Historians, How They Think and work.(BOOKS)(ON BOOKS)

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), November 17, 2002 | Go to article overview

Historians, How They Think and work.(BOOKS)(ON BOOKS)


Byline: Colin Walters, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Some book jacket illustrations are more evocative and germane than others. John Lewis Gaddis' choice of Caspar David Friedrich's famous painting, "The Wanderer above the Sea of Clouds" is both. The "Wanderer," back turned on the painter, gazes out over rocky crags that often are but indistinct shapes off in the distance, and fog bound valleys below. Clearly, there is much in his field of view that he cannot not see clearly, if at all.

A second image, with which the writer pairs the "Wanderer" at both start and finish of his book, is no less suggestive albeit left to the reader's imagination or memory as the case may be. It is from the last scene of John Madden's 1998 film "Shakespeare in Love" with Gyneth Paltrow, playing Viola at the opening of "Twelfth Night" and shipwrecked at the edge of an unknown continent dangerous yet rich in possibilities.

Here in Mr. Gaddis' eyes, "as in Freidrich's Wanderer, it's a backside we see in that last long shot as she wades ashore . . ." and asks, "'What country, friends, is this?'"

The play on "backside" is one of the numerous lighter touches with which the distinguished Yale scholar and historian of the Cold War leavens his closely reasoned text in "The Landscape of History." The great question raised by both the "Wanderer" and Miss Paltrow is, Are they looking backward toward the past, or toward the future? Either way, how much can they hope to see given the inevitable constraints.

Mr. Gaddis' book is based on lectures given at Balliol College, Oxford. He had five purposes in preparing this material, some of which has been published elsewhere: to consider how historians think; to clear what he felt to be his own increasingly cluttered mind on the subject; to "do some updating. A lot has happened since the Nazis executed [Marc] Bloch in 1944, leaving us with a classic that breaks off, like Thucydides, in mid-sentence . . ."; to encourage fellow historians to be more explicit regarding their methods; and lastly, to share with history students today some of the "clarity, brevity, and wit - in a word, the elegance" - of those who have gone before and thereby succeeded in speaking to all of us rather than merely to each other.

The visiting American's love of Oxford is transparent, from dinners at High Table to the town's famous High Street that winds around and up and down like nothing any government-reasoned attempt at creating "reality" could achieve, be it the avenues of Paris or North Dakota roads built in a succession of 90-degree angles to accommodate narrowing longitudes in the approach to the North Pole.

Reality is crucial to the discussion, it being the one thing the historian never can hope fully to attain. It is, as R.G. Collingwood, cited by Mr. Gaddis, observed, confined to direct experience. Once time has elapsed, permitting gathering of source material, analysis and reflection, we are not dealing with reality anymore, rather the representation and simulation of it.

The historians' job is to get what can be had from available sources, decide what reasonably can be left out or simply is not known (e.g., Was Napoleon at Waterloo aggravated by wearing itchy underpants?) and using what is available to achieve a "fit" or "consilience" in representation that will win consensus among peers.

Crucial to consensus is methodology, a matter in which historians, as compared to their opposite numbers in the hard sciences and social sciences, have tended to be fairly quiet, though not, in Mr. Gaddis' view, at the cost of impairing their work's effectiveness. He believes that historians could afford to share more of their methodology, rather in the manner of seeking at least "virtual" replicability of their research.

He is at his most feisty, and dismissive, commenting on the social scientists, whose projects in their vain search for "the independent variable" Mr. …

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