The Historic Sense

by Paul Elmer More

Readers of the English reviews may have seen very favorable notices of a book, "The Great Days of Versailles," by G.F. Bradby. It is, indeed, an entertaining work. Here you may follow the daily life of Louis XIV. and his court to the minutest details--what they ate and wore, how they talked and quarrelled and loved--a strangely vivid picture. Only one aspect of that existence is omitted: there is scarcely a word to indicate why those days should be called "great." The monotony of court life is set forth in full, but nothing is added to explain how this monotony was only the last rigid stage of the ideal of uniformity, or rather conformity, which had produced the literature of the grand siecle. Something is said about the production of Racine's "Esther" at Saint-Cyr, but chiefly to show the vexations the play brought upon Madame de Maintenon. Nor does religion fare better. Here you shall read of the trick by which the sham devotion of the great ladies was exposed to Louis; Madame Guyon also is mentioned, and Fenelon's connection with the Quietists, but for petty reasons only. Louis's own submission to the Church is related, but there is nothing to indicate the deep religious current that ran through the age side by side with its worldliness, sparing in its course not even Versailles. However, we have no quarrel with Mr. Bradby's book, which is excellent in its kind. It concerns us here only as rather an extreme example of what is growing more and more evident in recent literature--the absence of the historic sense. It used to be the boast of the nineteenth century that it was the creator of science and of the historic sense; and in a way the boast was justified. Certainly, no previous century had undertaken to worm itself into the secrets of the past as did the century of Renan and Taine and Sainte-Beuve. From the great doctrine of relativity and of development inculcated by Germany from Kant to Hegel, came the notion that an era of the past is something distinct in spirit, something to be comprehended by getting outside of present associations. To this end the study of details was to be carried to indefinite lengths, for gradually, through the accumulation of minute point after point, the picture of a past environment was to be produced, and from this knowledge of surroundings we were to infer the nature of the soul of the period. The historic sense, as then understood, was thus an offshoot of scepticism and science, of skepsis in the double meaning of that ancient word. As scholars lost faith in the immutable and universal principles of human nature, they became more interested in tracing the path of what is changeable and locally determined. As the past lost in authority it seemed to grow more valuable to us as a field upon which we could exercise our unconcerned love of abstract truth. Those who have read Buckle will remember how the methods of science were adapted to this pursuit. Or, better yet, there is Taine's attempt to analyze the products of English literature as if they were so many chemical compounds. It is a question whether there was not a certain admixture of self-deception in all this brilliant resuscitation of the past, whether the historic spirit of the nineteenth century ever escaped quite so entirely from the clinging fallacy of the present as it supposed. It is at least significant that those who were loudest in proclaiming the new scientific and sceptical method are just those who are most rapidly losing credit today. Buckle, despite his erudition and eloquence, is no longer taken quite seriously; Taine is notoriously an unsure guide, and the "History of English Literature," written confessedly as an exemplification of his theory, is a continued distortion of the reality. One may doubt whether their vividness in reconstructing what they called the past was not really due to the completeness of their implication in the spirit of the present: the picture at least was intensely alive. It would be odd if in the long run the earlier writers who were concerned with what they regarded as the unchanging elements of human nature should prove to have been truer in their grasp of the past than these disciples of scientific relativity. On the whole, it is safer to admit a moment in the nineteenth century, when the older notion of continuity and authority combined with the newer theory of development and relativity to create a genuine historic sense. A perfect example of this may be seen in the Port-Royal of Sainte-Beuve, where a writer essentially sceptical reproduces a society dominated by religion; in English we have the greater historical novels culminating in Henry Esmond. What cannot be ignored is the fact that for many years the historic sense, that is, the power of calling forth any true illusion of the past, has been surely waning. The abuse of the documentary method of study may have something to do with this, by habituating the mind to dulness, but the real cause lies deeper. The means has destroyed the end, and those who try to be most entertaining are likely to be least historical. The effort to accumulate picturesque details has blinded us to the purpose for which these details were first desired. Of this Mr. Bradby's book affords a striking example. At first the attention of the reader is deeply engaged; he expects to be led into the very spirit of the age. Presently he is chagrined to discover that the picturesque anecdotes and descriptions lead nowhere. Because the inspiration of that age was different from ours, it is simply non-existent to the author; he has no standard by which to measure the relation between the uniformity and restraint of manners on the one hand, and on the other the discipline of mind that showed itself in so many works of genius. And missing this interest in the higher things of humanity which make of that age a lesson and authority, he falls into the most vicious fallacy of the present. Because we with our habits and conveniences should be bored and shocked by the physical conditions of that life, he represents the great days of Versailles as a time of almost unmitigated boredom.
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