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CHAPTER 5 SILENCE, TRUTH, AND DEATH The Commemorative Function of History The first line of the imperial letter rehabilitating Flavian is remarkable in a variety of ways. It appears to invoke the authority of the Roman tradition of historiography and biography. It also alludes to the commemorative function of writing, which the rehabilitation has in common with the writing of history. The avowed purpose of the rehabilitation is to speak, to give voice to something that is kept in the silence of memory and thus bring it to appearance. Likewise, one of the chief and traditional functions of history is to give voice to that which has been but which has passed from being, thus vindicate it from oblivion. The theme of silence is pervasive in most historical writing. It has been central to any kind of realistic discourse—that is, the enunciation of things that are regarded as real—at least since Herodotus. In his proem, Herodotus claims to write so that the occurrences owing to men may not become evanescent (ejxivthla) in time and so that the great and marvelous monuments, some called to witness by Greeks, some by Barbarians, should not lose their renown [lit.: become ajkleà, without-renown]. Here Herodotus provides an explicit and paradigmatic statement (and it is perhaps the paradigmatic statement) of ‘‘the commemorative function of history.’’1 As in all traditional narrative history—that is, history which ‘‘merely tells a story’’—the motivation for writing is conceived as being deictic : demonstrative and revelatory. The historian shows what has occurred because if things are not shown they may become ‘‘evanescent,’’ fade from memory by ‘‘losing their renown.’’ Historians lend their voices to the past so that it will not perish entirely, so that some part of it, in the telling, will survive. The past is spoken or written precisely in order to bring what was, but is no longer, to appearance, to ward off the decay of the sublunary world and so to preserve it against the annihilation of forgetfulness. Writing, by virtue of its permanence, can secure ephemeral events against the passing of time. The silence against which this kind of writing measures itself is imagined as a kind of neutral, natural thing. It is a silence produced by time, by the passing of things and of narrators out of existence. It is the silence of physical decay and death. This commemorative function of history is one of the most traditional and common themes of historical writing. It is found in practically every narrative historian, in more or less developed forms. The author to whom I will give special attention in this chapter, Tacitus, has foregrounded the theme more than most and has made it more central to his historiography than any historian I know, with the possible exception of Michelet.2 Other motivations for the writing of history have been put forward. Most commonly it is imagined that history can be useful: it has been seen as an instructor, or as a guide to the future.3 Nevertheless, even for historians who subscribe to an extremely utilitarian criterion for the practice of history, silence remains an issue. Thucydides, for instance, hopes that his history ‘‘will be judged useful for those who desire to have a precise knowledge of what has happened and what will happen’’ (1.22).4 Yet, when he comes to consider the causes of the Peloponnesian War, he suggests that ‘‘the truest cause was the one least mentioned’’ (1.23). It has long been common to criticize narrative history as ‘‘mere’’ antiquarianism or aestheticism, and to insist on some larger and more useful goal for the practice of history than a simple evocation of the past. More recently, scholars have tended to point out that the basic presupposition of ‘‘positivist’’ or ‘‘naive realist’’ history—that is, the adequacy of narrative to reality—is false.5 Even so, traditional descriptive history continues to have its advocates. Arguably, practitioners of this kind of history have at least kept faith with a powerful and ancient idea: that bygone things are worth saying, merely—or perhaps especially—because they were, and that the homage of voice, however inadequate, is the only possible vindication of a past that otherwise would be dead and silent. In modernist historiography—by which I mean here historical writing since Marx and Freud and Nietzsche—silence remains a dominant theme. H I S T O RY A N D S I L E N C E 䡠 132 The connotations...


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