June 16, 2010

The stubbornness of Edward Gibbon

I found this boundary-breaking quote the other day, about the famous amateur author of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Emphasis mine:
"Gibbon'’s problem [in 1781], for which he did not publish his solution until 1788, was whether he should continue his narrative through the history of the Eastern Empire.// In the end he did. But the points to which we should pay attention are (1) that he did not really know how to do it, (2) [and] that this was because his readers and his fellow historians did not particularly want him to do it, and (3) that we ourselves, 225 years later, are not very far from sharing his and their outlook." source: UN essay online
This view of Gibbon would be more encouraging, if the practical picture it paints weren't so incredibly daunting. Ah, well. Onward.

On which note...

I must say, UN political idealism aside, I find it fascinating that the author's introduction (re: Gibbon) may be faintly recalled by her/his conclusion, which states in part:
Historiography is an attribute of sovereignty; we can better manage what we are and what we may become if we can determine and debate what we have been and how we become what we now are. But the ability to think, speak and write historically is culture-specific; it arises in response to needs more local than universal, and is distributed among the peoples by the turbulent and confused injustices of human history. We need, in a plurality of civilizations, not only a plurality of histories, but a history of histories and of the absence or lack of histories.
In other words, the writing of History is no longer quite so much 'by the winners', and this is a very good thing for a pluralistic society. Well, maybe-so-maybe-not all at once, but at least this much is certain.

The present multiplicity of 'local sovereignties' makes it BOTH more likely that future Edward Gibbon(ses) might write well enough to shake things up in much needed ways AND ALSO less likely that such a person might ever be heard.

It took Gibbon seven years to publish on his daunting problem. I can blab here in seven seconds, but to know what I'm doing? That's problem numero uno. Besides that, maybe I need to publish more locally. But now I really digress...

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