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

By Peter Cosgrove | Go to book overview

Conclusion

MY GOAL IN THIS WORK HAS BEEN TO SHOW THAT HISTORY WRITING APPEALS TO us for many different reasons. Foremost among these are the pleasures of narrative and the lure of information. This combination has been irresistible since at least the seventeenth century when the rise of the fact as an end in itself put new stresses on the way a story is told. Another and perhaps more important appeal is the transcendence of the past through the narrative voice and the power of individual consciousness over the chaotic heap of sources that have come down to us. Coeval with the rise of the fact, the emphasis on individualism gave us a new sense of our own importance as well as new causes of insecurity by throwing us back on our own resources for observing and understanding the world around us. The increasing importance of a narrative voice in fact and fiction provided an opportunity for a fictional mastery or a cathartic display of the anxieties of an independent self. The satisfactions of overcoming the threats of dissolution and entropy are not hard to find. Our own frail selves seem to be at sea in a world too large for comprehension, a world in which so much must be taken on trust. We are stretched on a rack of conflicting desires where gratification of one denies the gratification of another. If in our personal dealings with the present we sense a loss of control, then, the historical past that also goes into the making of the self seems even more indistinct and fearsome.

In managing the historical components of the symbolism of our being, the historian offers a fanciful promise of personal transcendence. He or she demonstrates two conditions of subjectivity that, transferred to our daily behavior, would seem to allow us the possibility of an irreducible autonomy. The first is the self-discipline required to investigate the sources and the mental agility to organize them. The transference to the reader of these practical functions reaffirms ideals of the inherent superiority of the human mind to the flux and the centrifugality of mere numerousness. The second is a narrative reconfiguration that stages the power of mind in the voice of the narrator and, through the recurrent theme of human triumph over contingency, anthropomorphizes a past alienated by time from the presentness of being. In both cases, the power to confer order

-252-

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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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