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Mere anecdotes, the historian said, and ordered another port


Of Borges’ 1935 book, The Universal History of Infamy, the best things are: a, the title, and b., the preface, a glorious meditation on the baroque which has had many repercussions in Latin American lit and historiography.

The stories themselves, though, are a bit thin.

Still, it is a title to dream about. Infamy has filled our eyes and ears so often, since it was written, that we are all becoming a bit nearsighted and deaf. In a sense, these fictions – inspired, I think, by a French tradition going from Nerval to Marcel Schwab, of which the English equivalent is Pater’s Imaginary portraits – have also inspired, or at least communicated secretly (secret communications are the plumbing of culture, vases communicants indeed) with the vein of microhistory that revived the discipline in the 70s and 80s. One dreams of, say, a Universal history of survivors, a Universal history of double agents, etc. And yet, the universal here is pointillist – it is a matter of extending the anecdote.

Lionel Gossman wrote what I believe is one of the great essays on the anecdote, “Anecdote and History”, which appeared in the 2003 journal, History and Theory. After a preface, Gossman gets down to thesis business with a very deft hand:

“The relation of the epic and dramatic genres, and the implications, in terms of ideology or Weltanschauung, of narrative versus dramatic representation of the world, have been a major topic of reflection on literature since Antiquity. As  anecdotes, as I now believe, may favor either--they may reduce complex situations to simple, sharply defined dramatic structures, but they may also, if more rarely, prise closed dramatic structures open by perforating them with holes of novelistic contingency-a brief discussion of this topic is in order.”

Gossman references Barthes’s essay on faits divers, in which, Barthes claimed, disproportion becomes the rhetorical dynamic – which, if we want to extend our range of references, always a fun thing, we could bring back to Borges’ essay on the baroque.

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 As it was translated into European languages, anecdote took on the meaning of unpublished, and the secondary meaning of secret history.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 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 Annee Litteraire 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?”

The genealogy of the phrase, “my truth”, which became a byword in the social media America of the 00s, goes back a long way


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 horrified 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 regime."

Anecdotes, if one has a genius for the selection and allegorization for them, as Chamfort did, become symptoms – of a larger whole, a diseased culture or historical tranche. The problem lies in that particular genius, which is nourished by a culture that still treasures conversation and the heroism of wit. Those who have no wit – the heathen raging outside the cenacle, or the entirety of the Silicon Valley brotherhood, and their partners, the CEOS presiding over universities – fear and despise it.

I'm thinking about anecdote and Cold War history as I've been delving into newspapers and journalist historians to create my own Universal History of Infamy, subsection the long Cold War.