Monday, May 24, 2010

Picking Up My Cosmic Garments at the LOST and Found: Back in the Bardo, or "The Twenty-Eight Or So People You Meet in Heaven"

"The way to see by faith is to shut the eye of reason." -Benjamin Franklin

LOST, in part, was an exploration of the tensions between seemingly contradictory notions: reason and faith dominated the first two seasons, fate and free will the next few, good and evil in the last. These dualistic schemata, of course, have contributed to conflict in countless myths, legends, and works of literature in the Western canon, and Sunday night, LOST added to this in its weird, love-festy, after-party, fetishistic sort of way (I half-expected the last shot to fade to white with the word "FOUND" scrolling toward me). The sometimes heavy-handed, sometimes ambiguous symbolism of the show is one thing that kept me thinking about it and coming back to it week after week. The forced and unwarranted simplicity of the good versus evil storyline that characterized the final season, while it had come to the fore only recently, had been backgrounded since the pilot, when Locke sat down with Walt, holding one white and one black backgammon piece, and explained that "there are two is light, one is dark." (What we thought was superficial racial harmony was in fact foreshadowing the great ideological struggle of the later seasons?) I had held out hope, as late as the next-to-last episode that the Jacob/Man in Black conflict was a ruse, a ploy designed to lull us into a false sense of complacency, after which it would be revealed that neither were truly good or evil, that they were each manipulating the survivors in their own way, a la Sirrus and Achenar at the end of Myst (Cuse and Lindelof have remarked how heavily this game influenced their story-telling). Not only was I wrong, but to add insult to injury, they essentially placed the mantra of reason in the mouth of the evilest character on the show: "There are very smart men among us," the Man in Black says, "who are very curious about how things work." What is the lesson here? That trying to reason through things is inferior to having faith? The Jack/Locke dynamic in the first two seasons was so excellent precisely because they interpreted the island oppositely, yet both were very easy to to identify with. Unfortunately, for me, this dynamic was completely ruined in the finale. On this level, the show succeeded for so long because the writers openly and honestly depicted the real-life tensions of nearly irreconcilable conceptions without consciously favoring one or the other or suggesting that one was more powerful or viable than the other. This changed with the finale, as faith alone triumphed, and one of the principal messages of the show seems to have been - to use the now trite and overused phrases of the show - that, by "let[ting] go" of reason, we can "move on" to faith. This is at best simple moralizing and at worst intellectual dishonesty. While I found the finale to be emotionally satisfying, I found it to be extremely unsatisfying on a cerebral level. Indeed, what we got was, in the words of one unforgiving critic, "a prom of the dead in a chapel of love where everybody is farting rainbows, where all the primary Oceanic 815 survivors are redeemed, where a loving 'Dad' opens a Spielbergian door of light to the greater beyond." As the old adage goes, "truth is stranger than fiction." Unfortunately, LOST gave us a comforting fiction. I'll take genuine truth, discovered through reason, any day.

"I cannot allow your ignorance, however great, to take precedence over my knowledge, however small." -William James

I fully expected, nay, predicted (the one I made that actually came true), that the series would not really answer the major questions that have so obsessed hardcore LOST fans for the last six years: What was the source of the island's power? What was the meaning behind the numbers? What was the smoke monster made of? What caused the castaways time traveling? And so on. These were questions that could only be answered intrinsically within the show's mythology, not extrinsically through some overwrought pseudo-scientific borrowing from quantum mechanics or string theory. Such an ending would be lost (no pun intended) on the average American television viewer. Despite my love of science fiction, I fully braced myself for the fact that this is not how questions would be answered. But, in one sense, the writers betrayed the entire mythology of the series by implying that these were the wrong questions to ask in the first place. In the end, the moral of the series is that the metaphysical is more important than the physical, the spiritual is more important than the material, and hoping for answers through faith is more important than achieving them through reason. This is unacceptable to me, not because I think faith is, of its own accord, unsatisfactory, but because it is an entirely subjective experience, that gives meaning only individually - thus, while it may "answer" personal questions about the nature of reality, it is not a suitable way of attaining the type of knowledge that, I feel, LOST claimed it was offering. It seems as though Jack's entire character arc consisted of relinquishing reason, being a "man of science," and becoming a "man of faith." It is certainly difficult to disagree with that interpretation if we remember of his conversation with Locke in the first season - in which Locke asks, "Why do you find it so hard to believe?" to which Jack replies, "Why do you find it so easy?!" - with Jack's conversation with the Man in Black in the last episode, in which he tells him that Locke was right about everything from the beginning and says he wishes he'd had a chance to tell him.

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." -Arthur C. Clarke

Along with faith and reason, fate and free will, good and evil, we might add fantasy and science fiction to the list of strange dualities. These, too, are overlapping genres and creating false distinctions between them may be ill-conceived, but there are some significant differences that created difficulties in attempting to view LOST as true science fiction. For quite a while, LOST did a wonderful job at skillfully melding traditional science fiction tropes, epitomized by the Dharma Initiative, the effects of electromagnetism, and time travel, with typical elements of fantasy. However, LOST always maintained an air of intrinsic plausibility, a world which had a set of specific explanatory rules that did not defy logic in any metaphysical sort of way. In a crude way, one major distinction between science fiction and fantasy is that, in science fiction,"things" are "explained." That is, elements central to the story are not usually taken as given in a particular fictional universe: Transporters are "explained" in Star Trek; magic, in The Lord of the Rings, is not. This is not a hard and fast rule - midicholorians aside, the Force is never really explained in Star Wars, for example, yet it exists within a universe in which things, more or less, are presumed to have a technological explanation. (Star Wars is often called "space fantasy" for this very reason.) In the words of literary critic Gwyneth Jones, science in science fiction
[has] nothing in particular to say about the subject matter, which may be just about anything so long as the formal conventions of future dress are observed. It means only, finally, that whatever phenomenon or speculation is treated in the fiction, there is the claim that it is going to be studied at some point scientifically - that is objectively, rigorously; in a controlled environment. The business of the writer is to set up the equipment in the laboratory of the mind such that the 'what if' in question is at once isolated and provided with the exact nutrients it needs. (Jones, Deconstructing the Starships: Science, Fiction, and Reality, 1999: 4)
Adam Roberts clarifies this by writing that the "truth" of the science in science fiction is unimportant, so long as "the scientific method, the logical working through of a particular premise" is maintained (Roberts, Science Fiction: The New Critical Idiom, 2000: 10). For a time, LOST did exactly this. The Dharma initiative is nearly ludicrous in our reality, but within the fictional universe of LOST, it existed as a prime example of the inductive method at work, of cognition through objective reasoning. In the end, however, LOST seemed to eschew even the idea of cognitively plausible ending adhering to the self-contained rules of its universe, opting instead for a touchy-feely, huggy, "everybody-dies-and-goes-to-heaven" ending. To be sure, plenty of science fiction has attempted these quasi-religious resolutions. Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, with its enigmatic and equivocal star child, or Tarkovsky's Solaris, with its highly figurative house on an island, stand as primary examples. But Kubrick used this in a symbolic way, to signify the mental evolution of mankind as we reached out into the cosmos. Not so, LOST. "Everything that's ever happened to you has been real," Christian tells Jack in the final scene. The finale was literal, one-dimensional, and attempted to depict an irrational world devoid of any of the deeper symbolism that might have redeemed this convoluted, lazily-constructed resolution.

Perhaps mirroring the increasing binarism of the show, the chatter on the Internet seemed to revolved around the false dichotomy of "plot versus characters." While one variety of fan extolled the virtues of the multi-layered, complex characters, the other lauded the impressive scope and depth of its mythologically-driven, part science fiction, part fantasy, story arc. To me, these have always been false choices. The characters worked and were interesting because of the context of the island-story, while it was worth going down the rabbit hole of that twisted plot to begin with because of their intricate relationships. The writers have noted on several occasions that they originally envisioned this whole epic as a character-driven drama, and while I agree that that was what made the story compelling, I feel like attempting to separate them from the plot is pointless. Each is what made the other work, and the almost disrespectful lack of denouement in the finale left me wondering why they'd even created such an elaborate and compelling narrative architecture in the first place.

"The external world and the inner world are...only two sides of the same fabric, in which the threads and all forces and all events, of all forms of consciousness and their objects, are woven into an inseparable net of endless, mutually connected relations." -Lama Anagarika Govinda

What about the actual finale itself? At risk of sounding absurdly obvious, the finale was filled with mytho-logical and religious symbolism, most, though not all of it, Christian. Jack represented a Christ-figure, complete with wounds (or at least dripping blood) on his hands and feet, stab in the side, who eventually is reunited with his (the?) father (named Christian Shepherd, no less) in a happy little church where all of the people who've ever meant anything to Jack are all there waiting for him so they can all be ushered into the light. (Does this make Jacob like Holy Spirit? I thought he was supposed to represent, you know, Jacob.) The power of the island, while never explained, seemed to represent some sort of forbidden knowledge, a forbidden fruit which, if eaten, er, turns you into a smoke monster. The last season even came with its own holy grail, drinking from which gave one the powers of Jacob. Despite this very Christian interpretation, the reunion in the church in the final scene existed somewhere in the borderland between schmaltzy multi-denominational inclusiveness (note the cross, crescent, Star of David, Dharma wheel, Om, and Taijitu on the stained-glass window) and subjective "it-doesn't-matter-what-you-believe-in-as-long-as-you-have-faith." Even more galling was that the writers had been promising the theorists since season one that the overall twist was not that survivors were in purgatory, and lo and behold, the flash-sideways universe turned out to be a sort of purgatory where the castaways were required to atone for their past misdeeds (by reliving them properly?) before remembering their actual lives and being ushered into the next world. (OK, technically the writers were telling the truth, since the theory floating around was that the island was purgatory, which in fact turned out to be little more than a Hitchcockian MacGuffin). The purgatory theory actually works much better, not in the Abrahamic context, but the Dharmic one, in which the castaways are all part of the same jati of souls connected for eternity - and through multiple lives - and are returning to the bardo of Tibetan Buddhism, a liminal or transitional state between life and the next stage: luminosity of the true nature of the universe followed by karmic oneness with that nature. (This also provides another interesting LOST allusion, since the most famous English translation of the Bardo Thodol or The Tibetan Book of the Dead, was made by Ram Dass, nee Richard Alpert.) Of course, in the Buddhist tradition, since the castaways were all deeply flawed individuals, they would likely be reincarnated where they would all meet up again in seemingly coincidental ways made possible by some sort of cosmic synchronicity. But this is just one interpretation. The point is that the island reality, in the very words of Desmond Hume in the finale, "doesn't really matter." Unfortunately, it mattered to a lot of us...

"Is it not time that Christian mythology, instead of being wiped out, was understood symbolically for once?"
-Carl Jung

I'm having a hard time describing my feelings about why I so disliked the way things wrapped up without sounding anti-religious. I'm honestly not anti-religion, I simply cannot abide when people cannot explain something and they attribute it to God. This is more insulting to religion, as it relegates the concept of God to a mere epiphenomenal explanation of the increasing smaller details of existence. I think religion, in its symbolic and psychologically functional way, is extraordinarily important, but when literalism and dogmatism become the foundation for belief, it undermines everything that makes faith important in the first place. What made the ending of LOST so infuriating is that the writers had heretofore done such a great a job of demonstrating the tensions between faith and reason, while not really favoring one over the other. They simply acknowledged that these interpretations coexisted in an uneasy way, that the human condition necessitates reasonable men having to come to grips with the irrational, and men of faith having to deal with doubt. With the finale, the writers reneged on this approach, and said "faith trumps all." As one blogger wrote, "Do you want to believe in the supernatural or in science? That's the point they've always been trying to make. It doesn't matter if you believe in science or faith, or both, just believe in something. We can never know for sure why things are the way they are, we can only put them in the context of our own experiences and understand it the best we can." Maybe... Perhaps I'm being too hard on this show. I'm trying really hard not to let one episode ruin, what to me, was the second best show of the decade (behind Arrested Development). I really did like the bulk of the series, even if it did get clunky and unfulfilling in the final season. After some reflection, the flash-sideways, purgatory universe reminded me a bit more of the nexus from Star Trek: Generations, a place of great joy where we got free do-overs for those thing we'd done wrong in life. But as Kirk said of this purgatory, contradicting both Desmond and Christian, "None of this matters. Because it isn't real." Indeed. LOST promised us the cosmic importance of the power of myth; what it delivered was hackneyed bromides on the power of faith.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Sin and "Pure Intention": The Wills of Abelard and Heloise

Given the personal calamities that Abelard and Heloise endured, it is understandable that they attempted to explicate their thoughts and actions in the context of sin. Abelard subscribed to the “ethic of pure intention,” meaning that the will of the sinner determined the sin rather than by the act itself.[1] In his Scito te ipsum, Abelard asserted that “our actions must be judged good or bad solely through the spirit in which they are performed,” and this interpretation of sin relocated the importance of moral transgression from the perpetration of sin to mind of the sinner.[2] Throughout their correspondence, both Abelard and Heloise wrestled with the implications of their sinful actions, but more importantly, they contended with the implications of their will to commit these acts. Paradoxically, Heloise considered herself both “wholly guilty” though also “wholly innocent” because she conceded that she had physically sinned with Abelard but maintained that her intentions were pure.[3] Like Abelard, Heloise affirmed that “it is not the deed but the intention of the doer” that defined sin, and she averred that “justice” must take these purposes into account.[4] The seemingly contradictory position of simultaneous guilt and innocence mirrored Heloise’s own situation at convent of Paraclete, where she exhibited piety through her actions while inwardly experiencing only hypocrisy.[5] If sin was in the intention, as Heloise and Abelard believed, then Heloise’s anguish lay in the continual process of sinning through her “lewd visions” and “fantasies” of Abelard.[6] Again, the will was more important than the act: Heloise emphasized that “virtue belong[ed] not to the body but the soul,” and claimed that she could “win praise in the eyes of men but deserve[d] none before God, who searches our hearts and loins and sees in our darkness.”[7]

Although he upheld the distinction between will and action, Abelard believed that his castration allowed for greater exculpation for his sins. Superficially, with Abelard’s desire to sin forcibly mitigated, he seems to have been liberated from the “pure intention” that defined his lust. The castration was performed against his will, but the effect that it had on his soul was beneficial: “I do not incur blame, I escape it. I deserve death and gain life. I am summoned and reprieved; I persist in crime and am pardoned against my will…Truly, the Lord takes thought for me. I will go then and declare how much the Lord has done for my soul.”[8] Did castration remove the will to sin from Abelard, or did it remain? The fact that he “persisted in crime” suggests that the will to sin remained despite his physical state, but Abelard also argued that he “had been freed…by God’s mercy [from] the power to commit…[the] sin” of lust.[9] In this way, Abelard, like Heloise, retained a position of simultaneous guilt and innocence.

Unlike Heloise, Abelard’s penance occurred in one excruciating instance as opposed to the enduring penance of Heloise. Since she believed her sin to be interior, Heloise’s acts of contrition were interior as well, involving personal guilt and shame over her past offenses. She directly compared the brevity of Abelard’s punishment, which he “suffered in the body for a time,” with the protraction of her own, which she endured “throughout [her] life in contrition of the mind.”[10] Heloise implied that Abelard’s inability to sin did not necessarily immunize him from the will to do so: “How can it be called repentance for sin, however great the mortification of the flesh,” she asked, “if the mind still retains the will to sin and is on fire with old desires?”[11] Heloise recognized that, for both of them, the intention to sin remained despite their inability to commit the act. To explain this discrepancy, Abelard recast their relationship as “lust, not love,” which “brought [them] both to sin.”[12] This acknowledgment of lust accorded with Abelard’s notions of sinfulness as “pure intention” because both continued to sin—and pay for these sins—well after the acts were long past.

[1] Betty Radice, ed. and trans. The Letters of Abelard and Heloise (London: Penguin Classics, 2003), xxii.

[2] Quoted in Ibid., 263-64 n.10

[3] Letter 2, Heloise to Abelard, in The Letters of Abelard and Heloise, ed. and trans. Betty Radice (London: Penguin Classics, 2003), 53.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Radice, The Letters of Abelard and Heloise, xxx, and Letter 4, Heloise to Abelard, 69-70. Heloise referred to herself as a “hypocrite” multiple times throughout Letter 4 not only because of her desire for Abelard, but also because she felt that she committed to the convent for the wrong reasons.

[5] Letter 4, Heloise to Abelard, 68.

[7] Ibid., 69. See Psalm 7:10-17.

[8] Letter 5, Abelard to Heloise, 83.

[9] Peter Abelard, Historia Calamitatum, 36.

[10] Letter 4, Heloise to Abelard, 67.

[11] Ibid., 68.

[12] Letter 5, Abelard to Heloise, 86.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

"Visible Faith": From Skepticism to Belief in Einhard's Translatio et miracula

In the Carolingian Empire, popular religious devotion often took the form of relic veneration. By the early ninth century, clerics had inserted themselves into the process of identifying and sanctifying authentic relics. Consequently, a dialectical relationship emerged between peasants, for whom relics represented almost magical Christian artifacts, and clerics, who regarded the allure of relics as an opportunity to legitimize their spiritual power.[1] In support of this clerical authority, the Council of Carthage in 801 and again in 813 enacted laws requiring all altars in the Carolingian Empire to contain relics.[2] This decree not only augmented the status of relics but also inadvertently increased the likelihood that relics might be counterfeited. Disbelief among clergymen in the early ninth century centered, not on the efficacy of relics as a whole, but on whether individual relics were legitimate.[3] Skepticism and doubt were not typical virtues for early medieval Christians, but employed properly, these traits served to guard against the exploitation of devout peasants by corrupt clergymen.

In this spirit, Einhard, secretary and courtier of Charlemagne and Louis the Pious, and famous biographer of the former, sought to certify the validity of the “genuine relics” at his church in Seligenstadt by admitting his own earlier doubt and by demonstrating their power through the many miracles they had produced.[4] Early in his Translatio et miracula sanctorum Marcellini et Petri, Einhard cast himself in the role of disbeliever in order to empathize with the unconvinced audience of this work. His own skepticism at the beginning of the Translatio mirrored the cynicism he was attempting to suppress, and his slow conversion throughout the text established the process he wished others to emulate.

While discussing the dedication of his new church with the Roman deacon Deusdona, Einhard confessed that he “was both distressed and intrigued” by the prospect of procuring relics from Rome, but he remained incredulous, though hopeful, at the possibility that this “uncertain claim” would yield actual relics.[5] Nevertheless, he dispatched his servant Ratleig to Rome, who eventually returned with the remains of Sts. Marcellinus and Peter. After reaching Einhard, the first miracle generated by the relics was a vision announcing that the relics wished to be relocated. Ratleig relayed this request to Einhard, but Einhard judiciously “decided to await evidence of some more certain sign” before translating the relics a second time.[6] The sign came in the form of a “bloody liquid…dripping all over…[the] reliquary,” which Einhard regarded as “considerable evidence” that the relics were indeed genuine.[7] Another vision to a priest chided him as “hard-hearted” and “stubborn,” so Einhard consented to the translation of the relics.[8] At this point, Einhard’s reluctance to accept the veracity of the relics’ power reflected the typical arguments against them, but, in the face of increasing physical and spiritual evidence, Einhard found it difficult to deny their potency. “Doubt,” Einhard averred, “sprang from the weakness of [his] faith.”[9] These doubts steadily disappeared as Einhard recounted the numerous miracles he witnessed in the presence of these relics. While much of the Translatio related “the accounts of others,” he was
entirely convinced to trust these accounts because of the things [he] had seen and knew personally. Thus [he] was able to believe without the slightest doubt that these events, which were reported…by those who said that they themselves had witnessed them, were true, even though [he] might, up until then, have had little or no [personal] knowledge of the individuals from whom [he] had heard these things.[10]
Einhard later narrated miracles with ease. Indeed, the majority of Book Four consisted of the many miracles ascribed to the relics, and Einhard described them “as if [he] had seen them with [his] own eyes” and presented them “without any hesitation or doubt.”[11] His doubts assuaged by evidence, Einhard presumed his transformation from reticent critic to devout enthusiast would convince any skeptic of the authenticity of the relics of Sts. Marcellinus and Peter. Of their miracles, Einhard wrote “with great confidence” that he had witnessed them with “visible faith.”[12]

[1]Patrick J. Geary, Furta Sacra: Thefts of Relics in the Middle Ages, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978), 37.

[2]Ibid., 42-43.

[3]Paul Edward Dutton, ed. and trans., Charlemagne’s Courtier: The Complete Einhard (Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview Press, 1998), xxiv, and Patrick J. Geary, Furta Sacra, 36. Dutton refers to Claudius of Turin as “unsympathetic toward…popular religion,” which certainly colored his opinion of relics. Geary calls Claudius a “radical” who seemed to be fully aware that he was a minority on this position. Both note that Agobard of Lyon considered himself a skeptic, not of the power of actual relics, but of the multitude of false relics that proliferated in early ninth century Gaul. In this sense, he is not so far removed from the position of Einhard.

[4]Einhard, Translatio et miracula sanctorum Marcellini et Petri, in Charlemagne’s Courtier, ed. Paul Dutton (Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview Press, 1998), xxv and 70. Dutton suggests that the fact that Einhard even used the phrase “genuine relics” [vera reliquiae] indicates that he was wary of imitations.

[5]Ibid, 70.

[6]Ibid., 80.

[7]Ibid., 79-80.

[8]Ibid., 81.


[10] Ibid., 92.

[11] Ibid., 95.

[12]Ibid., 110.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Revolt and Reaction in Twentieth Century Historiography: Microhistorians and the Annalistes

The nineteenth century was instrumental in the development of the modern professional discipline of history. Leopold von Ranke epitomized this movement in Germany and contributed to the advance of historicism, which affirmed that “historical knowledge will not emerge by applying conceptual schemata to the past but…through the analysis of individual instances and concrete events.”[1] The tenets of historicism stood in stark contrast to some of the more progressive notions of Whiggish history all the while accepting the ideas of historical change discoverable through scientific modes of discourse. Ranke promoted objective, empirical, source- and fact-based history and specifically rejected the imposition of overarching themes and principles onto the past.[2] Historians, he asserted, had no business passing judgments on the past using modern-day values, but rather should simply tell history, in the oft quoted phrase, “wie es eigenlich gewesen ist,” or “as it actually happened.”[3] This approach to history owed much to the scientific optimism of the late nineteenth century, as well as the belief that “universal history comprehends the past life of mankind, not in its particular relations and trends, but in its fullness and totality.”[4] Interestingly, Ranke, so keen on this weltgeschichte, conceded that “the study of particulars, even of a single detail, ha[d] its value, if it [was] done well.”[5] It is to the “particulars” of twentieth century microhistory and its reaction to “traditional” history that looms large in modern shifts in historiography.

The greatest expression of these new ways of thinking about history originated with the French Annales School of the early and mid-twentieth century. Applying new techniques of social science to history, the Annalistes rejected the politico-military aspect of history and instead “attempt[ed]…to adapt economic, linguistic, sociological, geographical, anthropological, psychological, and natural science notions to the study of history and to infuse a historical orientation into the social and human sciences.”[6] Beginning with the founding of the Annales journal by Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre in 1929, the Annalistes focused primarily on the major social and cultural structures that existed over long arcs of time, or the longue dureé, and on the mentalités, or psychological states, of history’s participants.

The most prominent historian among the second generation of Annalistes was Fernand Braudel, who took the Annales synthesis of social sciences to the next extreme by integrating each of these new aims of history into his grand vision of an all-encompassing history of the Mediterranean. In his Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, Braudel expounds upon three levels of history, which correspond not only to the people involved but the geographies and climates as well. Braudel’s history is quantitative and analytical but rarely narrates events. For the Annalistes, this methodology reflected their interest in telling the “total history” of a particular time period, event, or place, in this case, the Mediterranean Sea.[8] As Emanuel Le Roy Ladurie writes in The Territory of the Historian, the topics on which historians should write need not be confined to the human participants, and he contends that the historian may concern himself with any aspect of a subject’s past. For example, “the aim of climatic history, is not to explain human history, nor to offer simplistic accounts of this or that remarkable episode…[but] to produce a clear picture of the changing meteorological patterns of past ages in the spirit of what Paul Veyne calls ‘a cosmological history of nature.’”[9] As history became more and more depersonalized through the use of these social scientific methods, Annales history, by the 1960s and 70s, reached a point at which its explanatory power veered out of the range of normal historical inquiry. Although the techniques used by the Annalistes proved invaluable to later historians, their seeming lack of interest in the actual individuals of history masked what many believed to be the true subject of historical study. As Jim Sharpe has argued, “such quantified evidence,” while important, “cannot be the whole story.”[10] From the 1970s onward, in the new field known as microhistory, human beings reasserted their dominance as the most essential subject matter for historians. By becoming active historical participants, rather than subject to the movement of history around them, people became “the historical actors…[who] created history.”[11] While microhistory deferred to the more traditional narrative forms of history, it was regarded as anything but traditional among academic historians. As a variety of Sharpe’s “history from below,” microhistorians have sought to tell local, often personal, stories of obscure or marginal figures, or they have illuminate little-known or little-documented events from the past. Let us examine three representative microhistories—Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms, Robert Darnton’s “The Great Cat Massacre,” and Rhys Isaac’s Landon Carter’s Uneasy Kingdom­—and their relationship with “traditional history.”

One difficulty traditional historians have had with microhistory is the indeterminacy of many of its sources. For example, while the primary source for The Cheese and Worms is the trial record of the principle historical actor, Domenico Scandella, known as Menocchio, Ginzburg concedes that oral popular culture has come down to historians largely through the distorted lenses of upper class written sources. Since Menocchio is not among the elites, and left no written record of his own, his story is known to us only through others. “At best, what is noted,” Ginzburg grieves, “is the ‘decay’ or the ‘distortion’ experienced by those ideas or beliefs in the course of their transmission,” and he accedes that “the thoughts, the beliefs and the aspirations of the peasants and artisans of the past reach us…through distorting viewpoints and intermediaries.”[12] At the outset, Ginzburg acknowledges that by dealing with a historical actor for whom we have essentially no other sources, we are at a clear disadvantage over other well-documented histories. Similarly, Robert Darnton seems reluctant to “overload” the story of the seventeenth century massacre of cats on the Rue Saint-Séverin “with social commentary,” but he finds it difficult to proceed without this form of historical analysis. Darnton, too, confess that the primary sources available for his microhistory are scant, with “the only version of the cat massacre available” being “put into writing, long after the fact, by Nicolas Contat,” who “selected details, ordered events, and framed his story in such a way as to bring out what was meaningful for him.”[13] Darnton’s primary source amounts to an admittedly biased secondary source. However, Ginzburg replies to this general charge by asserting that “the fact that a source is not ‘objective’…does not mean that it is not useful,” adding that even “meager, scattered, and obscure documentation can be put to good use.”[14]

Rhys Isaac’s treatment of Landon Carter encounters similar difficulties. His principle primary source is the diary of Carter himself, though in many chapters the narrative he weaves has more to do with other characters involved in Carter’s life—namely, the slaves Carter owned as a plantation patriarch in mid-eighteenth century Virginia. Unfortunately, as Isaac discloses, we have no slave narratives written by “the Eight” runaway slaves, and he attempts to close the gaps in knowledge with other related information. Isaac utilizes the 1930s Federal Writer’s Project archives of aged, former slaves’ stories, claiming that he was “persuaded that these memoirs from the enslaved must be called upon to the one-sided, harsh account of the lives of their people that Landon left to his diary….”[15] These imperfectly-recollected, disparate accounts afford no continuity between the lives of mid-eighteenth century Virginian slaves and the various ex-slaves who were released from bondage as youths in the 1860s. Furthermore, Isaac’s exploitation of these sources presumes that popular and folk cultures existed in a vacuum and remained static over the course of nearly two centuries. By defining slavery as “being compelled to act out not one’s own story but the story imposed on one by another,” Isaac makes it difficult to reconcile his own imposition of stories onto those whom he seeks to historically emancipate.[16]

Another issue traditional historians have with microhistory is its seeming lack of broad explanatory power. Traditionally, history was a discipline used to explicate the origin, causation, or meaning of large historical events. While this focus was narrowed once the nineteenth-century history of “great men” and their politico-military exploits gave way to the more nuanced social and cultural histories of the twentieth century, history remained the story of big events, ideas, and movements. What can we learn of the broader historical implications of sixteenth-century religion, for example, by examining one Friulian miller, and an atypical one at that? Ginzburg claims that we can learn a great deal because even individual stories are important for their own sake. Although he does not claim that Menocchio is representative of his age, Ginzburg does declare that an investigation into his trial “confirm[s] the existence of traits reduceable [sic] to a common peasant culture.”[17] Likewise, the folk traditions of early modern Frenchmen remain largely a matter of guesswork, and while Darnton is careful not to extrapolate too much from his study of the cat massacre, he does imply that “common motifs [can] be found” that bond the French print-shop apprentices to similar popular cultures in space and time.[18] By sifting “through collections of folk tales, superstitions, proverbs, and popular medicine” that “resisted the influence of the printed word,” Darnton grants that the typical historical dimensions may not be able to hold this investigation. As opposed to the Annales School’s interest in mentalités, or the mindset of an entire culture, microhistorians often use the term “cosmology” to describe the individual outlook of one person, not necessarily in the metaphysical sense, but certainly in descriptive terms affirming personal identity or “self-hood.”[19] Personal ideologies constitute “cosmologies,” and it is the microhistorian’s task to elucidate these.

One final issue traditional historians have had with microhistory is its haphazard theoretical approach. While in many ways, microhistory may be viewed as a reaction against the broad and impersonal Annales School, it has maintained, as Giovanni Levi has averred, an “interchange with the social sciences…without…feeling any need to refer to any coherent system of concepts or principles of their own.”[20] In short, with “no body of established orthodoxy,” microhistory may best be regarded as a methodological tool rather than a theoretical construct.[21] If this is true, do historians approach microhistory with preconceived intellectual and interpretive frameworks, and if so, does this defeat the purpose of historical inquiry? While this is a greater issue among postmodernists, microhistorians and their critics must contend with it as well. Levi has argued that microhistory may best be viewed as a form of cultural anthropology, and just as anthropological research is often conducted from within, microhistorical research may be best understood from within as well. This, of course, entails an insertion of the author into his own historical narrative, and certainly this is the case with Ginzburg and Isaac. Ginzburg—the son of a father murdered by Nazis—must refute claims that he may be dehistoricizing Menocchio in order to empathize with him. As a commoner used by elites with power over him, Menocchio provides an excellent canvas on which to paint one’s own personal picture.[22] Still, Ginzburg’s careful handling of the historical material makes this a tenuous position to hold. Rhys Isaac introduces himself into Landon Carter’s story several pages into his narrative, describing his own “fascination with the past” and his conviction that “Landon Carter’s diary…should be systematically read for the riches it contained.”[23] One wonders whether the story is more about him than Carter, though if it does not obscure the telling of the historical narrative, has it really contravened the aim of history?

In conclusion, microhistory, though it has its drawbacks, represents one of the many ways history diversified in the 1970s and 80s, and it remains a methodological tool often employed by historians interested in subjects that otherwise would be given only brief treatment in larger historical works. On the one hand, it utilizes many of the social science tools bequeathed to it by the Annales School, but on the other, it tells a historical story that is deeply narrative in structure and eschews the impersonal tone of those histories against which it reacted. Western historiography has undergone numerous changes in its long history, and microhistory is simply another in a long line of historical writing and thinking, and it is particularly well-suited as a companion of contemporary social, cultural, and intellectual history. As, in part, a product of the societies that produce them, these major historical trends illuminate not only the time periods on which they comment, but also the time periods from which they spring.

[1] Michael Bentley, Modern Historiography: An Introduction, 37.

[2]Ibid., 39 and 41.

[3]Leopold von Ranke, The Ideal of Universal History, 55.

[4]Ibid., 61.


[6]T. Stoianavich, French Historical Method: The ‘Annales’ Paradigm, quoted in Michael Bentley, Modern Historiography, 107.

[7]Michael Bentley, Modern Historiography, 103.

[8]Thomas Keuhn, The Annales School and Microhistory, Lecture Hardin Hall, Clemson University, 19 October 2009.

[9]Emanuel Le Roy Ladurie, The Territory of the Historian, 295.

[10]Jim Sharpe, “History from Below” in New Perspectives in Historical Writing, ed. Peter Burke, 31.

[11]Ibid., 37.

[12]Carlo Ginzburg, The Cheese and the Worms, trans. John and Anne Tedeschi, xv.

[13]Robert Darnton, “The Great Cat Massacre”, 99.

[14]Carlo Ginzburg, The Cheese and the Worms, xvii.

[15]Rhys Isaac, Landon Carter’s Uneasy Kingdom: Revolution and Rebellion on a Virginia Plantation, 193.

[16]Ibid., 7, and Paul Anderson, Sources and Themes in Southern History, Lecture Hardin Hall, Clemson University, 16 November 2009.

[17]Carlo Ginzburg, The Cheese and the Worms, xxi.

[18]Robert Darnton, “The Great Cat Massacre,” 92.

[19]Paul Anderson, Sources and Themes in Southern History, Lecture Hardin Hall, Clemson University, 16 November 2009.

[20]Giovanni Levi, “On Microhistory,” in New Perspectives on Historical Writing, ed. Perter Burke, 93.


[22]Thomas Keuhn, The Annales School and Microhistory, Lecture Hardin Hall, Clemson University, 19 October 2009.

[23]Rhys Isaac, Landon Carter’s Uneasy Kingdom: Revolution and Rebellion on a Virginia Plantation, xix.