- Re-figuring Hayden White
In his Use and Abuse of History, Nietzsche considered the antiquarian and monumental past the rock Western man had swallowed and couldn't digest. Today, historians stand before a mountain of subjects, disciplines, traditions, specializations, and philosophies their minds cannot even compass.
In the face of swelling evidence and conflicting interpretations arising from all places, ages, movements, and disciplines, historians stand ever in need of intellectual classification systems and meta-approaches that permit them to integrate sciences, morals, and politics into explanations that permit generalizations but do not destroy narratives. [End Page 1163]
In fact, since the second half of the eighteenth century and the French Revolution and Napoleon, Western historians have flocked to new and grand explanations and narratives. With themes as compelling as state, nation, democracy, class, and the course of freedom itself, historians have sought the help of megathinkers like Kant, Hegel, and Marx and borrowed from emerging social, ethnographic, and natural sciences. They also enrolled themselves under a flurry of banners. And it is not surprising that professional and specialized history, which has grown by leaps and bounds since the end of the nineteenth century, has not satisfied the search for a unique humane discourse and an overarching philosophy of and for our times.
Lacking metaphysics, so to speak, historians, in the modern spirit, sought epistemological resolutions. Some called on such German thinkers as Windelband, Rickert, and Dilthey to define the uniqueness of their discipline by differentiating between the human and natural sciences. Other historians (I think of Frederick Meinecke, Ortega y Gasset, Benedetto Croce, and other students of eighteenth-century Italian thinker Vico) proposed types of historicism that found truth in historical explanation and narrative. On these grounds and those of a new empiricism based on fact and covering laws, historiographical debates of the 1950s and 1960s disputed the reason, meaning, form, and use of their craft. Hayden White emerged as one of the masters and deans of this critical and analytic debate, as his popularity with a generation of younger, critical, and radical historians attests.
Indeed, his influence is attested by this Festschrift, a collection of high-quality and critical essays by former students, colleagues, and friends. Only the last essay in the book borders on the hagiographic, speaking of White as "mentor, guru, and leader, Chiron." Other essays, in the fourth and the concluding sections, testify to how White inspired a treatment of the 1982 Malvinas war experience in contemporary Argentina; helped explain the Holocaust as constructed by Primo Levi; and introduced a younger historian to liberating theories from Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche, from "the mind-forged manacle" of the contemporary discipline of history.
Part I, "Philosophy," fittingly introduces the volume with more analytic pieces. Their titles introduces us to White as a new critic: David Carr calls his introductory essay "On the Metaphilosophy of History," and Frank Ankersmit, promising philosophical density, labels his "White's New Neo-Kantianism." In a third essay, Herman Paul promises to discuss "Hayden White and the Crisis of Historicism." These pieces serve as a preface to a more tightly focused part II, which, subsumed under the label "Narrative," probes assumptions underlying White's magnum opus, Metahistory (1973). They ask whether narrative can be considered an act of will; emplotment is a choice; theme constitutes a moral assertion; and a time frame is, as White would have it, according to the borrowed rhetorical analysis of Northrop Frye, reducible to the governing literary tropes of comedy, tragedy, satire, or irony. In a searching piece, Nancy Partner asks about "Narrative Persistence: The Post-Postmodern Life of Narrative Theory," querying whether, even when deconstructions and re-figurements are done, narrative and its multiplicity of forms and remains constitutes the bedrock of construction and understanding of human life.
Part III is also composed of many strong pieces. In "The Burden of History Forty Years Later," David Harlan takes up the abiding Nietzschean thread in [End Page 1164] White's work. Dominick La Capra titles his...