Thesis and Antithesis in Malcolm Bradbury's the History Man

By Acheson, James | Journal of European Studies, March 2003 | Go to article overview
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Thesis and Antithesis in Malcolm Bradbury's the History Man


Acheson, James, Journal of European Studies


To date it has passed unnoticed that Bradbury's epigraph to The History Man is a passage of dialogue taken from Gunter Grass's The Diary of a Snail. (1) 'Who's Hegel?' asks a nameless speaker there. 'Somebody who sentenced mankind to history', another nameless speaker replies. 'Did he know a lot?' asks the first speaker. 'Did he know everything?' (2) The question, 'Who's Hegel?' is asked repeatedly in The History Man, but it is never satisfactorily answered. That it is asked to the sound of a flushing toilet atone point suggests that the nineteenth-century German philosopher is either unknown, or of little interest to the majority of students at Bradbury's fictional University of Watermouth. Hegel is, however, of seminal importance to the novel's main character, Howard Kirk, a member of the Watermouth Sociology Department and the history man of the title. When a student who is uncertain about whether to take sociology asks Kirk, 'Who was Hegel?' he replies, 'Ah ... You see, you do need to study sociology.' 'Did he know a lot?' asks the student. 'He did', says Howard, 'but his roof leaks' (p. 67). Hegel may have known a lot about the philosophy of history, Kirk is saying, but because he was human and fallible, rather than omniscient, like God, his theory that history progresses from thesis to antithesis to synthesis is only a theory. It admits objections in the same way that a leaky roof admits rain. Only a theory, too, is the idea that we are all 'sentenced history'--that although free to choose, we are, in Hegel's view, restricted in what we do by the norms and assumptions of the historical period in which we live.

Hegel believed that each historical epoch, characterized by a central ethos, or thesis, would eventually give way to its ideological opposite, or antithesis, and that the best features of the two would finally be united in a synthesis. This process would repeat itself, he held, until there was an ultimate synthesis, in which we would be freed of historical restrictions and empowered to 'rationally determine the course of our history, instead of being determined by it'. (3) Marx adapted the Hegelian dialectic to his theory of the class struggle, believing that the thesis of a bourgeois-dominated society would lead to its antithesis, the dictatorship of the proletariat. Thereafter there would be a synthesis and, as with Hegel, in due course an ultimate synthesis. (4) In this connection, it is significant that the epigraph of The History Man omits the sentence that follows 'Did he know everything?' in Grass's novel. 'Thanks to [Hegel's] subtlety', that sentence reads, 'every abuse of state power has to this day been explained as historically necessary.' (5) This is an important omission, for in The History Man, Bradbury demonstrates satirically that, thanks largely to Marx's subtlety, Howard Kirk repeatedly attempts to excuse his own abuses of power by claiming that historical necessity has dictated what he has done.

The History Man traces the progression of British society from its late capitalist phase, a thesis characterized by the domination of the bourgeoisie, to its antithesis, dating from 1968, the year Kirk takes to be the beginning of the proletarian rise to power. Throughout, Kirk is an insistent, domineering character, a dictatorial proletarian academic, and in Chapter 12, Bradbury goes so far as to suggest that his history man dictates the form that the novel takes. Here Kirk asks a member of the Watermouth English Department whether he has seen Miss Callendar:

   The door ... opens a little; a dark, tousled-haired head, with a sad
   visage, peers through, looks at Howard for a little, and then
   retreats. The face has a vague familiarity; Howard recalls that this
   depressed-looking figure is ... a man who, ten years earlier, had
   produced two tolerably well-known and acceptably reviewed novels,
   filled, as novels then were, with moral scruple and concern ... I'm
   sorry to disturb you', says Howard, but I'm looking for Miss
   Callendar. 

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