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Ideas in Time

John Potts

Chapter 7. Narratives Grand, Damned, Wandering and Broken

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1This book is concerned with a reconstruction of the history of ideas. To this end, I have devoted the previous three chapters to the theme of discontinuity in intellectual history; I have considered this necessary due to the challenges posed by the emphasis on discontinuity to my project. My study of those theorists most associated with historical discontinuity has revealed, in some cases, a repression of continuity of thought which I take to be unacceptable; and in others, a provision for continuities and gradual transformations which is compatible with my project. Theories of historical continuity pertinent to intellectual and cultural history will be considered in detail in Chapters Eight and Nine.

2Any contemporary attempt to trace ideas over long time spans, however, faces another challenge, one related to discontinuity. It is the suspicion of those long, continuous, confidently drawn ‘grand’ or ‘master’ narratives that once informed historiography, and, indeed, much Western thought. In this chapter I consider the significance of recent narrative theory for a reconstituted history of ideas, including the possibility of broken or discontinuous historical narratives. I consider the theoretical critiques of grand narratives, critiques which bear on the teleological impulse driving such historical narratives. The grand narrative has been indicted as a distortion of history, in its construction of a continuous pathway leading to the present.

3Jean-François Lyotard’s ‘incredulity’ towards metanarratives – his succinct definition of the postmodern condition – has been heartily welcomed into critical/cultural studies. Incredulity has become, in some quarters, disdain: any historical narrative spanning long tracts of time may be suspected of constructing a false trajectory, making dubious connections, claiming erroneous origins, imposing judgements of the present on the past. One grand narrative – the ‘Plato to Nato’ story of the West – has received severe criticism in these terms, not solely from radical or critical theorists.

4In detailing the means by which the continuous grand narrative has been ‘cut down’ by post-structuralist and critical theory, my intention is to lay the groundwork for a refigured history of ideas. Such an enterprise must avoid the flaws so forcefully exposed within the historical grand narrative. A history of an idea such as charisma or democracy will traverse huge temporal distances, from an ancient origin to the present. The risk of constructing identity of meaning where it does not exist, of imposing the values of the present onto a distant past (which is thereby invented as a precursor) is considerable, as the critiques of the grand narrative demonstrate. By absorbing the lessons of these critiques, I hope to prepare the way for a history of ideas that incorporates discontinuity as much as continuity, one that acknowledges difference and ellipsis, one that may chart a broken or disrupted narrative. It would not be a grand narrative, but a provisional one; one that does not assume continuity of meaning; one that appraises the thought of one period not in the context of a long controlling narrative, but in the context of its own temporal circumstances. It would be a history of ideas with in-built provisos, drawn from the critiques discussed in this chapter.

The Focus on Narrative

5The temporal unit of critical theory is not the vast sweeping narrative; it is the fragment. Poster declares that historians

no longer feel comfortable presenting a grand narrative of Western, much less human, development in which the task of distinguishing what is most important from what is less important flows easily. (Poster 1997: 21)

6Munslow finds that narratives both grand and petty, beliefs, attitudes, values, disciplines, societies, and meaning itself, appear to be fractured or fracturing. (Munslow 1997: 15)

7Of course, claims such as these need to be placed in some form of context. Many mainstream historians blithely compose grand narratives of history, undisturbed by such theoretical anxieties; indeed, the recent resurgence of popular interest in history has been in response to books and television series of this type. The critiques of conventional narrative history have largely issued from intellectual history and from cultural studies; such a critical approach is generally identified (especially by its opponents) as a postmodern or post-structuralist philosophy of history. Thus Gertrude Himmelfarb asserts that postmodernists seek to expose the ‘illusion’ of narrative history, as nothing more than ‘the rhetorical, literary, aesthetic creations of the historian.’ (Himmelfarb 1999: 76)

8This critical philosophy of history has a double-edged relation to the issue of narrative in historiography. On the one hand, it rejects the grand narrative as a distorted, teleological construction of the past; on the other, it is acutely aware that any form of history-writing will constitute a narrative of some type. This creates in the historian a heightened self-awareness, as recognised by Allan Megill with his ‘Theory Postulate’ concerning narrative and the writing of history: ‘Always Theorize’ (Megill 1995: 172). Munslow reaches a similar conclusion. For him,

the main development in the philosophy of history in the past generation has surely been the proposal that history’s primary cognitive device may reside in its power of narration. (Munslow 1997: 164)

9Munslow’s response to this realisation is to foreground the act of interpretation, as encased in narrative form:

As a self-reflexive historian, I define written history as a socially constituted narrative representation that recognises the ultimate failure of that narrative form to represent either accurately or objectively. (1997: 15)

10In recent years there has been so much theorising of narrative in history – from different perspectives and with different intentions – that it becomes difficult to identify the status of this object. The narrative patterns within conventional histories have been exposed as part of the ‘illusion’ of objectivist history; indeed, the highlighting of the selection process necessary for the construction of any historical narrative has been a key element of such a critique. Exposed as the primary cognitive device of history, narrative has come under close scrutiny, from differing points of view. Those historians and theorists hoping to endow history with the status of a science have rejected narrative as unsuitable for such a project. Yet for other theorists, the very unscientific aspects of narrative – its story-telling, its entertainment-value, its linear structuring of material – are at the core of history as a literary art. Narrative is by turns exposed, critiqued, rejected, damned, celebrated; as a result, it is at the forefront of recent historical consciousness. Before considering the ramifications of this development for a reconstituted history of ideas, my first task is to examine why narrative has assumed such a high profile within theories of history, including intellectual history.

Narrative Sentences, Narrative Tactics

11One of the earliest significant contributions to the theory of historical narrative was made by the philosopher Arthur C. Danto, whose Analytical Philosophy of History, originally published in 1964, contained the notion of ‘narrative sentences’. Danto’s work, described by Ankersmit and Kellner (1995: 280) as ‘a watershed between the traditional and the new philosophy of history’, opposed neo-positivist assertions that history obeys ‘general laws’ in the manner of science. Danto, inspired by Kuhn and other recent theorists in the philosophy of science, proposed that narrative structures penetrate our consciousness of events in ways parallel to those in which… theories penetrate observations in science. (Danto 1985: xii)

12In the case of history, Danto defined narrative sentences as those which ‘give descriptions under which the events could not have been witnessed’ (an example is: ‘The Thirty Year War began in 1618.’) (1985: xii) Such a sentence could not have been composed in 1618; narrative sentences contain the perspective of the historian, who makes cognitive assessments with reference to events (in this example) later than 1618. Danto challenged the empiricist bias of positivist history by exposing this narrative consciousness; at the same time he argued for the autonomy of history from scientific analysis. For Danto, the very act of constructing historical narratives removes history from the scientific enterprise, since ‘it is human interests… which determine which events are important and under what sort of descriptions.’ (1985: xii)

  • 1 These articles, which first appeared in several volumes of an Italian Enciclopedia published by Ein (...)

13The non-scientific character of narrative has been assayed from a different direction by Jacques Le Goff, in a series of articles on history and memory originally written between 1977 and 1982.1 Le Goff here upheld the Annales conception of history as a science, or at least a social science, which denounced the ‘idols’ of individual and chronological histories (Le Goff 1992: 201). For Le Goff, the Annales method meant ‘the replacement of history-as-narrative by history as problem’ (201). Narrative history was supplanted by alternative methods, which included ‘the quantitive in history’ and a broader dialogue with disciplines such as economics and sociology (Le Goff 1992: 202). Le Goff considers narrative particularly ill-suited to the scientific project of Annales history: ‘ [e] very conception of history that identifies it with narrative seems to me unacceptable today.’ (1992: 117) A historical narrative, ‘underneath its honest and objective appearance’, is a construction in which ‘a whole series of implicit choices are operative.’ (117) The kindest statement that Le Goff can utter regarding narrative is that it constitutes ‘a preliminary phase’ in the historian’s work, due to the ‘simple necessity’ of setting out the succession of events – the ‘how’ of history. But the real historical work – the ‘why’ – must be conducted, according to Le Goff, by non-narrative means, in order to ensure ‘the scientific character of history.’ (117)

14In his disdain for historical narrative, Le Goff has an ambivalent attitude to Hayden White’s highly influential work Metahistory, published in 1973. Le Goff draws sustenance from White’s analysis of various nineteenth century historical methods as ‘purely rhetorical’ forms, merely different types of narrative rather than expressions of historical truth. For Le Goff, nothing more is to be expected from the narrative form. Yet he cannot agree with White’s conclusion that ‘history’s pretension to scientific status’ is only a way of disguising one preferred mode for another (118). Where White sees ‘the demand for the scientization of history’ as having no epistemological basis, being founded only on aesthetic or moral preference (White 1973: xii), Le Goff elevates scientific history above the merely narrative modes dissected in White’s study.

15The philosopher Louis Mink greeted Metahistory as ‘the book around which all reflective historians must reorganize their thoughts on history’ (Mink 1987: 22); for the most part, those thoughts have moved in the opposite direction to the ones expressed by Le Goff. Mink, in his essay ‘Narrative Form as a Cognitive Instrument’, first published in 1978, concluded that ‘narrative history and narrative fiction move closer together than common sense could well accept.’ (Mink 1987: 203) The acceptance of historiography as a literary art, with characteristics similar to other – fictional – literary forms, is the main legacy of White’s work. For Himmelfarb, White was responsible for the ‘aestheticization of history’ (Himmelfarb 1999: 76). Munslow regards as White’s major achievement the revelation of the ‘essentially literary nature of historical knowledge’ (Munslow 1997: 2).

16Metahistory is a work of intellectual history, its immediate object being the methods of various nineteenth century historians. It has exerted a profound influence on intellectual history, stimulating much of the inter-disciplinary approach outlined in Chapter Three. Dominick LaCapra claimed in 1983 that ‘White’s writings have helped to re-open the possibility of thought in intellectual history.’ (LaCapra 1983: 72) White’s attention to the power of historical narratives as rhetorical devices has reached beyond intellectual history, galvanising a critical theory of historiography in general. LaCapra broadens his appraisal of White accordingly: No-one writing in this country at the present time has done more to wake historians from their dogmatic slumber than has Hayden White. (LaCapra 1983: 72)

17If White is widely regarded as ‘the progenitor of the new philosophy of history’ (Ankersmit and Kellner 1995: 280), what does his philosophy have to say about narrative? White accords narrative a central place; he treats historical work as ‘what it manifestly is: a verbal structure in the form of a narrative prose discourse.’ (White 1973: ix) Metahistory is a study of the various ‘narrative tactics’ used by historians in constructing their stories (1973: 7). White emphasises emplotment as one of the key means of constructing historical narratives. Following Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism, he identifies four modes of emplotment: Romance, Tragedy, Comedy and Satire. Historiography is for White largely ‘explanation by emplotment’ (1973: 7).

18These four narrative modes take their place in White’s schema of the four ‘tropes’ of historical consciousness (Metaphor, Synecdoche, Metonymy, Irony) (1973: ix). The reductionist aspect of White’s theory becomes evident with the proliferation of categories – such as ideological implication and modes of argument (29) – always corralled into groups of four. Despite this limitation inherent in White’s formalist method, the emphasis on historiography as ‘explanation by emplotment’ is sustained, in Metahistory, by the detailed analysis of the diverse discursive modes available to historians. Each mode, trope or form of emplotment is, according to White, one option to be considered by historians, as part of their ‘narrative tactics’. History is not the objective ordering of an empirically recorded past; it is, rather, a range of literary methods, each one imposing its own narrative pattern on the past. For White, none of those patterns is ‘truer’ or more valid than the others. Indeed, he asserts that the best grounds for choosing one perspective on history rather than another are ultimately aesthetic or moral rather than epistemological. (1973: xii)

19As Mink remarks, White has foregrounded the way in which the ‘bare chronicle of the historical record’ may be emplotted in strikingly different ways. These differing perspectives ‘rest not upon arguments from the evidence’ (Mink 1987: 193), but on imaginative choices or even preferences. The ramifications of this interpretation of historiography are wide-ranging and significant. White’s view is ‘unabashedly relativistic’, as Mink observes (1987: 160); it opens the way for a fully-fledged relativism, given that there remains no way to compare ‘one narrative structure with another in respect of their truth-claims as narratives.’ (Mink 1987: 22) Yet Mink, while agreeing that narrative is a ‘cognitive instrument’ of historiography, nevertheless resists a full-scale relativism, in which history is reduced to a choice of narratives none truer than another. For Mink it is important to maintain a distinction between fictional narratives, which are known to be untrue, and historical narratives, which are held to be true in a way that fiction is not. Mink asserts that if this distinction were to disappear, ‘fiction and history would both collapse back into myth and be indistinguishable from it as from each other.’ (25)

20The other consequence of White’s work, related to the debate over the truth-effects of historical narrative, is the political character of narrative itself. In Metahistory, White proposes that the teleological impulse of many European historical narratives serves a broader political cause, namely the assumed supremacy of the West:

it is possible to view historical consciousness as a specifically Western prejudice by which the presumed superiority of modern, industrial society can be retroactively substantiated. (1973: 2)

21A decade and a half later, in The Content of the Form, White addressed the political implications of narrative in more detail. The form of this book’s title is ‘narrative discourse’; its content is ideological, even ‘specifically political’ in its shaping of representation (White 1987: ix).

22By 1987, intellectual history, and the philosophy of history, had absorbed a great deal of discourse theory, semiology, and post-structuralism, as well as the sophisticated theories of narrative developed by Ricoeur, Genette and others. White emphasises the political aspects of narrative, as investigated in theories of representation, discourse and social formation. For White, narrative is ‘a particularly effective system of discursive meaning production’, through which social subjects absorb ‘the authoritative myths of a given cultural formation’ (1987: x). Dominant social groups have an interest in controlling society’s narratives, whether they are historical (the story of the nation or people) or specific to other cultural discourses (race, gender, law and order). Control of these social narratives at times may falter, it may be challenged; alternative versions of the narratives may be proposed. When a society’s narratives are contested, the very function of these narratives is made apparent: they are ‘de-naturalised’. White suggests that Western societies have experienced this process since the 1960s; hence the ‘pervasive interest’, within the human sciences, in ‘the nature of narrative, its epistemic authority, its cultural function, and its general significance.’ (1987: x)

Narrative Choices

23If the ‘epistemic authority’ of narrative has come under increasing scrutiny, where does that leave the historian – including the historian of ideas – who is faced with the task of constructing some form of historical narrative? Some theorists, such as Robert Berkhofer, celebrate the liberation of historians resulting from the de-naturalisation or ‘demystification’ of historical narrative:

Demystification therefore frees the historian to tell many different kinds of ‘stories’ from various viewpoints, with many voices, emplotted diversely, according to many principles of synthesis. (Berkhofer 1998: 152)

24Berkhofer regards such an approach as a liberation from ‘normal history’, which ‘orders the past for the sake of authority and therefore power over its audience.’ (1998: 152) Appleby, Hunt and Jacob similarly welcome post-colonialism and the end of the uncontested ‘single narrative of national [American] history’. For them, this ‘normal’ or dominant national historical narrative has been replaced by

an increasing emphasis on the diversity of ethnic, racial and gender experience and a deep skepticism about whether the narrative of America’s achievements comprises anything more than a self-congratulatory story masking the power of elites. (1994: 1)

25The ‘epistemologically aware’ historian, then, discerns a plurality of narratives, where once a master narrative had reigned. The decision to be made concerns the status of these diverse narratives, given that none may assume the authority of a grand or master narrative. For Lyotard, the Enlightenment installed a secular, rational metanarrative, supplanting the great over-arching system of thought previously provided by religion. But none of the narratives operating in the postmodern era can command the authority to support such a ‘metadiscourse’. There is no legitimate master narrative to compare with the Enlightenment, Hegelian, Marxist or capitalist metanarratives of the eighteenth, nineteenth or early twentieth centuries. Lyotard asserts that the grand narratives have been ‘dispersed’ into smaller-scale ‘language games’; narratives are localised and diverse, with none of the heroic dimension accorded them in the Enlightenment or Modernity. Postmodern citizens, according to Lyotard, are incredulous of all grand narratives, including Marxism: we no longer ‘expect salvation to rise from… inconsistencies, as did Marx.’ (1984: xxiv) Instead, postmodern knowledge is attuned to ‘the heterogeneity of language games’; it ‘refines our sensitivity to differences… ’ (xxv).

26Lyotard insists that postmodern knowledge, which has ‘lost the nostalgia for the lost narrative’ (1984: 41), can have no place for grand narratives of any kind. Hayden White, however, disagrees with his postmodern colleague on this point. White maintains that it is still possible to make a valid choice from a selection of guiding historical narratives:

The master narratives from among which Western man may choose are those of Greek fatalism, Christian redemptionism, bourgeois progressivism, and Marxist utopianism. (White 1987: 151)

27White notes with approval Fredric Jameson’s choice of the Marxist master narrative, on the grounds that ‘it commends itself as the only one whose promise remains to be fulfilled.’ (1987: 151) White supports Jameson’s Marxist orientation as a ‘heroic effort to realize the kind of community envisioned by Marxist socialism as the promise of our future’ (151). White appraises Jameson’s The Political Unconscious as a ‘redemption of narrative’, in its Marxist commitment to narrative as a socially symbolic act. This entails at the same time a ‘narrative of redemption’, which for Jameson involves a projection of a ‘Utopian power as the symbolic affirmation of a specific historical and class form of collective unity’ (Jameson 1981: 291, cited by White 1987: 166).

28For White, this approach re-invigorates the Marxist master narrative, making it a valid choice for historians as a means of figuring the past. It is a return to the ‘visionary’ and prophetic character of Marxism that, according to White, once endowed it with moral as well as political force. The visionary aspect involves the ability ‘to uncover the “plot” of the whole human drama’, thus rendering present and past understandable (142); the prophetic dimension includes the ability to predict changes in social systems and to envisage a new society as ‘the promise of our future’. (151)

29White is well aware of the religious connotations involved in his representation of Marxism: he uses ‘redemption’ to refer to both the Christian and Marxist master narratives. Indeed, he remarks that it was the very embarrassment felt by many modern Marxists on this issue that fostered their repression of the prophetic dimension of Marxism. White considers this to have been a mistake on the part of Marxists: it allowed them to ‘appear more scientific’, like their ‘counterparts in the bourgeois social sciences’, but this came at a serious cost (142). Taking the vision out of Marxism, White declares, leaves only a ‘respectability’ and a ‘timid historicism’ (143); it also deprives Marxist discourse ‘of that moral coloration that Marx derived from his Hegelian, utopian, and religious forebears.’ (142-143) In opting for a visionary Marxism as his master narrative of choice, White is exercising the moral preference he advocated in Metahistory concerning the range of available historical perspectives. In this way he avoids the relativism which has seemed, to Mink and other theorists, the logical consequence of his interpretation of historical methods as nothing more than divergent emplotments.

30If White has found his way out of the relativist wilderness by taking a Marxist path, he is unlikely to be followed by many other postmodernists. Most would concur with Lyotard that Marxism is an exhausted grand narrative like all the others, with no special moral authority to compel adherence to its program. Lyotard dismisses the Marxist narrative in the same way that he rejects the Enlightenment model of rational consensus propounded by Jürgen Habermas, which brings ‘violence to the heterogeneity of language games.’ (Lyotard 1984: xxv) The postmodern ‘sensitivity to differences’ (xxv) is sympathetic to the polyvocality expressed in new histories and new national museums; it remains unsympathetic to any master narrative, no matter how heroic (indeed, heroic narratives are likely to be viewed with intense suspicion).

31If historians – including intellectual historians – are to proceed without the guidance of master narratives, whether heroic or not, narrative choices of a different kind remain to be made. A heightened self-awareness concerning the traps and shortcomings of narrative historiography is one option for the practising historian. Narrative histories may then be written with the assumption that no narrative is ‘innocent’; as a result, they are likely to be constructed within an apparatus of provisos and qualifications. White refers to the postmodern rendering of narrative as a qualified – because ironic – appreciation of narrative’s significance:

a whole cultural movement in the arts, generally gathered under the name post-modernism, is informed by a programmatic, if ironic, commitment to the return to narrative as one of its enabling presuppositions. (White 1987: xi)

32Some historians have gone so far as to incorporate into their works the experimental narrative techniques associated with postmodern fiction. In her essay ‘Cultural History and the Challenge of Narrativity’, Karen Halttunen notes several historical works that

replace the omniscient narrator and the unified point of view with multiple voices and perspectives, abandon unified closure for open endings, highlight gaps and contradictions rather than shoring up their narrative’s ‘reality effect, ’ and openly comment on the process of research and interpretation. (Halttunen 1999: 167)

33Haltunnen nominates Simon Schama’s Dead Certainties (Unwarranted Speculations), which uses both historical documentation and imaginative reconstruction to ‘play with the teasing gap separating a lived event and its subsequent narration’ (Schama 1991: 321 cited by Halttunen 1999: 168). In James Goodman’s Stories of Scottsboro, the author employs a multi-perspectival approach, at the same time acknowledging his subjective role in shaping the narrative: ‘I imposed order – at the very least beginnings, middles and ends – where there was rarely order… ’ (Goodman 1994: xiii cited by Halttunen 1999: 168-169).

34Yet Halttunen points out that these and other experimental works are likely to remain in the tiny minority of published narrative histories. Nor is it reasonable to expect that many historians will pursue alternative narrative forms such as the annal, chronicle, the carnivalesque or impressionism. For the most part, Halttunen observes, historians remain ‘more or less happily caught in the web of narrative’ (1999: 177). The benefits of the narrative form for the writing of history are generally deemed more important than the difficulties narrative may provoke. Halttunen quotes David Lowenthal’s appraisal of the epistemological function of narrative: The contingent and discontinuous facts of the past become intelligible only when woven together as stories. (Lowenthal 1985: 218 cited by Halttunen 1999: 166)

35The great majority of historians, whether traditional, postmodern or other, remain ‘resolutely committed’ to the narrative form; Halttunen adds that it is unclear how any other representational practice ‘would prove any less problematic, fictive, and ideologically loaded’ than realist narrative (167, 178). The heightened sensitivity to the construction of narrative and its consequences is for Halttunen the most useful aspect of the postmodern questioning of historical narrative. It should direct our attention to how narratives get constructed, what distinctive temporal configurations they assume, and why certain metaplots rather than others achieve cultural power. (171)

36Robert Berkhofer has made a sustained attempt in this regard with his Beyond the Great Story (1995). He acknowledges the attractions of master narratives – or ‘great stories’ – such as ‘Spenglerian decline’ or ‘Marxian dialectics’, which can be ‘thrilling’ in their grand sweep of history (Berkhofer 1995: 40). Master narratives such as progress or degeneration have done more than impose a narrative unity on events: they pattern ‘all of history as a moral lesson’ (125). Berkhofer is particularly concerned with the teleological imperative operating within such narratives, which ‘give meaning to time as history and offer a message to the present.’ (125) He argues that although the old ‘grand metanarratives’ may be widely rejected by historians, smaller-scale master narratives ‘all too often still provide both teleology and political lesson.’ (125) Thus narratives of progress, while lacking the grand conviction found in the Whig interpretation of history in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, continue to impose a ‘moral standard’ within a wide range of discourses. Many histories of science, technology, medicine, democracy, philosophy, even historiography itself, still construct accounts of the ‘progress’ of their specific disciplines (126).

37If narratives composed according to the ‘moral standard’ of progress may still be found in large numbers, Berkhofer adds that the narrative pattern of decline, with its own implicit moral judgement, is equally well represented in contemporary discourse. Cultural critics of the twentieth century often reacted to industrialism and rationalisation by espousing a ‘loss-of-community theme’ (126), in which the past – before the ravages of industrialism and the violence of imperialism – is presumed to be superior to the alienated present. This narrative of degeneration, articulated in direct opposition to the doctrine of progress, has a relatively high contemporary profile; its prominence in Western societies since the 1970s corresponds to the rise of ecological awareness and the decline of faith in industrial progress.

38But as Berkhofer observes, the contemporary prominence of the idea of decline is simply the return of a grand narrative much older than that of progress. The ancient Greeks and Romans mythologised a golden age greatly superior to the present; Judaism and Christianity regarded the present as a state fallen from paradise. The enduring narrative of degeneration was eclipsed by the Enlightenment belief in progress, but the older narrative has periodically returned. The Romantic reaction against the Enlightenment, and against early industrialism, mobilised a theme of alienation from nature and community; from the Romantics’ perspective, ‘progress’ through reason and technology was in actuality a profound degeneration.

39The narratives of decline and progress, then, order and judge the past in terms of the present. For the former, the present is a degraded state in comparison to the past; for the latter, the present is by definition superior to the past, which has existed in a long narrative of ‘progress’ culminating in the present. Berkhofer remarks that the narrative of decline is often used in histories of those groups or peoples who have suffered loss as a result of Western industrialism. He discusses, in this regard, histories of indigenous peoples, which often describe ‘communal utopias’ before the destructive advent of the West, or of the working class, which suppose a harmonious state of artisan labour prior to industrial capitalism (126-127). Histories charting such social developments risk a reductive, simplistic analysis by exclusively subscribing to a narrative pattern of decline.

40Any complex history must resist the allure of master narratives, whether of decline, progress or other: the master narrative brings with it a compelling momentum and a moral force, but at the cost of simplification. Religious fundamentalism is an extreme example of a master narrative, one in which master narrative characteristics are made spectacularly evident: a simplified interpretation of the past, a moral imperative, the manipulation of the past to justify beliefs and actions in the present. Berkhofer makes the general observation that the same historical process may be described in precisely opposite terms, depending on the master narrative employed. The ‘progressive rise of democracy’ may be seen as the decline of aristocracy and gentility; the emergence of secularism may be construed as either the ‘loss of religiosity’ (the fundamentalist view) or the rise of science (the Enlightenment perspective) (127). Progress and decline are in this sense inverse sides of the one master narrative world-view.

41Finally, Berkhofer recommends a set of guidelines for ‘transforming historical practice’ (281). His ‘reflexive (con) textualization’ is pertinent both to the reading and the writing of historiographical texts. An active reading and criticism is needed to investigate the ‘inner workings’ of texts, how ‘a text goes about constructing itself as a history.’ (281) Berkhofer offers a number of relevant factors to be noted in an ‘active reading’:

To what extent does the author presume progress, decline, cycles, or other basic modes of comprehending time? Is the chronologic framework of the text one of complete rupture, small shifts, continuity as growth, or transformation? (272)

42Like Halttunen, Berkhofer finds the heightened sense of narrative resulting from postmodern theory to be most applicable to the critical reading of texts. However, he extends his notion of reflexive textualization to the writing of narrative histories as well: For the representation of time to be reflexive in any new historicization, the various kinds of temporal ordering in the text should be made as evident as possible. (269)

43In this way, reflexive, ‘epistemologically aware’ historians may foreground, in the very process of structuring their histories, how they go about organising time.

44David Christian, in his introduction to big history, Maps of Time (2011), pays particular attention to the role of narrative in big history. Christian reveals a sensitivity to the many theoretical critiques damning the over-arching grand narrative. It may be objected, he remarks, ‘that big history proposes to create a new “grand narrative” just when we have learned the futility, even the danger, of grand narratives.’ (2011: 9) The hazards of deploying a grand or metanarrative are evident for Christian: ‘Will not a big history metanarrative crowd out alternative histories – of minorities, of regions, of particular nations or ethnic groups?’ (9) A master narrative will also reflect the cultural politics of the historian’s ‘contemporary concerns’. Christian ponders an alternative approach, of a non-narrative ‘fragmented vision of the past’, as the only method to do ‘real justice to the richness of human experience.’ (9)

45Yet he rejects this non-narrative option, and declares it ‘a mistake for historians to shun these large narratives, however grand they may seem.’ (9) Grand narratives or ‘large stories’ are for Christian powerful literary devices because ‘they can provide a sense of meaning.’ (9) He cites William Cronon on the value of narrative in environmental history: narrative is ‘the chief literary form that tries to find meaning in an overwhelmingly crowded and disordered chronological reality.’ (Cronon 1992: 1349 cited in Christian 9) Christian adds the further support for the use of grand narrative in big history; such a narrative, he observes, ‘may be surprisingly capacious.’ (10) He proposes thinking of a big history narrative as a ‘modern creation myth’ (11); in the twenty-first century, such a narrative will emerge ‘not as a single monolithic story but rather as a large and ramshackle cycle of stories’ (10), which can be expressed in many variants.

46Christian also raises the possibility that a very large narrative will create ‘more spaces for alternative accounts of the past’ that may otherwise be eclipsed in conventional history (10). Christian thereby validates the use within big history of a modern grand narrative, rehabilitated perhaps following the extreme critique levelled at the form in the late twentieth century. This grand narrative comes with the proviso that it, like all accounts of reality, is ‘provisional’. Like earlier creation myths, it offers only a ‘workable’ map of reality (11). It is shaped by the intellectual and political limits of the present; it ‘offers a unified account of origins from the perspective of the early twenty-first century.’ (11, Christian’s italics) Yet this big history narrative, while laden with these provisos, remains unapologetically a modern grand narrative.

Discontinuous Narratives: The West and The Idea of the Olympic Games

47While big history may incorporate a version of the grand narrative, this chapter has considered the perils of continuous narratives constructed over large time-spans. In tracing an idea across the millennia, the risks of distorting its meanings at specific times are great. Teleology looks backwards and determines the narrative, imposing judgements on the past, inventing continuities and connections. In this book, I am concerned with the possibility of tracing ideas over long spans of time – but the aim is a reconstituted history of ideas, one which avoids the shortcomings of teleological, continuist intellectual histories. The history of an idea must incorporate discontinuities within that time-span. Discontinuity relates to the changed circumstances at specific times and places that inflect the idea, altering its meaning and significance. Discontinuity also applies to those periods in which the idea lapses, disappearing from common usage.

48A teleological history will overlook such discontinuities, papering over the breaks and smoothing out the differences, because its goal is an assured continuity – of thought, of history, of politics. It will associate the end of its grand narrative (the present) with its alleged beginning; it will justify the present by pointing to a grand continuity from noble origins (preferably in ancient Greece) through an unbroken pathway to the contemporary Western world. David Gress has provided a thorough analysis of the history of the idea of the West in his book From Plato to NATO: The Idea of the West and Its Opponents (1998). For Gress, this construction is the grand narrative of Western civilisation itself, the story of stories through which Western values are affirmed. Gress succinctly describes the core components of this grand narrative as it was promulgated in the United States in the twentieth century:

[it] defined the West as modernity and its core, liberty, as an abstract principle derived from the Greeks and transported, outside time, to its modern resurrection in the Enlightenment and in twentieth-century liberal American democracy. (Gress 1998: 7)

  • 2 Gress nominates several projects and works of this period that disseminated the grand narrative: Jo (...)

49Gress traces the construction and propagation of this grand narrative to a specific place (the United States) and a particular time (the 1920s to the 1960s). The narrative was a construct of American liberalism at the height of its confidence; it was designed and taught at the level of higher education, which had recently become a mass phenomenon; one of its main goals was the assimilation of immigrants to mainstream American values (31).2

50For Gress, these well-meaning endeavours by a generation of educators shared the same flaw: they ‘consisted exclusively of great ideas divorced from their historical, ideological, and institutional context.’ (34) Durant’s The Story of Civilisation is ‘the apotheosis of the Grand Narrative’, according to Gress (35): it defined civilisation as Western civilisation, whose aim is always more freedom and broader rights. This ‘ideological core’ (36) of the grand narrative endowed works such as these with their teleology and their morality; it also motivated the selection process by which some aspects of history and culture were elevated, while others were relegated or ignored altogether. The grand narrative ‘tore bits and pieces out of the past and set them up as a sequence’ (47), removing them from contexts which may well appear, in modern Western terms, objectionable and immoral. As Gress puts it: ‘History is strong drink, and the Grand Narrative turned it into soda pop.’ (47)

51Because the liberal grand narrative was devised as a tool of mass higher education, it needed to be ‘simple in outline but rich in content’ (23). Gress distils the formula for this standard story of the West: it ‘had to be consistent, linear, progressive, with a start date in ancient Greece and end date in 1950s America.’ (23) This linear narrative privileged certain periods or developments as its ‘Magic Moments’: the birth of democracy and philosophy in ancient Greece; Roman law; Renaissance art and individualism; Enlightenment reason; liberal democracy from the revolutionary era; science and technology from modernity (24). The narrative depicted the West ‘as a coherent entity emerging triumphantly through history in a series of stages’ (39) – but this could only be achieved by omitting ‘great chunks’ of early culture, values and thought (24). The narrative downplayed the role of religion. It highlighted those aspects of Greek, Roman and medieval culture that fitted most easily into the narrative pattern – but deleted those aspects such as slavery or infanticide that could not be made to fit. The moral lesson of the narrative demanded that the Greeks, Romans and early Christians be interpreted as ‘protoliberals’ (24); this project necessitated large-scale omissions and a distortion of cultural values.

52Having examined the construction of this grand narrative and the period of its greatest influence in the United States and Europe, Gress then charts its decline. One of the reasons for the narrative’s loss of cultural power, according to Gress, was an intellectual shift within American liberalism:

when American liberals stopped believing in excellence, reason, science and assimilation, they also lost confidence in the Grand Narrative that underpinned those beliefs. (30)

53For Gress, the most devastating assaults on the grand narrative came from radical intellectuals and critics energised, in the 1960s, by opposition to the Vietnam War. In this new context, American imperialism, racial injustice and capitalist rapacity were ‘icons of evil’, supported by an ideological framework of Western supremacy. A new generation of intellectuals and educators determined that their goal would be the undermining and deconstructing [of] what they saw as the misleading, biased, and ideologically unsound story of the West represented by the Grand Narrative. (37)

54Gress mentions Martin Bernal’s Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilisation (1987) and Kirkpatrick Sale’s revisionist account of Columbus in The Conquest of Paradise (1990) as spectacular examples of the assault on the grand narrative. For Gress, the grand narrative’s two greatest errors – its moralism and its universalism – had resulted in an ‘ahistorical West of progress and morality’ (7) that was easily torn down by its opponents. The universalist aspect of the grand narrative – the assumption that liberty and democracy are not only the destiny of the West but are universally valid – was intellectually erroneous; it also represented an easy target for postcolonialist and multiculturalist criticism.

55An alternative approach to intellectual history, by contrast, is to accommodate discontinuities, acknowledging that the earliest expressions of the idea are not identical to the most recent, and that the idea will undergo, at various stages of its history, major transformations as it is shaped by different social and cultural forces.

56The Olympic Games is a relevant example when considering continuity and discontinuity in history. Of course, the Olympics is an event conducted on a huge scale – yet it has immense cultural significance as an idea. The Olympic Games functions as an idea of Western civilisation, complete with its origins in the ancient Greek world. Modern Olympic Games place great emphasis on symbols and rituals connecting the present games to those of ancient Greece. When the torch is lit in the opening ceremony, the contemporary games are symbolically linked with the ancient Greek tradition, all the way back to the first games in 776 B. C. The conventional grand narrative of the Olympics, played out on television during each games, locates the spirit of the event in its exalted ancient origins: athletes coming together from diverse backgrounds to compete for the glory of sport. The Olympic spirit, considered more lofty than the venal realities of professional sport, is given symbolic expression by the rituals dating to ancient origins. It is widely known that the Olympics ceased as an event before being revived in the modern period, yet the symbolic power accorded to the ancient rituals, performed with an almost religious reverence (the Olympic torch, carried around the host nation before its hallowed ignition, attains a status approximating a religious icon) ensures a continuity from the eighth century B. C. to the present.

57A discontinuous history of the Olympic Games, however, offers a different perspective. In his book Sport, Culture and the Media (1999), David Rowe de-naturalises the myth of the Olympic Games, a myth which construes modern sport as ‘arising out of a steady evolutionary process, the origins of which can be traced directly to the ancient Greeks.’ (Rowe 1999: 13) For Rowe, the notion that the ancient games were ‘the birth-place of sport’ is fallacious, due to the discontinuity between ancient practices and contemporary sport. This discontinuity involves more than the sixteen centuries in which no Olympic Games were held. Rowe contends that there is no universal entity called sport; the contemporary cultural form of sport, including the modern Olympics, emerged ‘in a particular location (Britain) at a particular time (industrialization).’ (13)

58Rowe argues that this specific context – nineteenth century Britain – fostered both the institution of the modern Olympics and the lofty or ‘noble’ Olympic spirit. Industrialisation generated the need for control of working-class activities, as part of the ‘subjection to industrial capitalism’s time and work-discipline’ (Rowe: 15); organised sport was promoted along these lines as a ‘healthy physical activity’ for the working class (16). Regulated sports were inculcated with the moral virtues of discipline and teamwork; in this way, elite and religious groups hoped to exercise control of working class leisure, while maintaining a strong ‘moral fibre’ within the citizenry. At the same time, an ethos of ‘muscular Christianity’ was cultivated within the elite public schools, again emphasising the moral values of sport (16).

59This ‘healthy body, healthy mind’ ethical position lay behind the staging, from 1850, of the ‘Olympian Games’ in a small town in Shropshire. Rowe quotes the Games’ founder, Dr William Penny Brookes, on sport’s cultivation of ‘those moral virtues which it is one of the objects of religion to inculcate’ (16). The Baron Pierre de Coubertin, an associate of Brookes, adopted this ‘muscular Christianity’, combining it with his hope that an international sporting event, staged every four years, would enhance ‘international understanding and make actual military combat less likely.’ (17) Rowe concludes that the ‘strong moral impulse’ behind the modern Olympic Games was less a legacy of the ancient Greeks than the product of a model of competition influenced by the English and adapted by the French. (17)

60There are, then, significant differences between the modern games, inaugurated in 1896, and the ancient games commencing in 776 B. C. Coubertin’s internationalist vision had no place in the ancient Olympics, which permitted Greek athletes only. A discontinuist history of the Olympics finds that that the two events called ‘Olympic Games’, separated by sixteen centuries, are products of radically different cultural contexts. If it is possible to chart the history of the Olympic Games from 776 B. C. to the present, this undertaking must be performed with major provisos. Such a history must record that the ancient Olympics terminated after approximately ten centuries, and that when the modern Olympics were inaugurated sixteen centuries later, they represented a different set of moral, religious, cultural and political values. As Rowe has argued, the ‘Olympic spirit’ celebrated within the modern epoch (much tarnished in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries by drug abuse and professionalism) derives not from ancient Greek roots but from the social circumstances of nineteenth century Britain.

61The conventional Olympics grand narrative venerates the contemporary form by mapping its origins onto the ancient Greek culture revered (as in the Plato to NATO grand narrative) as the genesis of the West. A discontinuous narrative resists such a retrospective construction of origins. Attentive to breaks and transformations as well as continuities, it is sensitive to differences within its own story. The renovated history of ideas proposed in this book proceeds along these lines.


1 These articles, which first appeared in several volumes of an Italian Enciclopedia published by Einaudi (Turin, 1977-1982), were re-assembled in Le Goff (1992), History and Memory.

2 Gress nominates several projects and works of this period that disseminated the grand narrative: John Herman Randall’s The Making of the Modern Mind (1924), with its conception of Western intellectual history as a succession of ‘great ideas’ culminating in the formation of the ‘modern mind’; the fifty-two volume Great Books of the Western World, emanating from the ‘Chicago Plan’ model of higher education in the 1920s; The Story of Civilisation by Will Durant, whose first volume appeared in 1935 (Gress 1998: 32-36).

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