Monday, April 28, 2008

Causes of History

The historian and the storyteller (novelist, screenwriter) finally are interested in the same question: why do things happen? Why does a man decide to murder his wife? Why does a king invade another country, or start a new religion? Why does someone decide (and do they, really, “decide”) to become a doctor, or a lawyer? The historian Peter Gay proposes, in answer, a “tripartite division of causes into immediate ‘releasers,’ short-ranger dterminants, and long-range causes, and a comprable division of 'worlds' (‘Man lives in several worlds at once, each of them capable of supplying causes’) into culture, craft, and the private sphere.”

I quote from John Updike’s review of Gay’s Art and Act (in Hugging the Shore), an attempt on Gay’s part “to analyze the structure of historical causation by means of those who paint pictures and design houses rather than those who lie for money or kill for glory….” Among the many felicities to be found in Updike’s review is this passage on the utlitity of trying to propose historical causes—come up with reasons--in of itself:
Though….any history is to some extent stylized, the attempt must be made. Otherwise, the nightmare of medieval nominalism is upon us again, and by a kind of Zeno’s paradox of infinte factual subdivision the Achilles of understanding can never overtake the gargantuan tortoise of reality.

3 comments:

Historyprof said...

Things happen because people trade 2 wheat for 3 ore. That is all there is in life.

And a desire to avoid the paperwork. Avoiding the paperwork is mostly what I do all day.

Cartooniste said...

I count three literary or mythological references in that last sentence, and I'm probably missing two.

My students had to read an Updike novel this past semester, and it was a little much for them. Now I understand why.

Anonymous said...

"The gargantuan tortoise of reality" would be a good name for something. A third album? A horse? An abstract collage? SOMETHING.

BTW, Lou, I would never give three ore for two wheat. NEVER. I'm not helping you get a city. Marxist dog.

-ANCIANT