- Crowdsourcing History: Ishmael Reed, Tony Kushner, and Steven Spielberg Update the Civil War
“Anachronisms, though never so thick as to become an annoyance, are freely strewn over the phraseology of Spielberg’s Lincoln,” David Bromwich writes in the New York Review of Books (8). He frets over these undisguised and unapologetic signs of the present, in what ought to have been strictly a representation of the past. Among these, Bromwich cites Lincoln’s surprise visit to W. N. Bilbo, Tennessee lawyer and no-holds-barred vote-getter, culminating in Bilbo’s “Well I’ll be fucked!” These words seem wrong because they are intruders, uninvited guests, contemporary expressions barging in upon the past, showing up in temporal locations where they could not possibly have been. Unlike legitimate nineteenth-century expressions, at home in their environments and in turn making us at home, these out-of-place words distract us and disorient us, putting us on the wrong track, sending us back where we came from, into a medley of contemporary vibes and cross-references, just where we should not be.
This is the unspoken, but very much taken-for-granted definition of anachronism: a form of spatial misbehavior with respect to time. The culprit could be a phrase, a material object, a technology—a salient article from the present exported backwards, a form of retroactivity that, in allowing the present to be visited upon the past, seems not only counterintuitive but downright contrary to nature. And that is indeed what the etymology suggests: from the Greek ἀνά [End Page 896] (ana: up, against, back) and χρόνος (chronos: time). While input from the past into the present is taken for granted, the reverse strikes most of us as preposterous, something that cannot be done, something that history does not allow. History, the interdicting force, is here understood to be a gatekeeper, an input-accepting and outcome-producing flow of time that moves from a before to an after in such a way as to lock in a sealed linear process. The causal arrow goes in one direction and one direction alone. Any two-way vector loosens up that locked-in process and gets time frames mixed up, a messiness that can only be counterproductive from the standpoint of that linear progression.
Anachronisms, in short, seem to be the negative touchstones for one of our standard assumptions about time—what sequences it, what input it accepts and carries forward, what channels of communication it permits between past and present. A second assumption, a corollary of the first, is that through the proper channel, the past could be directly accessed, could materialize as a reachable destination, viewable across a distance objectively signposted. Something like that seems to lie behind the question Bromwich poses in his title: “How close to Lincoln?” A good historian should be able to say: “Very close.” Anachronisms make it impossible for us to answer at all. Their mixed-up time frames are anything but encouraging sign-posts to the nineteenth century. They confuse us and distract us, keeping us scrambling back and forth between two temporal locales, rather than going straight to the proper destination.
Historians are understandably the least well-disposed toward such disorderly conduct, for the past as a stable and interference-free object is in many ways the foundational tenet of this field, the rationale as well as the legitimizing ground for this disciplinary formation. Gordon S. Wood is speaking for most of his colleagues when he writes:
[W]hen all is said and done, when all the concessions to subjectivity, imaginative reenactment, and the use of “regulative fictions” have been made, historians still remain necessarily tied to what [Jackson] Lears calls the “epistemology of nineteenth-century positivism”—to the view that the past “out there” really existed and that they can through the collection and ordering of evidence bring us closer to knowing the truth about the past “as it really was”. . . . This faith may be philosophically naive, may even be philosophically absurd in this skeptical and relativist-minded age; nevertheless, it is what makes history writing possible. Historians who cut loose from this faith do so at the peril of their discipline...