In 1916, one of the better-known fortune-tellers and magicians of Paris was sent to prison for fraud. The newspapers were peppered with details: his pseudonyms, some of his more bizarre practices, hints at his clientele. Journalists – much like their descendants today – took great pleasure in mocking the credulity of modern Paris, and revelled in the baroque details of this latter-day ‘witch’.
But I don’t know the most important things about this case.
I’m not talking about what the writer Roy Clark calls ‘the name of the dog’, the telling details from this man’s life and his trial. These little details – the hat he wore, or the look he gave, or the book he owned -could all open out onto the meaning of his life and character, and the situation he embodied.
No: I’m talking about the broad sweep he fits into.
How important was professional magic (rather than stage magic) in Paris during this period? Where did the ‘red witch’ learn his ‘secrets’? Was he a hypnotist, or spiritualist, or an un-witching specialist? How did those movements develop alongside and with one another?
At the moment, this big picture is missing.
Indulge me. Jump back 12 years from now, to an earlier me.
I was never any good at history exams when I was a student.
Over the years, I have thought about why. I’ve thought about how I used to treat books with an undue reverence, believing that the answer to an essay question was simply a case of stitching together the Truth inexplicably partitioned among a hundred books and articles. I’ve thought about how I never asked the most important question first: why this question? Why does this issue matter? Why has it been so important to historians, and is it important to me?
The problem – I feel – was as if the ‘facts’ would not bend themselves to my will. I don’t mean that they would not fit into my argument. I am not complaining that I was not more skilled at twisting evidence. No: the problem is more basic than that. I had no grasp of facts. I didn’t know the ‘key’ dates, I could hardly remember the most important figures, I had none of the appetite of the true history geek for little trifles.
What I did have, I came to realize, was an attachment – for better or for worse – to the gist of things. Not this specific statistic, or even that telling anecdote, or the picture that speaks a thousand words, but instead an often clumsy and sometimes powerful focus on the story, the meaning behind the details.
When I think about that now, I feel as ashamed of my arrogance as I am proud of this impulse to understand the meaning rather than the specifics.
After all, how could I hope to get the gist of the Enlightenment, or working-class culture across a whole century, or the Vikings… in just one week, or even a whole term? Any big picture I could hope to sketch out was drawn by someone else.
I’ve been coming back to this problem recently. One of my favourite discoveries on writing is Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story. Although it is a book about personal writing, such as memoir and essay-writing, I’ve found it useful for thinking about writing history. Gornick’s fundamental point is that good writing recognizes the difference between what she calls the ‘situation’ and the ‘story’.
The situation is the brute material. As a memoirist it might be your experiences growing up in a troubled rural family, or your period suffering from a disease. As an historian it might be public festivals celebrating the nation, or newspaper reports of colonial brutality.
The story is what writers turn this raw material into. Growing up in a troubled rural family might become the awful realization that you are becoming your parents and festivals celebrating the nation might tell a historian more about the changing significance of family life.
The story, for Gornick, has to be weaselled out of the situation.
As a memoirist, this is easy to swallow. Of course any view of the events recollected is necessarily partial, subjective.
But I think the same is true of the gist behind any history.
What an historian turns raw material into is always a reflection of the story the historian finds to tell.
I should be clear: not necessarily the story they want to tell. Or perhaps not the story they consciously want to tell, but the story they feel compelled to tell, perhaps. The facts, the details, the timelines and developments seem to force us to tell it one way rather than another.
Which doesn’t mean we all find the same story in the same details.
There are examples of writers who took the same topic and produced very different stories. At the same time as Caroline Bynum Walker was writing Holy Feast, Holy Fast, Rudolph Bell produced a very different book about the same phenomena: Holy Anorexia.
Perhaps the comparison is problematic.
I am clearly not saying that historians write whatever they like about a given ‘situation’, and I don’t think what I am saying amounts to a boring kind of relativism, where every person gets their own truth. Some stories are more convincing than others. The best historians are compelled most forcefully. Discuss.
But there are other dangers, I think.
Is gist actually something that is encouraged by years spent writing research proposals and job applications? Shouldn’t I be worried by history that tells a story that is too easy, easily packaged, easily sold even? What about the mess?
And is the dichotomy between situation and story easy to overemphasize? Aren’t most historians snippet-snatchers, lovers of the fine grain, amateurs of the origami labyrinth? Are ‘facts’ and ‘interpretation’ really different things for historians?
In my own case, the stories I have ended up working on have been shaped by a handful of specific ‘situations’: the piety and ambivalence of a nineteenth-century woman, or more recently the tragic death of a man suspected of witchcraft in the 1920s, or the arrest of a serial ‘fraudster’ and magician in 1916. Part of me feels like the stories of these people’s lives come to me ready made, as if all I had to do was package them.
But part of me firmly believes that gistory is only ever what the gistorian makes it.
Sometimes what matters is not the one telling detail, but the general narrative. What was happening with magic and witchcraft more broadly in France in the long nineteenth century.
Well, just don’t call it ‘progress’.