The Narcissism of Historical Differences


Right now, at this very moment, I should be finishing the conclusion to the longest, most labour-intensive piece of writing I have ever undertaken. Instead, I am consumed by hatred for the very man whose life I have spent so long researching.

Perhaps hatred is not the right word. I feel a revulsion, sometimes disgust, often frustration, and disappointment with the unwitting hero of my undertaking, Félix Arnaudin. I am interested in Arnaudin because he collected folklore, such as songs, stories, proverbs, games, and many other items of everyday culture from the region where he lived in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Yet my respect for his life’s work – thousands and thousands of sheets of handwritten notes – is outdone by the distaste I have for Arnaudin himself.

It is not the ugliest things that hurt the most. Arnaudin’s sexual adventures, for instance, do little to endear him to me, yet I find excuses for them by imagining, however foolishly, that he belonged to a different era. Aged thirty, he began a sexual relationship with the fourteen-year-old girl who worked as his family maid, Marie Darlanne. Arnaudin was not only older, he was also in the position of power granted by being a man, being an employer, and being better-off financially. It may be that things were not as clear as they might appear in the fierce light of a modern steel and glass archive over a hundred years later. Marie, after all, was old enough to marry when they began their relationship. She was from a family who were perhaps not as rich as Arnaudin’s, but they were hardly separated by much. Both Arnaudin’s own father and hers had been artisans, and her position as a servant was likely to have been a staging-post on the way to an appropriate local marriage. Neither was the culture of the Landes de Gascogne as patriarchal as some other parts of France. At least at the start of the nineteenth century, all the evidence suggests that both men and women enjoyed a large degree of sexual freedom in their youth. Households headed by women were not uncommon.

I am not trying to excuse Arnaudin’s behaviour, but to understand it. I can empathise with Arnaudin’s affair with Marie, the heat of a sudden passion, not the expression of a willingness to abuse his positions of power to exploit those less fortunate. Marie and Arnaudin went on to spend the rest of their lives together, until she died in 1911. He survived her by another ten miserable years, marred both by personal tragedies and the First World War. This is not a straight-forward story of exploitation (which is not to say that it is not a story of exploitation at all).

But the problem with familiarity is what it breeds. How small was Arnaudin’s vision, not to see that he was ruining Marie’s life? She almost killed herself over the affair, while he locked himself in his room, or wandered the moorlands, weeping.

How small was his vision of his own life? Towards the end, he had no aims on earth except to finish one book, and to force his tenants to repay him the rent they owed. It is not fair to sneer: Arnaudin was in financial difficulty. Yet his tenants had been stripped of their labour force by the Great War. What kind of man thinks of back rent at a time like that?

No: it is not the great crimes of the people we study that hurt us as historians. It is those little grasping details, those shitty journal moments that shock and disappointment. To refashion Freud we could talk of “the narcissism of historical differences.” In Freud’s original formulation, “the narcissism of minor differences” referred to the idea that people hate those that are most similar to them. A heavier weight is placed on the smallest differences, in order to accentuate what separates us from the Other. This is the feeling you have if you sit in a bar and think that everyone else there is the same as you, with the same clothes, drinking the same drink, thinking similar thoughts, and you want to run into the street screaming.

The narcissism of historical differences is about feeling this way about people who are supposed to be different from us. A whole generation of historians, inspired by cultural anthropologists, have taught us that even our recent ancestors lived differently, thought differently, even felt differently to us. When we immerse ourselves in their lives and come up for air feeling like we just had an argument with a family member, well… that is a feeling. And I’m not the only one, to judge by Matt Houlbrook’s break-up letter with the subject of his forthcoming book (

I don’t hate Arnaudin for exploiting Marie. I don’t even hate him when I suspect he took advantage of other women later in life, especially married women who could not be betrayed by a pregnancy. This is ugly stuff, but I suppose I don’t see myself in it. It’s a different cultural world, I tell myself, and I wouldn’t behave like that.

What I hate is his cowardice. He won’t stand up for what he has done with Marie, won’t marry her, even though she throws her life away for their affair. He won’t publish or even finish many of his books, won’t go to conferences to meet other specialists in folklore and anthropology. He prefers to spend his entire life working on a huge ethnography which he will never finish, a messy portrait of people and places and animals and tools, and a beautiful and flawed source for a historian.

I see myself in this. Where is the vision, the justification of the importance of what you were doing? A good idea, a true one, that grips you viscerally, is not necessarily an important one. I empathise with that procrastination, the wild, romantic imagination that hatches wonderful plans, enough determination to take them so far, and then enough self-pity and revulsion to call it a day, and leave them aside. Can you imagine the frustration of trying to produce work on time, trying to finish a doctorate in the magical four years, when the man you are working on delivered his last book thirty years late?

Screw you, Félix Arnaudin.

2 thoughts on “The Narcissism of Historical Differences

  1. Nice Will. Your thought is well written and probably widely shared. As an ethnographer, I can attest to feeling the same way about some people I have worked with in the present day, except that it further complicated by the real-time relationships I have with them, both positive and negative. I often feel it would be better to write a novel or a screenplay, a semi-fictionalized work, than an actual ethnography. You know Arnaudin reminds me too of a particular archetype of the 19th century – the obsessive collector and writer, like Mr. Casaubon in Middlemarch, spending his whole life writing the “Key to All Mythologies” and never completing it. Similar themes of exploiting and ruining the future of a much younger woman as well. Makes you wonder how our intellectual archetypes have changed, and how they will be portrayed in years to come.


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