April 08, 2013

Geoffrey Elton and Alexis de Tocqueville

Although the Ancien Regime is still quite close to us in time, since we daily come across men who were born under its laws, it already seems to be lost in the obscurity of the past. The radical revolution which separates us  from it has the same effect as centuries would have- it has cast a veil over everything it did not destroy. Thus few people exist today who might give a precise reply to this simple question: how was the countryside administered before 1789? In fact, it cannot be answered with any accuracy or in any detail unless you have studied, not the books, but the administrative archives or that period (Alexis de Tocqueville The Ancien Regime and the French Revolution)

I love this quotation from Alexis de Tocqueville: in part because it reflects the thought of Geoffrey Elton about history- one of the intellectual legacies that I've grown up in the shadow of. Partly though I think what Tocqueville gets at here is a really interesting distinction. There is a history that we all know and a history that was documented at the time. Neither history is free from distortion: the history that we remember is interpreted through what happened next. You can see this everywhere. Take two periods in American history. The 1850s are always remembered as the prelude to the 1860s: we think of them through the lens of the war that was to come. It can lead to mistakes. Some might argue that the divisiveness of the politics of the 1950s in the UK is forgotten because of the breakthrough of Thatcherism in the 1980s. What comes after often means that we forget about what came before.

Tocqueville's history is based on what he sees as more contemporary evidence and that's a very modern concern. Memory though is important and can itself be underrated. Tocqueville in this way is a predecessor to Ranke- but documents can deceive as much as they can illustrate. To privilege what is recorded over what is not recorded may privilege those activities which are recorded and those actors who author the records. This can have sinister implications. Tacitus in the annals speaks of the control that emperors had over those who kept records and we know from our own century too well the danger of propaganda. However distortion doesn't need to be sinister to be there. For example, Geoffrey Elton's histories of the reign of Henry VIII were focussed on Thomas Cromwell because Cromwell was the master of the records: more recently historians have embraced a more expansive vision of court culture precisely because they recognised that documents may distort. To use another example, documents only preserve the trace of an activity which is documented: take an operation, a document will preserve what the operation was, it will preserve how much it cost, it might even preserve what the medical outcome was and possibly a scale of patient satisfaction. It won't preserve the doctor's forgiving manner, the nurse's smile, the feeling of pain and of relief: those things are lost.

I'm not criticising Tocqueville here- more I'm riffing on his words- but I do think its interesting to think about what he was trying to analyse. He was trying to get to the meaning of an event: the French Revolution. The key question there though is that the meaning of an event may be dual. It may be what the event meant in reality: the actual conditions which provoked and ended up sustaining or failing to sustain that event and the change it brought. It may mean that we are interested in the meaning of the event for those who lived through it- people who might have believed all sorts of inaccurate things about it. Meaning is multifaceted and the stories people tell about events can be more important than the events themselves: the revolution in France for example only meant something to the world because people told stories about it as the origin of democracy or the bourgeois moment of conquest. Its worth us both reexamining the validity of those stories but also enquiring into what stories people told about events: we must go back to the documents for both halves of that picture.