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HOME > Classical Novels > Theory & History of Historiography > I HISTORY AND CHRONICLE
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'Contemporary history' is wont to be called the history of a passage of time, looked upon as a most recent past, whether it be that of the last fifty years, a decade, a year, a month, a day, or indeed of the last hour or of the last minute. But if we think and speak rigorously, the term 'contemporaneous' can be applied only to that history which comes into being immediately after the act which is being accomplished, as consciousness of that act: it is, for instance, the history that I make of myself while I am in the act of composing these pages; it is the thought of my composition, linked of necessity to the work of composition. 'Contemporary' would be well employed in this case, just because this, like every act of the spirit, is outside time (of the first and after) and is formed 'at the same time' as the act to which it is linked, and from which it is distinguished by means of a distinction not chronological but ideal. 'Non-contemporary history,' 'past history,' would, on the other hand, be that which finds itself in the presence of a history already formed, and which thus comes into being as a criticism of that history, whether it be thousands of years or hardly an hour old.

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But if we look more closely, we perceive that this history already formed, which is called or which we would like to call 'non-contemporary' or 'past' history, if it really is history, that is to say, if it mean something and is not an empty echo, is also contemporary, and does not in any way differ from the other. As in the former case, the condition of its existence is that the deed of which the history is told must vibrate in the soul of the historian, or (to employ the expression of professed historians) that the documents are before the historian and that they are intelligible. That a narrative or a series of narratives of the fact is united and mingled with it merely means that the fact has proved more rich, not that it has lost its quality of being present: what were narratives or judgments before are now themselves facts, 'documents' to be interpreted and judged. History is never constructed from narratives, but always from documents, or from narratives that have been reduced to documents and treated as such. Thus if contemporary history springs straight from life, so too does that history which is called non-contemporary, for it is evident that only an interest in the life of the present can move one to investigate past fact. Therefore this past fact does not answer to a past interest, but to a present interest, in so far as it is unified with an interest of the present life. This has been said again and again in a hundred ways by historians in their empirical formulas, and constitutes the reason, if not the deeper content, of the success of the very trite saying that history is magister vit?.

I have recalled these forms of historical technique in order to remove the aspect of paradox from the proposition that 'every true history is contemporary history.' But the justice of this proposition is easily confirmed and copiously and perspicuously exemplified in the[Pg 13] reality of historiographical work, provided always that we do not fall into the error of taking the works of the historians all together, or certain groups of them confusedly, and of applying them to an abstract man or to ourselves considered abstractly, and of then asking what present interest leads to the writing or reading of such histories: for instance, what is the present interest of the history which recounts the Peloponnesian or the Mithradatic War, of the events connected with Mexican art, or with Arabic philosophy. For me at the present moment they are without interest, and therefore for me at this present moment those histories are not histories, but at the most simply titles of historical works. They have been or will be histories in those that have thought or will think them, and in me too when I have thought or shall think them, re-elaborating them according to my spiritual needs. If, on the other hand, we limit ourselves to real history, to the history that one really thinks in the act of thinking, it will be easily seen that this is perfectly identical with the most personal and contemporary of histories. When the development of the culture of my historical moment presents to me (it would be superfluous and perhaps also inexact to add to myself as an individual) the problem of Greek civilization or of Platonic philosophy or of a particular mode of Attic manners, that problem is related to my being in the same way as the history of a bit of business in which I am engaged, or of a love affair in which I am indulging, or of a danger that threatens me. I examine it with the same anxiety and am troubled with the same sense of unhappiness until I have succeeded in solving it. Hellenic life is on that occasion present in me; it solicits, it attracts and torments me, in the same way as the appearance of the adversary, of the loved[Pg 14] one, or of the beloved son for whom one trembles. Thus too it happens or has happened or will happen in the case of the Mithradatic War, of Mexican art, and of all the other things that I have mentioned above by way of example.

Having laid it down that contemporaneity is not the characteristic of a class of histories (as is held with good reason in empirical classifications), but an intrinsic characteristic of every history, we must conceive the relation of history to life as that of unity; certainly not in the sense of abstract identity, but of synthetic unity, which implies both the distinction and the unity of the terms. Thus to talk of a history of which the documents are lacking would appear to be as extravagant as to talk of the existence of something as to which it is also affirmed that it is without one of the essential conditions of existence. A history without relation to the document would be an unverifiable history; and since the reality of history lies in this verifiability, and the narrative in which it is given concrete form is historical narrative only in so far as it is a critical exposition of the document (intuition and reflection, consciousness and auto-consciousness, etc.), a history of that sort, being without meaning and without truth, would be inexistent as history. How could a history of painting be composed by one who had not seen and enjoyed the works of which he proposed to describe the genesis critically? And how far could anyone understand the works in question who was without the artistic experience assumed by the narrator? How could there be a history of philosophy without the works or at least fragments of the works of the philosophers? How could there be a history of a sentiment or of a custom, for example that of Christian humility or of knightly chivalry, without the[Pg 15] capacity for living again, or rather without an actual living again of these particular states of the individual soul?

On the other hand, once the indissoluble link between life and thought in history has been effected, the doubts that have been expressed as to the certainty and the utility of history disappear altogether in a moment. How could that which is a present producing of our spirit ever be uncertain? How could that knowledge be useless which solves a problem that has come forth from the bosom of life?

But can the link between document and narrative, between life and history, ever be broken? An affirmative answer to this has been given when referring to those histories of which the documents have been lost, or, to put the case in a more general and fundamental manner, those histories whose documents are no longer alive in the human spirit. And this has also been implied when saying that we all of us in turn find ourselves thus placed with respect to this or that part of history. The history of Hellenic painting is in great part a history without documents for us, as are all histories of peoples concerning whom one does not know exactly where they lived, the thoughts and feelings chat they experienced, or the individual appearance of the works that they accomplished; those literatures and philosophies, too, as to which we do not know their theses, or even when we possess these and are able to read them through, yet fail to grasp their intimate spirit, either owing to the lack of complementary knowledge or because of our obstinate temperamental reluctance, or owing to our momentary distraction.

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If, in these cases, when that connexion is broken, we can no longer call what remains history (because history was nothing but that connexion), and it can henceforth only be called history in the sense that we call a man the corpse of a man, what remains is not for that reason nothing (not even the corpse is really nothing). Were it nothing, it would be the same as saying that the connexion is indissoluble, because nothingness is never effectual. And if it be not nothing, if it be something, what is narrative without the document?

A history of Hellenic painting, according to the accounts that have been handed down or have been constructed by the learned of our times, when closely inspected, resolves itself into a series of names of painters (Apollodorus, Polygnotus, Zeuxis, Apelles, etc.), surrounded with biographical anecdotes, and into a series of subjects for painting (the burning of Troy, the contest of the Amazons, the battle of Marathon, Achilles, Calumny, etc.), of which certain particulars are given in the descriptions that have reached us; or a graduated series, going from praise to blame, of these painters and their works, together with names, anecdotes, subjects, judgments, arranged more or less chronologically. But the names of painters separated from the direct knowledge of their works are empty names; the anecdotes are empty, as are the descriptions of subjects, the judgment of approval or of disapproval, and the chronological arrangement, because merely arithmetical and lacking real development; and the reason why we do not realize it in thought is that the elements which should constitute it are wanting. If those verbal forms possess any significance, we owe it to what little we know of antique paintings from fragments, from secondary works that[Pg 17] have come down to us in copies, or in analogous works in the other arts, or in poetry. With the exception, however, of that little, the history of Hellenic art is, as such, a tissue of empty words.

We can, if we like, say that it is 'empty of determinate content,' because we do not deny that when we pronounce the name of a painter we think of some painter, and indeed of a painter who is an Athenian, and that when we utter the word 'battle,' or 'Helen,' we think of a battle, indeed of a battle of hoplites, or of a beautiful woman, similar to those familiar to us in Hellenic sculpture. But we can think indifferently of any one of the numerous facts that those names recall. For this reason their content is indeterminate, and this indetermination of content is their emptiness.

All histories separated from their living documents resemble these examples and are empty narratives, and since they are empty they are without truth. Is it true or not that there existed a painter named Polygnotus and that he painted a portrait of Miltiades in the Poecile? We shall be told that it is true, because one person or several people, who knew him and saw the work in question, bear witness to its existence. But we must reply that it was true for this or that witness, and that for us it is neither true nor false, or (which comes to the same thing) that it is true only on the evidence of those witnesses—that is to say, for an extrinsic reason, whereas truth always requires intrinsic reasons. And since that proposition is not true (neither true nor false), it is not useful either, because where there is nothing the king loses his rights, and where the elements of a problem are wanting the effective will and the effective need to solve it are also wanting, along with the possibility of its solution. Thus to quote those empty judgments is[Pg 18] quite useless for our actual lives. Life is a present, and that history which has become an empty narration is a past: it is an irrevocable past, if not absolutely so, καθ' α?τ?, then certainly for the present moment.

The empty words remain, and the empty words are sounds, or the graphic signs which represent them, and they hold together and maintain themselves, not by an act of thought that thinks them (in which case they would soon be filled), but by an act of will, which thinks it useful for certain ends of its own to preserve those words, however empty or half empty they may be. Mere narrative, then, is nothing but a complex of empty words or formulas asserted by an act of the will.

Now with this definition we have succeeded in giving neither more nor less than the true distinction, hitherto sought in vain, between history and chronicle. It has been sought in vain, because it has generally been sought in a difference in the quality of the facts which each difference took as its object. Thus, for instance, the record of individual facts has been attributed to chronicle, to history that of general facts; to chronicle the record of private, to history that of public facts: as though the general were not always individual and the individual general, and the public were not always also private and the private public! Or else the record of important facts (memorable things) has been attributed to history, to chronicle that of the unimportant: as though the importance of facts were not relative to the situation in which we find ourselves, and as though for a man annoyed by a mosquito the evolutions of the minute insect were not of greater importance than the expedition of Xerxes! Certainly, we are sensible of a just sentiment in these fallacious distinctions—namely, that of placing the difference between history and[Pg 19] chronicle in the conception of what interests and of what does not interest (the general interests and not the particular, the great interests and not the little, etc.). A just sentiment is also to be noted in other considerations that are wont to be adduced, such as the close bond between events that there is in history and the disconnectedness that appears on the other hand in chronicle, the logical order of the first, the purely chronological order of the second, the penetration of the first into the core of events and the limitation of the second to the superficial or external, and the like. But the differential character is here rather metaphorized than thought, and when metaphors are not employed as simple forms expressive of thought we lose a moment after what has just been gained. The truth is that chronicle and history are not distinguishable as two forms of history, mutually complementary, or as one subordinate to the other, but as two different spiritual attitudes. History is living chronicle, chronicle is dead history; history is contemporary history, chronicle is past history; history is principally an act of thought, chronicle an act of will. Every history becomes chronicle when it is no longer thought, but only recorded in abstract words, which were once upon a time concrete and expressive. The history of philosophy even is chronicle, when written or read by those who do not understand philosophy: history would even be what we are now disposed to read as chronicle, as when, for instance, the monk of Monte Cassino notes: 1001. Beatus Dominicus migravit ad Christum. 1002. Hoc anno venerunt Saraceni super Capuam. 1004. Terremotus ingens hunc montem exagitavit, etc.; for those facts were present to him when he wept over the death of the departed Dominic, or was terrified by the natural human[Pg 20] scourges that convulsed his native land, seeing the hand of God in that succession of events. This does not prevent that history from assuming the form of chronicle when that same monk of Monte Cassino wrote down cold formulas, without representing to himself or thinking their content, with the sole intention of not allowing those memories to be lost and of handing them down to those who should inhabit Monte Cassino after him.

But the discovery of the real distinction between chronicle and history, which is a formal distinction (that is to say, a truly real distinction), not only frees us from the sterile and fatiguing search after material distinctions (that is to say, imaginary distinctions), but it also enables us to reject a very common presupposition—namely, that of the priority of chronicle in respect to history. Primo annales [chronicles] fuere, post histori? fact? sunt, the saying of the old grammarian, Mario Vittorino, has been repeated, generalized, and universalized. But precisely the opposite of this is the outcome of the inquiry into the character and therefore into the genesis of the two operations or attitudes: first comes history, then chronicle. First comes the living being, then the corpse; and to make history the child of chronicle is the same thing as to make the living be born from the corpse, which is the residue of life, as chronicle is the residue of history.

History, separated from the living document and turned into chronicle, is no longer a spiritual act, but a thing, a complex of sounds and of other signs. But the document also, when separated from life, is nothing but a thing like another, a complex of sounds or of[Pg 21] other signs—for example, the sounds and the letters in which a law was once communicated; the lines cut into a block of marble, which manifested a religious sentiment by means of the figure of a god; a heap of bones, which were at one time the expression of a man or of an animal.

Do such things as empty narratives and dead documents exist? In a certain sense, no, because external things do not exist outside the spirit; and we already know that chronicle, as empty narrative, exists in so far as the spirit produces it and holds it firmly with an act of will (and it may be opportune to observe once more that such an act carries always with it a new act of consciousness and of thought): with an act of will, which abstracts the sound from the thought, in which dwelt the certainty and concreteness of the sound. In the same way, these dead documents exist to the extent that they are the manifestations of a new life, as the lifeless corpse is really itself also a process of vital creation, although it appears to be one of decomposition and something dead in respect of a particular form of life. But in the same way as those empty sounds, which once contained the thought of a history, are eventually called narratives, in memory of the thought they contained, thus do those manifestations of a new life continue to be looked upon as remnants of the life that preceded them and is indeed extinguished.

Now observe how, by means of this string of deductions, we have put ourselves into the position of being able to account for the partition of historical sources into narratives and documents, as we find it among some of our modern methodologists, or, as it is also formulated, into traditions and residues or remains (überbleibsel, überreste). This partition is irrational from the empirical[Pg 22] point of view, and may be of use as indicating the inopportunity of the introduction of a speculative thought into empiricism. It is so irrational that one immediately runs against the difficulty of not being able to distinguish what one wished to distinguish. An empty 'narrative' considered as a thing is tantamount to any other thing whatever which is called a 'document.' And, on the other hand, if we maintain the distinction we incur the further difficulty of having to base our historical construction upon two different orders of data (one foot on the bank and the other in the river)—that is to say, we shall have to recur to two parallel instances, one of which is perpetually referring us back to the other. And when we seek to determine the relation of the two kinds of sources with a view to avoiding the inconvenient parallelism, what happens is this: either the relation is stated to depend upon the superiority of the one over the other, and the distinction vanishes, because the superior form absorbs into itself and annuls the inferior form; or a third term is established, in which the two forms are supposed to become united with a distinction: but this is another way of declaring them to be inexistent in that abstractness. For this reason it does not seem to me to be without significance that the partition of accounts and documents should not have been adopted by the most empirical of the methodologists. They do not involve themselves in these subtleties, but content themselves with grouping the historical sources into those that are written and those that are represented, or in other similar ways. In Germany, however, Droysen availed himself of these distinctions between narratives and documents, traditions, etc., in his valuable Elements of Historicism (he had strong leanings toward philosophy), and they have been employed[Pg 23] also by other methodologists, who are hybrid empiricists, 'systematists,' or 'pedants,' as they are looked upon in our Latin countries. This is due to the copious philosophical traditions of Germany. The pedantry certainly exists, and it is to be found just in that inopportune philosophy. But what an excellent thing is that pedantry and the contradictions which it entails, how it arouses the mind from its empirical slumbers and makes it see that in place of supposed things there are in reality spiritual acts, where the terms of an irreconcilable dualism were supposed to be in conflict, relation and unity, on the contrary, prevail! The partition of the sources into narratives and documents, and the superiority attributed to documents over narratives, and the alleged necessity of narrative as a subordinate but ineradicable element, almost form a mythology or allegory, which represents in an imaginative manner the relation between life and thought, between document and criticism in historical thought.

And document and criticism, life and thought, are the true sources of history—that is to say, the two elements of historical synthesis; and as such, they do not stand face to face with history, or face to face with the synthesis, in the same way as fountains are represented as being face to face with those who go to them with a pail, but they form part of history itself, they are within the synthesis, they form a constituent part of it and are constituted by it. Hence the idea of a history with its sources outside itself is another fancy to be dispelled, together with that of history being the opposite of chronicle. The two erroneous fancies converge to form one. Sources, in the extrinsic sense of the empiricists, like things, are equally with chronicle, which is a class of those things, not anterior but posterior to[Pg 24] history. History would indeed be in a fix if it expected to be born of what comes after it, to be born of external things! Thing, not thought, is born of thing: a history derived from things would be a thing—that is to say, just the inexistent of which we were talking a moment ago.

But there must be a reason why chronicle as well as documents seems to precede history and to be its extrinsic source. The human spirit preserves the mortal remains of history, empty narratives and chronicles, and the same spirit collects the traces of past life, remains and documents, striving as far as possible to preserve them unchanged and to restore them as they deteriorate. What is the object of these acts of will which go to the preservation of what is empty and dead? Perhaps illusion or foolishness, which preserves a little while the worn-out elements of mortality on the confines of Dis by means of the erection of mausoleums and sepulchres? But sepulchres are not foolishness and illusion; they are, on the contrary, an act of morality, by which is affirmed the immortality of the work done by individuals. Although dead, they live in our memory and will live in the memory of times to come. And that collecting of dead documents and writing down of empty histories is an act of life which serves life. The moment will come when they will serve to reproduce past history, enriched and made present to our spirit.

For dead history revives, and past history again becomes present, as the development of life demands them. The Romans and the Greeks lay in their sepulchres, until awakened at the Renaissance by the new maturity of the European spirit. The primitive forms of civilization, so gross and so barbaric, lay forgotten, or[Pg 25] but little regarded, or misunderstood, until that new phase of the European spirit, which was known as Romanticism or Restoration, 'sympathized' with them—that is to say, recognized them as its own proper present interest. Thus great tracts of history which are now chronicle for us, many documents now mute, will in their turn be traversed with new flashes of life and will speak again.

These revivals have altogether interior motives, and no wealth of documents or of narratives will bring them about; indeed, it is they themselves that copiously collect and place before themselves the documents and narratives, which without them would remain scattered and inert. And it will be impossible ever to understand anything of the effective process of historical thought unless we start from the principle that the spirit itself is history, maker of history at every moment of its existence, and also the result of all anterior history. Thus the spirit bears with it all its history, which coincides with itself. To forget one aspect of history and to remember another one is nothing but the rhythm of the life of the spirit, which operates by determining and individualizing itself, and by always rendering indeterminate and disindividualizing previous determinations and individualizations, in order to create others more copious. The spirit, so to speak, lives again its own history without those external things called narratives and documents; but those external things are instruments that it makes for itself, acts preparatory to that internal vital evocation in whose process they are resolved. The spirit asserts and jealously preserves 'records of the past' for that purpose.

What we all of us do at every moment when we note dates and other matters concerning our private[Pg 26] affairs (chronicles) in our pocket-books, or when we place in their little caskets ribbons and dried flowers (I beg to be allowed to select these pleasant images, when giving instances of the collection of 'documents'), is done on a large scale by a certain class of workers called philologists, as though at the invitation of the whole of society. They are specially known as the erudite when they collect evidence and narrations, as arch?ologists and archivists when they collect documents and monuments, as the places where such objects are kept (the "silent white abodes of the dead") are called libraries, archives, and museums. Can there be any ill-feeling against these men of erudition, these archivists and arch?ologists, who fulfil a necessary and therefore a useful and important function? The fact remains that there is a tendency to mock at them and to regard them with compassion. It is true enough that they sometimes afford a hold for derision with their ingenuous belief that they have history under lock and key and are able to unlock the 'sources' at which thirsty humanity may quench its desire for knowledge; but we know that history is in all of us and that its sources are in our own breasts. For it is in our own breasts alone that is to be found that crucible in which the certain is converted into the true, and philology, joining with philosophy, produces history.


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