Wednesday, February 20, 2013

ET: Almanac

Professional historians are apt to dismiss contemptuously as "novels" all historical works which are not merely impersonal, laborious collections of material. But after one or two generations at most their own works turn out to be novels, the sole difference being that theirs are empty, boring, uninspired, and liable to be killed by a single "find"; whereas a truly worthy history-novel can never become a "back number" as regards its deeper significance. Herodotus is not a back number, although he recorded for the most part things which every elementary schoolmaster can refute; Montesquieu is not a back number, although his writings are full of palpable errors; Herder is not a back number, although he put forward historical opinions which today are considered amateurish; Winckelmann is not a back number, although his interpretation of Classical Greece was one great misconception; Burckhardt is not a back number, although Wilamowitz-Mollendorff, the present-day pope of Classical philology, has said that his cultural history of Greece "so far as science is concerned has no existence." The point is that even if everything which these men taught should prove erroneous, one truth would always remain and could never become antiquated: the truth as regards the artistic personality behind the work, the important person who experienced these wrong impressions, reflected, and gave form to them. When Schiller writes ten pages of vivid German prose on an episode in the Thirty Years' War which bears no resemblance to what really happened, he does more for historical knowledge than a hundred pages of "reflections based on the latest documents," written without a philosophical outlook and in barbarous German. When Carlyle works up the story of the French Revolution into the drama of a whole people, forced onward by powerful forces and counterforces to fulfil its bloody destiny, he may be said to have written a novel - even a "thriller" - but the mysterious atmosphere of infinite significance in which this poetical work is bathed acts as a magic insulating sheath to preserve it intact from age to age. Then, again, is not Dante's unreal vision of Hell the most competent historical picture of the Middle Ages which we possess to this day? Homer, too, what was he but a historian "with insufficient knowledge of sources"? All the same, he is and always will be right, even though one day it should transpire that no Troy ever existed. 
All our utterances about the past refer equally to ourselves. We can never speak of and never know anything except ourselves. But by sinking ourselves in the past we discover new possibilities of our own ego, enlarge the frontiers of our consciousness, and undergo new if wholly subjective experiences. Therein lies the value and the aim of all historical study. 

- Egon Friedell, Cultural History of the Modern Age

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