Impartial Stranger: History and Intertextuality in Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

By Peter Cosgrove | Go to book overview

Introduction

WHAT IS THE ROLE OF THE IMPLIED AUTHOR IN HISTORY WRITING? AND WHAT are the limits imposed on this role by the mode of representation? These are the questions this book sets out to answer. The main focus of my argument will be on the omniscient narrator of the historical work. This is a well-known literary term for the novelistic technique in which events and motivations are rendered without any question as to their accuracy, in contrast, for example, to the technique of point of view in which the author allows the perceptions of different characters to focalize the action, or the technique of the unreliable narrator in which the reader is required to evaluate the trustworthiness of the report. The historian naturally tries to avoid the loss of authority associated with limited perspective and unreliability, but because the omniscient narrator is almost the sole textual voice in historiography it is not any the less the product of a writing strategy. Because this narrator is without dimension does not mean that it is without a history itself, nor does it mean that there is no evidence in a historical text of the voice's presence, stipulating its modesty, its humility before the facts, its reasonableness, its own surprise at the triumphant reconciliation of so much disharmonious raw matter into a coherent story and the emergence of order out of chaos.

Part of my goal is to show how this comes about, how the voice of the historian stages a metaphorical drama of the self in order to convince us that the sum of history on the page is greater than its textual parts. The sense of the immediacy of past events turns on the power of the historian's voice, and the readers' pleasure in history writing comes not only from having things explained and acquiring new knowledge, but also from sharing in the superior vantage point of the omniscient narrator. In the hope of clarifying the historical culture that we take too much for granted, this book analyzes the extent and the limits of this illusion at the heart of our sense of the past.

Debate on history writing has tended to focus on the disappearance of the narrative voice into the third-person narrative, a disappearance designed to guarantee the objectivity of the account. In the words of Roland Barthes, "objectivity—or the deficiency of signs of

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Impartial Stranger: History and Intertextuality in Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page 5
  • Contents 9
  • Acknowledgements 11
  • Introduction 13
  • Chapter 1 - Tropes of Transcendence 48
  • Chapter 2 - Pandemonium and Romance 100
  • Chapter 3 - The Genres of the Fact 160
  • Chapter 4 - Translating the Sources: Dialogue or Bricolage? 199
  • Conclusion 252
  • Notes 255
  • Bibliography 273
  • Index 282
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