Should the historian missmarple?

Lately, I’ve been dwelling on a recent comment by Robert Leonard on this blog:

“I have found the biggest struggle to be learning to stop, or suspend, thinking as an economist. A training in economics is a necessary point of departure, but it can also quickly become a yoke around one’s neck when it comes to writing history, especially a history that tries to embrace the subtleties of language and human behaviour. For that, I’m inclined to view novels and other fiction as better preparation.”

I have never been able to face the use of the novels and fiction I read without a good share of guilt. Using them to immerse in a time, to understand its beat, its fears and hopes I find acceptable (to myself), but using them to get into people’s mind with hope of better understanding people (and thus economists’ and scientists’) motives, wants, ambitions… this really decent? Doesn’t it make up for my lack of empathy, sensibility, observation, openess? Why am I unable to explain why I sense that my interest in science fiction should eventually permeate my historical research?

But do I have any other mean to refine this ability to “embrace the subtleties of human behavior” that makes a good historian? Also, when I’m calling in the psychological description of such character to flesh the sense of collapse and uncertainty and a jewish emigré may have felt in the early thirties or a graduate student may have experienced in Vietnam, for instance, I feel I’m making the implicit –and unwarranted- assumption that there is something permanent in the human nature that transcends times and cultures.

miss-marple-investigates-n71727lThis unmistakably bring me back to my old missmarpling dilemma. Miss Marple is this armchair detective by Agatha Christie who is able to solve various crimes by drawing parallels between the riddles she faces and seemingly unrelated and insignificant incidents she had witnessed in her little village of Saint Mary Mead. Her idea is that “human nature is much the same everywhere” the same and that to gain insight into human motives, observing a small microcosm is sufficient. I wonder how much missmarpling historians can/ should afford? Can we write good history by comparing situations we witness or experience (including our professional tribulations) with those of previous economists, even though their individual history, context and, of course, abilities are different? Are we allowed as historians to fill the holes left by published and unpublished records, to flesh the skeleton and endow it with the voice that reflects the murmurs of our empathy for our subjects?

How I then travel from Miss Marple to Carlo Ginzburg is unclear. Is it the detective analogy that is so often used to describe’s Ginzburg’s work? Is it noting that empathy toward one’s characters is not something an historian studying witches in the XIVth century can afford, but remembering that arousing the reader’s empathy toward unknowns’ histories –microhistories- is how Ginzburg intends to restore justice and truth in history? Is it directly because of his awareness of the relationships of history to litterature (taken from this interview)?

TRG: Would it be correct to say that one of those challenges confronting history is its relationship with literature? You have often written of your interest in the modernist tradition. But literary modernism’s critique of the traditional representations of reality is frequently adduced as one of the chief examples of the impossibilities inherent in traditional historical projects.

CGinzburg: To me, that is yet another artificial contradiction. To regard history and literature as two wholly disparate fields is both mistaken and unhistorical. They have always existed in dialogue, more or less overlapping. The fact that historical writing sometimes devolves into fiction and that, furthermore, it often relies on literary models, should not surprise us. A much more challenging approach – to history and literature alike – is to start out from the fact that both disciplines share an obligation to the truth, and to see how this has been lived up to at different times. I consider literary modernism first of all as an attempt to discover new forms of truthfulness, not least on a formal plane. In that respect it is highly relevant to me as an historian.

Every literary device – be it in a fictional or historical text – makes reality visible in its own way, conveys its vision of reality. Specific linguistic forms are related to specific forms of truth, one might say. There is a kind of formal constraint at work here ­- every literary form forces us to discover one thing and ignore something else. The traditional narrative, for example, has its own innate limitations, it imposes a kind of sequential contstraint: something has to come first, something else later. When I wrote The Cheese and the Worms, I dreamed of writing the whole book on one gigantic page, so that I could escape this straitjacket. It was, of course, a ridiculous idea. But the literary form employed by the historian will always be one of the two central filters that separate the historical work from the reality it sets out to portray. The other filter is the sources themselves. Both these filters in reality imply an infinite number of potentially distorting factors. In that way, the idea of a simple historical narrative is as absurd as the idea of irrefutable historical proof.

TRG: Ever since you published your very first scientific treatise, you retained your own highly distinctive style of writing and composition. Your texts are structured in series of freestanding paragraphs or short chapters, which gives the writing a disjointed, essay-like character, even in a large work like Ecstasies. What induced you to adopt such a style ?

CGinzburg: I came across this way of setting out material when, as a young man, I read an essay by Luigi Einaudi, a distinguished economist and economic historian who eventually became president of Italy. He was the father of Giulio, the well-known publisher. The essay was constructed as a series of numbered paragraphs ­- a device which appealed to my own fascination with cinema and montage. Montage corresponds to what I consider to be the constructive element in historical studies: it makes it clear that our knowledge is fragmentary and that it derives from an open process. It has always been my ambition that the uncertainty of the research process should come through in what I write ­- I try to portray my own hesitation, so to speak, to enable the reader to make his own judgement. Historical writing should aspire to be democratic, by which I mean that it should be possible to check our statements from without, and that the reader be a party not only to the conclusions arrived at but also to the process that led to them.

From Leonard to Miss Marple and Miss Marple to Ginzburg, the relationships of historians to litterature is a fascinating one


5 thoughts on “Should the historian missmarple?

  1. I am not fond of personality cults but I have made an exception for Carlo Ginzburg. The interview is fascinating to me because Ginzburg asks us to consider history writing as writing. (Leonard of course knows this better than most of us, and he has shown it.)

    I am stuck to the familiar form of the research paper, 5/6 sections, intro and conclusion, meaty sections in tucked in between, basically a BLT. I think I need some coaching in creative writing.

  2. A late comment because I kind of shy away from criticizing Ginzburg. However, I am now ready to do my coming out: I am not impressed either by the interview or by the micro-history project, which by the way did not really caught on outside Latin-speaking countries (if anyone has more information on this point, please do share it on this blog). As I read the interview what Ginzburg says is slightly contradictory on a few points, in particular on the style of writing history.
    On the one hand, as Tiago and Beatrice pointed out, he induces us to consider historical writing as very connected to literature but on the other hand, he was inspired for his own idiosyncratic style, not by a novel or a literary essay, but by an essay by a social scientist. It is not a big contradiction, but still it is a bit disturbing.
    In a more fundamental way, I have been made uneasy by his constant use of “truth” argument. He used it to criticize the post-modern theorist, but by speaking of the “truthfulness” of literature he very much deprived the concept of truth from any meaningful sense, or to put it more lightly of any notion of absoluteness that is (in my opinion) contained in the notion of truth. By the same token he could have spoken of the “truthfulness” of dreams and fantasies, which rings nicely to my literary ears, but says little that is understandable to my social scientist soul. I am not even sure that post-modernists would object to such relativist notion of truth.

    1. My understanding is that micro history is an influential approach in social history generally, in anglosaxon countries too. At the economic history department at the LSE people knew about Ginzburg.

      In his defense I think you are trying to pidgeonhole him into preexisting categories that are your own. Ginzburg is literary because he needs to imagine the story from his thin evidence. He goes for truth as a convenient myth to construct a narrative. Maybe the modern vs postmodern maneiquism does not cover everything, and some people don’t fit well in it. Wouldn’t that be nice…

  3. This reply is very late, I apologize, it’s because I wanted to re-read Leonard’s paper on Morgenstern (“Between worlds”) before. When it comes to history and writing, I’d rather start from Leonard than from Ginzsburg, if only because, as Loic says, Ginzburg litterary project is closely associated to his “truth” argument, and I find this disturbing.

    Tiago, I don’t think that “truth” is “a convenient myth” for Ginzburg. For him, truth arise from historical work is such a litterally sense that it could be used to dismiss trial outcomes and that the historian is eventually similar to a judge.

    As for Leonard’s paper, a pure writing experience, I wonder what sort of additional historical knowledge is gain from breaking the rules. I don’t remember my feeling when I first read it, beyond being disturbed by the lack of notes, and the impossibility therefore to know when leonard exactly knows how Morgenstern felt (from his diaries from instance) and when he filled holes. But no time for another reading until summer…..

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