New book – Listening to historians

A new book is available on Amazon Kindle.  The blurb and Epilogue follow.  The latter raises issues of moment.  A revise catalogue follows.

Listening to Historians: What is truth?

To write history is to tell a story.  The better the story, the better the history.  There are two parts to telling a story – stating what happened; and choosing how you will describe those events.  If you tell the story well, the reader will hardly notice the distinction.

The rise of the professional historian has moved the focus to what happened from how those events are described – the focus is on evidence, rather than style.  The writers, or historians, have brought this change on.  The readers do not like it.  They like their stories to be well told.  They want to listen to the stories.  For that they want to read good writing.

This book is loaded with good writing – not by me, but by some of the best writers in the West.  There is a good spread in time and place – five British (Gibbon, Carlyle, Macaulay, Maitland, and Namier), three French (Michelet, Taine, and Bloch), two Germans (Ranke and Mommsen), one Dutchman (Geyl), one Greek (Thucydides), one Italian (Tacitus), these last two being ancient, and one Swiss (Burkhardt).

The book concludes by considering truth in history and meaning in art.

Historians are fond of talking about what history is.  They might better ask why people read it.  Do people read history so that they might know more or be better informed about the past?  Do they read it to gain insight into and some connexion with other people?  Or do they read it just for pleasure?  Do they read to listen?

The book is 55,000 words and is fully annotated.


In 1940, the Dutch historian Pieter Geyl had to face the war in Holland.  He was put off his normal work.  He turned to read about Napoleon and he wrote an essay on him.  When the Dutch capitulated, Geyl got back his manuscript endorsed with a message to ‘tell the printer to be quick.’  He had not referred to Hitler in the paper, but the parallels were obvious.  Geyl was arrested by the Germans and spent time in Buchenwald.  He gave lectures on Napoleon there and the comparison with the Fuhrer amused his hearers.

Curiously, Hitler may have been good for the reputation of Napoleon.  Napoleon had his critics but, apart from Stalin, no one could compete with Hitler for evil.  But where does that leave Napoleon?  Geyl was able to make an informed comparison in his Preface to his book Napoleon: For and Against.  ‘The French police were hated and feared in the occupied and annexed territories, but when one reads about their conduct with a mind full our present experiences [October 1944, before liberation], one cannot help feeling astonished at the restraints and resistances they still met with in the stubborn notions of law and in the mild manners of a humane age….And yet methods of compulsion and atrocities are inseparable from the character of the dictator and conqueror, and we shall see that Napoleon incurred bitter reproaches, at home and abroad, for some of his acts.’

Well, that is one reason that we read history – to understand the world and be able to take part in the conversation of mankind.  Geyl touches on the other reason – we read history for pleasure.

In two ways I have myself been constantly fascinated while I was engaged…First by the inexhaustible interest of the figure of Napoleon….And in the second place I have, I may almost say continuously, enjoyed the spectacle presented by French historiography.  What life and energy, what creative power, what ingenuity, imagination, and daring, what sharply contrasted minds and personalities!  And all the time the historical presentation turns out to be closely connected with French political and cultural life as a whole.

So what did the Dutch historian think of the Corsican adventurer?

He was a dictator who attempted to break with new legislation what resistance was left in the old society; who intensified his power in the State by means of centralised administration; who suppressed not only all organised influence or control and expression of opinion, but free thought itself; who hated the intellect, and who entered upon a struggle with the Church which he had first attempted to enslave; and who thought that with censorship, police and propaganda, he would be able to fashion the mind to his wish.  He was a conqueror with whom it was impossible to live; who could not help turning an ally into a vassal, or at least interpreting the relationship to his own exclusive advantage; who decorated his lust of conquest with the fine-sounding phrases of progress and civilisation; and who at last in the name of all Europe, which was to look to him for order and peace, presumed to brand England as the universal disturber and enemy.

More shortly:

What was Napoleon?  The destroyer, the despiser of men, the foreigner, the Corsican, especially scornful of Frenchmen, careless of French blood, devourer of generations of young men, suppressor of all free opinion, demanding of writers a toll of flattering unction as the price of permission to publish – in a word, the tyrant.

When we come to the question in the title of this book – what is truth? – it helps to distinguish that question from others.  Libel lawyers learn that the questions are easy – it is the answers that are hard.  What do the words complained of mean?  In that meaning would they make others think less of the person being talked about?  If so, in that meaning, are they true?

So, take a newspaper that says a politician who charges people a lot to dine with him is a politician for sale.  What does that mean?  Does it mean that he is on the take – that he takes bribes?  Or does it mean that he is just as greedy and venal as the rest?  (If you asked whether it meant that he was ‘corrupt’, would you advance the discussion one iota?)  Then the question is: would a publication with that meaning make others think less of the politician?  Plainly the answer is yes on the first, but the issue is doubtful on the second.  It then merges with the third question.  In that meaning, are the words true?  You can imagine the expensive games that lawyers play around that sort of question.

We might see a similar kind of division of questions when we look at either the evidence of history or its written statement.  What does an inscription or primary source mean?  What does the historian mean if they find an artful epigram in which to couch their views?  In that meaning, what consequences do the words carry?  And in that meaning, how might we seek to verify the proposition?  The analogy is very far from complete, but it may help us in looking at what we get and learn from our fourteen master historians.

People in physics say that they investigate events, not facts, but there is no point getting hung up on words.  One of Pirandello’s characters said that a fact is like a sack – it doesn’t stand up until you put something in it.  As one historian of the Middle Ages said: ‘The history we read, though based on facts, is strictly speaking not factual at all, but a series of accepted judgments.’  There is a lot to be said for that view.

But at least in the empirical tradition, people make history, not the reverse.  Karl Marx said: ‘History does nothing, it possesses no immense wealth, fights no battles.  It is rather man, real living man who does everything, who possesses and fights.’  That goes for all abstractions, and there was no such thing as the French Revolution.

The fourteen writers we have looked at still speak to us now.  That is why they have the standing that they have.  They have survived.  And they still give us pleasure.  They do so for people all around the world.   At least when they are in narrative mode, each of our historians is best taken read out loud – the way that some used to create their work.  This is important.  A lot of us read history to listen.

For the most part, it requires art to impart insight.  You need to be very careful when people like Ranke say that ‘We on our side have a different concept of history: naked truth, without embellishment, through an investigation of the individual fact, the rest left to God, but no poeticising, no fantasizing.’  We are getting this in translation (a process that is very tricky with Kant), but individual facts, naked and unlyrical, will soon put people to sleep, and convey no message at all.  And there is not much dispute left now about bare facts.  We should not think that Ranke was saying that there is no art in writing history, a proposition that he sought to contradict with nearly his whole life.  The truth, whatever that is, about bare facts is not likely to lead to insight or to promote understanding.  That is why some people read history for pleasure, and then read novels or go to the theatre to find out what is really going on in the world.

If, then, history involves art – even if it must be scientific as well – we may need to look at the tricky question of the role of meaning in art.

If you had asked El Greco what he meant by Christ Cleansing the Temple, or Michelangelo what he meant by the Pieta, or Beethoven what he meant by the Moonlight Sonata, your best response may have been one of hurt puzzlement.  Even if you had asked Milton what he meant by the phrase ‘darkness visible’, your best result may have been uncomprehending pity.  The premise of any response would have most likely been ‘If I could have expressed what I wanted to express in words, and dull prose at that, I may as well have done so, and not sweated over dredging up what I happen to see as a work of art.’

Why should a picture or a tune or a poem mean anything, much less have something to say?  Can you undo the Pieta, or, may God be unwilling, deconstruct it?  No, of course not.  We are talking about the workings of our imaginations, and the effect on our emotions.  Intellect, logic and meaning may have little to do with it.  If you treat art as using your imagination to give a lyrical reflection on our condition, then it may, like faith, hardly be susceptible to intellectual analysis.  (Some say the same about love.)  Even when it comes to thinking, Einstein said that he rarely thought in words – and if it was good enough for Einstein in physics, it was good enough for El Greco, Michelangelo, Beethoven and Milton in art.

But while we may argue about the meaning of a work of art, there may be little doubt about its effect.  When the Spanish made a film about El Greco, they naturally spent some time on his immortal portrait by that artist of the Grand Inquisitor.  It may just be the most intriguing portrait ever painted.  If you had to choose one epithet, it might be ‘shifty’.  In the movie, the subject says that he wants the artist to do it again.  The cardinal was very unamused.  We can certainly see why.  Whatever the painting may be said to mean, it was anything but flattering of its subject.  If you ever met that person, you be looking at your back for a long time afterwards.

Well, vast industries and empires right across the globe are built on the express repudiation of our premise.  They proceed on the footing that we can analyse art intellectually and make it the subject of meaningful discussion and assessment and judgment.

The best example is Shakespeare.  He wrote plays for a living.  He was a professional entertainer and playwright.  He wrote plays to entertain people and to get paid for it; or, as I heard an American student at Oxford say, he did it for the mortgage.  He was a high-end showman who developed a very profitable business from the shows he put on.  But it may safely be said that many more people now get paid to analyse and discuss his plays than to perform them, and for people many of whom hardly ever get to see him in production.

So, we may have to take with a grain of salt the suggestion that the intellectual analysis of art is moonshine.  But we should at least be wary of those who claim to have the answer on art.  They are likely to be as deluded as those who claim to have the answer on God, or sex.  If you hear someone claiming to be able to show that in some verifiable manner Anton Rubinstein playing the Moonlight Sonata is better than Elvis Presley singing Blue Suede Shoes, then you may be sure that you are getting moonshine.

You can, I think, see examples of darkness visible, the title of a book by William Golding, in some of the better known paintings by Turner at the National Gallery, but that is not the point.  We engage with Milton to listen to the music, and not to analyse verbal detail.  We do not assess the symmetry of the Pieta, or Tyger, tyger, burning bright, by the rules of double-entry accounting, just as we do not ask why Jussi Bjorling is singing None shall sleep (Nessun dorma) in Italian in the court of a murderously deranged Asian princess.  You might fairly be asked to leave the room if you engaged in either such process.  After all, some of us might be interested if not charmed by a paradox.

So, art and meaning are uncomfortable terms in bed together.  But if in your conversation, you contented yourself with the truth and nothing more, you would not be the best companion for a long haul flight.  It would be like reading a telephone book.  (In a queue in the West End, I once heard a lady say that she could listen to Maggie Smith read a phone book, but I think that we can regard that inclination as exceptional.)

This is a little like the quandary of philosophy.  If you want to be safe and sound, you stay with the a priori ( with maths or straight deductions from given premises); but if you want to say something new, and try to add to the knowledge of the world, then the best you can hope for is probability – and you might be proved to be dead wrong.

The narrator of the novels of Victor Hugo appears to confuse himself with God, someone said.  (A lot of women may have said the same about the author.)  In Les Misérables, the author allowed himself this reflection: ‘The clash of passions and of ignorances is different from the shock of progress.  Rise, if you will, but to grow.  Show me to which side you are going.  There is no insurrection but forward.  Every other rising is evil; every violent step backwards is an emeute [riot]; to retreat is an act of violence against the human race.  Insurrection is the Truth’s access of fury; the paving stones which insurrection tears up, throw off the spark of right.  These stones leave to the emeute only their mud.  Danton against Louis XVI is insurrection, Hébert against Danton is emeute.’

Well, Tolstoy’s War and Peace shows us that good story-tellers make lousy political thinkers – in which of his categories would Hugo have put the execution of Danton by Robespierre?

But Hugo has a point of substance.  Presumably this great writer was saying something that he thought would convey sense – and good sense – to his readers.  If so, his readers may not think in the same way that Anglo-Saxons tend to think.  Somerset Maugham said that the style of Gustave Flaubert was rhetorical.  He also said: ‘The French language tends to rhetoric, as the English to imagery – thereby marking a profound difference between the two peoples…’  In all the histories we have been looking at, there is no shortage of rhetoric – but the point is that the rhetoric that had a different meaning for those involved.

Victor Hugo then spoke of ‘truth’.  Tolstoy said that his hero was truth.  What is truth?  We go to great writers – and each of Hugo and Tolstoy was a great writer – for insight, understanding, or enlightenment.  If we want mere facts, we can go to the registry of births, deaths, and marriages, the colonial version of Somerset House.  For present purposes, I regard each of the fourteen historians we have looked at as a great writer.

In 1949 an English Shakespeare scholar, John Danby, published a remarkable book, Shakespeare’s Doctrine of Nature, A Study of King Lear. Its first sentence reads: ‘We go to great writers for the truth.’  Well, we may be a bit more comfortable with ‘insight’ or ‘understanding’ than the nervous-making ‘truth’, but the author later says:

‘It is only dramatically that the manner of living thought can be adequately expressed.  A discursive philosopher is tied to the script of his single part.’

This is an invaluable insight.  On one view it could obliterate the whole of literary criticism in one hit.  Later, Mr. Danby referred to the well-known aphorism of Thomas Hobbes that the life of man is ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’.  That is not so much an ineluctable proposition of philosophy as a working hypothesis toward a philosophy of life, but where do you think you might better seek enlightenment on the nature of life – The Leviathan by Hobbes or King Lear by Shakespeare?

Later still in his book, but before Hannah Arendt had described Eichmann as ‘terribly and terrifyingly normal’, Mr. Danby described the evil daughters in King Lear as ‘eminently normal’ and ‘eminently respectable’.  The point is that there is something of Regan and Eichmann in us all, and people who cannot bring themselves to accept that simple truth are frequently the cause of the whole bloody problem.

Those who are squeamish about facing up to evil in the world could do worse than to start by confronting it in King Lear.  Au fond, it is useless to ask what this play means. It makes as much sense as asking what is the meaning of the works of art referred to above or to inquire after the meaning of God.  It is as useless to ask what Shakespeare intended when he wrote this play as it is to ask what a parliament intended when it passed a statute.

We are left with the ‘thing itself’; the rest is moonshine.  If Shakespeare had tried to convey his meaning prosaically, he would most certainly have failed, and he would not have left us with the drama that may fairly claim to be our Everest.  This play on its own could have been the warrant for that wonderful remark of Emerson: ‘When I read Shakespeare, I actually shade my eyes.’

So, if we want to understand, if we want insight into what we are, we turn to the dramatists, like Aeschylus, Shakespeare, Racine or Ibsen.  There is something to be said for a kind of poetic or imaginative truth, the sense of insight that we get from high art, the insight that cannot be expressed in mere words, the emotional click and then affirmation that we get on looking at the Goya painting of a military execution (The Third of May, 1808).  This was the painting that Sir Lewis Namier referred to when he was speaking of the juggernauts of history,revolting to human feelings in their blindness, supremely humorous in their stupidity’.  The great historian looks to have been uncomfortable there in trying to spell out his vision – there is nothing humorous about war crimes.  But at a time when religion is dying, we might look more to our writers to be our seers and prophets than to our priests and rabbis..

George Orwell admired D H Lawrence for ‘the extraordinary power of knowing imaginatively something that he could not have known by imagination.’  This is itself a large insight, and not just for history as art.  A big job for those who tell our story is to show what happens when the slight veneer of civilisation is ripped off us.  Many fail to see the horror not because they are blind, but because they do not have the insight or imagination or the nerve to see it for what it is.

Speaking of the night we know as Crystal Night, Ian Kershaw, the biographer of Hitler, said: ‘This night of horror, a retreat in a modern state to the savagery associated with bygone ages, laid bare to the world the barbarism of the Nazi regime.’  Shortly afterwards, Hitler gave a solemn prophesy of ‘the annihilation (Vernichtung) of the Jewish race in Europe.’  But the savagery of neither the pogrom nor the prophecy of the Fuhrer was enough to generate insight into the horror of the barbarism to come.  We – the Germans – did not have the imagination or nerve to see it (even if Keynes had foreseen it all at Versailles).  Mussolini was a Cesar de carnaval, a braggart and an actor, a dangerous ‘rascal’ and possibly ‘slightly off his head’, but the insight of the Italian people into this grotesque buffoon did not extend to seeing him hanged upside down beside his lifeless mistress – until that is how they wanted to see him.

Very rarely, we get artists who give us a history that is more like an epic poem than a mere record of fact.  In this book, we have been looking at great historians who all wrote with imagination – even if they would have been coy or indignant at the suggestion.  They wrote so that we could listen to them.  They wrote with a sense of theatre.  In the trenchant words of Mr Danby, great historians give dramatic expression to living thought.

Carlyle, for example, wanted to breathe life into the past – he wanted to ‘blow his living breath between dead lips’.  This ‘Rembrandt of letters’, with his Ezekiel Vision, a man that belonged ‘to the company of escaped Puritans,’ understood profoundly that our little life is rounded with a sleep – like that other great Romantic, General George Patton, he thought that once we dispensed with time, the dead were with us.  Carlyle was then able to indulge what Chesterton finely called ‘his sense of the sarcasm of eternity.’  Like Dickens, he was intent on articulating a sense of the grotesque.  At times the work of Carlyle, the misplaced Hebrew prophet, looks like a dream or hallucination.  Perhaps he may come back into vogue as a kind of secular seer now that God is on the outer.

An Israeli scholar wrote a book called English Historians on the French Revolution.  It is heavy going, but you come up with insights.  The words ‘darkness’ and ‘chaos’ pervade the account of Carlyle, and the more he thought that he did not understand, the hungrier he got for ‘truth and fact.’  ‘Facts, facts, not theory’, ‘facts more and more, theory less and less.’  The author makes a most illuminating remark about readers of Carlyle’s book.  ‘Tired of being told what to think about the Revolution, people were glad to glimpse a painting of it.’  He quotes John Stuart Mill: ‘This is not so much a history as an epic poem; and notwithstanding this, or even in consequence of this, the truest of histories.’  All these labels have their uses and abuses.  Perhaps one problem with a lot of history is that it has an inarticulate premise: ‘Your silly author thinks that he understands all this.’

A sense of darkness and chaos, and a sense of the grotesque, and a power of imagination, are essential in trying to follow events in France after 1789 or in Germany after 1933.  It is a power that was most fully realised in King Lear, which is a study of the grotesque.

KENT: Is this the promised end?

EDGAR: Or image of that horror?

The French author Guy de Maupassant said this: ‘I have seen war.  I have seen men revert to brutes, maddened and killing for pleasure, or through terror, bravado, and ostentation.  At a time when right existed no longer, when the law was a dead letter, when all notion of fair play had disappeared, I saw innocent people encountered along the road shot because their fear made them suspects.  I saw dogs chained at their master’s door killed by men trying out new revolvers, and cows lying in fields riddled with bullets for no reason – for the sake of shooting, for a laugh.’

The only thing standing between us and the apes may be cutlery – or this level of art – or perhaps the Coen brothers.  Dickens dedicated Tale of Two Cities to Carlyle.  You can see the connection throughout the whole book.  This is how Dickens prefigures the outpouring of the mob of Saint-Antoine during the satanic period known as the Terror.  A wine cask has spilled on to the street.  ‘The wine was red wine and had stained the ground of the narrow street….It had stained many hands, too, and the forehead of the woman who nursed her baby, was stained with the stain of the old rag she wound about her head again.  Those who had been greedy with the staves of the cask, had acquired a tigerish smear about the mouth; and one tall joker…scrawled upon a wall with his finger dipped in muddy wine-lees – BLOOD.’  It may remind you of the hellish September Massacres in Paris, when Carlyle said that the berserk killers took refreshment from wine from to time to time before laying into the next batch of screaming victims with their bloodied sabres.

At times, the painting or war by Tolstoy in War and Peace has an El Greco lightning-strike scale of illumination.  While Moscow was waiting for the French, the population descended to animal lawlessness with scenes like those in Paris at the height of the Terror.  In one of them, Tolstoy reflects unmistakably on the Passion.  The Governor of Moscow, Count Rastoptchin, hands one suspected traitor over the mob.  ‘You shall deal with him as you think fit!  I hand him over to you!’  The resulting massacre is bestial, and resembles in part the September Massacres in Paris twenty or so years before.  As the Governor goes home in his carriage, an asylum spills out its lunatics:

Tottering on his long, thin legs, in his fluttering dressing-gown, this madman ran at headlong speed, with his eyes fixed on Rastoptchin, shouting something to him in a husky voice, and making signs to him to stop.  The gloomy and triumphant face of the madman was thin and yellow, with irregular clumps of beard growing on it.  The black agate-like pupils of his eyes moved restlessly, showing the saffron-yellow whites above.  ‘Stay!  Stop, I tell you!’ he shouted shrilly, and again breathlessly fell to shouting something with emphatic gestures and intonations. 

He reached the carriage and ran alongside it.

‘Three times they slew me; three times I rose again from the dead.  They stoned me, they crucified me  …  I shall rise again  …  I shall rise again  … I shall rise again.  My body they tore to pieces.  The Kingdom of Heaven will be overthrown  …  Three times I will overthrow it, and three times I will set it up again’, he screamed, his voice growing shriller and shriller.  Count Rastoptchin suddenly turned white, as he had turned white when the crowd fell upon [the victim of the mob].  He turned away.  ‘Go, go on, faster!’ he cried in a trembling voice to his coachman.

The beginning of that picture is pure El Greco; the whole is unmistakably Russian and equally unmistakably universal.  It might test your faith to have to believe that it was all composed by a man born of woman.  What does mere history have to offer against art like that?

There, as it seems to me, is where you get truth brought to you by imagination.  France and Moscow after it had become a wilderness of tigers, like the whirlpool of evil and pain and death painted in Titus Andronicus, but Dickens clearly shared the view of Carlyle that there was more to it in France ‘than cheap bread and a Habeas-corpus act.  Here too was an Idea….It was a struggle, though a blind and at last an insane one, for the infinite, divine nature of Right, of Freedom, Country.’

In The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, Kurtz confronts his own hell ‘with that wide and immense stare embracing, condemning, and loathing all the universe.’  All that he can offer is ‘the whispered cry, The horror!  The horror!’  Here, as it seems to me, is where a great story-teller decently accepts the limits of language, and the story is no less effective because of that acknowledgement; rather, it is better for accepting that mystery is the other face of magic, and that mere words may be little more than mere signposts.

In truth, France went back to the Dark Ages from time to time for decades after 1789 – as Germany would do after 1933.  What did this mean, the Dark Ages?  This period of darkness over the earth was described in the great epic poem, Beowulf, written in about the seventh century.

All were endangered; young and old

Were hunted down by that dark death shadow

Who lurked and swooped in the long nights

On the misty moors; nobody knows

Where these reevers from hell roam on their errands.


Sometimes at pagan shrines they vowed

Offering to idols, swore oaths

That the killer of souls might come to their aid

And save the people.  That was their way

Their heathenish hope; deep in their hearts,

They remembered hell…….

…………Cursed is he

Who in time of trouble has to thrust his soul

In the fire’s embrace, forfeiting help;

He has nowhere to turn…….

So that troubled time continued, woe

That never stopped, steady affliction……

There was panic after dark, people endured

Raids in the night, riven by the terror.

That is almost a photographic picture of Dresden under the Gestapo or under the RAF.  Here is a picture of Spain under Napoleon as seen by Goya.  (Geats were a Nordic tribe in this epic.):

A Geat woman sang out in grief;

With hair bound up, she unburdened herself

Of her worst fears, a wild litany

Of nightmare and lament: her nation invaded,

Enemies on the rampage, bodies in piles,

Slavery and abasement.  Heaven swallowed the smoke.

What was it in their or our psyche that prompted one writer to see the hair of a woman ‘wound’ and the other writer to see the hair of his woman ‘bound’?  Can the prosaic record of history ever stand up against the image of a worldwhere these reevers from hell roam on their errands’ or where a womanunburdened herself of her worst fears, a wild litany of nightmare and lament’?

Or is it only in very big Russian novels that the hero says: ‘I want to be there when everyone suddenly finds out what it was all for?’  Or do we just accept that we are mortal and on notice?

The oldest hath borne most: we that are young

Shall never see so much, nor live so long.

That brings us back to where we started in the Prologue.  ‘Historians are fond of talking about what history is.  They might better ask why people read it.  Do people read history so that they might know more or be better informed about the past?  Do they read it to gain insight into and some connexion with other people?  Or do they read it just for pleasure?  Do they read to listen?’


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s