Sunday, April 10, 2011

A Tale Of Two Histories

This is the way history should be written. It’s from The Thirty Years War by C.V. Wedgwood (1938):
The year 1618 was like many others in those uneasy decades of armed neutrality which occur from time to time in the history of Europe. Political disturbances exploded intermittently in an atmosphere thick with the apprehension of conflict. Diplomatists hesitated, weighing the gravity of each new crisis, politicians predicted, merchants complained of unsteady markets and wavering exchanges, while the forty million peasants, on whom the cumbrous structure of civilization rested, dug their fields and bound their sheaves and cared nothing for the remote activities of their rulers.
Those were the days. Not the seventeenth century, mind you, but a time when historians still acknowledged their discipline as a branch of literature and knew the value of a good editor. Not so much anymore, I’m afraid. Alas, the following is the kind of clunky nonsense I had to read during my short and inglorious career as a grad student. It’s from Christianity and the Rhetoric of Empire: The Development of Christian Discourse (1991):
One might quarrel with some of the positions taken (the author is a sociologist, not a Roman historian), but it is nevertheless striking to find the degree of emphasis laid here on the “systematic moral life plan” and “transcendent ideological power in human history” offered by early Christianity in relation to its growth in the context of the Roman Empire. What is different, then, in these approaches from the familiar strategy in which Christian ideology plays a secondary role in relation to economic and institutional factors is the stress laid on articulation and ideology as dynamic factors in themselves.
The first example inspires you to keep reading, even if you don’t care a thing about the Thirty Years War; the second is like paddling a canoe through wet cement. The former is wise and worldly, relevant; the latter is lifeless and sterile, of interest to nobody but a group of cloistered academics. One breaches the realm of art; the other is, to use its own species of jargon, a “cultural production.”

Whenever I regret my decision to drop out of graduate school, I reread passages like example No. 2 and all my angst disappears. I squandered many sunny days wading through such awful stuff and, more painfully, struggling to write about it. It was like trying to wring sweat from a corpse. You can only lurch past words like “diachronic” and “hermeneutics” so many times before you cry out in revolt, “My kingdom for a concrete phrase!” and go running off to the nearest bar for a glass of something strong, a volume of Orwell’s essays tightly in hand.

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