Decline and Fall?

Jacques Barzun
Jacques Barzun; drawing by David Levine


“All is true.” In the original edition of Le père Goriot, Balzac left this terse epigraph in English. It is the subtitle or alternate title of Henry VIII, an unfinished play uncertainly attributed to Shakespeare. The epigraph acknowledges Balzac’s profound admiration of the Bard. At the same time, it affirms the cumulative and competitive veracity of Balzac’s immense fictional universe. But I believe that these three childishly simple words also imply a dilemma.

Artists and writers constantly confront the teeming plenitude of the natural world that surrounds us on all sides, temporal and spatial. Both the novelist and the historian, if they lower their guard for an instant, can feel overwhelmed, obliterated, not so much by nothingness and emptiness as by the superfluity of existing things and creatures and events. A flood of sensations and of material reality can destroy our hold on life and self. “All is true” can be better interpreted as a cry of desperation than as the purr of serene contemplation. Can we hold our ground in the face of the world’s sheer profusion?

Balzac, like a great gladiator in his long bathrobe, brooding over a coffee urn, created a proliferating anti-universe called The Human Comedy. A less pugnacious mind—say a historian’s—will try to hold on against the profusion of life by finding shapes and patterns in that swarm of events. Stories, both historical and fictional, represent our principal means of staying sane, of weathering the typhoon of consciousness. “All is true” does not so much assent to the undifferentiated existence of everything as recognize the need to simplify, to reduce the world to livable dimensions, to choose out of the plenitude some terrain on which to build our settlement.

It is history that concerns us here, as a source of stories and as an evolving discipline. In an era when the culture is organized to support a great number of scholars producing a wide variety of historical works, what kind of history do we need most? Is the question even pertinent? For we seem to have everything already: a tendentious five-volume history of everybody’s private life from antiquity to the present; a corrective multivolume treatment of the bourgeoisie in the nineteenth century; a thousand pages of anecdotes to argue that our modern world was born between 1815 and 1830; a jovial volume to recall how the Irish saved civilization from extinction during “the Dark Ages.” The newest history titles freely mix fact and fiction for jaded palates. Enterprising biographers obtain passkeys that open all archives and brush aside all remnants of privacy. Could we possibly wish for anything more from historians?

Despite its freedoms in the past half-century, history has been squeezed from many directions. In our schools, progressive reforms swept up history and geography into a shapeless container called Social Studies tending constantly toward the contemporary. In higher education, history cannot be made to fit…

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