Wednesday, 30 March 2016

History, Philosophy, and Lyric

How's that for an overblown title?

So. Restlessness and indecision at my undergrad studies together with a lifelong urgent predisposition towards hearing stories and a suspicion towards anything pompously declaring itself "culture" have contributed to a preoccupation with a whole big bunch of stuff that I and I think pretty much everybody else would consider very important. But we're generally discouraged from having actual opinions about these things because they'd be considered "superficial". For my part, I think claiming expertise on fundamental cultural institutions is such an inherently stupid prospect, no matter what your level of education, that an impressionistic rendering is probably all anyone should ever aim for in the first place.

Anyway. the Ancient Greek word "historia", if wikipedia is to be believed, meant "inquiry", or "witness". Latin added the meaning of narrative, or story, as well as of specific investigation of past events. In Middle English the word was still used to describe both "past events" and narrative in general - as it still does in most other European languages. I would suggest that this duality, mysteriously cleaned out of contemporary English, is not accidental. Turning the past into a story and projecting a made-up story into the past are acts that require a very similar exercise of the imagination.

The first dude to write what we consider a history rather than just boring old chronologies or chronicles is Herodotus with his Histories of 440 BCE. This is because he made it investigative and narrativey (I do not think it would be a stretch to assume that the Latin meaning of "history" as "story" follows the example of his book), and also because we're a bunch of Eurocentric arseholes who won't accept the Zuo Zhuan as written before it. Anyhow, it was the beginning of Western historiography before it had a new beginning in 19th century Germany with "scientific" history that has since been basically discredited as nationalistic self-aggrandisement government-toadying but is still mysteriously revered.

Thing is, even without being scientific, "history" commands an authoritative cultural force just by the fact that it puts things in narrative form, because narrative is how we tell ourselves what things are and what they mean, and the only way any large collection of items gains coherence. The problem is, when we tell them unscientifically we can very easily end up with meanings that are completely bullshit.

The thing that makes things (that is, the "history" of things) scientific is called "philosophy", or at least used to be called that before it began being called "science" and to acquire an almost religious significance as super-mega-total-truth. I'll forego at least some of the obnoxious etymological overreaching and just start with the fact that until the 19th century, the Western way of studying nature was basically divided between "natural history" and "natural philosophy". I swear I'm going somewhere with this.

This might be a good place to point out that my erudite posturing here is based on reading exactly one book (or the relevant section of it, actually) about the history of science, but we'll assume that it and whatever else I've happened upon on this subject have not been lying. "Natural history" is more or less what it sounds and what the museums utilising its name still do: A catalogue of natural phenomena, based on systematic observation as opposed to experimentation - as is our contemporary discipline of "history". Also like it, it can be said to be aiming at a master narrative - a description of what nature is, and ultimately the necessary repository of its basic meaning before we can try to say anything about nature's significance.

But what nature is doesn't really seem to interest scientists all that much anymore. The discipline that won the day was "natural philosophy", which was interested in what nature does and how and why, and it got renamed into "science" (Latin scientia of "knowledge", "expertise"), just in case we might get confused and think there's anything else worthy of or susceptible to knowing.

The crazy thing is, "science" was such a wildly successful cultural institution, that it almost wholly subsumed "history" into it - not just natural history, but human history as well, and sometimes, it seems, even just regular made-up story history. Any self-respecting author since I frankly have no idea when - but definitely as in contrast to ancient Greek and Chinese times - walks and talks with an intellectual aura, one borrowed from scientists and philosophers. Nobody's "just" telling stories - they're investigating and exposing truths and bestowing their sagacity upon us. Except when they're writing best-sellers, I guess, but I'm trying to talk here about earnestly attempted, artistically ambitious stories.

Which brings us to lyric! Which is a concept I have become familiar with in this capacity only at some point this month. Apparently, according to specific paragraphs I would like to quote from an interesting little book that I have unfortunately returned to the library too early, literary critics like to distinguish between the "narrative" and "lyric" mode in writing. This corresponds the most easily to the distinction between prose and poetry, but also, I think, more generally between what we might call the historical tendency in stories, and what I will still call their lyrical tendency even though I have not yet explained what the word means in this context.

First things first - Lyrics are totally songs. They were supposed to be accompanied by lyres. Another important characteristic of lyric, which I think can still be observed fairly conspicuously in a lot of contemporary pop music, is that its poetry is introverted, individualistic, and focused on emotion and subversion, both of ideology and of language. Similes and metaphors and general linguistic innovation can be said, in this context, to subtly unsettle the regular discursive order in the name of idiosyncratic and inherently rebellious personal authenticity. Yes, like Kurt Cobain.

The place where I feel (hope?) that I'm going with this whole narrative of institutional history, is the claim that modern literature - understood as the general modern conception of story-telling and the significance and function of narrative to life - has integrated all three institutions of history, philosophy and lyric, and that this is an essential part of the spiritual promise of the last few centuries of human history, even if it has been left very largely unfulfilled. I am attempting to proclaim it my new religion, because I believe in the modern conception of storytelling, and feel that, say, finishing Mad Men this week was a supreme spiritual experience probably not available to the most fervently devout monk a thousand years ago in wherever.

I am reading Don Quixote these days - a book literary historians seem more or less in consensus about declaring the first modern novel and possibly the novelistic declaration of modernity. I know very near next to nothing about the literary period, but it seems as good a place as any to anchor these reflections.

I will try to limit myself to one anecdote. The first "part" of Don Quixote is broken off mid-battle, because that's where the manuscript the narrator had ends, and the second part begins with his attempts to track down another version of Don Quixote's "history" to translate. The footnotes tell me this is a common literary conceit of the period - to have the fictional work pretend to be a translation of a history jotted down in a foreign language by a wise man accompanying the protagonist. The historicalness of the story seems very far from accidental, and neither do its associations of intellectualism and scholarly precision. The thing is, for Cervantes this is all decidedly jokey, and lyrical precisely in the highlighting of its prosaicness.

I may be waxing a little bit too lyrical myself there, but my point is that the modern promise - the modern storytelling attitude, which can be seen anywhere from Victor Hugo and Robert Burns to Louis C.K, and Neil Young - takes the grand narratives we all live in, deflates the philosophy and scientism and sanctimony involved, and reformulates them in lyrical, subversive, emotion-based individualist storytelling. It says "A truly good story is neither pompous, empty propaganda nor nihilistic, commercialised self-serving noise, but a stubbornly independent and coherent narrative that maintains its integrity". And the same might be said, by extension, of a truly good life.