Blogs > Cliopatria > Hole in the Whole

Jan 14, 2004 1:14 pm

Hole in the Whole

There’s a lovely story in today’s New York Times about a woman who has been singing for some time at a lonely opera house in Death Valley, and about how she’s realizing that it’s almost time to bring down the curtain for good.

My brothers have a passion for Death Valley and the area around it. I have spent less time there than they have, but it impresses me, too. Beautifully desolate as it is, what interests me most is actually the human landscape, past and present, that it contains, the stories restlessly lost within its boundaries.

I think in the end the reason that I myself am drawn more to the sensibility of the humanities as a historian than the social sciences is that I want the history I write and read to be attentive to and engaged by the idiosyncratic experience of people like the singer at the Amargosa Opera House.

My current book project is a series of essays about the lives of three Zimbabwean men who were born in the early 20th Century and died in the 1980s. The main thread running through the essays is my feeling that I need to write about their lives and choices in individualized, particularized ways, and not to turn them into typified, representative sketches of collectives or groups the way that social history in Africanist scholarship often does, or the way that social science usually aggregates particular experiences into patterns and structures. It’s not that it is invalid to do those things—in fact, it’s necessary and of course I do it myself as a scholar and intellectual, all the time and without apology.

It’s just that I regret it when history as a rhetorical form or intellectual discipline doesn’t make room for the particularity and peculiarity of experience as such. Once when I presented a short summary of my current project to a group of social scientists, one smiled and said, “So you are studying outliers, that can be useful.” Well, yes and no. To study individual stories, or idiosyncratic communities and narratives, as outliers is just another way of typifying them, relating them to a norm or representative population. In a way, I’m arguing that all historical experience is an outlier, that we can find in it something that has to be understood for itself, of itself—but that also can be understood by relating it to what any of us live and do in our lives. Sometimes it takes a life strange to your own life, in all its individuality, to make you realize just how strange even your own life and history are.

Death Valley brings that home, somehow. It’s not just the lonely opera houses, or the obvious ghost towns on its fringe. One afternoon near there my brother, father and I drove out some miles from any settlement on a barely visible dirt path between the mountains, and eventually happened to glimpse a nearby hillside that had a cave or hole at the top. We clambered up about 300 feet to find that we were looking at a homely, crude mineshaft that had clearly been hacked out by no more than two or three men at some point in the last 120 years. It didn’t go down very far, we could see that, but it was still a few years’ worth of work. We could see a few old signs of the work of the unknown prospectors left scattered around. It was pretty clear that they had found nothing of value. A few men shivered through cold desert nights in the winter and blazing heat in the day the rest of the year to dig out some rocks from a desolate mountainside in the middle of one of the great wastelands on the planet.

Maybe one of them left his bones or his spirit or his hopes at the bottom of that hole, or maybe they just shrugged and moved on, unbothered and unruffled by time and labor that could for me be nothing but pointless suffering. I can’t say. I’ll never be able to say. But I’d hate to simply bury that hole inside of a whole, or to lose that opera house to the tender care of a poetics inadmissable in the practice of history.

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Timothy Burke - 1/15/2004

This question about narrative is an old one, and maybe deserving of its own entry at some point from someone. A surprising range of historians were driven away from narrative at one point on multiple grounds, in fact.

There were those who argued that narrative isn't how we actually experience memory or temporality cognitively. The jury's still out on that one, but there's more evidence than there once was that at least some narrative structure to memory may be hardwired or intrinsic--but it's not necessarily how memory is "naturally" stored, only how our minds tend to organize it when it is accessed or used.

There were those historians who rejected narrative for aesthetic reasons that closely paralleled the desire among some literary figures to escape narrative in some fashion. I think that aesthetic moment is largely over in both history and literature.

And there were the social historians, quantitative historians and other more social scientistic historians for whom narrative detracted from the authority of the history they were trying to write. It seems to me that's where there's some life in this old horse yet--this is one of the key underlying issues of the polite but sometimes quietly nasty arguments between cultural and social historians over the last twenty years or so.

Ophelia Benson - 1/15/2004

Interesting. Well, maybe narrative is primary then.

But perhaps in another year or so your son will be adding 'And what do we mean by "next"? And am I using next in a temporal sense, or a spatial one? Which is primary, our spacial sense of chronology, or our temporal one?' And he's off and running.

Invisible Adjunct - 1/15/2004

Sometimes my son (2.5 years old) will ask -- and not in the middle of a conversation or a story, but seemingly out of the blue -- "What happens next, Mommy?" I'm sure it's not really out of the blue, I suspect he's been thinking about something in his mind, and then gets stuck or needs a bit of inspiration, or else he's wondering what we'll be doing that day, or whatever. Anyway, the first time he came out with it I was a bit amazed: that he had not only the idea of things happening but the idea of things happening in a sequence. Sort of made me wonder if we don't think primarily, or at least originally, in narrative terms?

Van L. Hayhow - 1/15/2004

I read somewhere that Stephen Crane was fascinated by the Civil War but was, of course, not in it as it was before his time. He therefore decided to write about it to get a feel for what it would have been like to be a soilder in that conflict. His book seems to have stood the test of time.

Ophelia Benson - 1/15/2004

Oh I don't slum with the philosophers all that much. Just an occasional stroll through the neighborhood, that's all.

Well, yes, answers to why questions sometimes have at least an element of story in them. But not always; and those answers are not always satisfying; and so on.

I get some of this from academic friends and relations (including historians) who say too many of their students can't analyze, don't even know what analysis is.

David Salmanson - 1/15/2004

Ophelia, I'm sympathetic, but often Why questions are questions about narrative as kids try to put together stories on their own (I will know a lot more about this in about a year and half when my 15 month old but for the moment let me use the following example.

Why are you and mommy married?

Because we love each other


Because she opened the jar of pickels


Because she was hungry.

Why? etc. etc.

On the other hand, I do understand your point. Why does the t.v. work doesn't really lend itself to narrative answers, except that many (most?) people answer something like "well some people made a movie, and other people filmed it, and then the images were converted to electrity and flew threw the air where our antenna caught them and now we see them." Inadequate yes, but it's what most people do.

Ralph E. Luker - 1/15/2004

Now, Ophelia, you've surely been slumming with the philosophers for too long. Abstractions, abstractions ... can't live with them/can't live without them. When an African American or a native American child asks her parent "why?" I suspect that a narrative tells the child much more than any abstraction would.

Ophelia Benson - 1/15/2004

Do we really think primarily in narrative ways? I hear that a lot - and I always find myself unconvinced. I wouldn't dispute that that's one of the primary ways we think, but I'm not convinced it's *the* primary one. If it were, would children ask 'why' all the time? Isn't that also one of the primary ways we think? Or isn't it.

(Sometimes when I ask that question people tell me 'Yes but the answer to why questions is a narrative.' But it isn't. A narrative answer to a why question is a bad answer, surely...)

I'm really curious about this, it's not a coat-trailing question.

Timothy Burke - 1/15/2004

(Well, I thought it was a pretty convincing argument, David)

Timothy Burke - 1/15/2004

Richard Slotkin wrote somewhere that he thinks part of the training of every Ph.D in history ought to be to write a short work of historical fiction, if nothing else just to explore the distinction. I thought that was a pretty interesting suggestion.

David Salmanson - 1/15/2004

I think part of the appeal of fiction is that it is narrative. Like it or not, we think primarily in narrative ways and understand the world through narratives. What is attractive about the particular is that the story is so much stronger. Yet it can also be illuminating because it usefully shows the role of contigency (other family members did xy and z and had these outcomes) yet can also show how big impersonal forces play out on individuals.

As for the obscure topic problem, I'll draw an example from my own work. I work on an obscure corner of New Mexico which for a brief period of time was somewhat less obscure because there was a lot of uranium there. My pitch has always been that the sparsely populated area is perfect for studying the transformations on society that the Cold War had because so few people are involved. I got a much clearer picture than I would have if I had tried the same project in New York City. At the same time, I also had an argument that the dissertation wasn't really about NM at all, it was about the relationship between landscape, narrative, and identity. Unfortunately nobody on the college level bought either argument, which is one of the reasons why I teach high school.

Ralph E. Luker - 1/15/2004

Ophelia's point comes as a sort of relief that doesn't quite relieve. That is, I have real and probably justified doubts about my capacity to create great fiction with interesting narrative threads and believable characters. Part of why I doubt my capacity to do it is that I would measure my product against that of those who are extraordinarily skillful at it. But why would I judge my "novel" by the standard of all other bad novels?
One of the great advantages of writing atypical nonfiction is that the hard empirical data of my character's life keeps requiring me as a writer to explore real situations otherwise nearly inconceivable to my very limited imagination.

Ophelia Benson - 1/15/2004

The fiction or history question interests me a lot. There are parallels to it in other disciplines, I think - philosophy for example. There's a popular line of thought around (at least, I seem to run into it pretty often) that fiction has an ability to convey, teach, exemplify empathy in a way that no other kind of writing or branch of thought does. That a novel can show what it's like to be this person or that so well that it teaches people to be sympathetic, tolerant, curious, forgiving, etc. Martha Nussbaum for instance makes this argument in 'Poetic Justice,' and I've seen it in other places too. The only trouble is - is it true? I have grave doubts. It's true for some novels and some readers, no doubt; but how far does that go? There are so many holes in the argument. 1. A novel can teach empathy for exactly the wrong people. 'Gone With the Wind' has masses of empathy for the dispossessed former slaveowners and, notoriously, none at all for the slaves, and one could multiply such examples ad infinitum. 2. It depends on the quality of the novel. There are a lot more bad and mediocre novels than there are good ones. 3. Some of the most empathy-conveying novels are also rather bad ones. Two of Nussbaum's examples are 'Native Son' and 'Maurice' - impeccably right on subjects, no doubt, but godawful as fiction. 4. That's obviously such a utilitarian view of literature, and there are so many other ways of viewing it, some of which directly fight with the empathy use - as with the examples in #3.

And so on. The main thing that I always find odd in the argument when I see it is that it seems to assume a kind of infallibility of imagination in all novelists. That anyone and everyone who simply calls herself a novelist is automatically and magically endowed with insight into other minds. But that's nonsense. There are a lot of self-centered fools out there cranking out novels, who have no more insight than anyone else and less than many - so whence this assumption? I wonder.

And then even when the insight is good - it's still fictional, it's still imagined. Tertius Lydgate may give us a very good idea of what it would be like to be a reform-minded doctor in provincial England in 1830 - but he may not. It's all guess-work, and novelists don't really have any more inside knowledge than historians do. Stories are great, but they are just stories.

Oscar Chamberlain - 1/15/2004

I remember the first time I had a prof ask, "Why does it matter?" The quick paraphrase is "why is your topic important and how does it fit into the historiography of the topic?" It frustrated me.

I did come to know that there are good reasons to ask students those questions. Aside from professional necessities, they can clarify one's conception of the topic.

Yet I do sometimes wish that the answer could simply be, "it's interesting," and the follow-up question, "what interests you about it?"

Timothy Burke - 1/15/2004

Ralph's observation is highly pertinent. I've wondered the same. I suppose that's what I'm referencing in the final sentence of my entry: I'd rather that we not bind ourselves so that we "send away" some of the particularity of various stories to the care of fiction. On the other hand, there are real questions about how to do history responsibly while also opening the door to idiosyncracy. What's the basis for focusing one's time on any given particularity or individual? In the end, it has to be a back-door argument about what's typical or representative (this person teaches us about other people) or a kind of structured whimsy (I found this person interesting, so I studied him. So there.) The former feels more solid than the latter. I think maybe I'd just like to retain some ghost of the more whimsical logic of why we study what we study.

Ralph E. Luker - 1/15/2004

This may be too far afield, but I also wonder how history in particular is better or differently suited to do this sort of thing than fiction would be. I've just finished reading Edward P. Jones's _The Known World_, a National Book Award finalist about the world of a mid-19th century African American slaveowner in the Virginia backwater, which is to say that it lacks the tidewater pretensions. As a historian, my current interest is in the life and thought of an African American preacher with a complicated bi-racial family background. He happens to have come from the area in which Jones's novel is set. So far as I can tell from records available to me, the novelist has captured the world about which I must write very effectively. But he does so by giving much freer rein to the literary imagination than I would feel free to do.
I have recovered _much_ and it was a really treacherous research track because: a) my subject's papers were twice destroyed; b) his children told stories about his life and family background which were misleading; and c) it's almost impossible to know whether the misleading was self-consciously so or whether what was said was said because that was what they had been told and what they had been told had been a coming to grips with and making palatable some very ugly realities in the family's background.
What I know is that I am writing about a character who is atypical in many respects, both positive and negative, but the historian's bondage to empirical evidence in such a case does place real constraints on what I can do with the material at hand.

Invisible Adjunct - 1/14/2004

"Sometimes it takes a life strange to your own life, in all its individuality, to make you realize just how strange even your own life and history are."

That's an interesting observation. It makes me think of history as defamiliarization: making the strange seem familiar, which can also make the familiar seem strange.

In terms of the general versus the particular, I wonder if the choice of emphasis doesn't mean something different depending on the historical actors/entities in question? Take women's history, for example. Prior to the emergence of women's history as an academic specialty in the late 60s, early 70s, there was a long history of women's history: mostly in a "lives of illustrious women" or "women worthies" vein. Which is to say, mostly memoir or biography, so very highly particularized. And though the illustrious lives were intended to exemplify certain virtues, I don't think they were meant to represent "women" as a category, or women in the aggregate. Lots of particular (Lady Mary So-and-So lived this life in this time) but not so much general (what were the conditions of life for women at the time that Lady Mary So-and-So lived hers?). So in this case, I think there was a real force to the writing of women's history as a form of social history, socioeconomic history, and so on -- I mean, apart from, or in addition to, adding to our knowledge of women and the law, the economy, the polity, and so on.

On the other hand, the nineteenth century British working class has most often been seen precisely as a kind of sociological category. And given the tendency to view this group of people in the aggregate, there's something really wonderful about coming across an account of one working-class man as an individual who taught himself to read and then joined a mechanic's institute and then maybe went on to particpate in the Chartist movement.

Anyway, I'd like to hear more about poetics and the practice of history, and the impluse to recover or retrieve what would otherwise be utterly lost.