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Sunday, June 25, 2006

that diorama style

Taine’s introduction to his history of English literature became famous as soon as the first volume was published, in 1864. Its fame has dwindled, as fame does, into an exercise in memorization for grad students in comparative literature: Q: what was Taine’s thesis? A: History is about race, milieu and the moment. Which you can know without ever reading Taine – it is the kind of knowledge you get in an overview written by someone who may, perhaps, have acquired his or her knowledge of Taine from another overview.

This is not to bitch – Taine’s intro begins with set pieces in a Believe it or Not diorama style that has aged as badly as the American Natural History museum’s Culture Halls, with their celebration of how the Peoples of the World live in their natural setting. The diorama style is not just Taine’s, of course – he is writing in the wake of fifty years of ethnographic shows and exhibits, including the great Crystal Palace one in 1851 (in which the U.S. was represented by our amazing gunsmiths – the Colt rifles and revolvers, and the way they were made of standard parts in factories in which, it was rumored, machines made machines, so shook the British that they sent a special mission to the U.S. to observe and report on U.S. manufacturers). But Taine intellectualized this hybrid of scholarship and entertainment. So, he urges the historian to act much like the visitor to one of these shows – to view the country and culture, instead of merely drawing philosophical conclusions from the logic of texts its might produce:

“In order to understand an Indian Purana, begin by imaging the father of a family who, having seen a son on the knees of his son, retires, according to the law, into a solitary state, with a vase and an axe, under a banana tree on the edge of a stream, ceasing to speak, multiplying his fasts, standing nude between four fires, and under the fifth fire, the terrible sun that devours and incessantly renews all living things; who, by stages, during entire weeks, keeps his imagination fixed on the foot of Brahma, then on his knee, and then on his thigh, and then on his belly button, and so on, until, under the pressure of that intense meditation, hallucinations appear, presenting all the forms of being, transformed confusedly one into the other, oscillating inside that head carried away by its vertigo, up to the point that the man, perfectly still, breathing once again, his eyes still fixed, sees the univers vanish smoke above the universal and empty Being, in which he aspires, himself, to plunge.”

This kind of speech cries out for a showman’s cane – and in fact was quickly absorbed into popular literature and then into films.

While Taine’s prose is a little, well, funny, his point is interesting – he wants the historian to begin his own meditation by way of starting with the novel, or the drama. To make a history is to visualize the settings and persons in the history. Thus, Taine counts, among those who have put history on the right track in the 19th century (the track of science), Walter Scott.

‘This is the first step in history: we have made it in Europe thanks to the renaissance of the imagination produced, at the end of the last century, with Lessing, Walter Scott; a little later in France, with Chateaubriand, Augustin Thierry, M. Michelet and so many others.”

All of which is by way of pointing back to Marx’s use of a literary method in the 18th Brumaire. LI has had a bit of a discussion about these matters with Le Colonel Chabert. Marx, who wrote the 18th Brumaire in the very year of the Crystal Palace Exhibit, sounds so modern, compared to Taine. Or modernist – for Taine’s diorama style is, as I am coming to see more and more, the style of the comic book, which is not so marginal any more – and which probably never was. There are bizarre enjambments between Marx’s text and Taine’s, and my next post on this matter is going to explore one of them – Marx’s remark about the pretence of the actors in the events he is looking at to actually be enacting a classical, analogous drama.

This political charade is, for Taine, stage two of the historic method:

If you wish to observe this operation [the historian’s attempt to plumb the psychology of historical personages] look at the promoter and model of all great contemporary culture, Goethe, who, before writing his Iphigenie, used his days to design the most perfect statues, and who, at last, his eyes filled by the noble forms and landscapes of antiquity, and his mind penetrated by the harmonious beauty of the classical era’s lives, came to reproduce so exactly inside himself the habits and tendencies of the Greek imagination that he gives us almost a twin sister to Sophocles’ Antigone, and the goddesses of Phidias.”

The tendency to for political actors to play this game of masquerade is something we see, at present, in the proliferation of analogies for the Iraq war. What is this about?

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