U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Days of Future Past

One of the half-dozen or so books I’m in the middle of at the moment is Charles Bambach’s Heidegger’s Roots: Nietzsche, National Socialism, and the Greeks.  So far, at least, it’s really terrific. Bambach addresses with care and specificity a question that has too often been answered in self-satisfied generalities: what is the relationship between Heidegger’s philosophical thought (especially in the years between 1933 and 1945) and National Socialism?  Bambach closely compares Heidegger’s thought to more orthodox National Socialist philosophers, noting both commonalities and differences. It’s the kind of heavy-lifting, philosophically dense intellectual history that, fairly or not, I associate more with Europeanist intellectual historians than Americanists.  Moreover, it’s clearly written, which is no small feat, given the subject matter (writing clearly about Heidegger being a little like summarizing Proust). 

I wanted to mention Bambach’s generally clear writing because the starting point of my post today is a stylistic habit of Bambach’s that I find incredibly annoying. Throughout the beginning of the book, Bambach often refers to Heidegger’s writings and thoughts in the future tense.  One example, from p. 5, will suffice: 

Heidegger will consistently oppose the Nazi discourse of biological racism on philosophical grounds, since Nazi scientific-ethnological categories of blood and genetic inheritance are wholly at odds with the existential categories of Being and Time and the early Freiburg lectures.  More simply, Heidegger saw that the Nazi metaphysics of blood denied the essential historicity of a Volk by maintaining a positivist metaphysics of scientism and anthropologism in its place.

Two sentences.  Three tenses. 

I’ve never been a fan of the true historical present.  Talking about the past in the present tense can often be like shooting a scene through a telephoto lens.  Just as telephoto lenses tend to collapse the distance between objects in the foreground and background, the historical present tends to interfere with a clear sense of temporal difference.

On the other hand, we all refer to the content of texts in the present tense.  I have no problem with the present tense in the dependent clause of the first sentence I quoted from Bambach.  Nazi racial categories and Being and Time‘s existential categories still exist as categories.  Juggling this sort of use of the present tense with the historical past tense is one of the challenges of writing history, especially when one is working closely with texts as we intellectual historians tend to.

But what’s Bambach doing with the future tense?  He’s not expressing futurity from within his narrative, as he might be if he wrote something like “Only six short years after the publication of Being and Time, Heidegger would deliver his infamous Rektoratsrede.”  My best guess is that the first sentence I quoted is in the future tense to avoid writing “I will show that…” or “We will see that…”  The futurity thus would be of Bambach’s own book. But that’s just a guess. “Heidegger will consistently oppose…” is just incredibly awkward. 

All of this got me thinking more broadly about writing and how much I do, and don’t, think about it.*  I’m very conscious of working at my writing (and one of the differences between a blog post and an academic paper is that I tend to leave blog posts more raw).  But while I work at my writing, I don’t actually spend a lot of time actively thinking about how to write. I study the art of writing, but I do so by reading other books and thinking about what works and what doesn’t in them.  

Ari Kelman, my former colleague–and co-founder of the on-apparently-permanent-hiatus history blog Edge of the American West–used to actively study writing. I always admired his doing so and even bought a couple books he recommended on the subject. But I have to admit I never got around to reading them. 

How self-conscious are the readers of this blog about their writing?  What have you done over the years to actively improve it?  And, God help you, would you ever dream of employing the future tense when writing about events in the past?

* A good thing, too, as this post would otherwise be little more than a cranky complaint about a tiny aspect of a book that I like a lot!

7 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Ben: Okay, so you didn’t read the books recommended by Ari Kelman, but can you relay them here? I might be game. 🙂 …Otherwise, this is really, really, REALLY timely for me as I’m about ready to dive into my summer writing (spent the last month clearing the desk, finding and ordering books for fall classes, reading AP exams, etc.). I’ve never been prone to the future tense (all of those “wills” are most annoying), but I plan to incorporate more of the “historical present” in my upcoming MSS. Otherwise, I make no claims to being a first-rate writer, but my upfront goals are to (1) keep my sentences short and (2) lead off every paragraph with my paragraph topic sentence. I find both to be relatively straightforward, achievable goals for first drafting. You can’t have too many rules at the start or it slows you down—or worse yet stifles the muse. – TL

  2. Ben: My strategies are the same as yours. I consciously think about the writing in the books I read–what do I like, what do I dislike, what works well for my style, what doesn’t–but I don’t study writing in the formal sense. Probably because the latter would bore me.

    I would NEVER use the future tense when writing about the past. I rarely if ever use the present tense, even when discussing texts.

    Speaking of writing, in a Wall Street Journal interview today David McCullough takes us historians to task for our poor writing: On history textbooks: “they’re so badly written. They’re boring! Historians are never required to write for people other than historians. Most of them are doing excellent work. I draw on their excellent work. I admire some of them more than anybody I know. But, by and large, they haven’t learned to write very well.” Overstatement?

  3. Wow Ben. I’m with Tim on this one: a timely post indeed.

    I hate writing. I am always satisfied to have written something, but I hate the process of writing it. This is unfortunate; it would be nice to “enjoy the journey.” I envy those who do. Still, my process, such as it is, has yielded passably good results over the years. However, the exponentially more demanding requirements of writing as a soon-to-be independent scholar, as opposed to as a student handing in seminar papers, have forced me to rethink both my process and my output. So lately I am working at my writing — not just stylistically, but structurally, conceptually — in a way that I have not done before. Ever.

    In the midst of this ordeal, it helps to have an advisor who is himself a Very Good Writer and a demanding reader. When he tells me the writing is good, I believe it. And when he tells me a paper will need, oh, “several revisions” to get to where it could be and should be as an example of my best work, I believe that too. I don’t like it, but I believe it. And I appreciate the honesty, because I know the goal is not to rattle my cage but to help me become the best scholar I can be, an identity which involves so much more than being a good stylist. Alas, there are plenty of days when I can’t even manage that.

    In terms of style, I’m with you on the blog / academic writing distinction. My blogging voice is pretty informal, and often close in style, diction and tone to how I talk with my nerdy friends. My academic writing voice is — I think — recognizably my own. Even in an academic paper, I never write a sentence that I couldn’t picture myself saying out loud with a straight face (and in one breath).

    I’m with Tim on the importance of not being too impossibly hard on oneself in a first draft. (Not that I’ve quite mastered the art of telling my inner critic to shut the hell up for a while.) However, I’m afraid I have a much more jaundiced (and rather newly acquired view) of the process than he does. I have become an apostate. If I’ve learned anything about writing this past semester, it’s that there is no Muse, there are no Writing Gods, and Dumbo’s Magic Feather doesn’t work for me any more. There’s just a job to do. Sometimes I plod ahead with workmanlike determination, and sometimes I find my rhythm and hit my stride, and in those moments excellence feels like it might come easily. Maybe that feeling is my version of a Muse. But that feeling is fleeting — it’s me catching a glimpse of my own shadow. “Good form, kid, but you gotta keep running.”

  4. “‘But, by and large, they haven’t learned to write very well.’ Overstatement?”

    Andrew, we’ve both been reading historians (and other academics, if we’re honest) to know that it’s not an overstatement. There’s a lot of bad writing out there. And not in the Judith Butler sense, but in the sense that a lot of it is dull, plodding, tedious, unimaginative. Historians have forgotten (or ignore) the literary aspects of history. It is still, in some fundamental sense, the branch of literature which takes as its matter the human past. Has it grown from those roots? Certainly. Has it grown beyond them? Certainly not. Mind, historians aren’t uniquely to blame. There’s a lot of mediocre writing out there in everything. Probably most writing is mediocre, but a lot of times mediocre would be perfectly acceptable. In that sense, maybe historians haven’t learned to write well because most people don’t. The population of good writers is small; the population of good writers who become historians, smaller.

    As for why McCullough’s assertion evokes a (Pavlov’s dog) response every time it’s made (and he’s far from the first to make it), I’d say it’s because it awakens some lingering race memory historians have inherited. We’ve turned our back on the ancestors, but we’d just as soon not know if they are still behind us casting a disapproving glance.

  5. In answer to Ben’s final question, I think about writing constantly. I consider it when composing job letters, scholarly articles, conference announcements, emails and, yes, blog posts. (I seldom post here any more because it typically takes me four to eight hours to get a six paragraph post right.) For whatever reason, I seldom think about how books that I am reading are written, but I often consider the extent to which television, movies or music expresses itself well. (After succumbing to months of hype, and even after learning that the hero of the show is a history professor, I still couldn’t get past the first half-hour of Falling Skies. It was filled with clichés and hackneyed one-liners like, “OK, we’ll do it your way.” And have you seen The Tree of Life? There’s a piece of writing for you!)

    To the extent that I have a philosophy about this, I think it follows an adage that I suspect many today find somewhat musty: that good writing is reflective of, and, to a large extent, co-extensive with, clear thinking. When I’m not happy with the way I’m writing something, I find that it is always the case that I’m not sure what I’m trying to say. A corollary is that writing that is done well is writing that people do not notice: the writer wants the reader thinking about his/her ideas rather than the method by which they are conveyed. In 2000, Lingua Franca published an article that characterized an ongoing academic debate between the followers of Orwell and the disciples of Adorno. The former champion prose that is “clear as a window pane,” while the latter believe that writing needs to be inventive (and, as a consequence, difficult to easily understand) in order to properly criticize the conventional thinking that traditional standards of writing embody. The article made a huge impression on me, though a decade had to go by before I was able to realize that my personal priorities as a writer place me unequivocally in the Orwell camp.

    The analogy that always comes to my mind is between writing and performing. When I was in high school garage bands, a good group was one that didn’t mess up the chords and had all the members playing the same part of the song at the same time. As I got older it became clear that the groups that I was paying money to see always met that standard, and that this fact alone did not make them all good. Clearly the bar had been raised.

    It seems to me, then, that once reaching the point of being able to take for granted that the band is not going to forget the words to the song or play the wrong chord, the really interesting questions are those along the lines of, “Given that you know how to play your instrument, what are you trying to accomplish with it? What idea, thought or feeling are you trying to communicate?” It is certainly the case that knowing how to play doesn’t make one a good musician, but it is equally true that all the insight and passion in the world doesn’t mean anything if this inspired soul never bothers to learn the instrument. (Some would disagree with this claim about music. I’ll bet those people also wouldn’t like the same writers that I do.) Something parallel strikes me as true with regard to academic prose.

    And if I may be so self-indulgent, I would point any interested readers to my own concern over the use of tenses in historical writing, expressed on this very blog some two years ago.

  6. “It’s the kind of heavy-lifting, philosophically dense intellectual history that, fairly or not, I associate more with Europeanist intellectual historians than Americanists.”

    Amidst the discussion about writing, we are overlooking the most interesting observation in Ben’s post, one that is worthy to stand on its own. So the question is, Why is this so? Or to put it another way, Is American intellectual history lightweight compared to European intellectual history? If so, why, and if not, why does it seem so?

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