Imagining History #1: Speaking with the Dead


Speaking with the Dead

Stephen Greenblatt (the principal architect of 'new historicism') once spoke of his desire to communicate with the dead. He wanted to know what historical writers were thinking about when they wrote, rather than what he as a modern reader might make of what they wrote long after the event. Consequently, he seeks to pressure an old text with a marginal anecdote, or historical 'trace', from its own period (which he calls 'a touch of the real'), to reveal what mattered, what really mattered, then
According to the literary critic Sarah Maza, Greenblatt (and his co-author Catherine Gallagher) aspire to "wield the anecdote...petite histoire, 'little history', as a weapon against the 'totalising' dangers of the grand narrative or grande recite".

Maza on Greenblatt and de Man
Sarah Maza, 2004, 'Stephen Greenblatt, New Historicism, and Cultural History', Modern Intellectual History, 1.2, 249-265

"The criticisms of conventional history that Greenblatt advances most frequently are all closely related: that history over-tames the past by cramming it onto the Procrustean bed of some grand scheme or other; that it leaves little room for contingency or agency; and that it has no place for the bizarre, the marginal, or the inconceivable. Greenblatt's rejection of traditional historicism follows from the same logic that led poststructuralists like Paul de Man to turn away from history: the reasoning that historicism was an artifact of modernity which led to the privileging of a single dominant narrative, that history as normally practiced generated stable visions and predictable stories with no room for contingency. Standard 'contextual' explanations of works of art proposed a single interpretation based on a consensus about dominant historical patterns, thereby closing off other readings and robbing both the text and the social of their self-contradictory complexity."

In other words, Greenblatt dislikes 'presentism'; our tendency to read historical documents in the light of all the history that has passed since then, and make assumptions about what was 'known' or 'accepted' at that time.

Gallagher on Thompson and Foucault
Catherine Gallagher, 'Counter history and the anecdote', in Catherine Gallagher and Stephen Greenblatt, 2000, Practicing New Historicism, University of Chicago Press

Gallagher admires "practitioners of 'history from below'"; those who use "the undisciplined anecdote", thereby "preserving the radical strangeness of the past" through "overlooked anomalies, suppressed anachronisms". She cites E.P Thompson and Michel Foucault among her sources as exemplary 'counter-historians'.

E.P. Thompson: 1963, The Making of the English Working Class, and 1974, Crime and Society in Eighteenth-Century England.

"...historian E.P. Thompson, for example, interspersed his prose with the putatively unprocessed 'voices' of the lower classes...striving to present previously disregarded historical subjects, who could give access to a multiplicity of grant even the most 'mistaken' of his historical subjects the dignity of a full hearing...the effect he sought...was to force the reader to take in the past 'in its own terms'...estrangement of the reader, the creation of surprise and conceptual dissonance...he particularly relished marginal language that was dense, specific, misspelled, and ideologically irretrievable, such as the threatening letters that found their way into the 'London Gazette' of the eighteenth century alongside the proclamations of the king and Privy Council and other news of court...

'Sr: Your Baily or Steward proper is a black guard sort of fellow to the Workmen and if you dont discharge him You may Look to Your House being sett on fire if Stones will not Burn You damned Son of a hoare You shall have Your throat cutt from Ear to Ear except You Lay 50 pounds under the Second tree of Staple Nashes from his house at the front of the Great Gates near the Rabbit Warrin on Wesdy Morn next...'

The 'voice'...has a paradoxical effect: its immediacy is only felt through its strangeness... deviant textuality...quaint spelling and lack of punctuation is what makes the voice 'audible'...the 'speaking through' of this radically unfamiliar subject opens a thrilling gulf between 'them' and 'us': 'But they lived through this time, and we do not'. Thompson's paradoxical 'effect of the real'-via-the-strange is a far cry from the usual rhetoric of objectivity...he happily violated a methodological taboo...determining not to judge the behaviour of common Britons...but instead to retrieve their own rationales, their understandings in that moment...consider Thompson's essays on the food riots of the 1790s, riots that looked futile and self-destructive in the hindsight of most late 20th century economic historians...Thompson attempted to stop the action at the moment of the riots themselves...imagines the 'moral economy' half lived and half dreamt by the rioters...his counter history, alternate history; the history...of things that did not happen...the history of the unrealised."

Michel Foucault, 1979, The Life of Infamous Men

"This is in no way a history book. This is an anthology of existences...Brief lives, chanced upon in books and documents...Singular lives, those which have become...strange poems."

" be composed entirely of anecdotes of the obscure and atypical...residues of the struggle between unruly persons and the power that would subjugate or expel them...the structures of power preserve the errant subjects in the very act of apprehending and destroying them...The anecdotes...drawn from 'archives of confinement, police, petitions to the king, and lettres de cachet'...not only the records of encounters between power and obscurity, but also the very instruments of the encounters themselves..."

"The most intense point of lives, the one where their energy is concentrated, is precisely there, where they clash with power, struggle with it, endeavour to utilise its forces or escape its traps...These words are what gives to them, in order to travel through time, the brief flash of sound and fury which carries them even to us."

Gallagher concludes
"The forcefield of the anecdote [pulls the reader] into the company of nearly forgotten and unfamiliar existences...possibilities cut short, imaginings left unrealised, projects half formulated, ambitions squelched, doubts, dissatisfactions, and longings half felt...buried beneath the surface...but would stir, at 'the touch of the real'."

I am interested in the 'strange poems' of a group of colonists more commonly seen through the lens of wry humour and mild contempt. I will use the medium of poetry both to condense and amplify some issues that, however quixotically, really mattered to them. The next post is called 'Remittance Man'.


Popular posts from this blog

American Story: Burwell Boykin

A Grandfather's Tale: Chapter 3, THE VIRGINIA TRADE