I’m grateful to Rivka Maizlish for her brave, angry, and hilarious response to my post on the usable past, the originary blame for which I happily assign to Ben Alpers—who somehow noticed that I’ve been rethinking the relation between radicalism, reform, and revolution. And Tim Lacy, Kurt Newman, fuck you, too, for unruly if not unlawful incitement. Sorry to leave Dan Wickberg out this time. Anybody else I missed? L.D.?
My complaint about historians in that brief post, as in my “review” of Paul Murphy’s fine book, was, I thought, quite straightforward—we have been reproducing the past in what Nietzsche called the monumental and antiquarian modes, not teaching our fellow citizens how to learn from it, and thus to act on it, as it now appears to us in profile, in present relief. To clarify this complaint, I’ll quote myself, not for the first time, from a 2007 piece I wrote on Richard Hofstadter for boundary 2:
“The cultural function of the modern historian is to teach us how to learn from people with whom we differ due to historical circumstances (and such circumstances include the range of ideological commitments they can profess with plausibility). We ‘go back’ to the people of the past in the hope of changing our perspectives on the present, and thus multiplying our choices about the future. But these people with whom we differ, and from whom we must learn, are, to begin with, other historians; for there is no way to peek over the edges of our present as if they aren’t there, standing between us and the archive, telling us how to approach it.
“No one gets to the ‘primary sources,’ whether they are constituted as the historical record or the literary canon, without going through the priests, scribes, librarians, professors, critics—the professionals—who created them in retrospect, in view of their own intellectual obligations and political purposes. In this sense, history is not the past as such, just as the canon is not literature as such; it is the ongoing argument between historians, among others, about what qualifies as an event, a document, an epoch [or an idea]. It is the endless argument about what the future holds; for the form and content of the past matter only to those with political commitments in the present, and so to the future.”
Translation: You can’t learn from the past, or change anything in the present, if you assume or insist that the difference between the past and the present is unimportant to your aesthetic purposes, or meaningless in terms of your political purposes—if the weight of the past is not something you can address and adjust, but rather something you must endure or escape. You can’t grow up, either. Unlike Rivka Maizlish, I want to learn from the past and change some things in the present, and, at this stage of my life, I guess I wouldn’t mind growing up as well.
Yeah, I said citizens. I don’t see how the use of that word reduces the import of my thinking about History to politics (“the political man,” whoever that is) as conventionally construed—not in context, anyway. I’ve been arguing for twenty-five years that the cultural-intellectual revolution of the period 1890-1940 is at least as significant as the contemporary political-economic transformation historians call the rise of corporate capitalism. I’ve also been arguing that cultural (or identity) politics have superseded the state-centered, programmatic, electoral kind. I got this idea from Antonio Gramsci, who plotted a war of position as against the Leninist war of maneuver, which required the seizure of the state.
But look, the point I was trying to make is that if all you can do is replicate the wisdom of the past, you have nothing to say to your fellow Americans about how to get beyond this moment, this crisis. That’s why Madison is cast as the hero of the piece. I expect that Maizlish will object to my use of the word “Americans” here, because the implication, from the standpoint of her beautiful soul, would probably be that I think only US history is relevant to the designation of a usable past—rather than the trans-national, border-crossing, cosmopolitan History real professionals now compose because they think that either Tom Bender or Tony Negri got it right.
That’s OK, I’m parochial enough to believe that Lenin’s best book was The Development of Capitalism in Russia (1899) because it demonstrated a command of his country’s actual history, and, oh, that my extra-academic constituency, if there is such a thing, will never consist of, say, Hungarians. Still, I can’t wait for the sentence Maizlish will soon produce in protest against my parochialism: “Americans, Livingston wrote.” OMG.
I do admire the broad range of citation in this little essay, from Guicciardini to Goethe, from Lewis Mumford and William Faulkner to Alan Bloom. But I don’t think Maizlish understands her own sources. At any rate they don’t serve her purposes if she wants to be a historian—don’t get me wrong, I mean someone who does not inhabit the past, by donning the costumes and reenacting the battles or conversations, but rather studies and learns from it. I mean someone on the level of a dentist, humble and competent.
Maizlish thinks historicism is our enemy—us historians, I mean, and I suppose she does, too. I don’t get it. I can’t even begin to understand the complaint until she arrives at the Past, having revved herself up with Friedrich Nietzsche and Warren Susman, two of my favorite part-time philosophers of History. (But I have to ask, how can Maizlish say “we pay far too little attention to the philosophy of history” and then ignore Hegel, especially in view of the use and abuse of him by Hayden White, Erich Auerbach, Kenneth Burke—and me? What, is he too historicist?)
At this late moment in the essay, Maizlish finally tells us how “history for the full man or woman, not just the citizen”—history written to “enrich our souls, guide our longings, and broaden our imagination of what is possible”—might actually work. It sounds pretty wonderful until you realize that the extreme sport of romanticism she peddles would erase the past. But don’t take my word for it:
“I suggest that historians focus on moments in the past when our subjects have protested against the tyranny of linear or representational time, when they have tried to forget, or to remember, when they have tried to escape into the past or to deny its pastness, to erase it altogether, or to live outside of time.” As exemplars of this sensibility, Maizlish cites, in order, Thomas Paine, Lewis Mumford, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Alan Bloom, Friedrich Nietzsche, Jonathan Edwards, and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Not Charles Bukowski?
By this time, Maizlish has already lingered over Warren Susman’s 1964 essay on the Young Intellectuals (Randolph Bourne, Van Wyck Brooks, Lewis Mumford, Waldo Frank, Harold Stearns, Floyd Dell, et al.) and their notion of a usable past. And she approvingly cites Mumford’s 1929 study of Herman Melville—a book that has meant as much to me as The Golden Day (1926), which, along with D.H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature (1912?) and Brook’s two volumes, Letters and Leadership (1917) and America’s Coming-of-Age (1918), made the case for a literary canon centered on what F. O. Mathiessen would soon call the American Renaissance.
But notice what Mumford does in that book on Melville—he denies any temporal or sensible difference between himself and the writer he wants to rehabilitate. Practically speaking, he impersonates his subject, or rather, he becomes both subject and object of an ostensibly biographical inquiry. “In describing Melville’s experience and state of mind, I have taken the liberty of using his own language wherever possible,” he announces in the preface, “and I have done this so freely that, except where I have quoted whole passages, I have omitted quotation marks.”
Mumford self-consciously denies himself any critical distance on his subject—he forsakes all irony in the belief that any differences between the past and the present, between Melville’s alienation and his own, are unimportant. He concludes with this memorable passage: “It is not that we have to go back to these writers [of the 1850s]: it is, rather, that we have come abreast of them.”
In the name of “presence, longing, enchantment,” Rivka Maizlish urges the same anti-ironic attitude toward history upon us. She thinks the differences between past and present are not just unimportant; she believes that to acknowledge them as constraints on our thinking is to impose unnecessary impediments on our historical understanding, to the point where they get in the way of living. She thinks Nietzsche is on her side, of course, and gleefully cites The Use and Abuse of History as her warrant.
I would suggest to her, and to her comrades, that she’s fundamentally mistaken about this. Nietzsche is no more a partisan of what he calls critical history—“judging and annihilating a past”—than the monumental or antiquarian kind. But the point is not that Nietzsche and his ineradicable irony are on my side, wherever that might be today. The point is that the deployment of sameness along a chronological axis is not much different, in terms of intellectual consequences, than the deployment of sameness along a spatial axis. In the name of exciting intentions like abandon and release, it becomes imperial.