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Wesleyan University

Hayden White's Appeal to the Historians

Author(s): F. R. Ankersmit
Source: History and Theory, Vol. 37, No. 2 (May, 1998), pp. 182-193
Published by: Wiley for Wesleyan University
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Historians rarely agree with Hayden White's account of their discipline. To a certain
extent theirdissatisfactioncan be explainedby the fact thathistorianscustomarilydistrust
historicaltheory and always tend to look at the historicaltheoristwith the greatestsuspi-
cion. But historiansfind an extraargumentfor their dislike of White's ideas in his alleged
cavalierdisregardof how historicalfacts limit what the historianmight wish to say about
the past. And, admittedly,this criticism is not wholly unfounded.
Nevertheless, this essay attemptsto show how misguided this traditionalcriticism of
White actually is. For it is historianswho too easily take the truthof their accountsof the
past for granted, whereas White's theoretical writings can be shown to express a full
awarenessof the kind of problemencounteredin the effort to tell the truthabout histori-
cal reality.Hence, White's writings-rather than those by historianscriticizing White-
testify to the respect that we owe to historicalreality itself.
That this is how we should read White becomes clear if we consider his intellectual
evolution as a whole ratherthan the individualbooks or essays that he wrote.


The relationship between philosophers of history and historians has never been
an easy and relaxed one. Ranke's historicism, with which modern historical writ-
ing came into being, was at least partly a reaction against Fichte's and Hegel's
philosophies of history. I Hegel, in his turn, accused Ranke of being utterly unable
to discern some kind of unity or general trend in the chaos of details that the past
has left us.2 And though there are a few shining exceptions, such as Droysen,
Meinecke, or, to take a quite different example, the cliometricians of a generation

1. "Often a certain conflict has been observed between an immaturephilosophy and history. By
way of a priori thinking,conclusions were drawnaboutwhat must be. Withoutbeing awarethat such
ideas are exposed to many doubts, men went about trying to find these ideas again in the history of
the world. Out of the infinitenumberof facts those were chosen which seemed to confirmthese ideas.
This kind of writing has also been called philosophy of history."See L. von Ranke, The Theoty and
Practice of Histor-y edited with an introduction by Georg G. Iggers and Konrad von Moltke
(Indianapolis,1973), 29.
2. Having Ranke in mind, Hegel condemns his writings as "die bunte Menge von Detail, klein-
lichen Interessen, Handlungender Soldaten, Privatsachen,die auf die politische Interessen keinen
Einfluss haben,-unfdhig, ein ganzes, einen allgemeinen Zweck zu erkennen"["focusingon the var-
ied chaos of details, puny interests,actions by soldiers, privateaffairswhich have no bearingat all on
what is of interestfrom a political point of view-and is thereforea kind of historywritingthatis inca-
pable of discerning some general purpose in history']. G. W. F. Hegel, Vor-lesungenjibet die
Philosophlieder Weltgeschichte.Band I: Die Vernunftin der Geschichte(Hamburg,1955), 15.

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ago, historians have generally remained suspicious of philosophers of history

down to the presentday.
In fact, this is strange. In fields such as intellectual history or the history of
ideas there is considerableoverlap between the domains of history and philos-
ophy,so philosophyis reallypartof historyproperthere.One would have expect-
ed thatthis fact alone would have lessened historians'resistanceto philosophical
reflectionaboutthe natureof theirown discipline. Moreover,historians'animos-
ity towardshistoricaltheoristsdoes not seem to have an analogue elsewhere. In
the social sciences, such as sociology and economics, there has always been a
fruitfulinteractionbetween the discipline in question and philosophy;linguistics
and philosophy of language can even be said to be two sides of the same coin,
and this is no differentfor logic, mathematics,and philosophy.It is true thatnat-
ural scientists tend to be indifferentto the argumentsof philosophersof science;
insofaras scientiststake any notice at all of debatessuch as those between Popper
and Kuhn,they rarelyif ever discover in them anythingof relevanceto their own
occupations.But even physicists' sovereign lack of interestin philosophy of sci-
ence never provokesin them the kind of skittishbehaviorthat historianstend to
display when confrontedwith historicaltheory and its practitioners.
One wonderswhy this is so. Partof the explanationundoubtedlyis thathistori-
ans feel more insecure about the scientific status of their discipline than do the
practitionersof any other field of scholarly research.They are painfully aware
that historicaldebate rarely leads to conclusive results and that such regrettable
things as intellectual fashions or political preference may strongly color their
opinions aboutthe past. In short,deep in theirheartshistoriansknow that,despite
their emphasis on the necessity of accurateinvestigationof sources and on pru-
dent and responsibleinterpretation,historyrankslowest in scientific statusof all
the disciplines taughtat a university.Since one of the main effects of the histo-
rical theorist'seffort, unfortunately,is to confront historianswith these sad and
disappointingfacts abouttheirdiscipline, it is only naturalthat historianstend to
projecttheirfrustrationsaboutthe uncertaintiesof theirdiscipline onto theorists.
In short,historicaltheoristsare historians'obvious targetif they wish to work off
their all too understandableprofessionalinferioritycomplexes.
But this is not all. Anotherillustrioushaterof philosophyof history was Jakob
Burckhardt-though Gombrichdemonstratedsome time ago that Burckhardt's
own conception of history owed a lot more to Hegel than Burckhardtseems to
have realized.3 Right at the beginning of his Weltgeschichtliche Betrachtungen
Burckhardtaccused philosophy of history of being "a Centaur"and he went on
to explain why, in his opinion, philosophy of history is like this hybridmonster.
This is because, as Burckhardtput it, history "coordinates,"whereasphilosophy
"subordinates." That is to say, historianstry to discover some unity in a chaos of
(historical) facts, whereas philosophers proceed by logical deduction. Though
this presentationof the natureof history and philosophy may be a bit too flatter-

3. E. H. Gombrich,In Sear-chof Cultitrcal

Historn(Oxford, 1956).

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ing with regardto the latter,this still seems to be much the essential difference
between history and philosophy.
And this bringsus to the heartof the matter.What irritateshistoriansso much
in philosophersof historyis not thatthey are also practicinghistory,but thatthey
practiceit in a differentmanner.As Burckhardt'sargumentmakes clear, histori-
ans above all resent philosophersof history's habit of making claims about the
past on the basis of philosophical argumentonly, without feeling challenged to
find supportfor theirbold andunwarrantedassertionsin hardhistoricalfact. And
if this were not bad enough already, since the lay public for whom historians
write is not ordinarilyvery interestedin methodologicalsubtleties,the lay public
will often be more deeply impressedby and more interestedin the obiter dicta of
the Hegels, the Marxes, or the Toynbees, than in historians'source editions and
their esoteric debates about, for example, the economics of seventeenth-century
ruralEngland.So what is at the basis of historians'hatredof philosophersof his-
tory is, in the end, that the latter are disloyal rivals, reducing with their intel-
lectual brilliance all the unwearying industry of historians to mere irrelevant
pedantrywhich produces,at best, the materialout of which philosophersof his-
tory may constructtheir breathtakingpanoramas.Burckhardt'sargumentthere-
fore certainlygoes a long way to explain the historian'sdistrustof philosophy(of
history). And his argumentalso makes clear, by the way, why sociologists and
economists behave in a so much more relaxed way towardstheirphilosophically
minded colleagues than historianscustomarilydo: for sociology and economics
share with philosophy this preference of "subordination"to "coordination,"to
use Burckhardt'sterminology.
It might be objectednow thatcontemporaryphilosophersof historyabandoned
speculative philosophy of history long ago and are now all doing critical
philosophy of history,from which the interferencewith the results of historians'
researchis no longer to be feared.There is much self-evident truthin this objec-
tion. Historians'professionalsensitivities were hurtfar less easily and frequent-
ly by analytical philosophy of history than by its speculative predecessor. It
should be added,though, that most historiansremaincompletely unawareof the
existence of this new variantof historical theory, and insofar as they took any
notice of it at all they rightly dismissed it as irrelevantbecause of its propensity
to etherealtalk abouthistoricallaws and because of its antediluvianconceptions
of what historicalwriting is all about.
But this peaceful coexistence ended with the so-called linguistic turnin histo-
rical theory. The explanation is that the linguistic turn bored some small but
treacherousholes in the hitherto safe barrierbetween language and reality and
this enabled the historical theoristto regain access to historicalreality.As soon
as this happened,the historicaldiscipline reactedas if stung by a wasp and all the
old animosities against historicaltheory were revived.

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Now, no historicaltheoristhas been more influentialin introducingthe linguistic

turnin historicaltheory than HaydenWhite and it need not surpriseus therefore
that White became the favorite object of historians'ire. Since the publicationof
White's Metahistory,historians-from GertrudeHimmelfarbat one end to Carlo
Ginzburgat the opposite end of the spectrumof historicalwriting-have fulmi-
nated againstWhite and condemnedhis views as a dangerousand irresponsible
caricatureof what historicalwriting actually is.
Two years ago a new and sometimes hilariouschapterwas addedto this book
of historians'guerrillawar against historicaltheorists as personifiedby Hayden
White. In 1995 ArthurMarwick,professorof history at the BritishOpen Univer-
sity, wrote an essay in the Journal of Contemporary History which certainly
markedan absolutelow in the perennialbattleof the historicaldiscipline against
the scourge of theory.It may surpriseus that a reasonablysensible person, such
as ArthurMarwickprobablyis, could write such a perfectlyinane and silly tirade
which, as such things ordinarilygo, must have injuredits authormore seriously
thanits target.This much is alreadyclear from the fact thatin the discussion that
followed on the pages of thatjournal, several historians,even British historians,
came to White's defense. And in a worthy and dignified mannerWhite himself
also respondedto Marwick'sheated accusations.4
It would not be worthwhile to give a detailed exposition here of Marwick's
invariablymisinformedcriticisms:however,for all its primitivity,there is some-
thing thatdemandsour attentionin the gut feeling from which his criticismspre-
sumablyoriginated.What is of interestin Marwick'scri du coeur is alreadysug-
gested by its peculiar title: "Two Approaches to Historical Study: The
Metaphysical (including 'Postmodernism')and the Historical."What becomes
clear from this title is that Marwick considers White, whom he mistakenlybe-
lieves to be a postmodernistinstead of the unrepentingstructuralistthat White
still is, to be the true heir to speculative philosophersof history, who believed
they had discovered the metaphysicalessence of the past. And, as Ranke did a
century and a half ago, Marwick severely castigates this metaphysical (and
allegedly postmodernist)excess of certaintyabout the natureof the past: for all
that we can know about the past results from the historian's painstakingand
laboriouswork on the documentaryevidence that the past has left us. It is to the
historian, as Marwick assures us, and not to the idle speculationsof White and
of his noisy and obscurantistpostmodernistgang, that one should turnto if one
wishes to know aboutthe past.5
4. For this "discussion,"see A. Marwick,"TwoApproachesto HistoricalStudy:The Metaphysical
(including 'Postmodernism')and the Historical,"Journal of ContemporaryHistory 30 (1995), 1-35;
H. White, responseto ArthurMarwick,Journalof Conteniporcarv Histoiy 30 (1995), 233-245. Further
participants in the debate were Wulf Kansteiner, Geoffrey Roberts, Beverley Southgate, and
ChristopherLloyd. The last probablyfurtheraddedto the confusion by linking White's case to thatof
his own sociologically oriented approachto historicalwriting. For these contributions,see the 1996
issue of the journal mentioned, 191-228.
5. Marwick,"TwoApproaches,"12

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Now, even if one is only superficiallyacquaintedwith White's ability to hurt

the historian'ssensitivitiesover the last two and half decades, one will be deeply
surprisedby Marwick'scriticism.ForordinarilyWhite is accusedof precisely the
reverse:White is attackedfor his tropologicalrelativism,for his rejectionof the
notion of historical truth, and for his claim that historians cherish naive and
untenableviews abouthistoricaltruthand abouthow truthcan be validated.It is
not difficult to explain this more usual type of criticism. First, the tropological
model of historical writing as proposed in Metahistory-too well known to be
expounded here again6 claims that the four tropes will determine historians'
views of whateverpartof the past they are investigating.The implicationseems
to be that the truthabout "pre-tropological"historical reality, the Rankeanpast
wie es eigentlich gewesen, is forever unattainableto the historian. Second,
because of this, historical debate is not, as historianslike to believe, a debate
about what the past was actually like, but an essentially linguistic debate about
the pros and cons of the four tropes when appliedto particularcases. Obviously,
from this perspectiveHaydenWhite's historicaltheoryis a harshdenial of all that
historianshave always strivenfor and thoughtto be both the natureand the only
legitimate goal of their enterprise.And I would not wish to deny that there is at
least some truthin this kind of criticism of White's views, nor thatespecially the
Introductionand the Conclusion to Metahistorn may rightly invite this kind of
readingof White's work.
So, taking together Marwick's and the more traditionalreaction to White's
work, we may conclude that it is historical reality and the way the historianen-
counters, describes, and explains historical reality that seem to be worrying
practicinghistoriansmost. Next, this is a criticism that we should take seriously,
since it self-evidently concerns a crucial aspect of all practice of history.And if
White's writingsdid indeed presentus with the caricatureof the historian'srela-
tionship to historical reality that historianswish to discern in it, we could only
agree with them. However, as I want to make clear in this essay, if historians
accuse White of having produceda caricatureof the historian'srespect for his-
toricalreality,this accusationis no less a caricatureof Metahistoly and of all that
White has writtensince Metahistorn.


The best way to demonstratethis is by focusing not so much on White's books

and essays separately,but on the general trendconnecting them. Put differently,
of course we should startby readingWhite's writings individually where else
could one possibly begin?-but then we must ask ourselves the question in what
way his conceptionshave developed over the years since Metcahistoty. And, more

6. H. V. White,Metahistorv:TheHistoriicalIniaginationin Nineteenth-CentnittEurope(Baltimore,
1973); for a succinct summary of the major theses defended in Metahistorn, see White, "The
HistoricalText as LiteraryArtifact,"in White, Tropicsof Discouise (Baltimore, 1978), 8 1-101.

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specifically,we must considerthe question which we must see as the permanent

challenge to which most of his writings have been a response.
Let us startthen with Metahistor i. The book can be readand interpretedin two
ways thatarefundamentallyopposed. Indeed,we can readit as the unmaskingof
the historian'seffort to get hold of historical reality and historical truth that I
described a moment ago. But the book can also be interpretedas follows. Pre-
cisely by focusing on and by problematizingthe historian'slanguage,White de-
monstratesnot the impossibilityof getting hold of past reality,but the naivete of
the kind of positivist intuitioncustomarilycherishedin the discipline for how to
achieve this goal. More specifically,what these positivist intuitionsproudlypre-
sent as historicalrealityitself is a mere spectralillusion thatis createdby the his-
torical discipline itself. Surely there is a historicalreality which is, in principle,
accessible to the historian.But historianshave forgottenaboutthis historicalreal-
ity andmistakenthe productof theirtropologicalencoding of the past for the past
itself. Within this reading,White, ratherthan the practicinghistoriancriticizing
White, is the realist who remindsus of the difference between reality itself and
what is mere intellectualconstruction.
I shall now give two argumentsin favor of this second reading of White's
work. First, Metahistoiy was devoted to the great historians of the end of the
eighteenth and nineteenthcenturies.To these historians such as Gibbon, Toc-
queville, Macaulay,Michelet, Burckhardt,and even Ranke-the past was a sub-
lime and quasi-divinespectacle thatrequiredthe whole of theirpowerfulperson-
alities in orderto become expressible in their writings.To them the past was not
yet that tamed and domesticatedreality which is the productand counterpartof
the methodsand canons of contemporarydisciplinaryhistoricalwriting.To them
the past can only be renderedif it resonatesin the depth of historians'own souls
and evokes therethe essentially poetic responsetestifying to their actualencoun-
ter with past reality.
The authorof Metahistorywas clearly fascinatedby how these historiansand
philosophers of history related to historical reality itself; and it would surely
requirea most perverse interpretationof Metahistory to read it primarilyas the
sad account of how the poetics of historical writing inevitably blinded them to
thatpast's reality.For theirpoetic graspof the past did not remove them from the
past, did not create an insurmountabledistance between the past and them-
selves on the contrary,it was only thanksto theirpoetic genius thatthey caught
a glimpse of it and could inform their readersabouttheir experience of the past.
This brings me to my second argument.White makes clear that the greatness
of these historiansoriginatedin the easy freedomwith which they moved through
the tropologicalgrid, while defying those "electiveaffinities"to which the medi-
ocre historianordinarilysubmitshis encoding of the past. We are remindedhere
of how for Erich Auerbach,an authorWhite deeply admires, the realist repre-
sentation of reality results from a mixture of the styles.7 Both Auerbach and
White propose their stylistic or linguistic protocols only to demonstratehow
historicalreality can be made visible not by a docile submission,but by a subtle

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and poetic evasion of these protocols. White's tropes will indeed often function
as a screen between us and historical reality, as will be the case when the
mediocre historianobediently submitsto the dictates of one trope only.
The crucial point is that White's tropology shows us how these great eigh-
teenth-and nineteenth-centuryhistorianssucceeded in finding and exploiting the
cracks and fissures in the tropological screen and how precisely throughthese
cracks and fissures they managedto get a glimpse of past reality that remained
inaccessible to their less-gifted colleagues. This also explains why irony is so
prominentin White's tropology. Irony is the trope that confronts us with the
limitationsand shortcomingsof the other tropes;it is, so to speak, the trope that
is the naturalally of historicalrealityitself and thatenables it to reassertits rights
against the pressure of the other tropes. Irony naturallysituates itself in these
cracksand fissuresbetween the othertropesand is, therefore,the tropeof histori-
cal reality itself.
On the basis of this second reading of Metahistory we have the best per-
spectivefor a correctunderstandingof the evolutionof White's historicalthought
since Metahistory.Though this evolutionfollows a wide ellipse throughthe uni-
verse of theoreticalquestions, one could say that the historian'srelationshipto
historicalreality has been its permanentcenter of gravity.This becomes clear if
we consider White's much discussed essay "The Politics of Historical
Interpretation" of 1982,8which is, in my opinion, crucialfor a correctassessment
of the later development of White's thought. The subtitle of this essay-
"DisciplineandDe-sublimation" suggests what is of interestin the presentcon-
text. For White discusses here an 1801 essay by Schiller in which Schiller said
that we should conceive of world history as "a sublime object"9forever tran-
scendinghistorians'attemptsto fit it within theirneat and orderlycategories-or
theirtropes,as the White of Metahistorywould have put it. Next, White contrasts
Schiller's exhortation with how the disciplinization of history succeeded in
changingthe face of the past: "historicalfacts are politically domesticatedpreci-
sely insofaras they areeffectively removedfrom displayingthe aspectof the sub-
lime that Schiller attributedto them in his essay of 1801.''
Undoubtedlythe disciplinizationof historicalwriting since the days of Ranke
is a very good thing indeed; it has invaluably and immeasurablyenriched our
knowledge and our understandingof the past. But White wants to remindus that
this also entailed an often unnoticedloss: that is, a loss in our openness to his-

7. E. Auerbach,Mimesis: The Representationof Reality in WesternLiterature(Princeton, 1968).

For White's present view of Auerbach see H. V. White, "Auerbach'sLiterary History: Figural
Causationand Modem Historicism,"in LiteraryHistory and the Challenge of Philology: The Legacy
of Erich Atterbach,ed. S. Lerer (Stanford, 1996). For an exposition of the link between Auerbach's
notion of the mixtureof the styles and the sublimityof the real, see F. R. Ankersmit,"WhyRealism?
Auerbachon the Representationof Reality,"Poetics Tocday (forthcoming).
8. H. V. White, "ThePolitics of HistoricalInterpretation:Discipline and De-sublimation,"Critical
Inquiry 9 (1982). Also reprinted in White, The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and
Historical Representation(Baltimore, 1987), 58-83.
9. White, Content;69.
10. Ibid., 72.

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torical reality.The great nineteenth-centuryhistoriansdiscussed in Metahistorv

still possessed this openness:they felt a quasi-existentialrelationshipto the past
and they did not try or even wish to exclude any partof their highly complex in-
tellectualindividualitiesfrom theirimmersionin the past. Scientifichistory,how-
ever, gave us a neat, "domesticated"variantof the past, from which we tend to
eliminate all that fits badly within the categories of a scientifically canonized
past. The past now became like a seventeenth-centurygardenwhere naturewas
ruthlessly adapted to our conceptions of order, symmetry, and rationality.
Historical discourse now presented us with mere intellectual constructions
insteadof with the accountof the historian'sexperienceof historicalrealityitself.
Obviously, there is a similarity here with the well-known argument of
Nietzsche's Use and Abuse of History; in both cases the argumentis that so-
called "scientific"disciplinaryhistorical writing does not function as a window
enabling us to perceive historicalreality itself, but ratheras a screen obstructing
our view of it. But the difference between Nietzsche and White is no less in-
structive. Nietzsche criticized "scientific,"disciplinary history because it may
both weaken our capacity for action and effect this "domestication"of the past.
In short,Nietzsche firstpostulatesa historicalsubject(the historian)and a histo-
rical object (the past) and then proceeds to show how the two always get in the
way of each other.But White sidesteps this Nietzschean approachby asking the
more helpful and constructivequestion as to what kind of language or use of
language might enable the historian to evade these subject/objectdichotomies
which give rise to Nietzschean worries. And this, then, is the question that we
should turnto.


A firstclue to what kind of languagewill most respecthistoricalrealityis discov-

ered by White in the Greekmiddle voice.1 1 As you may recall from Greekgram-
mar taughtat secondaryschool, classical Greek not only had the active and the
passive voices but also the the so-called middle voice, as in "elousamen,"mean-
ing "I wash myself," which is thereforeindeed somewheremidway between the
active "I wash" and the passive "I am washed."Hence the term middle voice.
At firstsight this may seem a most abstruseway of tryingto deal with the issue
of the representationof historicalreality.But we will understandWhite's fasci-
nation with the middle voice when we recognize that the subjecthere is also the
object of the action and hence the middle voice indeed achieves a trans-
cendence of the subject/objectdichotomy where Nietzsche so unsatisfactorily
left the problemof how to respect the sublimityof past reality.
The way we can profitfrom this insight into the peculiarworkingsof the mid-
dle voice is suggested in an example given by the FrenchliterarytheoristRoland

11. H. V. White, "HistoricalEmplotmentand the Problem of Truth,"in Probing the Limits of

Representation: Nalzismnand the Final Solution, ed. S. Friedlander (Cambridge, Mass., 1991), and
White, "Writing in the Middle-Voice," Stanford Literariy Review 9 (1992).

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Barthes.Barthesconsidersthe possibility of using the verb "writing"in the mid-

dle voice, as in "I write myself." According to Barthes, using the verb in this
novel way would enable us to express the fact that we may sometimes truly
become ourselves in and by the act of writing.For writingmay show us what we
really thinkand who we really are:in thatcase we effectively "realizeourselves"
in and by writing. In this way we enter into a contact with ourselves that trans-
cends the subject/objectdichotomy.
All this is most intriguing and thought-provokingbut the problem remains,
obviously, how we should operationalizethese insights for history and historical
writing. Two steps can be discerned here in White's argument. First he
demonstratesthe affinitiesbetween the middle voice and the kind of prose that is
characteristicof the modernistnovel as exemplifiedby Joyce, VirginiaWoolf, or
Proust.'2Especially if we think of the monologue inte'rieur,that hallmarkof the
modernistnovel, we will see thatthis literarydevice destroysall clear boundaries
between subject and object, between the self and what is outside the self. The
mlonologue int6rieurcreates a world where the subject/objectdichotomyhas lost
all relevance, inside and outside have become indiscernible and it therefore
effectively is a "thinking,speaking,or writing in the middle voice," so to speak.
A splendidexample is the long introductionof Thomas Mann'sLotte in Weinar
in which Goethe is musing abouthis personalpast and, in doing so, inextricably
mixes his own love affairof half a centuryearlierwith the fate of Germanybefore
and afterthe Napoleonic wars.
But thoughthis may give us an idea of the kind of prose correspondingto the
middle voice, it remains to be seen what it could mean for historiansand their
relationshipto past reality.That brings us to a second step in White's argument:
his discussion of what he refersto as "themodernistevent.'3 After the foregoing
it will not be hardto comprehendwhat he means by this notion of "themodern-
ist event."It is the kind of event thatby being narrativizedloses what would also
be lost if the modernistmionologuteinterieurwere translatedinto a neat, orderly,
and chronological narrative.Only the event's "outside"which presents itself to
the historiancould survivethis act of translationwhereasits "inside,"so careful-
ly preservedin the modernistprose, would be lost forever.Put differently,ordi-
nary,disciplinaryhistoricalnarrativeeffects this dichotomyof subjectand object;
and this is not, as we all believe, the kind of discourse in which a historicalsub-
ject, the historian,speaks abouthistoricalreality.On the contrary,this is the kind
of discoursein which historiansdestroyhistoricalrealityin theireffort to domes-
ticate it and to adaptit to the constraintsof theirlanguageand of the tropesoper-
ative in it.
White does not imply that this loss would be inadmissiblein all cases; on the
contrary.However, when historians are requiredto "probethe limits of repre-

12. See the essay referredto in note 8.

13. H. V. White, 'TheModernistEvent,"in The Per-sistenceof History: Cinema,Televisionand the
Modet-nEi'ent,ed. V. Sobchack (New York, 1996), 17-38.

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sentation,"to use Saul Friedlander'sterminology,as in the case of the Holocaust
or other "sublime"(in the technical sense of that word) historicaltragedies,the
moderniststyle will bring them closest to these "limits."As White put it: "What
I am suggestingis thatthe stylistic innovationof modernism... may providebet-
ter instruments for representing 'modernist' events . . . than the storytelling tech-
niques traditionallyutilized by historiansfor representation."'
Though White does not mention this himself, Simon Schama's recent
publicationsmay give us an inkling of what all this might imply for historical
writing.Experimentswith the style of the modernistnovel are found in his Dead
Certainstiesof 1992.15 The two partsof this book each begin with a lengthy mnono-
logue interieur in which, as in Mann's Lotte inlWeiin-ar,personal recollection and
the facts of history are inextricablylinked together,and where realityhas not yet
been split up into a historical subject on the one hand and a past as seen by this
subject on the other. But Schama made an even more daring experimentin his
Landscape and Menor-y.'6 Here the past is presentedas a frame-storywithin the
largerwhole of Schama'sown personalbiography.The past he relates,thatis, the
way people have experiencedthe landscapeswithin which theirlives unfolded,is
part of his own personal past as well. The reverse is also true, insofar as, for
example, Schama's childhood experience of the Essex marshes,with which the
book begins, is projected against the much larger whole of the relationship
between landscapeand memory in the West. Both renderingsof Schama'sbook
can be true since there is not yet a subject/objectdichotomy favoringeither.
Now I suppose that most historians will have their doubts about Schama's
most recent experiments,if not worse, and they will certainly consider them to
be an unsuitablemodel for future historical writing. This is reasonableenough.
Certainlythese books are not models that should now be followed by all histori-
ans and Schama himself never suggests that the books were written with this
pedagogical intention. This kind of obtrusive meddlesomeness is completely
alien to Schama.These books are daringand fascinatingexperimentsand not dic-
tates for futurehistoricalwriting.But this shouldnot be our last word aboutthem.
For what we have been saying just now about Schama'sexperimentsindividual-
ly holds for the whole of the historicaldiscipline as well. For is not the historical
discipline, when consideredas a whole, the miionologtteinzterieurof contempora-
ry Westerncivilization about a past from which it originated?Is our civilization
not "writingitself' by means of historical writing in the way Barthes meant;is
historicalculturenot how our civilization, so to speak, "writesitself' in the style
of the middle voice; are history and historical writing not the place where our
civilization becomes conscious of itself and of its own natureand, as JbrnRisen
has emphasized,where our civilization achieves and becomes awareof its identi-

14. Ibid., 32.

15. S. Schama, Dead Certainties: Uan..'arrantedSpeculations (New York, 1992).
16. S. Scharna, Landscape ancdMemoroY(London, 1995).

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ty?17So is the historical discipline, taken as a whole, not the modernisttext in

termsof which we express ourrelationshipto our past?Fromthatperspectivewe
have no reason to feel outraged by Schama's experiments:for what Schama
attemptedto do within the scope of a single volume is, in fact, what lies at the
heartof the historicaldiscipline as a whole. This is what makes Schama'sexperi-
ments so profoundlyinteresting.


When ArthurMarwickrecently attackedWhite's alleged lack of interestin what

past reality actually has been, no criticism could be more silly, more narrow-
minded, and more wrongheaded.For it is precisely the reverse. Marwickrather
than White is insensitive to the challenges of how to get hold of past reality.
Marwick ratherthan White violates historical reality by claiming that it could
never be more than what we may read about it in historical writing. Marwick
ratherthan White preaches a complacent and lazy acceptance of the existing
codes for representingthe past whether we identify these codes with White's
tropesor with the methodologicalrules adoptedin the discipline. Marwickrather
thanWhite encouragesus to exchange the sublimityand authenticityof past real-
ity for the intellectual constructionsof disciplinaryhistorical writing. Marwick
ratherthan White thus compromises the discipline. For White's position is nei-
ther a critique nor a rejection of history as a discipline on the contrary.We
could and should not do without it. But what he tells us, again and again, is how
we should relate to the discipline. And his exhortationis that we must not cow-
ardly shun its boundaries,but always courageouslyprobe and explore the area
where the discipline begins to lose its grasp.For it is therethatwe encounterpast
realityand all thatis trulynew and interesting(as is also the case in the sciences).
It is here, too, thatthose greatnineteenth-centuryhistoriansthatWhite discussed
in Metahistoryacquirea renewedsignificancefor us. For if we realize, with Whi-
te, that disciplinary historical writing should be considered our servant rather
than our dictatorialmaster,our guide ratherthan our goal, these historiansante-
dating the disciplinizationof historicalwritingmay show us what to do with our
newly regainedintellectualfreedom with regardto disciplinization.
These historianswere the Schamasof theirtime. In theirhistories of the great
Revolution and of the Napoleonic Wars events that shook the very basis of
Westerncivilization and sent their traumaticshockwaves all through the nine-
teenth century they succeeded in defining their own time in terms of its rela-
tionship to this deeply traumaticpast. There was not, first, a nineteenth-century
culturalidentitythat, next, sought to define its relationshipto its past no, it was
only by definingthis relationshipthatthe identityof this culturecould come into

17. This is, needless to say, one of the main insights developed in Rtisen's trilogy. See, for exam-
ple, J. Rilsen, Historische Vernunift(Gdttingen, 1983), 57, where Rtisen writes "das historische
Erzihlen ist ein Medium der menschlichenIdentitdtsbildung"["humanindividualsconceive of their
identityin terms of the historicalnarrativesthat they tell themselves about their past"].

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being. Historicalreality is not something that we stumble upon in the way that
we may find out aboutthe chairsand tables in a room thatwe havejust entered-
that is the misguided pseudo-positivist model that has inspired Marwick's
conception of historicalreality and his attackon White. Historicalreality,how-
ever, is only encounteredin our attemptsto define our relationshipto our past, in
our attemptto "writeourselves"by writinghistory.Here history functions as the
mirrorof the radicallyalien in which we can begin to recognize our own cultur-
al identity.
This historicalreality,which is not a positivistgiven but a permanentchallenge
to the historicaldiscipline as a whole, is the historicalreality lying at the end of
the odyssey of HaydenWhite's historicalthoughtsince Metahistory.

Groningen University

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