Fragile, Necessary History

“On the Use and Abuse of History for Life”—we should always start from there. You will doubtless have recognized the title of Nietzsche’s second Untimely Meditation, a joyous tilt at the ponderous historicism of his time. Nietzsche was writing in 1874, aware that the discipline of history was becoming modernity’s new religion. The discipline, yes—with its rigorous method, staid procedures, and acute sense of social importance. Nietzsche could foresee that it would all encumber us, and encumber us terribly. The crushing weight of the years, and with it the burden of grievance. What he saw was a society, smitten with speed and oblivion, applying its own brakes and secreting its own poison. He could see what would gradually gum up and rankle its still-operative motive force, the ideal of progress; what would envelop the present in a glutinous fog that rendered the past pervasive and the future uncertain.

Start there, then, and say only this: a better life awaits if we do no history—that is, if we both make no fuss (ne pas faire d’histoires, as the French say) and renounce history as a pursuit. It is up to the historian’s discipline to prove the contrary—or, in legal terms, to reverse the burden of proof. This demands certain predispositions. Is it because I have not always liked history? Was it in reading writers who argue history’s insufficiency to account for the past—William Faulkner, Vladimir Nabokov, Claude Simon, and many others—that I at last toyed with the strange and paradoxical idea of becoming a historian? For it is not enough to become a historian; you must also endeavor to remain one. And how to remain a historian except in trying not to be content with being one?

Thus it seems to me that historians today can no longer preach to the converted. First, because they ought not to preach. Second, because the people they must address are the people who are indifferent to or put out by history. Traces of the historicism that Nietzsche denounced are still with us. If some historians continue to yearn for the days when they could mount the pulpit and in stentorian tones pronounce on the nation’s future, it is no doubt because the discipline of history remains institutionalized as a study of undisputed social utility. Since the late 19th century, its methods have no more changed than its ideals. Historians still work like Charles Seignobos and think like Jules Michelet. But all that surrounds the discipline has indeed changed, so much so that history must now struggle—largely in spite of itself—to keep pace with literature, the social sciences, and the arts, while taking into account the many ways the past can be brought to bear on the present.

I have been given the friendly honor to contribute to these columns some account of current French historiography. I do not know that such a thing as French historiography exists, but I know from experience that there is such a historiography written in French. This makes a certain difference: historiography no doubt confers some part of its ambition on the language itself, on the writing of the language, on the exigencies of its poetic idleness, and it thenceforth valiantly seeks out its minority principle.

An example: the rise of world history is but one manifestation of the globalization of history. But globalization for the most part names cultural homogenization, and to a much lesser extent names the production of differences. Indeed, against the great, poorly documented account known as the global history mainstream, with its robust certitudes on the future of human societies, there has developed a countercurrent of subtly subversive varieties of protest, with exercises in disorientation and displaced points of view. Privateer histories, connected histories, heretical histories—call them what you will. I for my part prefer to think of them as a disquiet history, not to impugn the West for its guilt but because disquiet is a goad—it is the emotion, in the literal sense, from which knowledge springs.

Let us say, then, that the history we aspire to is a hygienics of anxiety. As a field of study, it is joyous and cunning, but loyal. It is aware of the narrative fragility of its procedures, and demands at all times a sober regard for the historians’ regime of veracity. It knows that it is not literature, but it knows, too, that literature has an erudition of its own, which includes history, and that history itself cannot help but resort to literary means to convince its readers that it is not literature. To make a long story short, let us say that Michel Foucault has been through these parts, and that history has remembered his passage ever since.

French-language historiography, if it still exists today, cannot cling to the playthings of past supremacy, invoking the great names and the halcyon days when it proclaimed far and wide. Those days are gone, and good riddance. History is fragile and necessary learning; its necessity, in other words, is both poetic and political. It cares nothing for declarations of grandeur, because it is by nature averse to power. All historical method is critical thought, and all critical thought desacralizes, debases, relativizes. History has no time for experts and counselors to power, for the culture of expertise that we are now being sold to justify its existence. Do not expect history to keep comforting our certainties, our identities, our continuities. Listen, I tell you, to Nietzsche: history is untimely. That is the present state of affairs.


Patrick Boucheron

PATRICK BOUCHERON is a historian. A Professor in the History of the Powers in Western Europe at the Collège de France, Paris, he is the author of a dozen books on 14th- and 15th-century Italian history, as well as on the methodology of history.