change you wish to see in the world” is not so bad. On a bumper sticker or the signature line of a well-meaning colleague’s email, it is presumably meant to inspire. If it registers at all, it manages only to scold. The idea is not a new one, although it is also not ancient. In any case it is unsurprising that moral reform of the self should seem a good place to begin at a moment when many people who have not recently or perhaps ever thought about how to organize themselves politically are trying to figure out how to do so. With that complex of problems in mind, in this post I look back at a particular document, published in France in 1892, which served as a manifesto of sorts for a durable program of moral, and ultimately political, action. The Union for Moral Action, renamed the Union for Truth in 1904 and extant until 1940, engaged in we might now describe as advocacy and agitation, but was above all a venue for clarifying discussion. It was founded in the context of concern with the disintegration of social bonds—the social question—and emerged strengthened in unity and purpose from the great trial by fire that was the Dreyfus Affair. Paul Desjardins, a young literary-critic-turned-reformer, was the animating spirit of the Union, which in the end was a locus of progressive activity: Dreyfusard, solidariste, and concerned about the political status of women.

Puvis de Chavannes, Scene from the Life of Saint Genevieve, patroness of Paris - Printed for the Union for Moral Action, 1898 (BnF)

Puvis de Chavannes, Scene from the Life of Saint Genevieve, patroness of Paris – Printed for the Union for Moral Action, 1898 (BnF)

My object here appeared as an unsigned text in a summer number of the Revue bleue, with the unassuming title “Simple notes for a program of union and action.” Desjardins signed a brief paragraph introducing the manifesto, suggesting that he had solicited it and hoping that some people, at least, would find their own ideas reflected therein. In fact Jules Lagneau, Desjardin’s philosophy teacher, wrote the text and it would later be reproduced under his name in the Union’s Bulletin.

The first person plural rules the “Simples notes,” which are divided into three sections: our spirit, our rule, our action. “The weakening…of the social bond” is both a cognitive and a moral problem, and therefore the spirit of the Union is reason. This is not individuating reason, but rather, “a principle of order, union, and sacrifice…the ability to pass beyond one’s self while affirming a higher law, the idea of which man finds within himself and only the reflection outside himself.” The group is open to all who have “practical faith” but especially to those “without positive faith…who believe that in man, the spirit must command and not serve, because it alone has in itself its end and meaning, and that life has no value except where spirit has marked it.” The Union, then, welcomes all for whom truth and certitude are something one does not arrive at once and for all, but that are sought constantly.

The Union will not simply be one of good will, but rather one in which a certain minimal agreement of principle is constantly shaped and refined through action: “We are the beginning of a society that expects progress only through determination and the rigor of its principle: we tend to realize unanimity, we do not pretend to start from it.” Fanaticism will be avoided by constantly testing in life one’s ideas, which become mere words when they cease to be “the expression in action of interior freedom [l’expression en acte de la liberté intérieure].” If we act in everyday life in a way consistent with this principle, then “it matters little who brings truth to light, who brings salvation… What deserves to be will be.” This is not irenic faith in progress. There is no easy convergence of good intentions here, but rather a Pascalianism, perhaps of the left, which valorizes “discipline” and “renouncement” and wishes to teach “the unavoidable necessity of suffering… to combat false optimism… [and] the faith in salvation through science alone and through material civilization, lying mask of civilization, [a] precarious external arrangement that cannot replace intimate agreement.” Above all, the immoral idea that “the goal of life is to freely enjoy” must be met with the counter-example of the Union itself, which must model, as we might say now, good and social behavior: “For the people is what we make it: its vices are our vices, looked upon, envied, imitated, and it is right if they come back to us in all their weight.” The union must therefore offer “résistance réfléchie” to popular fashion, and rely on moral authority rather than popularity. “We forbid ourselves irony,” and prefer “un gaieté sérieuse.” We will be, the manifesto declares, simply as we are, without false modesty, pedantry, or pride.

Through a “pure and active charity” the Union will “save l’esprit publique.” And this is not a metaphorical charity, but rather one that, by setting aside the desire to save, hopes to create “the material conditions for morality.” The Union understands that impersonal charity corrupts, but individual and direct interpersonal charity “will be the vehicle of love, the spark that wakes the flame… In true charity, the one who receives merges with the one who gives.” True charity allows the spirit to rise above the immediate “sensible” good, and carries the spirit “infinitely higher through the contagion of love.” Acting first of all on those who are closest to us—and this is the most difficult—we make them happy by “unburdening them of their egoism and putting our love in its place. To make one’s self loved by loving with a male love that is absolute will, which is to say sacrifice, and in this way to learn to love—this is everything.” And the circle of love will expand—along the rails laid down by the division of labor: “the chain of necessary service is the link forged by nature between hearts and the divine path of charity through which we enter into to the soul of the people.” Thus we will create “progressively, naturally, an inner society founded on love, peace, and true justice, within an exterior society founded on interest, competition, and legal justice.” Such an operation requires, first of all, self-abnegation from those who wish to bring it about. In the end, the only model available is a monastic and revolutionary one: “an active Union, a militant laïque Order of private and social duty, living kernel of the future society.”

Demonstration at the place Gambetta in Carmaux, (late 1895) (Archives de la ville de Blois)

Demonstration at the place Gambetta in Carmaux, (late 1895) (Archives de la ville de Blois)

Lagneau’s program is a remarkable one in several ways. It traces a circle from the idea of law as such to the instantiation of law in a quasi-monastic order that would effect change in society by disciplining itself—is this a pre- or an anti-sociological approach to social change? More, in as much as we have to do with a democratic movement here, it is a moral rather than a political one. François Chaubet, historian of the Union, identifies Lagneau’s frankly elitist position as spiritualist republicanism, although here it appears in idealist and not materialist form. Action and even articulation was indeed clarifying: Lagneau’s manifesto drove the future maréchal Lyautey out of the original group, but Lagneau would not follow Jean Jaurès to the workers at Carmaux, and so himself split from the Union when it resolved to support the strike there. Lagneau’s austere, aristocratic, and mystical project for moral action can speak directly to us only in fragments—reduced, that is, to decontextualized quotations like the one with which I began. It is certainly possible to read Lagneau’s manifesto as an example of intense desire—visible in so many places at that moment, and perhaps our own—to be a subject, rather than object of history. Yet I think we can better read it as a usefully wrong answer to questions that are still asked today. There is an unmistakable urgency in his prose, and the moral urgency of truth as an ongoing collective project, grounded in collective action, is surely one we still feel.

Global History of Ideas: A Sea for Fish on Dry Land

by guest contributor Dag Herbjørnsrud

A remarkable example of how ideas migrate across so-called cultural borders and change minds in unknown ways happened in the German city of Bremen on October 8, 1930. There, Martin Heidegger gave a speech based upon his masterwork Being and Time (1927). Afterwards, he and several of Bremen’s citizens gathered at the home of a wholesaler. During the evening, Heidegger suddenly turned to his host and asked, “Mister Kellner, would you please bring me the Parables of Zhuangzi? I would like to read some passages from it.”

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Sein und Zeit
(Being and Time; 1927)

Martin Buber (1878–1965) had already translated these parables of a founder of Daoism (Taoism) in 1910 with the help of Chinese collaborators, one of his first acclaimed books, Reden und Gleichnisse des Tschuang-Tse (Leipzig, 1910). Buber’s afterword connects Zhuangzi (or Chuang Tzu/莊子 369–286 BC) with his reading of the Bible, and this can be seen as advance notice of sorts for his later philosophy of “I and You” (“Ich und Du”). It was this book that Heidegger demanded.

The tradesman didn’t hesitate but went to his library and returned with a new edition of Buber’s translation. Heidegger started reading from Zhuangzi’s chapter 17, which in this context might be seen as a follow-up to his own speech “On the Essence of Truth”. Heidegger read from the passage where Zhuangzi says to the thinker Hui Tzu, known for his Zeno-like paradoxes, as they walk by a river:

Do you see how the fish are coming to the surface and swimming around as they please? That’s what fish really enjoy.”

“You’re not a fish,” replied Hui Tzu, “so how can you say you know what fish really enjoy?”

Zhuangzi said: “You are not me, so how can you know I don’t know what fish enjoy.”

The people of Bremen could relate to this 2200-year-old Chinese conversation. As an eyewitness described it: “The deep meaning of the legend cast a spell on all who were present. With the interpretation he offered of that legend, Heidegger unexpectedly drew closer to them than he had with his difficult lecture….”

Heidegger’s and Buber’s dialogue with the thinking of Asia seems to prove that Arthur O. Lovejoy was right when, in the first issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas in 1940, he pointed out that “ideas are the most migratory things in the world.” Human thoughts are like fish that swim as they please. There are no borders underwater. The connections in our minds transcend modern categories in unknown ways, and thus our ideas migrate across ages and seas – from Zhuangzi’s ancient town of Meng in eastern China to Kellner’s modern home in northern Germany.

Heidegger seems to have proved that ideas are the most migratory things in the world long before he became internationally famous. When he studied in Freiburg with the philosopher Shuzo Kuki (1888–1941) from Japan, Heidegger read Edmund Husserl’s major work with him and other East Asians once a week, as he stressed in one of his late major texts, “Aus einem Gespräch von der Sprache. Zwischen einem Japaner und einem Fragenden” (1959) (“A Dialogue on Language between a Japanese and an Inquirer”) – set out as a conversation between two professors. By that time, in 1921, transcripts of Heidegger’s classes were already translated into Japanese, which might be regarded as the first recognition of his groundbreaking philosophy. Indeed, Japanese was the first language Being and Time was translated into – in 1939, a staggering twenty-three years before the first English translation.

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The Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi (Chuang Tzu, 3rd century BC)

If we re-read Heidegger’s 1927 work from such perspectives, we might understand why many East Asian philosophers feel more at home in his thinking than most Europeans.  As he concludes: “One must seek a way of illuminating the fundamental question of ontology and then go this way. Whether this is the sole or right way can be decided only after one has gone along it.” This insistence on finding and going the way in order to seek the essence of being, might be hard to grasp with a so-called Cartesian or modern perspective, trying to make philosophy a part of science, but it seems all the more natural from Zhuangzi’s point of view and the way of thinking about the Way (Dao).

After the Nazi era, Heidegger concludes much of his wandering in Unterwegs zur Sprache (1959) (On the Way to Language). In that work he explains his 40-year-long quest for a deeper, pre-philosophical source which connects us as beings across time and space: “The word ‘way’ probably is an ancient primary word that speaks to the reflective mind of man. The key word in Laozi’s poetic thinking is Tao, which ‘properly speaking’ means way […].” He concludes: “The lasting element in thinking is the way.” In this way the thinking of China and Japan breathes in Heidegger’s philosophy. Europe’s foremost thinker of the 20th century cannot be properly understood without knowledge of Asia’s philosophy.

Heidegger’s universal quest might also be something for our times. Heidegger was seeking a thinking experience which would assure “that European-Western saying and East Asian saying will enter into dialogue such that in it there sings something that wells up from a single source.” And he walks the walk in the dialogue with his friend, as when he finds out that the Japanese word for language, ‘koto ba,’ is the best way to better understand his own language, German.

Thus, both Zhuangzi and Heidegger formulated central challenges and opportunities for the 21st century. Zhuangzi by asking us to see “the Others”, understand what they enjoy, and acknowledge it. Heidegger by asking us to seek a way to understand his thinking, his transcultural roots, and his search for a common human ground. Or as professor Reinhard May puts it: “In order to gain a new perspective from this ‘Heidegger case’,” we will have to devote ourselves to other people’s thinking “as thoroughly as to that of our own tradition, not least since Heidegger has, in his own special way, demonstrated the necessity of transcultural thinking.”

In this light we can also see how Heidegger questioned the basis of our modern thinking in Brief über den ‘Humanismus’ (1947) (Letter on ‘Humanism’): “Philosophy is hounded by the fear that it loses prestige and validity if it is not a science,” Heidegger wrote. And again he returned to a fish metaphor: “Thinking is judged by a standard that does not measure up to it. Such judgment may be compared to the procedure of trying to evaluate the natures and powers of a fish by seeing how long it can live on dry land. For a long time now, all too long, thinking has been stranded on dry land.”

He didn’t write it explicitly, but this metaphor seems to be a reference to another of Zhuangzi’s parables (number 6): “When the springs dry out, the fish are found stranded on the earth. They keep each other damp with their own moisture, and wet each other with their slime.”

Vital parts of our migratory history of ideas have become stranded on dry land since the encounter in Bremen. At the same time, a new awareness might be dawning of the importance of our long-forgotten global interconnectedness – as can be seen from Samuel Moyn and Andrew Sartori’s Global Intellectual History (2013) or Jonardon Ganeri’s “Why Philosophy Must Go Global: A Manifesto” (2016). The history of ideas can also learn lessons from the new insights now being presented in the field of global history and the de-centering of perspective, or from earlier times: The “universalism” of Mozi, or the argument for “world literature” by both Goethe and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore.

The world is not just connected by trade, as Hajime Nakamura pointed out in A Comparative History of Ideas (1975). Even more importantly, humans are bonded by those migratory ideas that transcend national and cultural borders. And as Heidegger showed, we don’t have to meet physically in order to face each other. In the global history of ideas we can rather stand face to face through texts across ages and seas.

Such a history of ideas has the potential to give us new and fresh ways of looking at our world, as the participiants at the gathering in Bremen found out. This is not just because “there is no such thing as western civilization,” or eastern civilization for that matter, as Kwame Anthony Appiah puts it. It is also because new research frequently proves that our cultural heritage is often not what we are taught to believe. Heidegger’s critique inspired the Algerian-born Jacques Derrida to develop the German term “Destruktion” into the French concept of “déconstruction”. As the time and being of the 21st century drags on, it might be about time to add reconstruction to deconstruction.

A reconstruction of our natural and common global history of ideas can be seen as a fulfillment of the thinking of Zhuangzi, “the first deconstructivist”. He disavowed the ideologies of rulers and the hierarchies of scholars that imprison the human mind, leading individuals astray from their own innate nature (hsing). The stringent argument that we are being taught is logic is far too often nonsense – because, rather, eclecticism is all. The eclectic, comparative, and inclusive way of thinking pours water over stranded fish, making reconstruction a flow of the natural way (wu wei 無爲). If we follow the way of Zhuangzi and read the classics anew, we can reconstruct our past based not on an ethnocentric take, but rather on a comparative and transcultural perspective – placing weight on our migratory ideas. Instead of studying history of ideas within a national or ethnic framework, we might re-orient and be on the way to reconstruction with the help of three ‘C’-terms: Contact. Comparison. Complexity.

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John Adams concluded that the democracy of the US resembled that of Phoenician Carthage more than any other republic

We might for example see the way Thomas McEvilley has shown how the pre-Socratics and Plato were influenced by the thinking of India, a country where the secular and materialistic Lokayata (Carvaka) philosophy has prevailed for over 2500 years (Contact). Such global and comparative perspectives on the world of ideas can release us from the ethnocentrism that has left our thinking stranded on dry land for all too long now. If we follow such channels of thought, we discover that it was not Athens, nor any Greek city-state, that Aristotle hailed as the best-governed or most democratic. Instead, in Politics, he held up Phoenician Carthage, in modern-day Tunisia, as the state with the best constitution, the most stable rule – which was not prone to tyranny – and as the place where the people had the most say when it came to electing politicians (Comparison). As the second US president John Adams pointed out in A Defence of the Constitution of Government of the United States of America (1787): “This government [of Carthage] thus far resembles those of the United States of America more than any other of the ancient republics, perhaps more than any of the modern…” (Complexity).

Thus, the reconstruction of a global history of ideas makes the founding fathers and the basic documents of our past ripe for rereading from a comparative and non-ethnocentric perspective. Man is not an island and neither is the world – nor have they ever been. Rather, man is a fish, ever in danger of being stranded on dry land. But the springs can be refilled, opening up new channels of thought so that more fish can swim as they please – just as a simple question taught the merchant Kellner, Heidegger, and their guests how to enjoy swimming in the vast seas of the global history of ideas.

Dag Herbjørnsrud is a historian of ideas from the University of Oslo with a cand. philol. thesis on the late philosophy of Robert Nozick. He is the author of the book Globalkunnskap (2016, “Global Knowledge. Renaissance for a New Enlightenment”) at Scandinavian Academic Press, and the founder of the recently established Center for Global and Comparative History of Ideas (SGOKI).

Historicizing Ghosts: Reimagining Realities in Nineteenth Century Popular Bengali Fiction

by guest contributors Senjuti Jash and Shuvatri Dasgupta

ghostsIn South Asian historiography myths, local legends, chronicles, and folklores function as primary sources for the writing of “history,” or itihasa, as Romila Thapar has illustrated. Within the broad genre of fiction, historians have traditionally used social novels or short stories, and have overlooked popular fiction dealing with ghosts and spirits. Residing in an alternative society to that of the anthropocentric one, in fictionalized narratives and anecdotes, ghosts represented the “other” of the Bengali “self” during the nineteenth century. In this piece, we explore ghost stories as texts which can inform a bottom-up approach to histories of the nineteenth-century Bengali mind.

Why did the spectral community find popularity in the fictional realm of the Bengali mind during the nineteenth century? The primary reason behind this are the cholera, malaria, and plague epidemics which wreaked havoc in villages and cities, wiping out more than half of the population in Bengal during the early nineteenth century. From 1839 onwards, these epidemics spread from Bengal to other parts of India, as John Hays has shown. As the number of discarded and diseased corpses increased, ghosts found a place in the Bengali psyche facing the realities of death in their everyday worlds. In this scenario, the discourses of science and medicine produced a space at the intersections of “rationality” and “spirituality,” and engendered these accounts, which were transmitted both orally and in print.

The category of “ghost” remained fluid: in some stories they were seen, while in some their presence was only felt. In the fictional narratives, an environment of phantasm was created with omens like black cats, moonlight, and veiled silhouettes. The spaces of deserted houses and dilapidated bungalows acquired a metaphorical organic significance in these discourses. In a Bengali proverb from Comilla (Bangladesh), roughly translated as “ghosts inhabit a broken-down house,” the house signified the human body crumbling under various incurable ailments, which attracted ghosts to make the ailing human one of their own.

Local legends from Rangpur (Bangladesh) dating back to the nineteenth century described the habitats of different types of ghosts in various kinds of trees, namely Palmyra, Tamarind, and Madar. Ghosts also inhabited trees like Banyan, Sand Paper, Acacia, and Bengal Quince. The allocation of habitats in the spectral world mirrored anthropocentric normativities associated with gender roles. For example, the male Brahmin ghost, namely the Brahmadaitya, usually inhabited tall evergreen trees like Aegle Marmelos, Peepul, and Magnolia, maintaining his social superiority over others even after death. Female ghosts inhabited smaller shorter bushes and shrubs like the Streblus Asper and others. The Brahmadaitya’s habitat in comparison with the female ghosts’ habitats illustrated not only his primacy on the social ladder, but also the gender normativities permeating into the “other” world from the human world. 

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An early 20th century edition of the Grandmother’s Tales. Image courtesy of GoodReads.

In a famous anthology of tales compiled in the early twentieth century titled Thakurmar Jhuli (Grandma’s Bag of Tales), the narrator was an old woman entertaining her grandchildren, with a barely-disguised didactic tone. These tales reflected an element of moral speculation attached to the gender roles of the ghosts. Female ghosts like the widowed Petni were portrayed as attracted to fish, given the nineteenth century Indian tradition of widows living an ascetic life with dietary regulations. The construction of this ghostly image functioned on two levels: the reflection of the past married life on the widowed “self” of the narrator, and the articulation of these suppressed desires through the representations of the “other” widowed ghost. This dual self-projection of the narrator served a greater purpose, as it participated in the ongoing discourse about the issues of sati and widow remarriage, contributing to larger debates about the rights and privileges of women in nineteenth-century Bengali society.

With the colonial government’s criminalization of sati and legalization of widow remarriage, as Lata Mani has shown in her seminal article “Contentious Traditions,” women became sites of conflict for redefining “tradition.” There was a clear colonial preoccupation with the state of women as a benchmark for appraising civilizational standards. For the colonial masters, the injustice and oppression meted out to Indian women in the form of sati became a corroboration of “British modernity” and a moral platform on which their “civilizing” endeavor could be justified. The “feminine” hence provided a space for renegotiating what was “Indian” and what was “Western.” The female ghosts were clearly no different. While Indian women gradually unified over shared demands for various rights, the ghostly women from the other world expressed their solidarities for these reforms through the figure of Petni indulging in fish.

In these fictionalized narratives, living women—especially the ones who were pregnant or had long lustrous hair—were portrayed as more susceptible to ghostly encounters. Also, medical conditions such as seizures, epilepsy, multiple personality disorders, and schizophrenia in women were diagnosed by the quacks as being possessed or inhabited by evil or unholy spirits. These women then were subjected to the autonomy of the exorcists. They were sexually exploited under the pretext of exorcism and were sometimes even forced to marry the exorcist as a favor in return. Since most of the oral tales were produced by female narrators, they served as a space to articulate and in turn resist the threats women faced from the community of exorcists and failed to overcome in the human worlds.

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An exorcist confronting a “possessed” woman. Illustration from Bhutude Kanda, by Rabidas Saharoy (1962). Illustrations by Maitreyee Mukhopadhyay and Debabrata Gosh.

The influence of colonial race theories was also clearly detectable in the world of horror fiction, as they emerged as a significant premise for British epistemic exercises. Significant segments of British and European intellectuals, even during the age of the Scottish Enlightenment, considered Indians to be closer to black Africans, or black Malays, than they were to white “Caucasians.” As Swarupa Gupta comments, there was “selective adaptation, internalisation and re-articulation” of the basic tenets of imperial race theory, interwoven with prevalent conceptions of Hindu caste hierarchy within the Indian milieu, after the Census of 1871 (Notions of Nationhood, 112-13). While ordinary ghosts, both male and female, were described as dark-skinned, the Brahmin male ghost was portrayed as fair-skinned, tall, exhibiting saint-like feet, and wearing sandalwood sandals. On one hand, widowed Petni was depicted as a very dark-skinned figure; on the other, the ghost of the Muslim man, known as Mamdo, was also depicted with similar adjectives. Additionally, he wore a skullcap and featured an unkempt beard. The image of the Islamic ghost succumbed to colonial stereotypes, resembled its human image and position in society.

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Petni catching fish in a river. Image from Embellished Memories website.

Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s short story “Oshoriri” tells how a Bengali middle-class man from Calcutta mistook his low-caste dark-skinned Bihari servant in Ranchi for a “ghost.” The tale ends with a strong note on the social constructions of the aesthetic facade of a man in contradistinction to a ghost, and how this dichotomy was balanced on an understanding of Victorian notions of outward appearance. Hence, specific categories of low-caste ghosts were marginalized even in their death, as an expression of the powerful afterlife of the stringent specificities of “caste” and “religion” that even death could not transcend. Thus, the socioeconomic and political impact of colonial dominance was translated in the languages of the spectral world through the idioms of religious, social, and gender discrimination, and racial hierarchies.

Ghosts were not always scary or malicious. In some tales, like the Jola ar Sat Bhoot (The Muslim Weaver and Seven Ghosts), they emerged as benevolent figures helping poor peasants out of financial misery, while also representing the spirit of resistance against the oppressive British regime. However, the figure of the benevolent ghost was essentially limited to the sphere of rural narratives, since urban miseries appeared to be apparently incurable even by ghostly benevolence. In the urban narratives, the ghosts appeared more as a threat to the luxuries and comforts, such as electricity, enjoyed by the city dwellers. Socially constructed notions of hygiene associated with poverty, such as bodily stink and dirty fingernails, were regarded as threatening even to ghosts, let alone humans! The poor were outcast even in the domain of enjoying the privilege of ghostly attention in the fiction generated in elite and gentrified urban spaces.

Picking up the thread from where we began, these fictional tales hence remain an unexplored repository for the intellectual historian, portraying how the Bengali mind under colonial transitions revisualized worlds, relationships, normativities, and ideologies. These narratives, both orally transmitted in rural areas and through print in urban circles, generated alternative realities. On one hand, gender restrictions were subverted, on the other, racial hierarchies and rural-urban divisions were reiterated. Reflecting the transitions in a Bengali society caught in the middle of colonial ideologues and nationalist exceptionalisms, ghosts provided Bengalis the voice of hope, faith, and sustenance they needed at the turn of the century.

Shuvatri Dasgupta is a final-year master’s student at Presidency University. Her work revolves around locating the global in the local by analyzing the multilayered origins of cultural and political discourses—tracing their genealogies and contextualizing them in transregional frameworks.

Senjuti Jash is a postgraduate student in History at Presidency University, Kolkata. Her dissertation is about the global intellectual history of caste. She is interested in overcoming the barriers of time and space to discern the intricate webs of connectivities across polities, economies, and cultures in this global age.

The Promise of a Technological Enlightenment: On Transhumanism and History

by guest contributor Zoltán Boldizsár Simon

In the first decades of the new century, transhumanism aims at delivering the old Enlightenment promise. There can be little doubt that the aspiration to enhance (and even transcend) the capacities of the human being is an endeavor continuous with the Enlightenment ideal of human perfectibility. At least, this is the narrative that transhumanist themselves like to deploy in arguing for the feasibility and socio-cultural desirability of their views.

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Nick Bostrom

Although leading transhumanist thinkers hardly invoke the doctrine of the perfectibility of man as per Condorcet and others in explicit terms, they certainly tend to legitimize their views by outlining the respectable historical inheritance of the Enlightenment they wish to carry forward. This is how Nick Bostrom – the probably most celebrated transhumanist philosopher today – binds postwar and twenty-first century transhumanist ambitions (while being more ambivalent toward interwar ones) to certain eighteenth century visions of the progress of humankind when he claims in a historical sketch that transhumanism is rooted in Enlightenment rational humanism. Identifying such roots, however, does not compel anybody to accept the entire Enlightenment paradigm. The appeal of transhumanism based on the historical reasoning of its advocates is precisely that it comes as a better version of the Enlightenment, stripped off of the conceptual shortcomings of the latter. Accordingly, in the argument of Max More – another prominent transhumanist – the insistence upon progress in transhumanist thought prevails without the support of determinism and inevitability which the Enlightenment gave to all forms of progress.

All this adds up to what I would like to call the promise of a technological Enlightenment, that is, the promise of achieving by means of technology what the Enlightenment failed to deliver otherwise: the betterment of the human condition. But does this seem persuasive enough? Is the autobiography of transhumanism the most reliable tool and source of trying to understand transhumanism as a socio-cultural phenomena of rapidly growing significance? Probably not. Accordingly, it seems to me that the promise of transhumanism is something other than what transhumanists themselves claim. There certainly is a transhumanist promise, and that promise is definitely technological, but it has not much to do with the Enlightenment and not much to do with history.

In order to see why it is better to understand transhumanism as a technological promise of its own right and not as the promise of a technological Enlightenment what it aspires to be, the first thing to consider is the Enlightenment promise itself which transhumanism appropriates as its legitimizing narrative. That promise is advancement in the human condition that presupposes a belief in the perfectibility of human beings, which, in my understanding, is expected in turn to play out not on the individual but the collective level of humanity. Hence the idea of the perfectibility of human beings (whether consciously held or tacitly presupposed) necessitated a corresponding belief in the perfectibility of human societies. Reading Kant on universal history or Condorcet on the progress of the human mind equally makes clear that, for Enlightenment thinkers, human betterment can be achieved through the betterment of political constitution which eventually encapsulates the entirety of humanity.

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Marquis de Condorcet (1743-1794; school of Jean-Baptiste Greuze, c. 1780-90)

What seems to be even more important is that the betterment of the human condition was supposed to play out both within and precisely as history. For the greatest invention of the Enlightenment was nothing other than the idea of history, the movement and mechanism of human affairs, the idea of the historical process that conceptualizes change over time in the human constitution. In history, humanity could be supposed to fulfill its already assumed potential – a potential that must have been assumed in order to able to be gradually changed for the better. The most striking aspect of the way in which the concept of history configured change was that change as betterment now concerned the very mundane world of human beings. It was against the backdrop of the kind of change entailed in the Christian worldview that the Enlightenment invented modern notions of historical process and progress. Whereas the Christian view held out the promise of a City of God apart from an earthly, compromised one, the Enlightenment promised the fulfillment of the historical process as the processual betterment of the human world.

Now, how does the promise of transhumanism relate to this Enlightenment promise? For it is one thing that transhumanism describes itself retrospectively as a better version of the promise of human betterment, making use of the most conventional historical narrative as a strategy to legitimize itself as a technological Enlightenment. But once you shift perspective and consider how transhumanism describes its prospective aims, the historical narrative about carrying forward an inheritance begins to look rather implausible. Indeed, what transhumanists explicitly wish to achieve in the future looks drastically different from visions offered by the Enlightenment.

The twofold definition of transhumanism in the Transhumanist FAQ wonderfully captures the contradiction between the retrospective historical narrative and the prospective aims. On the one hand, the first definition claims that transhumanism is “the intellectual and cultural movement that affirms the possibility and desirability of fundamentally improving the human condition through applied reason, especially by developing and making widely available technologies to eliminate aging and to greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities.” This definition clearly appeals to the inheritance of the Enlightenment that transhumanism merely “affirms” and carries out via technological means. On the other hand, according to the second definition, transhumanism is “the study of the ramifications, promises, and potential dangers of technologies that will enable us to overcome fundamental human limitations, and the related study of the ethical matters involved in developing and using such technologies” (author’s emphasis).

Even though the second definition evidently refers only to the study of a cultural movement which also features in the first definition, the difference between the two descriptions of the potential of technology is striking. Whereas the first definition falls in accordance with its claimed Enlightenment inheritance insofar as it promises improvement upon what human beings are (and have always been), the second definition vests technology with the capacity of being a precise means of escape the confines what being human means.

Simply put, it is not the betterment ‘of’ the human condition what transhumanism desires, but the creation of something better ‘than’ the human condition as we know it. Where the Enlightenment assumed the malleability of human beings and human capacities, transhumanism instead presupposes that, whatever the human being and human capacities may be, technology can transcend them. Whereas the Enlightenment promised the unfolding of an already assumed human potential, transhumanism wishes to surpass what we think is humanly possible. Finally, if the Enlightenment thought that human perfectibility plays out as the course of history in a scenario of procedural and developmental change, transhumanism aims at introducing changes that are not merely stages of a historical development but potentially displaces the entire schema of history itself.

The change that transhumanism wishes to introduce is what I came to call elsewhere the prospect of unprecedented change. By this I mean a wider category that encompasses emerging postwar visions of the future of Western societies on a structural level, exhibiting a temporality other than the developmental one that the Enlightenment brought about. Instead of expecting the fulfillment of a process, the prospect of unprecedented change is conceived of as the sudden emergence of an epochal event defying any preceding states of affairs. Although first I introduced the term in relation to the notion of the Anthropocene and to the ecological vision it harbors, it is technology that has already transformed Western historical sensibility (with the prospect of unprecedented change promised at the time of the institutionalization of AI research in the early postwar years). Seen within this broader framework of postwar future visions, transhumanism is far from being a new chapter in the Enlightenment story of human betterment, that is, the story of history itself. Transhumanism rather proves itself to be one of the most relentless contemporary cultural practices, and one posing perhaps the most serious challenge to the very historical thinking which it employs as a legitimizing strategy.

To conclude, the point I would like to make is this: the technological promise of transhumanism is not a continuation of the Enlightenment story of history itself (the process of human betterment), but an alternative to history as Western thought essentially construes it. Transhumanism harbors a certain configuration of change over time as unprecedented, challenging the processual and developmental configuration of change over time that configures conventional understandings of history. And this, I believe, is something that both transhumanists and historians need to come to terms with and openly debate.

Zoltán Boldizsár Simon is a doctoral research associate at Bielefeld University. You can find Zoltán on Twitter and his work on Academia.edu.

Shooting the Moon: Martyrdom and Sacred Kingship in the Twenty-First Century

by guest contributor Peter Walker

On the cold afternoon of January 30, 1649, King Charles I was publicly beheaded in London, condemned as a traitor by parliamentarians. Royalists, who viewed the king as head of the church, immediately began celebrating the executed King as a martyr. Three hundred and sixty eight years later, this devotional cult remains alive and well, flourishing in unexpected places. This year, the American Society of King Charles the Martyr met for a church service commemorating “Martyrdom Day” at St. Clement’s Church in Philadelphia, a dozen blocks from Independence Hall.

What is the appeal of a royalist devotional cult in the twenty-first-century United States? The cult of King Charles the Martyr had its beginnings in seventeenth-century conflicts between royalists and parliamentarians, and remains entangled with the political theology of sacred kingship. Politics in the United States have taken some unexpected twists recently, but—whatever else might happen—the American experiment in democracy and republicanism probably won’t end with a return to monarchy. Of course, Americans retain an appetite for royalty, as Hello! magazine attests, but Charles I is hardly a celebrity. According to Mark Kishlansky’s unfortunately-named biography, Charles I: An Abbreviated Life, he remains “the most despised monarch in Britain’s historical memory. Considering that among his predecessors were murderers, rapists, psychotics and the mentally challenged, this is no small distinction.” Yet to his fans, King Charles I was and remains a Christian martyr whose spiritual importance transcends the politics of the seventeenth-century Civil War.

The frontispiece to the 'Eikon Basilke' (1649)

The frontispiece to the ‘Eikon Basilke’ (1649)

Historians tend to disagree about Charles’s reign: was he a victim, a tyrant, or simply incompetent? Whatever the case, once he was deposed he played his part as a martyr with dignity, bravery, and political acumen. On the morning of his execution, he wrote that he would greet the day as “my second wedding day; I would be as trim today as may be, for before tonight I hope to be espoused to my blessed Jesus.” He wore two shirts so that he would not shiver from the cold and appear frightened. Addressing the crowd from the scaffolding, he declared himself “the martyr of the people.” He left a spiritual autobiography titled Eikon Basilke (“The Royal Portrait”), which provided an account and justification of his conduct. Here, Charles explained that he could have saved his life if he had given into the demands of the parliamentarians and abolished the bishops of the Church of England. The historian Andrew Lacey calls the Eikon “the most successful book of the century.” Its heavily symbolic frontispiece was particularly influential, showing Charles exchanging the royal crown for a martyr’s crown. Charles himself thus provided his supporters with the material for his cult.

Charles’s martyrdom was his greatest political success. Widespread uneasiness about this national sin eased the restoration of his son, Charles II, in 1660. In 1662, Charles’s martyrdom was incorporated into the liturgical calendar of the Church of England.

Portrait of Henry Sacheverell holding a portrait of Charles I (1709)

Portrait of Henry Sacheverell holding a portrait of Charles I (1709)

The commemoration of Charles’s execution on January 30 was one of three explicitly political services enjoined by the Book of Common Prayer. On May 29, congregations observed the Restoration of Charles II, and on November 5, the failure of the Gunpowder Plot. The latter, directed against Catholics, has remained popular to this day. Martyrdom Day, by contrast, was politically divisive, and was denounced as idolatrous by reforming Protestants.

Following the expulsion of the Stuart dynasty at the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688-89, Martyrdom Day remained part of the Anglican liturgy but its divisiveness made it a political liability. The festival was popular with high churchmen such as Henry Sacheverell, who feared that the generous toleration given to Protestant Dissenters threatened the safety of both church and state. Nevertheless, the theory of sacred monarchy articulated in the January 30 service, and the close association of Charles’s cult with the exiled Stuart dynasty, clashed with the political imperatives of the new regime. By 1772, when Sir Roger Newdigate defended the Church of England’s “only canonized saint” in the House of Commons, he was met with derisive laughter. Charles’s status as a martyr proved even more divisive in the American colonies. His memory was venerated by loyalist Anglicans during the American Revolution, who found in his patient, steadfast suffering a model for their own behavior during the political crisis. For American Anglicans who supported independence, however, Martyrdom Day was an embarrassment. Following independence, the newly-formed Episcopal Church excised the service from its Book of Common Prayer. In Britain, meanwhile, it remained officially observed until 1858, when the service was removed from the Book of Common Prayer by an Act of Parliament.

Today, the cult of King Charles the Martyr is thoroughly anachronistic, doubly so for its American adherents. The festival is not officially observed in either the UK or the US, and it no longer serves the political uses to which it was put in the seventeenth century. It nevertheless retains supporters among high church Anglicans, Episcopalians, and Anglo-Catholics. The cult was revived by the Oxford Movement, and the Society of King Charles the Martyr was founded in 1894. Part of the cult’s attraction, perhaps, lies in the nostalgic and reactionary appeal of deliberate political anachronism. This appears to have been the case for the Society’s Anglo-Irish founder, the Hon. Mrs. Ermengarda Greville-Nugent. But rather more important is its theological meaning to Anglicans who place a particularly high value on the longevity and perpetuation of the church’s institutions. As the cult’s political utility recedes, it becomes easier to see the theological concerns which have always underpinned it.

Perhaps the greatest part of the cult’s power, from its origins to the present, is not so much the sacred monarchy part as the martyrdom part. Charles provides that rare thing, a specifically Anglican martyr. The Society’s hymns celebrate “Royal Charles, who chose to die / Rather than the Faith deny.” The power of martyrdom lies in this choice: by choosing death, the martyr triumphs over the worst that the world can throw at them. Like shooting the moon in a game of cards, martyrdom turns a weak hand into a trump hand. It is the ultimate weapon of the weak, with the potential to upend structures of social and political power. This tradition is embedded in Christianity, ultimately referring to the model of Christ’s death and resurrection. As Brad Gregory showed in his classic book Salvation at Stake, martyrdom was revived during the Reformation, when the martyr’s willingness to die seemed to indicate that they died for the true faith. However, this claim was progressively undone by the undiminishing capacity of rival versions of Christianity to produce their own martyrs. While martyrdom could no longer be counted on to point the way to religious truth, it continued to demonstrate the irreducible resilience of individual religious belief, marking out the limits of the coercive power of the modern state. For all its deliberate anachronism, then, the cult of King Charles the Martyr might just be an essentially modern form of religious observance.

Peter Walker has a Ph.D. in History from Columbia University. His dissertation is about Anglicanism and martyrdom (among other things).

The Interwar, Ourselves

by contributing editor Disha Karnad Jani

The period in between the First and Second World Wars yields fertile ground for reflection by many of our public intellectuals. Much of this resonance comes from the fact that historians have typically understood the 1920s and 1930s in one of three ways. The period can be understood as the aftermath of the First World War and the lost peace. It can be understood as the lead-up to the Second World War. And the contrarian’s response to these gloomy retellings: it was the culturally vibrant period that birthed the Jazz Age, talkies, advances in technology, and shifts in the restrictive social mores of the Long Nineteenth Century. But to hear it told as a single European story, the history of the interwar years reads first and foremost as warning. The period-after-the-war and the period-before-war are one and the same, as the post bleeds into the pre. The years between the First and Second World Wars become a cautionary tale for foreign policy experts, a lesson for those who tinker with the economy, and a time of warnings unheeded.

There are three sets of assumptions attached to most renderings of this period. First, that ‘war’ is defined as the armed conflict carried out between state actors and bound by official declarations that mark the beginning and end of fighting. Second, that ‘peace’ is merely the absence of war, meaning that the period between 1918 and 1939 was one of relative, if not absolute stability – the ‘inter’ in ‘interwar.’ And finally, that the First World War was a signal and symbol of the breakdown of a particular European civilizational identity. The Allied victory in 1945 was consequently a triumph in the wake of which a peaceful liberal order for Europe was built in the shadow of Soviet Russia and the encroaching illiberal mirror-image it represented.

In our moment, it has become customary to draw comparisons between the contemporary world and the world of the 1920s and 1930s. I invite readers to search Twitter for the phrase “and what rough beast its hour come round at last slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” The overwhelming result will be a piece of news or photograph with Yeats’ ominous query quoted without comment. In an era apparently marked by the crumbling of the postwar liberal order (if our public intellectuals are to be believed) it makes sense that we look to the last time that happened. Pankaj Mishra, for instance, has characterized our moment as an “age of anger” that liberal rationalism is incapable of explaining away. Instead, Mishra proposes considering democracy as a “profoundly fraught emotional and social condition” rather than one side of the liberal-illiberal binary. Commentators have framed and re-framed the first decades of the twentieth century in The London Review of Books, Foreign Affairs, The New York Times, Dissent, and The New Republic, among others. Arguments against comparing our moment to the Weimar Republic were published last month in Jacobin by way of a Weimar historian. In this vein, Mark Mazower’s 1998 book Dark Continent: Europe’s Twentieth Century remains an early example of the reevaluation of the cradle of post-1945 stability, years before the oft-referenced ‘de-stabilizers’ occurred – 9/11, the 2008 financial crisis, the rise of the far-right in Europe, and the Syrian civil war.

Alternatively warning away from or advocating for the use of the past as a lesson, writers nonetheless have found it powerful to compare and contrast century-old developments and the present. It is not difficult to understand why these lessons resonate. Much of this conversation has to do with the simple act of naming: what is a fascist? What is a liberal? What is a populist? It is not for me to say here whether these parallels should or shouldn’t resonate, or what kind of value these comparisons may hold, either for our understanding or for productive political action. I am merely inviting an examination of the assumptions contained within our treatment of the interwar period, and what happens to this period in our collective memory if those assumptions’ legacies are dismantled by some, and upheld by others. The distinction is stark if we compare two kinds of reflections on the resonance of the interwar period. If the comparison is made in order to demonstrate the dangers of ignoring or abetting a threat to liberalism or social good, then the interwar stands as a warning. If, however, the parallel is not a call to preserve or guard against a threat, but rather to reexamine the usefulness of the very thing in need of preservation – NATO, the Democratic Party, or a ‘free press’ for example – then the critical intervention necessarily involves an adjustment of the lessons of the 1920s and 1930s. Such an intervention requires at least a partial rejection of the notion that the twentieth century’s greatest triumph was the spread of liberal democracy.

The interwar period has also been framed as a simultaneous genesis and telos of our narrative understandings of the past. 1914 was the year our present began, and it was the year the world ended. Playing with these starts and stops forms the substance of many, if not all, historiographical interventions in the study of the interwar period. And because this period is also considered the genesis of many of our paradigmatic and normative categories for political life, a re-orientation of the narrative has implications for the foundational assumptions of our notions of governmentality, order, and social good, as gathered – as though for ease of access – in the term “liberal democracy.” Two historians who have recently grappled with these questions are Robert Gerwarth and Enzo Traverso.

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Robert Gerwarth shifts the center of the violence of the war towards the defeated states in his recent book, The Vanquished: Why The First World War Failed to End.  Gerwarth’s aim with this book is to move eastward, away from victory and ‘strength amid chaos’ narratives, and to those places with chaos as the main character. The shift is simultaneously geographical and chronological. Gerwarth encourages us to extend the “end” of the period of European violence called the First World War from 1918 to 1923, because, as he argues, “in order to understand the violent trajectories that Europe – including Russia and the former Ottoman lands in the Middle East – followed throughout the twentieth century, we must look not so much at the war experiences between 1914 and 1917 but at the way in which the war ended for the vanquished states of the Great War” (13). Gerwarth does not concern himself much with explaining why tensions arose between particular ethnic groups or political opponents in the period following the armistice, which he tends to see as older antagonisms coupled with new national struggles (214). Rather, he is interested in how and why such violence became so pronounced in the defeated states. The aftermath of the First World War, or rather, the extended European war, changed the course of the twentieth century because it altered the “logic of violence” (254). Even as he describes the moments of success for democracy and stable government, Gerwarth is sure to emphasize the hubris of such moments of triumph: “many policymakers in the vanquished states, and notably in central Europe, firmly believed that they had delivered where the liberal revolutionaries of 1848 had failed…. Liberal democracy, which had failed to come into existence then, had finally emerged triumphant” (116-117). Thus the foundation of whatever ‘peace’ that existed after 1918 is cast as misguided and naïve.

fireandbloodA similar shift takes place in Enzo Traverso’s Fire and Blood: the European Civil War, 1914-1945, which was translated from the French last year. Traverso extends the period of violence even further than Gerwarth does, as he examines the years between the start of the First World War and the end of the Second World War as a single historical event. The characterization of the conflict as a civil war frames the European continent as a single polity tearing itself to shreds, with a shifting roster of combatants. At the beginning, the war emerges as typically as conflicts had for hundreds of years with a formal declaration of war and the mobilization of troops. It turns into a total war, in which civilians are fodder for the war machines of various state and non-state actors. Traverso notes that the norms of liberal democracy become subsumed under the conditions of civil war, which takes on its own horrible logic. He considers the Holocaust, the anti-fascist resistance, and the deaths of civilians on both sides of the wartime and interwar fronts as part of a single global epoch one in which the scale and chaos of violence was unmatched.

Fire and Blood also dislocates two of the most persistent assumptions of older accounts of the interwar period. One of these assumptions is the “anachronism so widespread today that projects onto the Europe of the interwar years the categories of our liberal democracy as if these were timeless norms and values” (2). The second incorrect assumption is that the Allied victory over the Nazis proved itself a “new triumph of Enlightenment…a victorious epic of progress” (276). Sandwiched between these moments is an account of resistance and violence with an almost aggressive refutation of teleology or a progress narrative. Thus, contained within what appears to be merely a chronological and geographic widening, Fire and Blood furnishes an overtly political refusal to celebrate what are meant to be the triumphs of liberal democracy and humanitarianism post-1945. Traverso demonstrates the profound impact a little rearrangement can have.

Indeed, the study of the interwar period has been until recently an investigation into what went wrong and then what went wrong a second time. This sort of narrative is necessarily based on an assumption that things were going right when they were not going wrong. The break between the old world order that existed before 1914 and the subsequent “self-immolation of bourgeois Europe” – to borrow a phrase from Tony Judt – had to be explained. Any discussion of the cultural production, social advances, scientific breakthroughs, moments of hope, or signals of progress had to be mitigated by the epilogue: “little did they know….” Attached to the study of the interwar period then, are the particular methodological and epistemic implications of studying something for its very failure. The historian knows what is to come, but no one else does. Melancholy saturates the prose of such works, and if not that, then a slightly smug dramatic irony.

We are far enough away from the interwar period that it has nearly lapsed out of living memory – the experience of the Great War almost completely gone. Despite this, as Traverso in particular has shown, the period carries meaning for our understandings of violence and collapse. The interwar years remain both near and far. There is continuity in our political lexicon, but many of the categories and their potency have shifted in the ensuing century. Old vocabularies are often deployed to refer to shifting phenomena. If the period is upheld in historians’ understanding as the non-violent (yet markedly uneasy) interlude between the collapse of European order on the one hand, and the triumph of the West and liberal democracy over the evils of fascism on another, then we are left with a very brittle image of what it feels like to endure violence. As Nitzan Lebovic notes in his review of Traverso’s book: “If the polis has been stained since its earliest days by the crimson tide of internal conflicts, its constitutive order should be seen in a different light.” What experiences of suffering sit just off-center, obscured by the stark periodization of war and peace and its accompanying narrative of progress? We are left with a story that marks crisis via formal declarations of war, and the cessation of formal conflict becomes synonymous with peace. The continuation of violence in the lands of the vanquished and the prolonged civil war with its own logic are two spatial-temporal re-orientations that serve to destabilize the creation myth of the order of global liberalism which we are meant to just now evaluate as “in crisis.” And so, as if historians ever needed a reminder: periodization matters. Scale matters. The interwar period is unique because we made it so – it has become in the historical profession and in the public imagination an epoch saturated with poignancy and foreboding, of possibility and thwarted progress. Our moment and the interwar period have been mutually constituted as interstices of chaos. Moving a few things around can have consequences.

Jared Sparks’ American Archives

by guest contributor Derek O’Leary

Jared Sparks—editor, historian, Harvard president—deposited a bundle of primary documents at Boston’s Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS) in the fall of 1838. It held a dozen or so political tracts, pamphlets, and newspapers from the middle of the previous decade capturing developments in the South American republics. There was nothing exceptional in such a Brahmin’s contribution to those archives, founded as the nation’s first historical society in 1791. A glance at the catalogues of donations and acquisitions in the MHS’s early decades reveals a local elite eager to give to its burgeoning collections. By also enticing a fairly far-flung network of corresponding members to contribute, the MHS exercised a strong centrifugal force. Within slighter orbits, the many state and local historical societies springing up from the 1820s onward followed this model, as H.G. Jones has shown most recently. Such new societies along the seaboard and in frontier cities drew toward them the scattered material record of the American past. And, dispersing diplomas and recognition, they urged filial piety to a swiftly passing revolutionary generation, which many were delighted to perform.

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Harvard president line-up (1861) with Sparks at center

Accessions piled up at the MHS. So, amid the compendia of donations in the first half of the nineteenth century, there is no reason Sparks’s modest collection of documents should stand out. But if stepping back or peering in closer, how can we read the construction of such American archives, and the meaning of a modest contribution like Sparks’s within them? Giving to an early archive represented the performance of some relationship with the American past, and it often implied a particular vision of the nation and its prospects. Closely reading these donations can reveal historical perspectives or arguments against what the societies might have imagined. On the broader phenomenon of performing and contesting historical consciousness in the early republic, scholars such as David Waldstreicher and Simon Newman have explored how it played out in the streets. In the text, the contentiousness and contingencies of telling the colonial and revolutionary past has emerged in such works as Edward Watt’s fascinating reading of competing American narratives of the French colonial legacy, and this intriguing anthology on memory and accounts of the Revolutionary War. Meanwhile, the nineteenth-century historical discipline has received close re-examination more recently by Eileen Ka-May Cheng. But the construction of the American archive itself remains a murkier place.

An MHS circular letter first authored in 1791 by founding member and seminal American document-gatherer Jeremy Belknap and addressed to “to every Gentleman of Science in the Continent and Islands of America” gives a sense, at least, of their early archival imagination. In order to “collect, preserve, and communicate materials for a complete history of this country,” the MHS called on towns to respond to their fourteen-point memorandum, which ranged across military history, religion, population statistics, topographical description, traces of Indian life, economic production, and educational institutions. Fellow founder Thomas Wallcut cast the ambitious scope of the society: “A collection of observations and descriptions in natural history and Topography, together with specimens of natural and artificial curiosities and a selection of every thing which can improve and promote the historical knowledge of our Country, either in a physical or political view, has long been considered as a Desideratum” (Thomas Wallcut, 1791, Massachusetts Historical Society Archives, 1758-1934, Officer and Council Records, Box 7, MHS).

Circular Letter, of the Historical Society, Jeremy Belknap, 1791, MHS

It was quite a desideratum, reissued in the following decades. Its numbered requests may have implied some proto-social scientific approach—perhaps belied by such inclusions as “singular instances of longevity and fecundity.” But it led to an unmanageable influx of paper and objects. In its first few decades, donors sent—or sought to sell—hundreds of election sermons, newspapers and pamphlets, personal papers and correspondence and Indian land deeds—satisfying at least some of the society’s stated aims.

Meanwhile, however, items more aptly deemed curious or totemic streamed in. This should not imply any clear partition between written and non-written traces of the past. Objects could be inscribed with or accompanied by text, and written records could surely attain meaning beyond their literal content. Tamara Plakins Thornton’s work on handwriting in the early US explores that theme, such as in the significance of autographs for appraisers and ravenous collectors. However, in the motley array of relics and specimens that Americans culled from their continent and the foreign world they increasingly encountered, the MHS collections brimmed over from the historical and into the encyclopedic. This is not to say these were all superfluous curios. But the whole is hard to read, and the sometimes intricate import of a donation can feel lost in the mélange. For instance, to take a snippet of donations reported at a 1792 meeting:

“…From Col. Andrew Symmes, One of the largest kind of spears used by the Savages on the N West Coast of America; Some hooks from the Northwest Coast and Sandwich Islands—a Ruler of Petrified Rice—and a Chinese Spoon […]”

“From Mr Elisha Sigourney an Egg of the Ostrich and some Shells from the Islands of the Indian Ocean [….]”

From one angle, these appear as a scattershot of exotic souvenirs, consigned to the relative obscurity of the society’s cabinet. And indeed, the MHS cabinet does not appear as a particularly accessible or well-curated site during these years. Yet from another perspective, it is a carbon copy in artifacts of the most ambitious and elaborate of American trade routes in the Early Republic—great oceanic arcs sweeping from New England, around South America to the Pacific Northwest, to the South Pacific, and onward to Canton, China, perhaps returning westward via the Indian Ocean. Stocked along the way, ginseng, silver, sea otter pelts, bêche-de-mer and other products proved barely enough to purchase coveted Chinese manufactured goods for delighted American consumers. It was a Boston story in particular—and one of great wealth and prestige, as much about inscribing the future as a record of the past.

Over decades, patriotic relics and Indian artifacts trickled in alongside such foreign and natural specimens. Again, though, items charged with a particular historical or other meaning can seem to homogenize in the archival catalogue. In 1832, John Watson of Germantown, Pennsylvania, and author of an often reprinted Annals of Philadelphia, sent northward various items. He presented an almanac annotated by English scholar Gilbert Wakefield, asserting that, “hand writing of such a venerable Patriot is a relic itself.” More literally, though, he also dispatched this hockey puck-sized box of relic wood, whether his own or another’s creation. On its bottom, he described its quadrants: “Walnut tree before the Hall of Independence-of the former forest there. The Mahogany is of Columbus’ house, St. Domingo, 1496. The Elm is of Penn’s Treaty tree Philda. The Oak, is part of a bridge once over Dock Creek, at Chestnut Street. The Gum is the last forest tree alive at Philda.-1832. ’Such relics as devotion holds / All sacred & preserves with pious care.’ ”

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Keepsake box donated by John Watson, 1832, Boxes 03.025 East Stack, MHS

Authentic or not, the artifact’s invocation of Columbus, colonial Pennsylvania, the Founding, and contemporary Philadelphia was a powerful composite of metonymic associations. His donation may not have so much preferred the MHS over his own state’s repositories as it vaunted Pennsylvania’s preeminent place in American history. Indeed, his concluding verse sacralizes it. Again, such items may in theory contribute to broader archival “desideratum” of comprehensively telling the country’s past, but they also imagine variations—sometimes contentious ones—of the national stories emerging at that time.

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Back of Watson’s keepsake box, Boxes 03.025 East Stack, MHS

These and sundry other items intersperse the long and narrow, chronological columns of documents in accession books at the MHS, as in many other historical societies’ catalogs. These columns almost teeter under the awkward diversity of things piled up to tell a part of the American past. At once, those columns might also appear to homogenize acquisitions into some unitary narrative project. Returning to Sparks, his bundle of documents appears as just a few blocks of text in these columns. Alongside myriad sermons, and such varied artifacts and singular relics, how could we interpret his papers as more than lines among many lines of accessions? And amid the arrival of so much, how could historical society members, the curious public, and visiting researchers broach it all? Though Sparks’s gift makes easy sense in the contexts of performing elite male identity and of heteroglossic donations, it fits oddly in the context of his life and work.

Sparks’s literary labors produced such ambitious undertakings as his editorship of The Diplomatic Correspondence of the American Revolution (1829-30) and The Library of American Biography (1834-38), alongside publications of the life and writings of John Ledyard, Gouverneur Morris, and Benjamin Franklin. Beginning in the mid-1820s, though, his most abiding, near obsessive project, atop any archival pantheon, was the collection, curation, and republication of George Washington’s papers (1834-38). He fought and won access via Judge Bushrod Washington to Washington’s papers at Mt. Vernon. He roved the US and visited European state archives. He recorded oral histories. And he activated a wide-ranging network of correspondents. Day by day, in this mammoth effort of re-composition, he accumulated a massive collection of Washington’s doings and writings, along with quite a few artifacts. Throughout his diaries, we see through his gaze a geography of unrecovered papers and a demography appraised by individuals’ access to them. He became a perambulating archive of sorts. Only begrudgingly in 1835 did Sparks ultimately transfer to the US State Department the 192 bound manuscript volumes of Washington’s papers which he had already sold to them. (Indeed, he seems to have flirted with the idea of using them as a security for a $5000 loan that year.)

This drive to gather and keep propelled Sparks’s many labors, including those behind his spirited effort to build a collection of the South American revolutions and early independence in the mid-1820s. From the vantage point as editor of the North American Review, he pressed the US consular officers and diplomats stationed throughout the new South American republics, as well as local men of state and letters, to collect and dispatch all documents covering the full sweep of revolution and independence there. He wrote in rhythm with the approaching Panama Congress of 1826, orchestrated by Simón Bolívar, and aspiring to coordinate a South American security policy against feared infringement by Spain and the Holy Alliance. As Sparks began to comb the North American landscape for the written traces of its revolution, he simultaneously looked southward from 1824. In his many letters there, we sense his urgency to educate his compatriots about South America, to compile a comprehensive history of their revolutions, and perhaps to tell a hemispheric history of American revolution to suit the inchoate geopolitical vision of the Monroe Doctrine. His appeals for paper, and reproofs when it was not forthcoming, crescendoed as the US Congress debated sending a delegation to Panama.

And then, suddenly, they stopped. Surely discouraged by the miscarriage of the US delegation and the potential for inter-American concert, Sparks moved on. He redirected his energies from South America to the American South and Canada, and then across the Atlantic to the French and British records of his republic’s independence. This North Atlantic story replaced a budding hemispheric imagination. A decade later, Sparks deposited a portion of his small South American archive at the MHS, a rare off-loading from his collections. Again, how might we read the material construction of an archive in this period, when a submission can be as much a history— or, indeed, an imagined future—untold or jettisoned, as part of some comprehensive record of the past?

Derek OLeary is a PhD candidate in UC Berkeleys History Department, where he is working on a dissertation about the construction of archives and historical narratives in the early US. He has an MA in International Relations from the Fletcher School at Tufts University.

Rejecting Church and State in Medieval Anatolia

by guest contributor Hugh Jeffery

The Çaltısuyu, a tributary of the Euphrates, flows through the dramatic canyons of eastern Anatolia. At around 1,225 meters above sea level, it emerges onto a barren highland plateau overlooked by the crumbling remains of a medieval castle. The small town of Divriği lies on the gentle slope beneath. Although its ornate thirteenth-century mosque has been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, few tourists make the journey to this remote and mountainous region.

The Great Mosque of Divriği, photograph by Avniyazici

The Great Mosque of Divriği, photograph by Avniyazici

Accessibility is usually something of a prerequisite for the establishment of a new town. Quite the opposite was true for Divriği. This site was first settled around the middle of the ninth century CE by a group of religious dissidents known as Paulicians. The event is recorded by Peter the Sicilian, an Orthodox Christian monk writing in tenth-century Constantinople: “[…] [T]hey went and founded Tefrice [Τεφρική] and lived there. So that at one and the same time [they] might escape the tyranny over them of the Agareni [Arabs] of Melitene, and also, imitating the demons completely in the avoidance of mankind, might be near both Armenia and Romania” (trans. Janet Hamilton and Bernard Hamilton, 91).

The Islamic emirate of Melitene lay to the south of the new Paulician settlement. To the east, the Christian nakharars (lords) of Armenia ruled the valleys and plains of the mountainous southern Caucasus. To the west was the medieval Roman Empire administered from its capital at Constantinople. The Paulicians were seeking an area out of the reach of contemporary states. According to the same source, this refuge attracted not only fellow heretics fleeing persecution but also “the greediest and most licentious and foolish people from the frontier regions” (92).

Around a month ago, I picked up Yale anthropologist Jim Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. It’s a fascinating book, one whose central theses are applicable to many premodern historical contexts. The object of Scott’s study is Zomia, a rugged inland massif covering some 2.5 million square kilometers, stretching from northeast India to southern China, and incorporating parts of Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. The lowland kingdoms have traditionally seen the approximately 100 million people living in this region as “living ancestors,” Neolithic savages stumbling over the starting line of the race to Civilization.

Ma Pi Leng Pass (Vietnam), at the eastern edge of the Zomia, photograph by Jaybeelarsay

Ma Pi Leng Pass (Vietnam), at the eastern edge of the Zomia, photograph by Jaybeelarsay

Scott begins with an analysis of the limits of state space, suggesting that landscapes that impede travel and communication, such as mountains and marshes, are inherently more difficult to control. His second contention is that the movement of groups and individuals between state and non-state space goes in both directions. The concentration of population in premodern states resulted in high mortality rates from disease and malnutrition, and so such structures have frequently been dependent on coercive or incentivized ingathering of peripheral groups to maintain population levels. The inhabitants of non-state spaces, far from being relics of the Stone Age, are often fugitives from embryonic or expansionist lowland states. Such communities are therefore post-agrarian, post-state, and sometimes even post-literate. Moreover, groups wishing to distance themselves from the state employ social institutions and agricultural technologies that actively prevent their incorporation. Rice is a perfect crop for state building. The need for constant maintenance of the paddies roots the peasant population in place, and the brief annual window in which the grains must be harvested allows for easy appropriation. By way of contrast, the sweet potato, introduced to Southeast Asia from the New World in the sixteenth century, was an immediate hit among the hill communities. Delicious, nutritious and virtually invisible above ground, root crops can be left in the earth for up to two years and harvested at any time. They are fiscally illegible.

The mountains of central Asia Minor present a similarly fractious and state-resistant zone. That Scott’s propositions might be relevant in this landscape was first noted by Peter Thonemann in his essay “Phrygia: An Anarchist History.” He argued that the collapse of the archaic Phrygian state on the plateaux of the Anatolian highlands between the sixth and fourth century BCE ought to be read as a deliberate adaptation to the impositions of Achaemenid Persian imperialism. By the time of the birth of Christ, Asia Minor was nominally under Roman control, and would remain so until the incursions of Seljuk nomads in the later eleventh century. Yet the empire was never able to extend its sovereignty far into the highlands. These remained the domain of “barbarian” peoples, such as the Isaurians of the southern Taurus Mountains. In the sixth century CE, Emperor Justinian attempted to impose imperial control on Tzanica, the mountainous region south of modern Trabzon, through the construction of roads, garrisons, and churches—the most fundamental instantiations of the Roman state. Even in the twenty-first century, many such areas are home to Kurdish guerrilla fighters evading the military might of the modern Republic of Turkey.

The Tahtalı Mountains in Central Anatolia, photograph by Joonas Plaan

The Tahtalı Mountains in Central Anatolia, photograph by Joonas Plaan

The final chapter of Scott’s book concerns the doctrinally heterodox, millenarian, and militant religious tendencies of the upland peoples of Southeast Asia. In medieval Asia Minor too, the highlands were associated with heresy and religious dissent. Perhaps the most prominent of these dissenting traditions was that of the Paulicians, discussed in some detail by a few texts in medieval Greek and Armenian. That they were a consciously self-reproducing group with an independent literary tradition is clear from some of our Greek sources, which cite texts composed by the Paulicians themselves. They rejected the Orthodox Churches of Constantinople and Armenia and functioned with only a minimalist hierarchy, with no church buildings or distinctions of dress. By the ninth century they were capable of mobilizing large raiding forces from their mountain strongholds. In 870 CE, the Paulician Chrysocheir sacked the city of Ephesus on the eastern shore of the Aegean Sea, stabling his horses in its magnificent cathedral in a calculated gesture of contempt.

There exists a Soviet-Armenian historiographical tradition in which the Paulicians play the role of class-conscious revolutionaries. I have no intention of returning to this rightly discredited model. However, I would like to suggest that Scott’s theses of state evasion through the strategic use of natural geography and heterodox cosmology may be useful in explaining the evident appeal of Paulicianism. Let’s return to ninth-century Anatolia. Warfare was endemic, with annual raids launched from the Arab emirates met by slash-and-burn tactics from the generally smaller Roman frontier armies. In such circumstances, pastoralism, inherently more mobile and therefore better suited to insecure conditions, prevailed over arable farming. Those who grew cereals were exposed not only to hostile raiding parties but also to the Roman taxman. The tax assessment was based on an inflexible ascribed value of the land, rather than the total product produced in a given year. A poor crop invited financial disaster. In addition to these routine dangers, the Anatolian peasantry also faced the threat of mass deportation to Constantinople and its Thracian hinterland. For example, the eighth-century emperor Constantine V ordered the forced transportation of those living in the vicinity of the fortresses of Theodosiopolis and Melitene. The response of the Roman state to heterodoxy might quickly degenerate into indiscriminate violence. In or shortly after 843 CE, the empress-regent Theodora charged a group of noblemen with the task of converting the perceived Paulician minority within the Anatolian population to Orthodoxy. According to the chronicler Zonoras, “they handled their commission clumsily and to no avail, and not merely wasted their labour but drove the entire people (who number many thousands) to apostatize” (Hamilton and Hamilton, 63).

The sack of Ephesus in 870 was too great a provocation to ignore. Within two years, Roman field armies had captured and destroyed the settlement at Tephrike (Divriği). The Paulician leader Chrysocheir was killed, though his name would survive in the oral epic poetry of the frontier region. Nevertheless, before his death he had made a highly unusual demand of the Roman state. Military uprisings in this period were not uncommon. Typically, the leader of a rebellion, such as Thomas the Slav in 821–23, would declare themselves emperor and march their troops to Constantinople. What Chrysocheir demanded was the secession of the eastern provinces from Constantinopolitan control. Modern historians have often described Tephrike as the capital of a Paulician state. While I do not wish to suggest that the sect was aiming to create an anarchist utopia, I would contest the simplistic deployment of this term. It was not simply the case that Paulicians were attracted to remote places in which they might practice their religion without fear of violence. Those who sought to evade the state would also have been attracted to Paulician refuges, where the art of not being governed was being practiced with remarkable effectiveness.

Hugh Jeffery is a doctoral student at the University of Oxford, specializing in the archaeology of medieval Asia Minor.

Croce between Hughes & White

by contributing editor Eric Brandom

The AHA met in Denver this past weekend. What follows is not a conference report, although there was much worthy of that. It is, rather, a response of sorts to two of the events I attended there in the form of a reflection on two classic works of intellectual history—H. Stuart Hughes’s Consciousness and Society and Hayden White’s Metahistory—that were discussed at these events. The very different books both assign great importance to Benedetto Croce, and treat him at some length as part of a much broader argument.

The problem of objectivity in social science occupies the heart of Hughes’s 1958 Consciousness and Society: The Reorientation of European Social Thought, 1890-1930. The book is rich, wide-ranging, and combines durable typologizing with uncommon subtlety. The narrative runs something as follows. In the middle of the 19th century, positivism reigned supreme, and positivists were certain that the social world could be known and perhaps even acted upon just as could the natural world. Such knowledge turned out to be at once elusive and unsatisfying. In the later part of the century, many thinkers in parallel staged a “revolt against positivism.” The positivism they attacked was often a caricature. For Hughes, the most enduring thinkers to emerge from this moment were those that felt deeply within themselves the pathos of the age, the wrenching pain of relativism, but also remained faithful to the core rationalist project of Enlightenment that had issued in the now-bankrupt positivism. Many proved to be all too willing to give up the egalitarian and democratic bent of the Enlightenment mindset when its notion of science proved unequal to social reality. Hughes’s story is partly one of the generation of 1890, but also of the encounter of this generation with the war in 1914, and the shards of what had come before that survived into the 1920s. This generation, Hughes writes,

had passed their youth at the climax of the Enlightenment—and simultaneously had inaugurated its most probing critique…their own psychological security—their confidence in such unstated assumptions as humane behavior and intellectual integrity—had given them the inner strength to inaugurate an unprecedented examination of conscience…The philosophies of urbane doubt—skepticism, pragmatism, pluralism—held no terrors for them (Hughes 426).

Their younger brothers (and here we indeed are speaking entirely about men) did seem to be terrified of these things, and Hughes identifies his period as one of experimentation and permissiveness between two ages of dogmatism.

Hughes identifies three figures as the geniuses of the age: Max Weber, Sigmund Freud, and Benedetto Croce. He explicitly writes about the problems and the figures he does because they have relevance in his own time, because the United States in the 1950s had not lost the orientation in social thought then established. Although Hughes doesn’t put it quite this way, as I read him, he believes that Weber more than anyone else posed rightly the central problems of value and objectivity and so provides a sort of standard—and leads into midcentury American social science; that Freud probed more deeply into the individual human psyche than ever before and is therefore an indispensable methodological tool, for instance for understanding Weber’s personality; and that Croce, who first formulated what Hughes takes to be the social science objections to Marxism, provides essential orientation for the historian in pursuing historical work.

Croce’s career can be schematized in terms of his three best-known slogans or positions: first, that history is to be subsumed under the category of art; second that all history is contemporary history; third that history is the story of liberty. This last is the title given in English translation to his 1938 La storia come pensiero e come azione, in which he defends what he describes as “absolute historicism.” Each of these slogans has a certain initial appeal. Yet Hughes’ description of the experience of reading Croce rings true:

Croce’s prose is limpid; it has the rare charm of sounding like the voice of common sense…With irresistible persuasiveness Croce carries his readers along with him. As we come to the end of a chapter we are both captivated and convinced. But when we subject the same pages to more careful analytical scrutiny, we find ourselves no longer so sure…we are driven to ask ourselves in despair: exactly what has Croce said anyway? (Hughes 223)

Indeed for Hughes the problem with Croce was that perhaps just because he in the end assimilated everything into the category of history, he never successfully came to terms with the non-rational character of value. Thus, “the ultimate irony of Croce’s thinking” is that “what starts as a rationalist theory terminates in a kind of mysticism” (Hughes 227). Hughes indicts Croce finally for a certain detachment, what has often been describes as an Olympian equanimity, “in brief, he lacked a sense of tragedy” (Hughes 229).

Irony and tragedy are key terms in White’s Metahistory, which appeared just 15 years after Hughes’ book. White uses the tools of structuralist literary criticism to examine what he calls the “deep structure” of the 19th century European historical imagination. The introduction establishes a system of interpretive categories: master rhetorical tropes, narrative or emplotment, explanatory or argumentative strategies, and modes of ideological implication. Just as, for Hughes, the truly enduring thinkers are those who struggled mightily with a deep contradiction, so for White those texts that remain alive to us are the result of internal struggle. Together with the centrality of rhetorical categories, White has taken on a theory of literary excellence: the best works struggle to synthesize incompatible modes. We as readers may continue to return to Michelet, but not to Ranke: “we admire the achievement of the latter, but we respond directly and sympathetically to the agon of the former” (White 191). White describes the larger goal of his book as an overcoming, through Irony, of the Ironic mode that is the origin of “the skepticism and pessimism of so much of contemporary historical thinking.” In so doing, “the way will have been partially cleared for the reconstitution of history as a form of intellectual activity which is at once poetic, scientific, and philosophical in its concerns—as it was during history’s golden age in the nineteenth century” (White xii).

The final chapter is on Benedetto Croce, regarded by White as “the most talented historian of all the philosophers of history of the century” (White 378). The first pages of the chapter recapitulate the path so far. After Nietzsche, “it remained only for a philosopher of history to reflect on this severed condition of historical consciousness and to conclude that historical knowledge itself was nothing but the existential projection of the Ironic mode to complete the cycle of possible historical attitudes in the philosophy of history…The problem would then be: how could one live with a history explained and emplotted in the Ironic mode without falling into that condition of despair which Nietzsche had warded off only by a retreat into irrationalism?” (White 378). Thus White must end with Croce because the task he believes Croce to have shouldered was just the one that White sees himself as taking up.

And Croce evidently failed. Looking over the first major phase of Croce’s work, from the 1893 programmatic essay reducing history to a subcategory of art, then the tetralogy of books from 1902-1917 making up his “Philosophy of Spirit,” White notes the central place occupied by history as a category. White goes on to object that “Croce consistently presupposed the absolute adequacy of his own “Philosophy of Spirit” for the spiritual needs of his age,” and that “he looked out at contending systems and back to preceding ones with that same Ironic gaze which the great cynics have shared with the great fanatics.” In short, Croce could not regard himself with ironic detachment (White 379). Despite his claims to have constituted “ethico-political” history, “in aestheticizing history, Croce de-ethicized it” (White 401).

White’s final judgment on Croce is withering. Croce’s liberalism, indeed his whole system of philosophy and history “was a sublimate of his generation’s awareness of the passing of an age, the Age of Europe, of humanism, and of that combination of aristocratic and bourgeois values which gave to the ruling groups of nineteenth-century Europe their distinctive life style” (White 423). History as contemporary history indeed. If White’s approach is narratological, it has frequently been pointed out that his chapters are nonetheless biographical. The chapter on Croce is no exception, indeed in the end the facts of Croce’s biography are adduced as evidence (not, White says, that more is needed) to show in good Marxist fashion that his work derives from his class position. White finds “the social equivalents of Croce’s main abstract philosophical categories: the principle of Life was nothing but a sublimation of aristocratic heroism; that of Death was nothing more than the bourgeois acceptance of practical exigency. The interplay of the two constituted Croce’s conception of culture, and the story of that interplay was his idea of history” (White 425)

The gambit of Metahistory, of course, is also to aestheticize history. White does not want to repeat Croce in emptying it of ethical content, if indeed we agree with him that this is what Croce did, and one can surely argue about his conduct under fascism. Rather, by being yet more self-conscious than Croce, White wants to pull the teeth of Irony itself and with liberatory intent:

Historians and philosophers of history will then be freed to conceptualize history, to perceive its contents, and to construct narrative accounts of its processes in whatever modality of consciousness is most consistent with their own moral and aesthetic aspirations. And historical consciousness will stand open to the re-establishment of its links with the great poetic, scientific, and philosophical concerns which inspired the classic practitioners and theorists of its golden age in the nineteenth century (White 434).

Hughes’s criticisms of Croce may be turned on White’s own attempt to overcome Croce. Like Croce his vision of what the writing of history might be seems impossibly encompassing. Beginning with art, White brackets the objectivity that so concerned Hughes and ends in historiography as freedom. White sets out with a rational formalist (although not a formist) account of historical thought and his book issues if not exactly in mysticism, in a therapeutic for historians.