✍ The Poetry of History. The Contribution of Literature and Literary Scholarship to the Writing of History since Voltaire [1947]

por Teoría de la historia

12498060In the beginning was the word, and the word was a song, a song of war and victory. Poetry and history grew out of the same root, emotion and imagination; they were the inspired words of the seer, the heroic song of the bard, and they glorified the king or the Lord, for he had thrown the horse and his rider in the sea. The author of our book, however, does not deal with this primitive stage of history and poetry. He discusses “the contribution of literature and literary scholarship to the writing of history since Voltaire”, as is explained in the subtitle. The book has been called The Poetry of History because to the author “poetry seems the most adequate symbol for the quintessence of the human spirit”. Some readers might perhaps have their doubts about that, and the reviewer is one of them. Poetry may be described as the primitive or childish form of expression of the human mind, but it is hardly its quintessence or a symbol for its quintessence. But, after all, the reader need not spend too much time on the title, the choice of which was not very happy. Let him rather proceed to the book itself and there he will find a series of stimulating and delightful essays on some of the leading historians of the last 200 years who were also distinguisheda s men of letters, like Gibbon and Niebuhr, Renan and Michelet, Burckhardt and Green, and on some of the great men of letters who at the same time made contributions to the philosophy of history, such as Voltaire, Vico, Goethe, Herder and Carlyle. Voltaire was the great shatterer of tradition, the spiritual revolutionary who blazed a new trail. He reproached Bishop Bossuet for having omitted in his Universal History (1681) China and India, and for having spoken of the Arabs “only as a deluge of barbarians”. To Voltaire Christendom was not the entire human race. While ignorance reigned in Europe, and the West stood out darkly as a heap of crimes and follies, China and India had flourishing civilizations and the Arabs cultivated the arts and sciences throughout an empire from Baghdad to Granada. It will be interesting to note that an historian of science living in our times is still compelled to deplore the lopsidedness of the judgment of those who describe the 7th century as the nadir of the human mind, even though the first half of this century was a golden age in at least four countries: Arabia, Tibet, China and Japan (see Sarton, Introduction to the History of Science, I, 460). Some people like to date the beginning of our modern age with the discovery that the earth is not the center of the universe. It was a discovery of the same importance perhaps to discuss the Bible not as the absolute truth of revelation, as the hub of the spiritual world, but as a human work dealing with the history and literature of the Jews. In a sense, Voltaire may also be considered one of the pioneers of Biblecriticism. But whereas his theories were merely amateurish suppositions, Dr Neff uses the occasion −while discussing Herder− to give us a brief but excellent account of the rise of Bible-criticism as one of the great disciplines of the modern science of history (see pp. 51-64). Even as the two epics of Homer, so were also the historical books of the Bible transmitted by word of mouth for many centuries. Similarly, Jesus left nothing in writing, and Renan was justified in treating the New Testament as an example of popular literature and of the growth of legend out of oral tradition. The Gospels were composed by men who thought not in Greek but in Aramaic, and they told a story completely to the taste of the masses, a story “in which the priest is always wrong, respectable people are all hypocrites, the lawful authorities exhibit themselves as scoundrels and all the rich are damned”. The outbreak of the French revolution in 1789 moved the aging Gibbon to deplore the conspiracy of numbers against rank and property. Later historians, however, felt obliged to pay more attention to popular movements and changes in the social structure of the peoples. It was Michelet in particular who chose as his main theme the French masses, the oppressed populace, inarticulate but growing toward self-consciousness and self-defense. Dr Neff selected among the historians those who represent the highest synthesis of literature with historical genius and social consciousness, and he certainly displayed fine judgment and discernment in his selection. However, the reviewer is afraid that Voltaire and Gibbon, Renan and Burckhardt, and even Herder and Goethe will raise startled eyebrows when, all of a sudden, they will find in their company “the formidable and ambiguous figure” of Herr Oberlehrer Oswald Spengler. Even though a scholar and historian of the rank of Eduard Meyer described the Decline of the West as a lasting contribution to the scholarship and literature of the Germans (in Deutsche Literaturzeitung, 1924, nº 25), the reviewer feels strongly that this ambiguous figure does not belong in the circle of those illustrious philosophers and writers who are generally recognized as an ornament of the great Republic of Letters and whose brilliant ideas constitute the beauty and charm of Dr Neff’s learned and delightful volume.

[Solomon GANDZ. “Emery Neff, The Poetry of History, viii + 258 pp. New York: Columbia University Press, 1947” (reseña), in Isis. A Journal of the History of Science Society, vol. XXXIX, nº 3, agosto de 1948, pp. 198-199]