History as an Act of Faith, Part I

Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Simon Schama
Title: “History As An Act Of Faith”, Part I
VTR: 11/10/89

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. And last evening at a dinner party with a particularly distinguished group of psychiatric professionals, I was quite taken aback when I noted who my guest would be today that after all the “ohs” , and “ahs” and congratulations at such a splendid coup for THE OPEN MIND, surprise was expressed that I should expect today’s discussions to be as much present-as-past-minded. For in his enormously compelling 1989 volume CITIZENS Simon Schama, Harvard University Professor of History and Senior Associate at the Center for European Studies has celebrated, or at least chronicled not the recent past, but rather that seminal moment in world history, the French Revolution of two centuries ago. And yet Professor Schama’s writing relates very much to the here-and-now. “My book is a history for our time”, he says, “a history colored by my own sensibility, my own not enormously, radiantly optimistic view of the future”. And in the London Times, Professor Schama is quoted, “I have to admit this is a 1980s book which is written as an attack on the idea of the timeless historian. I’ve gone back”, said my guest, “to the 19th century sense in which the historian is inevitably going to be colored by feelings about the present, and I’m undoubtedly colored by the general disenchantment with the Revolutionary romance. Most of the world is trying to disabuse itself to the consequences of that memory”.

One would suppose, therefore, that Professor Schama dismisses as naïve the assumption that any historian of the past or the present, namely the journalist, is or truly can be dispassionate, and that American historian Charles Beard may have been right in characterizing all written history as primarily an act of faith. And so, Professor Schama, I would ask whether that’s a fair statement of what you generally believe.

Schama: I think it is. I think it is, Richard. Yes, there’s an Italian historian now, Bendetto Croce, great, great historian and philosopher…sort of…produced the quotation “all history is contemporary history”, by which he meant that the historian who suffered from the delusion that he could magically, objectively reach the bedrock reality of a long, remote past was really fooling himself. Which isn’t to say that history is completely a shifting, protean, slippery, elusive, thing. It’s this morning’s prejudice and lunchtimes’ prejudice and the evening’s prejudice, each of which may cancel each other out. I don’t want to say, I don’t want to be a “relativizer”, God forbid, but I do think, these days, at least, for my own part, historians might own up more than they are often trained to do to the fact that very often what they write, or the things that they select to be of interest are colored by their own convictions.

Heffner: Why don’t you want to be a “relativizer, God forbid”?

Schama: Well, I don’t say…I don’t…well, relativizers, I take it believe that there are no kind of remote objects, there is no hard reality of any kind, that we’re all kind of flying about in some sort of primordial soup, bumping into random objects, and that all there is in the world are “speech”, “acts”, states of mind, states of perception, and there’s nothing to stub your toe against. I mean, at the most preposterous level you’d say, “Well, Auschwitz is really…you know…a matter of historians talking to each other, there were no gas chambers”, or , less sensationally, “there was no Battle of Hastings”. Well, one knows…one would have to be an idiot not to know (laughter), really that there were such events. What I think engages me is the possibility of reinterpreting them…with all of our own immediate late 20th century baggage of prejudices and preconceptions. Not this kind of attempt to nail down exactly how the Battle of Hastings might have been to those who fought it. I mean this would be a horror to the great 19th century historian Leopold von Ranke, whose most famous remark about history is that historians ought to tend to what really happened, and I think they tried to for nearly a century, for the first century of the life of the profession. Now, I think more and more things intervene between being absolutely convinced you can replicate what exactly happened and the process of story-telling or witnessing or narrating or chronicling. And I’m very happy that historians are returning to this more, kind of loose, but not I think relativizing activity.

Heffner: And yet, you’ve been criticized for story-telling, and you are a wonderful…

Schama: Yes.

Heffner: …storyteller.

Schama: Yes, well, thank you, yes. Well, I’m happy to shoulder that particular criticism, really because it’s true that some of my peers and colleagues say “tut, tut, tut, you cannot make an argument and tell a story at the same time”. And that, indeed, again, is, you know, Rule Number One that was drilled into us. Not…not into me because I had actually a wonderful teacher at Cambridge University, who was a really incorrigible story-teller, so he in some sense, himself, harked back to that older tradition. But the Rules of the profession, you know, severely embedded in the pages of the American Historical Review are that analysis and argument is in effect a form of science, and you mustn’t muddy it up, or color it, or twist it around like so much intellectual play dough by narrating at the same time, and I was taken to task you in the august pages of the New York Review of Books for trying to do that. “A low attempt to seize the readers’ attention”…”a journalistic attempt to seize the readers’ attention” (laughter) was the way the critic described it. Well, of course, you know, from my part this ignores all of the greatest traditions of history writing. Michelet, Macaulay, not to say Tacitus and Thucydides, both in their hapless naivete possibly thought indeed you could not only…could you argue and tell a story at the same time, but that’s actually the best history to write, and the hardest. And I must say I do think actually some of my colleagues that don’t like this story-telling stuff, say, “Well, you know, narrative is a kind of second order of intellectual activity. Any fool can put a fairy tale together”. Let me tell…let me tell them to try it and see actually….it’s the most exacting and most challenging, and I don’t know, you know, if I bring it off or not, but it’s both a very exciting and extremely complicated process.

Heffner: Of course, you bring it off, and that, of course, is what leads people to be concerned about Schama the popularizer…

Schama: Yes.

Heffner: …because people do read you.

Schama: Yes.

Heffner: …it is the narrative that grabs them.

Schama: Yes, well it’s a shocking problem, isn’t it, actually being read? (Laughter) I don’t know…I should say…I mean I really don’t want to sound too conceited about this because I do think actually there are really quite substantial number of “closet” narrative historians in my profession, and many who have come out of the closet, and said…James McPherson of Princeton who wrote an absolutely magnificent narrative history of the Civil War, which was also a best seller. So…not only the people who taught me, but many historians practicing now have no sense of embarrassment, I think, about narration, and what narration means. But I think…I think it is a problem for many departments of academic life, that they’ve closed themselves off in a kind of guild mentality and guilds, of course, have the masterpiece…traditionally when you were an apprentice you produced the masterpiece, the “meisterstuck”, you presented it to your master and you became an official, I don’t know, you know, kind of woodcarver, or printer or whatever it was.

Heffner: Or historian.

Schama: That’s the point, it really…oddly enough at the end of the 19th century the intellectual disciplines really replicated that mentality…the “meisterstuck” was the monograph, the Ph.D. dissertation presented to the doctor, who then patted the apprentice on (laughter)…and said “Welcome…welcome to the profession, don’t give any secrets away hereafter, you are one of the guild”. And I think guildsmen who really then said, “Well, enough of all this, you know…masonry…” to mix my metaphors, history is really the memory of the past. We all belong to a community which ought to be seeking its memory pretty much always. I will write for all those interested and increasingly that was regarded as, I think, a shocking thing to do, or at least a reprehensible kind of intellectual vacation.

Heffner: Now you do so at a time…

Schama: Yes.

Heffner: …when there is another profession that is indulging itself in narration, in the narrative, I should say…

Schama: Yes.

Heffner: …and that is television.

Schama: Yes.

Heffner: And film.

Schama: Yes.

Heffner: And the docu-drama.

Schama: Yes. Right.

Heffner: And I wonder as a historian, how you relate yourself to that form of expression?

Schama: Well, I tell you, Richard, actually what bothers me about docu-drama (laughter) is not what recently one of your ex-guests whose interview I thought was magnificent, Leonard Garment, was very upset at finding it all caricature…it may or may not be…but they’re so extraordinarily dull, most of them…that…I mean that may sound like a very lofty remark, but I remember seeing an absolute yawner about Napoleon. It struck me as an immense achievement on the part of the network that had produced it, to actually produce a 55 hour docu-drama that sent people to sleep on Napoleon. I’m not against, actually, dramatic versions, or dramatizations of history. I think two things really have to be present that actually such dramas, where possible, need to recover the kind of sound and intensity of contemporary speech, without…without being obscure or esoteric, and secondly I think they somehow have to give a sense, in the same way that gripping historical writing does, of place, of the smell, of the sound. Let me give you one example of a film which I thought really worked very well, even though it was terribly long, and that was a Sergei Bondarchuk…I hope he’s still around, he was regarded as a terrible Stalinist hack, but he was a wonderful filmmaker in the tradition of Eisenstein. It was his…it was his film of the Battle of Waterloo…there were problems with this film, I dare say one of them was Rod Steiger as Napoleon who just looked as though he was suffering from acute dyspepsia throughout the whole time, and Napoleon was ill. But what was really marvelous I thought about “Battle of Waterloo” was that by being as Russian directors were allowed to be, incredibly prodigal with horses and thousands of people, he did give a phenomenally powerful and, I think, accurate sense of the chaos and disaster…the extraordinary sense of terror of what it was like to be in a battle. It wasn’t all flashing sabers. There was a sense in not being able to see much, being deafened with the sound, grand strategy disappearing into blood and smoke. And that, that was really a very extraordinary achievement, I think.

Heffner: Do you expect that Citizens will become…

Schama: (Laughter) Well, my colleagues, when they really want to tease me, say, “Oh well, who are you casting as Robespierre”?

Heffner: Well?

Schama: I don’t know…well…well, I’m not casting anybody. If, if some madman came to me and said, “Really, I’m going to spend several million dollars…” I would certainly think it over. The French, I believe, actually did an immense sort of multi-part dramatization of the Revolution…

Heffner: Right.

Schama: …which I haven’t seen, which I think is partly going to be shown, at least in Britain. No, I suppose the one thing that’s tantalizing about…about dramatizing the Revolution is that so many of the protagonist themselves either were in the theater, or had a profound sense that politics was theater…I mean staggering oratory, extraordinary body language…some of them actually coached by actors, we know that, so that they were very much on a kind of stage themselves in Europe.

Heffner: But now you are a very fair minded person, a balanced person…

Schama: Is that right?

Heffner: …but the other hat on…so I’ve been told…

Schama: Yes.

Heffner: …put the other hat on…

Schama: Yes.

Heffner: …what’s the down side of docu-drama, or “faction”, that mixture…

Schama: Yes.

Heffner: …of fact and fiction?

Schama: Well, I suppose that…well, I…yes, thinking about…I think docu-drama, even if it allows itself, you know, an immensely elastic…I mean huge number of hours in which to show what’s happening necessarily has to compress the making of historical events into the most intense moments, and there are ways in which, really very profound historical changes come about in a kind of coral reef way. It’s almost as though those great time lapse pictures we all saw on…at least I saw in natural history of a kind of flower opening, and it takes 30 seconds to go from closed buds to open blossom. That’s the way the docu-drama has to work. Whereas really, in some sense, political protagonists themselves whether we’re talking about…I don’t know, Churchill, even, or whether we’re talking about Robespierre or Napoleon, often, you know, spent an enormous amount of time themselves thinking about the time they have to make decisions, so that you do get a kind of qualitative shift towards impulsiveness. It’s the history of impulse, very often, and that, that really probably, if I had to think about it just for a minute, is probably one drawback, I would suppose.

Heffner: Isn’t that an enormous one?

Schama: It probably is, yes.

Heffner: The distortion of the process.

Schama: Yes, it probably is. I don’t think all history is like that. I mean the great French historians of the 1920s through the ‘50s – thought that all history is, indeed, so many little animals living in a coral reef building up by immensely discreet, painstaking purposes, their own houses, coming into the great kind of structure we think of as history. I don’t think that…I don’t think that’s always the case. There are short, sharp, violent moments that blow the whole thing apart, the French Revolution being an obvious one. But it does distort, and a lot of history is this more sedimentary process.

Heffner: short, sharp, violent moments.

Schama: Yes.

Heffner: As I understand, it is the violence of the revolutionary period…

Schama: Yes.

Heffner: …that disturbs you the most.

Schama: Yes.

Heffner: …”disturb” is a peculiar word…

Schama: Yes.

Heffner: …one which you focus and which justifies your…some people consider it very conservative rejection…

Schama: Right.

Heffner: …of revolutionary values.

Schama: Right. I didn’t think of it as conservative. I’ve yet to be persuaded that it is. I certainly am not a conservative…

Heffner: But you have been attacked on this.

Schama: I’ve been said to be one, yes. In fact I think both by people who applaud the book actually (laughter), and by those…certainly by those who’ve attacked it. It is a book that’s designed, certainly, as you suggested in your opening remarks, that both grew out of, and as I wrote the book, this became rather more intense, a deep sense of dismay at what I call kind of “narcotic” politics. That’s politics of ecstasy, which can include a kind of poetry of death. You know, it’s very fine when it’s in speeches, or in the Marseillaise, all these kind of bloody banners, you know in the Marseillaise lyrics. But, you know…counts real lives, and I’m not naïve or jejune enough to suppose that when there are great changes in power…often do cost lives, my real problem in the French Revolution was the enormous number of lives, over and above the violence that seemed to me to be necessary to change sovereignty.

Heffner: You mean “so many eggs must be broken to make an omelet…”

Schama: Well, it’s a horrible…

Heffner: …but not here.

Schama: Well…I don’t want to suggest too that there’s a horrible kind of calculus to make it less cold-blooded and ridiculously arbitrary…to try to make it less arbitrary, let me give you one example. Paris…12th July…night of 12th July, 1789…there is in effect a civil war going on in the army…think of it in the same way that Western journalists were speculating before the days of Tiananmen Square, and saying, “Well, the Chinese army is breaking into two parts”, it’s more or less what people were wondering about in mid-July, and what happened was a kind of battle between the Loyalist side of the army, many of them foreign troops, and the side that had already gone over to the National Assembly, said “We will only accept orders from the National Assembly, and the new municipality in Paris”, and they fought out this slogging, chaotic battle at midnight over the sand, and by the morning the Royalist side had lost in effect. They were unable to dislodge the troops that had really gone over to the National Assembly. Really, basically, that was it as far as the position of the revolution in Paris. The revolution had taken Paris. The Bastille as you know was not an insignificant…it was an overwhelming potent symbol and there was a lot of gunpowder stored there, but it was essentially a kind of symbolic coda to what had happened two days before. Nonetheless, lives were lost at the Bastille through a series of mistakes and misapprehensions, and then after it was all done, the governor of the Bastille’s head was cut off while he was being frog-marched to the City Hall, stuck on a pike and paraded around the streets, and it was this kind of visceral, punative, cathartic, really very emotional violence that had already announced itself, and in some ways you could even expect that to happen because people are very mad and they’re very hungry. But it’s the kind of polite applause on the part of the politicians, who in some sense, I think, sort of condoned that sort of display of blood. That’s really what I had in mind when I said there is kind of gratuitous cruelty and brutality in the revolution.

Heffner: It seemed to me as I read Citizens that you were concerned more about the politicians of the two hundred years that followed the Revolution…

Schama: Really?

Heffner: …than with the politicians of the time, and that you have been concerned with the place that the Revolution has had in our thinking. Is that…is that unfair?

Schama: I didn’t think that when I wrote it. After finishing it, and earlier in the year it did indeed strike me and I’m certainly not alone that in some sense the France of the Fifth Republic is the constitution the revolution never allowed France to have in that it’s a sort of constitutional monarchy in which there is exactly that division of powers between an executive and quite strong president, a ministry responsible with elected assembly and an independent judiciary, in fact a kind of Supreme Court, the so-called Constitutional Council.

Heffner: But what have you thought about those of us who have applauded violence without saying one wraps oneself in it, but have applauded the acts of violence that took place as necessary to overturn the ancient regime. You…you debunk that notion.

Schama: Yes, that indeed, was the kind of piety which really most disconcerted me and which was, if anything, a principle target of the book. Let me just say one thing, like all good 19th century chronicles, the point about the relationship…the intrinsically disastrous engagement between violence and freedom was a theme which kind of grew with the writing of the book. There were many other positions, “pris-de-position”, as the French would say, which I really fully admit I came to the book with prejudices. Tocquevillian ones. Especially what I took to be a much more promising kind of modernity, pre-revolutionary modernity, taking place in the old regime. I came to the book with those sorts of reflections and prejudices. What I really was taken aback by during the new research I did for the book, and during the writing was the centrality of the violence as an empowering thing, and so it was the sense of the kind of the glory of the bloodstained banner, that aspect of the revolution, which I wanted to distance myself from, and actually make people indeed have sort of second thoughts about.

Heffner: And Tocqueville’s movement from France to America…

Schama: Oh, it was the other way around really, in a way…

Heffner: Well…first…

Schama: Right. He writes about America before he writes The Ancient Regime of the Revolution.

Heffner: But in terms…in terms of what you are talking about…

Schama: Yes. Yes.

Heffner: Do you identify also with his concerns for…

Schama: Yes, I think, I think…yes, very closely. I mean as an awful…I think Tocqueville…I don’t wish to at all invoke his memory altogether because I think he would be spinning in his grave (laughter), if he felt I was presuming to do so…very high-minded person…but I think there is a sense in which Tocqueville had, you know, deep, deep sense of anxiety about the revolutionary heritage. He would have loved to have seen a workable constitutional monarchy, a liberal constitutional monarchy, and when the Republic came again in 1848, he became a Minister who was always rather anxiously looking over his shoulder for a sort of disastrous collapse of the republic into anarchy and despotism, which is indeed exactly what happened. But…let me just say because Tocqueville really had problems with the French Revolutionary inheritance did not make him, of course, famously starry-eyed about America. He thought there were different sorts of problems about America and democracy, too.

Heffner: Yes, I wasn’t…

Schama: There still are.

Heffner: I wasn’t thinking about the…the…

Schama: Right.

Heffner: …the years in which the volumes came out…

Schama: Right.

Heffner: …I was thinking of what he brought with him…

Schama: Yes.

Heffner: …to this country, and wondered about the degree to which you shared it?

Schama: Yes.

Heffner: Whether your concerns about the French Revolution…

Schama: Yes.

Heffner: …are equivalent to his concerns about the American? The Jacksonian revolution?

Schama: Yes. Yes. Yes. Well, I think I don’t quite see myself as others would want to see me as being, as patrician, I suppose, as Tocqueville. But I don’t really see myself in that light at all. I mean I think to have problems with the kind of, you know, trumpet blast of revolutionary rhetoric, with kind of high voltage politics, and wanting to turn the voltage down a bit, that I share with Tocqueville. I don’t think I quite have this…strong a skeptical mistrust of the…of the operations of democracy that really Tocqueville had. My…one of my main concerns, really, in the French Revolution was that the principles of the Declaration of the Rights of Man almost invariably noble and admirable items of political philosophy, were themselves subverted by revolutionary practice, and they were issues like freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of religious worship, and so on, all those things which were kind of graven in the stone of the revolution.

Heffner: Do you think that goes with the territory of revolution?

Schama: Yes, I do. I do, and I think I share with the great French contemporary historian, Francois Furet, the sense in which one feature of revolutionary speech and I call it the revolutionary temper, is this deep yearning for “oneness”, what I call the “indivisibility mania”, and that is present in the revolution from the beginning. Tocqueville saw it and Tocqueville thought it was really simply the kind of legacy of the old monarchy of centralized institutions. I think, in fact, it was…the monarchy was in some sense decentralizing it rather more than Tocqueville supposed. But in the revolution itself this overwhelming desire for “oneness” ran right against the grain of at the same time wanting to preserve, to some extent, separation of powers and the various liberties which are itemized in the Declaration of the Rights of Man. There are people like John Adams, and Madison, who saw really, to begin with a moderate enthusiast of the revolution, saw that the French and the American Revolutions were distinctively different animals.

Heffner: Did…

Schama: And I come down more…on a more Madisonian side.

Heffner: Our genius…the genius of this country seems to have been in a rejection of the notion of “oneness”…

Schama: Emigrants, you know, emigrants even then. I mean Scotch, Irish, English, even then, I think. Not only emigrants, but Virginians and New Englanders. I mean I sort of imagined the Constitutional Convention (laughter) as a kind of a more bizarre gathering in some ways of cultures than, let’s say, the European parliament in Strasburg. Different speech patterns, you know, I mean…really, and I think in some sense that fed into a way of seeing the world more in the manner of “E Pluribus Unum”, more in the way of wanting to bring different cultures under an umbrella. “Check this out”, which would let them live in the same stage without squashing them not a single definition of, you know, very, very strong definition of what it was to be an American. The French could never of dreamed of that, even though they in some sense have different cultures, too.

Heffner: You know we began the program as we must end it now…we began the program with a discussion of the intellectual baggage…

Schama: Yes.

Heffner: …that historians bring with them. If you will stay right where you are, we’ll take a break and do another program in which I’d like to talk about the intellectual baggage, if I may use that expression that you bring with you.

Schama: Yes.

Heffner: Simon Schama, thank you for joining me today on THE OPEN MIND.

Schama: You’re welcome.

Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney; The Edythe and Dean Dowling Foundation; The Lawrence A. Wien Foundation; The New York Times Company Foundation; The Richard Lounsbery Foundation; and, from the corporate community, Mutual of America.

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