Friday, October 3, 2008

On History and Calvino

When discussing how women's history frequently focuses on specialized case studies, historian Joan Scott has called for a "synthesizing perspective that can explain continuities and discontinuities and account for persisting inequalities as well as radically different social experiences." In other words, multiple individual pieces, however distinct, can actually compose a cohesive whole. Alone, they merely tell one side of a multilayered story. The German idealist philosopher Hegel, a major influence on the field of historiography, purported a theory of history as an ongoing march towards ultimate truth as embodied in the separate histories of individual nations: "History . . . has constituted the rational necessary course of the 'World-Spirit' – that Spirit whose nature is always one and the same, but which unfolds this its one true nature in the phenomena of the World's existence." As history moves forward, humanity arrives ever closer to its unspoken meaning.

It seems to me that Italo Calvino was attempting a somewhat similar project, with a postmodernist twist, in his novella, Invisible Cities, which can be loosely described as a dialogue between Marco Polo and the aged Kublai Khan centered on assorted sketches of a series of fantastic cities. As the conversation advances, however, it slowly dawns on the reader that Marco Polo has been simply illustrating different facets of one particular city, his native Venice. "Elsewhere is a negative mirror," says Polo, speaking of his travels. "The traveler recognizes the little that is his, discovering the much he has not had and will never have." His encounters with numerous foreign cities have taught him how to view a single city as something akin to a mosaic or montage. But of course, the "connections between one element of the story and another [are] not always obvious," which is where the exercise of the imagination and the intellect comes into play. Imagination, because there is always going to be uncertainty. Contrary to Hegel's model of a World-Spirit slowly emerging from the tumult of history, there is inevitably a degree of ambiguity at the heart of historia.

Obviously I'm getting into postmodernist territory here – and I hate postmodernism. Its concepts are nevertheless interesting, and dare I say fun, as cerebral exercise. It has been said that the narrative (or story) has always been "one of the major ways in which human intelligence ascribes meaning to life," as well as the primary prism through which history has been studied and written about – a fact which has been denied by the most extreme of the postmodernist critics who argued essentially that "[n]arrative and critical thinking are incompatible." At the same time though, it is unclear "what such critics would have historians do instead, except, perhaps, they ought to not write history at all or admit that in the end history is another form of fiction." I'm not saying Calvino is necessarily of this camp (I don't know enough about him to judge his philosophical positions), but there really is a noticeable skepticism about the ideas of "truth" or "reality." According to his fictional Polo:
There is little I can tell you about Aglaura beyond the things its inhabitants have always repeated . . . Ancient observers, whom there is little reason not to presume truthful, attributed to Aglaura its enduring assortment of qualities, surely comparing them to those other cities of their times. Perhaps neither the Aglaura that is reported nor the Aglaura that is visible has greatly changed since then, but what was bizarre had become usual, what seemed normal is now an oddity, and virtues and faults have lost merit . . . In this sense, nothing said of Aglaura is true, and yet these accounts create a solid and compact image of a city, whereas the haphazard opinions which might be inferred from living there have less substance. This is the result: the city that they speak of has much of what is needed to exist, whereas the city that exists on its site, exists less.
In this manner I wonder if Invisible Cities can be thought of as a kind of meditation on the construction of human knowledge. If narrative is truly "simply another version of fiction camouflaged as history," then how is reality to be judged? "With cities, it is as with dreams: everything imaginable can be dreamed, but even the most unexpected dream is a rebus that conceals a desire or, its reverse, a fear. Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears. . ." So reality is subjective, then? Is it perhaps a series of angles, impressions, ideologies, and experiences that requires a "synthesizing perspective" to be tangible to the human understanding?

(I hope I still make sense. I feel like I'm meandering all over the place into some towering abstractions. I'm not sure I still know what I'm talking about.)

Invisible Cities does begin, after all, with an expression of disbelief.

(I'll stop here. I think I could go on for much longer about this but would probably entail descent into nonsensical ruminations at the same time.)

With the exception of the Scott piece, all the quotes about history in this post come from the book Telling the Truth About History by Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt, and Margaret Jacobs, which I personally recommend.


Mrs. C said...

All right. I found you via your comment on the Chaucer 'blog (one of my very favorites, truly; do wander around in there to read the stuff Geoff wrote before he was kidnapped this summer and the miscreants absconded with his site...) and am taken by your tone and bent. Good stuff here, and I look forward to sampling more. I am a teacher and have recently started my 'blog to support my students in a humanities course I teach. Please to visit!

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