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Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

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Sunday, May 11, 2003


LI recommends an essay, Anecdote and History by Lionel Grossman in this spring's History and Theory. Grossman uses the etymology of anecdote to show how the thing's semantic charge changed over time. Anekdoka was, apparently, the title of Procopius's Secret History. As it was translated into European languages, anecdote took on the meaning of unpublished, and the secondary meaning of secret history. Anybody who has read Procopius's history knows how salacious the book is: the vague reputation for tasty salacity became attached to anecdotes. Voltaire, according to Grossman, exhibited extreme contempt for the genre. In particular, the anecdote disturbed Voltaire's notion of what history -- the history of historians -- was all about. Although Grossman doesn't exactly show this outright, Voltaire's agenda, as a historian, was to rescue it from the collectioneering science of the antiquarians. For Voltaire, history's moral bound was defined by scale: history was an account of great events. Of course, Voltaire's perspectivism nuanced his idea of great events. Not every king or noble was great. The social hierarchy did not define greatness, but it did tone it.

In this way, Voltaire, far from being the grinning undertaker of the ancien regime, was its great and final ideologue. Grossman quotes, in this respect, an interesting review of Rousseau's Confessions that, while not penned by Voltaire, reflected the Voltairian vision:

Voltaire�s mostly negative judgment of anecdotes was also determined, however, by the same classical, fundamentally conservative esthetics (and politics) that later led the editors of the Ann�e Litt�raire to condemn Rousseau�s Confessions as an act of literary arrogance and presumption. �Where would we be now,� they protested in 1782, �if every one arrogated to himself the right to write and print everything that concerns him personally and that he enjoys recalling?�

We don't believe that Voltaire's position can fairly be called conservative. But otherwise, this is a highly revealing sentence.

According to Grossman, by the end of the eighteenth century the transition from secret history to symptomatic event was being slowly achieved -- felt, in fact, in the etymological sinews of the language. Grossman concentrates on some important figures, and quotes a marvelous anecdote of Chamfort's:

"As early as the last third of
the eighteenth century some of Chamfort�s anecdotes appear to have had such symptomatic value. A story about the Duke of Hamilton, for instance�who,being drunk one night, heedlessly killed a waiter at an inn, and when confronted with the fact by the horri.ed innkeeper, calmly replied: �Add it to the bill��
seems intended as more than an allegory of the general indifference of the rich and powerful to the poor and powerless; it is also symptomatic of the personage described, the Duke of Hamilton, and�beyond him perhaps�of the social relations of a particular historical moment, that of the ancien r�gime."

Since the romantics, we have all been imbued with the idea that the essence of history is secret -- that secret histories are the truer ones. Gnosticism is thus revived among us. LI is tempted by that belief himself. Nick Tosches wrote, somewhere, that the history of this country is the history of a number of handshakes between men in dark corners of restaurants and clubs. Or he wrote something like that. Well, we think that the handshakes can be as public as the front page -- that the secret and the overt are usually not so separate, and that the best hiding place is behind the universal indifference to what doesn't disturb one's own repose for the next week.

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