History and Faith

There’s a famous (among aca­d­e­mics) essay by Hay­den White I often ask suf­fer­ing stu­dents to read, called “the Value of Nar­ra­tiv­ity in the Rep­re­sen­ta­tion of Real­ity,” a pon­der­ous title indeed. White repro­duces excerpts from the Annals of St. Gall, a medieval man­u­script with mul­ti­ple authors. It looks like this

709. Hard win­ter. Duke Got­tfried died.
710. Hard year and defi­cient in crops.
7 12. Flood every­where.
714. Pip­pin, Mayor of the Palace, died.
715. 716. 717.
718. Charles dev­as­tated the Saxon with great destruc­tion.
7 19.
720. Charles fought against the Sax­ons.
721. Theudo drove the Sara­cens out of Aquitaine.
722. Great crops.
725. Sara­cens came for the first time.
731. Blessed Bede, the pres­byter, died.
732. Charles fought against the Sara­cens at Poitiers on Sat­ur­day.

Those are years on the left: many of them are blank in the original

The Annals con­tinue this way, till:

1045. 1046. 1047. 1048. 1049. 1050. 1051. 1052.
1053. 1054. 1055.
1056. The Emperor Henry died; and his son Henry suc­ceeded to the rule.
1057. 1058. 1059. 1060. 1061. 1062. 1063. 1064.
1065. 1066. 1067. 1068. 1069. 1070. 1071. 1072.


White asks, assum­ing you have no other sources avail­able, “what would it take to make this into his­tory?” The answer, he says, is you have to invent some idea which can’t be proven to actu­ally exist. For exam­ple, the eas­i­est way to make this his­tory would be to say “imag­ine a god.” Then all these events could be ascribed to that god, who I shall call “Azoth.” Azoth is dis­pleased, and smites the peo­ple; Azoth is pleased, and rewards the peo­ple. Indi­vid­ual actors come and go because of their rela­tion­ship to Azoth, who can­not be proven to exist but who, if we accept as exist­ing, can fill the role of “cause.” Floods, bumper crops, inva­sions: all ascribed to Azoth. The idea of Azoth makes these ran­dom events sen­si­ble. Pip­pin, mayor of the palace, should have prayed harder.

White else­where calls this a “meta­nar­ra­tive,” some­thing which is out­side of your actual nar­ra­tive but nev­er­the­less cru­cial to it mak­ing any sense at all. Instead of Azoth, for exam­ple, you could sub­sti­tute “progress,” beloved of fresh­men: “progress was occur­ring.” Or “the ris­ing mid­dle class.” No one can define mid­dle class” with any pre­ci­sion; like my hypo­thet­i­cal god Azoth you can’t inter­view “the mid­dle class” or look it in the eye, but if you assume it exists, and is ris­ing, you can do all sorts of explana­tory work.


None of these are good his­tory, but they could be. I’ve invented a frame, a meta­nar­ra­tive, that can take the chaotic, ran­dom events the past leaves us with and make them seem orderly.

I could do the same thing with “indus­tri­al­iza­tion.” We all know what we mean when we say this: we get images of fac­to­ries and smoke­stacks and strik­ing work­ers. “Indus­tri­al­iza­tion” is a well accepted and fre­quently used meta­nar­ra­tive, but it can’t be proven to exist any more than Azoth. Fac­to­ries exist: “indus­tri­al­iza­tion” is a con­cept that frames them. It’s a way of mak­ing sense of a set of facts, link­ing them together in a larger story. “You should under­stand those smoke­stacks as part of some­thing called ‘industrialization’.”

White’s argu­ment implies that the world has no inher­ent order, that it’s chaotic and ran­dom, and that all sys­tems of order are arbi­trary and imposed. His­tory presents you with a bunch of stuff that hap­pened, and order­ing it, mak­ing it sen­si­ble, requires invent­ing some­thing out­side of his­tory, like Azoth or progress or indus­tri­al­iza­tion. There’s a vast list of these meta­nar­ra­tives, things which don’t actu­ally exist con­cretely  but can be imag­ined as exist­ing: they include “the anglo saxon race,” “man’s thirst for free­dom,” “self-interest,” “negroes,” “the Amer­i­can mind” “child­hood,” etc etc.

I’m not a reli­gious man, or even what’s vaguely called a “spir­i­tual” per­son. But the inter­est­ing con­clu­sion I get from White’s arti­cle is that it’s impos­si­ble to do his­tor­i­cal think­ing or writ­ing with­out mak­ing a “leap of faith,” and choos­ing to believe in some­thing that can’t be proven to exist. If I were a reli­gious man I’d be mak­ing an argu­ment about the neces­sity of faith.

judgepriestThere’s an equally famous essay by Carlo Ginzburg that makes an oppo­site claim. In “Morelli, Freud and Sher­lock Holmes: Clues and Sci­en­tific Method,” Carlo Ginzburg and Anna Davin claim that there are real, objec­tively ver­i­fi­able nar­ra­tives in nature, and we see them in diag­nos­tic rea­son­ing and exper­i­men­ta­tion, what they call “recipe knowl­edge. “If I do this, that will pre­dictably result.” If I see tracks that look like bear tracks lead­ing towards a tree with bark worn away, then towards a stream, then into a cave, I can con­struct an objec­tively true nar­ra­tive: “there was a bear, it scratched its back on a tree, drank from the stream, and then went into that cave.” If the marks on the tree are old, I can assume the bear scratches reg­u­larly; if the stream is muddy and the the bot­tom dis­turbed, I can assume the bear was hungry.

Gins­burg and Davin are inter­ested in foren­sics and detec­tion. They see a con­nec­tion between the reli­gious tra­di­tion of “div­ina­tion,” read­ing the signs to deter­mine God’s intent, and a doctor’s abil­ity to diag­nose an ill­ness from its exter­nal symptoms. In other words, there is pre-existing order, a pre-existing nar­ra­tive, in events, and we can uncover it.

This is entirely oppo­site what White claims. And inter­est­ingly, if there is order in events already, a real, objec­tive and ver­i­fi­able chain of cause and effect–then faith is not nec­es­sary at all.

Though I’m not a reli­gious man, I find White’s account much more plau­si­ble. On a small level, I can deduce the pres­ence of bears or count on bak­ing soda as a rise. But I can’t write a his­tory of either bak­ing or hunt­ing with­out some kind of meta­nar­ra­tive that links the count­less instances of bak­ing and hunt­ing, the many motives and prac­tices, into a coher­ent story.

Ear­lier I posted about the value of his­tory: it seems to me both these essays point to the cen­tral­ity of doubt and skep­ti­cism to any prac­tice of history.

One Comment

  • Won­der­ful piece. But in some ways, it’s not about choos­ing BETWEEN a belief in the pri­macy of empir­i­cally ver­i­fi­able evi­dence and a highly abstract meta-narrative: It’s about mak­ing the level of gen­er­al­iza­tions in the nar­ra­tive appro­pri­ate to the kind of evi­dence adduced. And while you are doing it, keep­ing in mind the pur­pose for which you are con­struct­ing the nar­ra­tive. A reli­gious nar­ra­tive has a very dif­fer­ent pur­pose and audi­ence from either a foren­sic inves­ti­ga­tion or a his­tor­i­cal analy­sis of the past.

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