I’m so pleased. The History Game is popular again.
I wouldn’t mind betting it’s something to do with the notion that, in the EU Referendum, we’ve been asked to make a frightfully important decision. This whole business feels like it might just be the stuff of history.
And isn’t it of more than passing interest that, when history is pressed into service pursuant to a piece of public rhetoric, it’s almost always a certain type of history? Let’s call it, for the sake of argument, Marxist.
Remember Marx? You should do. Marx’s ideas took an awfully long time to die. They were first torn to shreds by philosophers and economists during the late Victorian era; and they came under further withering scrutiny among intellectuals in the inter-war years; yet, if his reputation survived in small pockets right up until the late 1980s (and it did), that was surely because of the longevity of nominally Marxist states.
But, intellectually, Marxism always faced an insurmountable problem, a problem that deepened with every day that passed. At its core, it’s a theory of history, leading to a potent brand of Prophesy – and a tipster, even one with guns and ammunition, becomes a laughing stock if his horses limp in last.
Or so we thought. Occult Socialism is fashionable once more, especially among London’s chattering classes. And Marx just happens to be a prime source, whether as cause or effect, of the spectacularly virulent form of intellectual Mumbo Jumbo that we’re calling the History Game.
Actually, that’s slightly unfair. The true source is Georg Hegel, the philosopher (we use the term loosely) who reinvented the art of Prophesy to pander to his patron, Frederick William III of Prussia.
Georg told Freddy that history boiled down to a catalogue of conflicts between nation states and that the process of history would be complete when one nation prevailed over all others. That nation, naturally enough, would be Prussia.
Decades later, Hegel had his homework copied by a rather dull-witted enfant terrible called Charley Marx. Chas merely crossed out the phrase “nation state” and replaced it with “class.” He also insisted that Hegel had insisted that this progression to the end of history was, like, sort of inevitable.
This mechanism and this insistence on its inevitability was Marx’s most pernicious gift to the 20th and 21st Centuries. Yes, he’s back: but there’s also a sense in which he never really went away in the first place. Most of us, at some level, whether we like it or not, are Marxist historians. This, in fact, is probably the single most insidious form of horsemeat in our intellectual food chain.
And we are all prone (increasingly so, it would seem) to let this form of Mumbo Jumbo spill over into our understanding of the world and our place in it. It all boils down to the bizarre notion that if you pay enough attention to what happened (we’re talking big picture here: politics, society, economics) in the past, you will be able to predict the future.
We’ll not waste any time pulling apart this fallacy. Because to do so would leave us even more at a loss in attempting to explain its popularity. And it is spectacularly popular. It creeps in, almost unnoticed, to all sorts of public utterances, from political speeches to BBC news reports and newspaper leaders. It’s especially prevalent in online spaces where chronically stupid people congregate in excitable numbers. Like the “comment is free” debates on the Guardian website.
There’s always someone somewhere wittering on about the “lessons of history” these days.
But here’s a thing: though the over-arching notion about the power of (or, indeed, lessons of) history is Hegelian, people who dabble in the Hegelian History Game rarely stick, at a detailed level, to a Hegelian theory of history. Because of course this isn’t a science. There is no single Law of History. Instead, many confused and contending and interrelated theories.
Hegelian history is dialectical and, though it’s not exactly linear, it processes in one direction and one direction only, ever onward and upward. Yet (at a localised, analytical level) the mechanism most likely to be evoked in public debate is cyclical history.
This is because some politicians and many journalists, especially columnists, suffer from a Cassandra Complex. They like to see themselves as gifted prophets who are shamefully neglected or downright ignored. So it is incumbent on them to waste whole reservoirs of ink and pixels declaiming the fact, almost-but-not-quite universally acknowledged, that those who ignore their prophets are condemned to repeat (the sufferings of) history over and over.
I feel their pain. I really do.
And I have always been fascinated by Prophets. Not necessarily the Old Testament sort, though you can learn a thing or two about English prose by reading Isaiah in the King James’s version.
I’m thinking of more popular forms of prophesy. And it does us all good to have reminders of the fairground and the racetrack brought to us in our daily diet of news.
Or, indeed, the Classical world. Think of Delphi. Alexander and the Gordian Knot.
Prophesy. Cherish this fad while it lasts. It may take a while to come round again. That’s the thing about history stuck on repeat. Inevitable yet unpredictable.
(And if you’re at all curious about what I’m referring to, I’ve started a History Stuck on Repeat clippings file on Pinterest. I’ll also, if I get round to it and can find some old notebooks, compile an anthology of quotations, some profound, some poignant, some just plain downright comic, about the discipline of history.)
How do I love thee, Francis Younghusband (and those among your followers who are even more unhinged)? Let me count the ways…
Last year, pursuant to a most excellently nutty project, I found myself acquiring a nutty book. And it is a sheer joy to open a nutty book – in this case The Living Universe by Francis Younghusband – and find that it has been annotated by an even nuttier reader.
The book, a best-seller published in 1933, is one of the first ever “New Age” tracts. And indeed “New Age” is a phrase I think (I am too lazy to nail this) Younghusband uses somewhere in the book. He might even have coined it.
It is a revelatory book. It leads us via some mind-blowing facts culled from physics and chemistry and astronomy (contemplation of the very small, contemplation of the very large) through an intellectual hymn to the mind-blowingly austere beauty of the Himalayas (an explorer, Younghusband was the first westerner to “open up” Tibet) on a journey that will propel us toward a rapturous new mysticism, a religion that will allow us all to feel the life force all around us in the Cosmos.
The annotations are dated 1973. I can almost see this phantom annotator now. He surely acquired the book for a song off a second-hand book stall on Portobello Road. He lives in a squat in Notting Hill. He owns an Afghan coat. He sits up late on his own in his airless room, reading and smoking the odd spliff.
“This is a serious matter,” writes Younghusband at one point. “Is it?” responds our annotator, scathingly, in the margin. His stoned-out scepticism still resonates.
Sadly, he doesn’t have much stamina. There’s a dense flurry of activity beginning on page 2 but his last commentary (“there is NO SUCH THING as movement”) arrives on page 14. The rest (the book is 249 pages long) is silence.
I wonder what became of him. Is he still with us?
“I believe [the world] is only all energy,” he informs us (an audience he never suspected he’d ever have) at the top of one page. “But I am not worried,” he adds. “Nothing Man does lasts FOR EVER.”
And do you know what? He may well have a point here.
Treasure that once was lost has now been found. Does it enhance our appreciation of the song in Cymbeline, “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,” to discover that “golden lads and lasses” are, in the argot of rural Warwickshire, dandelions? Or, furthermore, that chimney sweepers are the grey puffball seedheads of dandelions when the golden flowers go over?
Perhaps. However, some Shakespeareans are truly troubled by the notion that this insight (restored to us in the 1960s) had been lost to us for… well, that’s just the point… for how long? Was this multi-level metaphor lost even on London audiences of the early 1600s? Was it (to formulate this modest proposal even more bluntly) an in-joke flattering to the sensibilities of but a few in Stratford?
That thought, pursued to its ultimate ends, leads some of us to unsettling conclusions – conclusions about just how much of what we read we really understand at all. In other words, dear reader, that the sol in solipsism is not necessarily the sun.
The terror of history: every act of recognition implies that something like this has been seen before
Cyclic theories of time accomplish for the learned what the mythological rituals of the seasons accomplish for the intellectually unsophisticated. Both mitigate the terror of history, in which events, and most of all man’s personal decisions, are set forever in an irreversible pattern. [So said Eliot.] And poems tend to be cyclic, remembering their beginnings; and every act of recognition implies that something like this has been seen before. So the poet of Four Quartets drew four elements, four seasons, four places, into a four part symmetry which closes as it had opened in a transcendental garden and only escapes the world’s sad repetitions by leaving the world (the river at the end of Little Gidding is not a real river, nor the children real children). So says Hugh Kenner in The Pound Era.
And then we have Yeats, who wanted to be both inside and outside the great wheel of history, viewing it perhaps from the mountain carved in lapis lazuli whence his three Chinamen look down “on all the tragic scene” through eyes that are gay; and that gaiety is quite Nietzschean in “The Gyres,” where “we that look on but laugh in tragic joy.”
Then, too, we have Joyce, Finnegans Wake and Vico: “Bloom’s creator, who was later to use Vico’s cycle, used Mme. Blavatsky’s with rigorous literalness: Ulysses plays on Yeats the immense joke of taking his pet doctrines as naively as John Donne took the idea that lovers are martyrs. For the book’s premise must be that Bloom is really Ulysses, though he knows it no more than that wily wandering Greek foresaw being reincarnated as a wandering homebody Jew.”
And then… but I forget the rest.
One of the most troubling questions ever to bedevil that nexus where philosophy meets psychology is: “Can the human mind conceive of non-existence?”
A breakthrough moment came in the mid-19th Century when a comparative philologist studying the evolution of pictograms pointed out that the Chinese for non-existence is : “lost in the forest.”
Sadly, an expedition sent out to investigate this proposition was never heard of again.
Perhaps they simply chose the wrong forest.
Publication of Walter Pater’s Studies in the Renaissance in 1873 was a hugely important event (whether as cause or effect or both) in a sexual and aesthetic revolution defining an era stretching from the 1880s right up until 1939 (the death of Yeats in the January of that year is as good a marker as any).
Some commentators, with ample justification, have argued that this era embodies a Second Renaissance, a creative reawakening as potent as its quattrocento antecedent – though it has become almost impossible for us to see it in those terms. For instance, in the shadow of the Great War, it became fashionable to muddy these waters by positing symbolism’s later Modernist phases as the creation of “the Machine Age”: as if machines somehow had not existed in the Victorian era.
We, uncomfortably numb in our era of niggardly Puritanism, could care less either way.
The Second Renaissance was driven, as the first had been, by a renewed interest in classical materials. In the quattrocento, these materials had arrived entire, as Byzantine libraries were shipped to Italy to save them from destruction by Islamic hordes. In the 1870s, they arrived in fragments of parchment and papyrus, disinterred thanks to a new craze called archaeology.
Soon, everyone was thinking about the art of writing in terms of vivid fragments. Painters, sculptors and composers soon had their own take on this too.
And of course, the most influential critics were those who helped their readers make the most of fleeting impressions. Cue Walter Pater:
Every moment some form grows perfect in hand or face; some tone on the hills or the sea is choicer than the rest; some mood or passion or insight or intellectual excitement is irresistibly real and attractive to us – for that moment only. Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself, is the end. A counted number of pulses only is given to us of a variegated, dramatic life. How may we see in them all that is to be seen in them by the finest senses? How shall we pass most swifly from point to point, and be present always at the focus where the greatest number of vital forces unite in their purest energy?
To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life. In a sense it might even be said that our failure is to form habits: for, after all, habit is relative to a stereotyped world, and meantime it is only the roughness of the eye that makes any two persons, things, situations, seem alike. While all melts under our feet, we may well grasp at any exquisite passion, or any contribution to knowledge that seems by a lifted horizon to set the spirit free for a moment, or any stirring of the senses, strange dyes, strange colours, and curious odours, or work of the artist’s hands, or the face of one’s friend. Not to discriminate every moment some passionate attitude in those about us, and in the very brilliancy of their gifts some tragic dividing of forces on their ways, is, on this short day of frost and sun, to sleep before evening.
“Ferber once remarked casually, that nothing should change at his place of work, that everything should remain as it was, as he had arranged it, and that nothing further should be added but the debris generated by painting and the dust that continually fell and which, as he was coming to realise, he loved more than anything in the world. He felt closer to dust, he said, than to light, air or water. There was nothing he found so unbearable as a well-dusted house, and he never felt more at home than in places where things remained under the
grey, velvety sinter
left when matter dissolved, little by little into nothingness. And indeed, when I watched Ferber working on one of his portrait studies over a number of weeks, I often thought that his prime concern was to increase the dust.”
Concerning absolutely we should say, irrefutably, if it pleases you and fearing not one word of contradiction, Ferber
It surely says something (something neither good nor bad nor entirely unpredictable) that the 1981 Picador edition of Gilbert Sorrentino’s Mulligan Stew is so hard to find on the second hand book market. I had assumed that late-1970s Bohemian intellectuals had gone for this one in a big way.
Perhaps this book (“it is as if Buck Mulligan had written Ulysses,” says the blurb) was just too much like hard work. And perhaps Sorrentino was closer to the truth than he ever knew when he stated scathingly, after an almighty struggle with his philistine publishers, that the book was aimed at “the eleven persons who can still read.”
I’m proud to reveal that I number myself among the eleven. Who, I sometimes wonder, are the other ten?
Mulligan Stew is, as it happens, my all-time favourite example of Modernist meta-fiction. And meta-fiction, should you need reminding, is the art of telling stories that make you think about storytelling, featuring narrators wrestling with the challenges of narration. Some people think this is a terribly new thing. It isn’t. Not all meta-fictions are Modernist: in exactly the same way that not all Modernist novels are meta-fictions.
In fact, the meta-fiction has an ancient pedigree. It’s part and parcel of the Arabian Nights, a story about a girl telling stories, some of which feature so many dreams within dreams that you’re not entirely sure if the narrator is still awake. Meta-fiction is also part and parcel of pre-Renaissance concept albums like the Decameron and the Canterbury Tales. Anything that features stories within stories or, like Hamlet, a play within a play, is at least flirting with meta-fiction. The absolute apogee was attained by Laurence Sterne in Tristram Shandy; but even droney old Sir Walter Scott sets his dusty historical novels within elaborate framing devices, with narrators coming across tattered manuscripts of lost narration in obscure desk drawers.
Even more pertinently, from our perspective, the 20th Century’s most successful literary phenomenon, the whodunit, was successful precisely because it was (and is) a meta-fiction genre. The detective doesn’t solve puzzles. Not really. He or she is, in reality, a speculative, improvisatory narrator, making false starts, following blind alleys, before making compelling headway. We watch him (or indeed her) compiling a story for us before our very eyes. It’s an utterly engaging process.
But yes, it’s true that something rather special happened when elements of the Modernist avant-garde, desperate to show that they too could aspire to psychedelia, rediscovered meta-fiction in the 1970s. Actually, Tom Stoppard probably started the ball rolling in 1966 with his play on a play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. He didn’t exactly trigger an avalanche: unless you consider Laurence Durrell’s Avignon Quintet (1974-85) as an avalanche in and of itself.
But there were lots of notable efforts. Italo Calvino’s If On a Winter’s Night is superb as is Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy. Money by Martin Amis is a decent enough attempt. But none can match the sheer exuberance of Mulligan Stew, which features a writer whose characters run amuck like demented Marx Brothers when he’s not paying attention.
We may not see its like again. Certainly not while the current generation of literary Puritans are still running the show.
Meanwhile, though, if you’re one of the other ten people who can still read, please get in touch.