Hayden White spoke at the Courtauld on Wednesday night. Ken Clarke Lecture Theatre, a grand old room in pink, with white trim, like the inside of a wedding cake. A ghastly introduction from a fawning ex-student, not redeemed, but rather aggravated, by its kitschy, self-conscious irony. Hayden White is the king of irony. Then we clapped her off stage to make way for the master himself. White spoke for three quarters of an hour, with the utmost geniality, casually sweating references—Wittgenstein, Kant, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Vico, Hugh Blair, Cicero, Dante, Winckelmann, Gombrich, Oakeshott, er, Toni Morrison, and so on, not to mention plenty of Hayden White. At the end of it, none of us was any the wiser. He was supposed to be talking about 'Novelesque Histories', apparently the (rather radical) notion that novels can be history too. I mean, just think of Walter Scott—Hegel thought him a great historian! After an hour he apologised for having no slides: this was, remember, at the Courtauld Institute, and he was lecturing to most of a roomful of art history graduates. Then he remembered he had some, and wheeled out some pictures of webs spun by spiders on drugs: an internet meme over a decade old. Still, it got the laughs. White said it was supposed to be a metaphor for the way literary history works, but it was a better metaphor for his own maundering, barely-coherent presentation. White, it seemed to me, was still trading off Metahistory, a book which had a few worthwhile ideas when he published it in 1973, even if it has been grossly overrated, then and since. Now he is a charming and erudite drunk*, still enjoying a meal of thirty years past, clean out of ideas.
None of which would have been worth writing a post on, if I hadn't attended a lecture today by Oswyn Murray, its subject ostensibly being '[Arnaldo] Momigliano and the Eighteenth Century'. Now, Momigliano wrote a rather damning review of Metahistory in his 1981 article, 'The Rhetoric of History and the History of Rhetoric: on Hayden White's Tropes'. White's basic point had been—and still is, apparently—that historiography is a branch of rhetoric, and that the way one writes history is governed by the same sorts of rhetorical tropes as are found in oratory and fictional literature. Style becomes more important than truth: what could be more postmodern? Momigliano, the old-guard Warburg philologian, objected: what sense can we make of history if we forget that it centres on facts and problems? He wrote:
As the history of historiography is basically a study of individual historians, no student of the history of historiography does his work properly unless he is capable of telling me whether the historian or historians he has studied used the evidence in a satisfactory way.Amélie Kuhrt, in the discussion after Murray's paper, described Momigliano's response to White as a moral distaste: the aim of historiography should be an ethical engagement with the problems of the past in relation to those of the present, not mere games with words and ideas, as White, the formalist, wanted to give us. Murray himself was more sympathetic to White. His paper, as charmingly delivered as White's, and with ten times the content, wanted to reconfigure Momigliano's map of narrative historiography in the Enlightenment. The old Italian, Murray observed, had paid too much attention to Gibbon, and scorned, to his own detriment, writers of literature: John Gast, for instance, or Walter Scott, who, as Murray pointed out, had been prized as a historian by Hegel and Carlyle. Novelists will tell you what colour trousers people wore, so to speak: and that was most important to the historian sniffing for clues.
What struck me was the contrast between White, American hero of the culture wars, and Murray, donnish, British, quietly authoritative. Both made the same point, or similar, and with the same example: the one rambling and blustering, bursting with comments on the Great Philosophers, the other excavating, methodically, a moment of history, letting the scholarship do its own talking, allowing the little to speak for the big. It has been a week to renew one's faith in the Murrays of the academic world.
* Not literally, of course. He may be, as well—but that is not what I meant.
[Update: Hayden White comments, here and on his own blog. Greg links. Steve sneers. Greg defends my honour. I respond to White. "Verstegan" defends my honour. Steve sneers again, with a dash of sanctimonious hypocrisy: my favourite kind! Thanks to all.]