restricted access Braudel: Historical Time and the Horror of Discontinuity
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History Workshop Journal 57 (2004) 161-174

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Historical Time and the Horror of Discontinuity

In his inaugural lecture at the Collège de France entitled 'The situation of history in 1950', which Fernand Braudel delivered just five years after the end of the Second World War and a year after the publication of The Mediterranean in the Age of Philip II, he reflected on the traumatic experiences of the previous decades, which had 'thrown us violently back into our deepest selves, and thence into a consideration of the whole destiny of mankind - that is to say into the crucial problems of history'. The age he and his audience were living in was 'too rich in catastrophes and revolutions, dramas and surprises. The social reality, the fundamental reality of man has been revealed to us in an entirely new light, and whether we would or not, our old profession of historian is endlessly burgeoning and blossoming in our hands'.

This statement makes clear first that Braudel is not immune to a 'catastrophist' vision of history, which recognizes and privileges such moments, and second that his call for a fresh approach to the study of history, a new start, is directly linked to this time of crisis. He even specifies 1929, the year in which Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre founded a new history journal, the Annales, asthe moment when the innovative approach to history was born. And yet paradoxically he also insists, both in this lecture and elsewhere in his writings, that revolutions or moments of rupture have little place in his project for a new kind of historical understanding. As he states, 'there can be no science without historical continuity'; it is an 'anonymous history, working in the depths and most often in silence' that he prioritizes.1

What I seek to decipher is how far Braudel invokes notions of historical rupture in his own work, despite his preference for the continuous. Braudel's ideas have a particular salience for those seeking to understand the history of the 'New World', amongst whom I count myself: is there any sense in which we can look for continuities beneath the dramatic changes and in some cases wholesale destruction resulting from European discovery and colonization of the Americas?2 While my discussion relies almost exclusively on Braudel's own writings, I hope the issues go beyond a scholarly exposition of the ideas of a great historian, to raise more general concerns about the nature of historical time and the time of historians. It may seem perverse to explore the salience of notions of rupture and discontinuity in Braudel's work, and how - and how far - he avoids them, since his fame rests most distinctively on his conception of the long time span, or longue durée, which privileges a temporality that transcends rupture and [End Page 161] discontinuity. The vision of long-term continuities is the cornerstone of his philosophy of history, and his own craft as a historian. The longue durée has for him an 'exceptional value'. It is usually contrasted with event-based history, or political history (histoire événementielle), that privileges 'a short time span, proportionate to individuals, to daily life, to our illusions, to our hasty awareness - above all the time of the chronicle and the journalist'. However the longue durée can also be understood as an alternative to a history that privileges crisis and sudden breaks. It is grounded in 'inertia' ('one of the great artisans of history'). It is a 'semi-stillness' around which all of history gravitates.3

And yet Braudel devotes little in the way of sustained discussion to the question of breaks and ruptures in his published work. There are casual asides, frequent references, but in much of his work his preference for deep, long-term temporality, the almost motionless quality of the longue durée, is a way of writing against the grain of conventional periodization, and forcing us to think ever anew about the fundamental frameworks of historical understanding. It is only in his last major work, L'Identit&eacute...