Saturday, September 17, 2022

Old Narratives

One of the early conference presenters provided a quick overview of the relevant history of the period from the Authorised Version and Shakespeare to the Inklings.  He focused on the religious and literary highlights in Europe and especially Britain, which was appropriate given the subject matter.  I don't mind narrowing of focus and excluding many voices when the situation calls for it. So it's dead white Christians and that's fine. Yet his summary was entirely from the perspective of men, and the clerics of the higher classes, and dominated by the Anglican-Reformed-Lutheran perspective. The last being odd when Tolkien is prominent on the bill. It was a history such as I might have heard in 1975 and even then wondered whether it might be a touch shabby.

Conservatives complain about various perspectives being shoved in unnecessarily, like bystanders joining a parade and snatching away a drum or commandeering a float, but it is a measure of how much we did need to change our ways. History could get narrowed to reporting on kings and the focus on succession. That was the focus of the few most powerful people in those times - though even they had illnesses, and farms, and trade to worry about - but that doesn't mean it has to be our focus.  Religion, technology, disease, marriage customs, food, immigration, arts, and trade are not merely ornaments on the kingly Christmas tree. If you poke around looking for summaries of regional or national histories you will always find that a few of these are missing from consideration, and sometimes nearly all of them. They are the real history, and which Edward, Louis, Charles, or Henry is on the throne for a season might be ultimately not very important.  Peasants are important.  You can learn a lot about what was happening in a place by looking at what happened to the peasants. Their lives don't change much from year to year, but it is precisely for this reason that examination is helpful.  If you check back in fifty years and the lives of peasants have changed, it means big things have been happening. Weather, trade, migration...something. Similarly the lives of women were downstream of what the men were doing and they had to scramble for rights and influence. They were left unstudied because in the moment whatever was happening with the barons looked like where things were at. Yet again, if you check between countries and see some difference between the life of Anne and the life of Johanna, it means large things are afoot that bear noticing. For this reason I think the focus by women on powerful women and great accomplishments in history has much the same weakness.  Focusing on a person is an easier narrative to relate to, and especially when writing for the young it does not pay to be too abstract. In that circumstance finding a female scientist, author, or queen to focus on is fine. 

But it is only fine by default, by having little other choice if one wants an audience. Women's history, minority history, peasant history - these are not captured by focus on the exceptions. Their value is in the reminder that an enormous number of people, the bulk of the population,  are left out under the old narrative. The aggregate is the story. We don't fix the limitations of Great Man history by slipping in a few women.

How we tell history has changed, even among those who say they favor the old way of doing history.  And much of it is good.

Update: There will be a reference to the Hajnal Line, and marriage customs influencing genetics on a remarkably short time-scale coming up.  Steve Hsu interviewed Greg Clark and I would like to revisit that just a bit.


David Foster said...

Sebastian Haffner, at the close of his narrative of his life in Germany between the wars:

"If you read ordinary history books…you get the impression that no more than a few dozen people have are involved…According to this view, the history of the present decade is a kind of chess game between Hitler, Mussolini, Chiang Kai-Shek, Roosevelt, Chamberlain, Daladier, and a number of other men whose names are on everybody’s lips. We anonymous others seem at best to be the objects of history, pawns in the chess game…It may seem a paradox, but it is none the less a simple truth, to say that on the contrary, the decisive historical events take place among us, the anonymous masses. The most powerful dictators, ministers, and generals are powerless against the simultaneous mass decisions taken individually and almost unconsciously by the population at large…Decisions that influence the course of history arise out of the individual experiences of thousands or millions of individuals.

This is not an airy abstract construction, but indisputably real and tangible. For instance, what was it that caused Germany to lose the Great War of 1918 and the Allies to win it? An advance in the leadership of Foch and Haig, or a decline in Ludendorff’s? Not at all. It was the fact that the ‘German soldier’, that is the majority of an anonymous mass of ten million individuals, was no longer willing, as he had been until then, to risk his life in any attack, or hold his position to the last man."


"Indeed, behind these questions are some very peculiar, very revealing, mental processes and experiences, whose historical significance cannot yet be fully gauged These are what I want to write about. You cannot get to grips with them if you do not track them down to the place where they happen: the private lives, emotions, and thoughts of individual Germans…There, in private, the fight is taking place in Germany. You will search for it in vain in the political landscape, even with the most powerful telescope. Today the political struggle is expressed by the choice of what a person eats and drinks, whom he loves, what he does in his spare time, whose company he seeks, whether he smiles or frowns, what pictures he hangs on his walls. It is here that the battles of the next world war are being decided in advance. That may sound grotesque, but it is the truth.

That is why I think that by telling my seemingly private, insignificant story I am writing real history, perhaps even the history of the future. It actually makes me happy that in my own person I do not have a particularly important, outstanding subject to describe. That is also why I hope my intimate chronicle will find favour in the eyes of the serious reader, who has no time to waste, and reads a book for the information it contains and its usefulness."

David Foster said...

The point that history is more than the story of "a few dozen people", though, doesn't mean that things are improved by focusing on a single race or gender in isolation..(although some of that is fine, initially, to overcome omissions)..or by idiotic single-factor explanations (Marxism, the 1619 project) or by mindlessly centering everything around whatever is The Current Thing.