bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

The Unavoidability of the Historian writing about the Present

Posted in Practices of Scholarship, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 5 October, 2016

I am presently living in the year 1461, or so I thought. I am so deeply immersed in completing a chapter of a book I am writing for Cambridge University Press, that it occupies my mind nearly all my waking hours, and infiltrates some of my dreams too. The subject-matter is not new to me, in as much as the central figure is John Tiptoft, earl of Worcester (c. 1427-1470), whom I have mentioned on more than one occasion here. One of the pages on this site provides a listing of his manuscripts, an updated version of which will act as an appendix to the chapter. However familiar the material is, I am finding myself surprised by what I am writing, in more than one way.

There is something that seems disjointed in the career of Tiptoft. He was a pilgrim and intrepid traveller, who so liked Italy that he tarried there for nigh on three years. He spent his time in cultural pursuits, commissioning and buying up books for which there is ample evidence of his own reading. He even concocted a grand idea of presenting a large quantity of manuscripts to his university of Oxford, and wrote to them from Padua suggesting it. But a cynic might suggest that there was a more pressing reason for his long sojourn in the sun, enjoying cultivated conversation and a glass (or more) of wine: it ensured he could avoid involvement in the internecine conflict that embroiled the land of his birth at that point. But return he did to England, quite quickly, indeed, after the regime-change at home and soon became a key figure in Yorkist politics. His career as Constable of England and Governor in Ireland saw him gain a reputation for summary justice which led him to be so hated that, come the Readeption and his arrest, the crowd in the London streets bayed for his blood.

These two elements of his biography – the lettered friend of humanists, and the uncompromising enemy of Lancastrians – seem mismatched. I did not set out to resolve a contradiction which, I had thought, needed no resolution: we are all changeable and our lives rarely ring a monotonous tone of consistency. But then I met for lunch Tom Penn, who is writing a book on the Yorkists in power. Our conversation encouraged me to think further about the apparent disconnect between the two Tiptofts, and the more I thought about the material I have gathered, the more I came to sense that there are, indeed, links between the two men, and between those Tiptofts and the other one, the one who receives posthumous praise from William Caxton when he printed English translations of Latin texts that he said had been made by the earl.

Tiptoft’s enemies insinuated that his time in Italy had exposed him to nasty foreign influences which he had then imported back home; the suggestion was that his time abroad had made him less English. What I have come to sense is that Tiptoft’s perception was quite the opposite: that it was only be a wholehearted engagement with others within the shared tradition of Western Christendom that one could recognise, let alone realise, the full potential of what it could mean to be English. And, at that point, I wonder about what I am actually writing…

Tiptoft’s opponents, as I have described them, sound to me so much like fifteenth-century Brexiteers, wanting to reduce and confine their identity. He, in contrast, in his cosmopolitanism would have campaigned for Remain, though whether having the man known as the Butcher of England on one’s side is an advantage is doubtful. I did not set out to use my discussion of his manuscripts to become a commentary on our nation’s present predicament. In fact, I usually make an effort to divide between my historical writing and my political commitment. I remember asking Conrad Russell, eminent historian of seventeenth-century England and active Liberal Democrat peer, whether he thought his politics informed his writing of history; his succinct response was ‘I hope not’.

So, how have these parallels forced themselves upon the page? Has there been some sort of surreptitious infusion of a Zeitgeist into my veins? That would be disturbing as I have been reared an anti-Hegelian who, when it comes to the ‘spirit of the age’, practises complete abstinence. The difficulty with the concept is that the ‘age’ is not just imperceptible to all but the ‘great man’; it simply does not exist. What I see in history are not ‘periods’ as much as a myriad of minute shifts, unsynchronised and unequal, that perpetually shake the kaleidoscope through which we spy the world. There are, though, perhaps moments when we sense a movement of the plates beneath us, making accepted certainties judder. It is said that in the US post-1963 everyone could remember where they were of the news of the assassination of JFK: some wept, some cheered, but what they shared was a sense of a changed reality — something irreversible has taken place. For us in Britain, so often dormant in self-satisfied contentment, there has been a moment. It is not that a nation’s destiny has been altered. It is true that, on the basis of a single response from a woefully small proportion of the electorate, decisions are being made behind closed doors to break links with the European Union to an extent as yet unclear (so much for taking control). But, as I have said before, the European Union has never been about a calling, it is a matter of rational choice. What has happened has brought into sharper relief how difficult it is to talk as if there was a Britain as a single united nation. This is not simply about the increased divide between Scotland and England (leaving aside the issue of Northern Ireland); the deeper impact has been to expose the fissures within our society as raw wounds onto which the acid of further rancour is being poured.

We have experienced a moment and are living through its aftershocks. Have the unsettling consequences of it shaped how I have written? I like to think not: I prefer to say that I am reading the parallels into what I have written. I certainly want that to be the most plausible explanation, and not just for professional reasons of keeping one’s impartiality. I suspect I also want the history about which I write, bloody and unsettled through those times were, to be a safe haven that cannot be touched by the increasing bitterness of our here-and-now politics. There must be some advantage to being an historian and maybe it is this: that one can retreat not just from the outside world but into another time. As things stand now, I think I might prefer to be with Tiptoft in Padua in 1461 than in England in 2016.

But, if I were there, I think I know what he would say: we have enjoyed ourselves but we have to return — it is our duty. What, though, can I do, apart from campaigning for a more fully functioning democracy than we have been shown to have right now? Is it that there is also a duty for any historian in these circumstances? The goal of impartiality is more than a noble dream, but are there occasions when it becomes a dereliction of duty? Is one consequence of this moment that the historian writing about the present is not simply unavoidable, it is essential?



Dickens, Dostoevsky and the Harvey Affair

Posted in Practices of Scholarship, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 5 May, 2013

Last month, the Times Literary Supplement gave an uncharacteristic expanse of print space to an extended Commentary article. It was by a Russianist, Eric Naiman, whose interested had been peaked by the description of an encounter between two giants of nineteenth-century novel-writing, Feodor Dostoevsky and Charles Dickens. The description of their conversation — or, rather, a self-revealing monologue by Dickens, as recorded by Dostoevsky — has excited public attention in recent years, and Naiman began his piece by puncturing that interest, pointing out the incident’s inherent improbability. Tracing the source of the description to an article by Stephanie Harvey in The Dickensian just over a decade ago, he began to uncover a web of published authors, who are mutually supportive to the point of replicating each other’s work. So, Stephanie Harvey had previously praised a novel by Leo Bellingham, published in 1981, which was re-issued, in revised form, in 2012 as the work of A. D. Harvey. Indeed, at the centre of Naiman’s story appeared to be the protean polymath, Arnold Harvey, who, it is implied, is probably also Leo, Stephanie and a few others besides.

The article has quickly become a celebrated work in various quarters: it is certainly an engaging story well told and perhaps, more fundamently, it speaks to a fantasy many have of turning our academic training to this sort of detective work, on display in such a high-profile location. There is something fitting about Naiman, an expert on Nabakov, revealing the multiple identities of a single individual. When I first read (and was mesmerised by) Pale Fire in the Penguin edition, complete with introductory essay, I could only imagine that the Mary McCarthy who wrote that introduction and entered so fully into the spirit of the novel must be an alter ego of the author himself. But not so: that essay was by the American novelist and critic Mary McCarthy. It is an example of collaboration or complicity which is perhaps also there in the career of A. D. Harvey, who has had, on occasion, co-authors who are less than imaginary friends.

What, though, struck me most in Naiman’s article was the particularly unNabakovian moment when he dips his pen deep in righteous indignation. He comments how Harvey’s mystifications ‘leave an unpleasant taste’:

It is not only that the apparent practice of submitting articles under fictitious names to scholarly journals might well have a chilling effect on the ability of really existing independent scholars to place their work. Nor is it just the embarrassment caused to editors who might in an ideal world have taken more pains to check the contributions of Stephanie Harvey …, but who accepted them in good faith, partly out of a wish to make their publications as inclusive as possible. The worst thing here, if they are fictitious, is a violation of the trust that remains a constitutive element of the humanities. There is, it seems to me, a fundamental difference between posting partisan, anonymous reviews on Amazon, where there is no assumption of proper evaluative standards or impartiality, and placing similar reviews or hoaxing articles in academic journals, which are still the most hallowed sites for the development and transmission of humanistic ideas. The former is a cheap act of virtual graffiti; the latter may be the closest a secular scholar can come to desecration.

Note the phrasing of the last sentences — ‘hallowed’, ‘desecration’: are academic journals, then, sites of religious devotion? And does Harvey stand charged not just of irreverence but of sacrilege? It sounds as if this is not just about ‘good faith’ but ‘faith’ itself, a belief-system which is being underminded by one of those ‘independent scholars’ whom learned editors , in their innate generosity,want to help. Earlier in the article, Naiman dissected one of Harvey’s articles to lay bare a bitterness worthy of Jude the Obscure for not being allowed within the inner sanctum of academe. The implication — and I do not suggest that Naiman was fully conscious of this — seems to be that a proper academic would not have perpetrated such impieties.

But, of course, we know that proper academics can behave badly. Leave aside the everyday instances of sloppy scholarship revealed in footnotes, with authors citing a source at second hand, clearly not having checked the original. Such poor standards slide into plagiarism, the most heinous heresy which — quite rightly — the apparatus of academia wish to root out from contemporary practice. Not, it must be said, that the structures put in place are either sturdy or consistent. In the recent case of Martin Stone, the accusations led to inquisition and condemnation, and the offending works were branded for all to see. Look at the Wiley On-line Library and you will find an example of an offending article, stamped on every page ‘This Article is Retracted’; no explanation, however, is given, leaving the unsuspecting reader no sure way of surmising the reason for this retraction, which leaves the text no less legible than did the underlining which Spanish Inquisitors sometimes used to mark prohibited passages in the sixteenth century. What is more, type in the author’s name in that same database, and the result will be this retracted article and two others which have not been subjected to the same treatment. I know from my own research that a scholar’s act of plagiarism does not mean his other works should similarly be judged unacceptable, but how is the reader to know in this case? Surely if some works by a scholar have been found guilty of plagiarism, the others by that author need to be investigated and, where appropriate, explicitly be acquitted.

I draw this separate case into this discussion for two reasons. First, because it seems to me that what I have called the academic apparatus is so incomplete because the belief-system which underpins it is itself only half formulated. That is partly because we are talking of a cluster of assumptions and shared practices that are continually in the process of being constructed but it is also because that construction remains too often uninterrogated: it creates articles of faith rather than reasoned arguments. If we compare our practices with previous patterns of behaviour we might notice what we have lost as much as what we have gained. And this is the second point. I alluded in the previous practice to the scholars I research, the humanists of the Renaissance. There is much we pride ourselves of having rejected in their habits — they sometimes plagiarised, they were often intemperate in their criticism of enemies, and partial in their praise of friends: all practices that are not allowed to happen nowadays. They also — from the future pope Pius II to Erasmus — perpetrated fakes, creating false sources for their work, much in the manner of which A. D. Harvey is accused. They did so, though, in a spirit of serio ludere, often using their misquotations or misattributions as a way of allowing those who had ears to hear the chance to recognise that a deeper irony was at work.  The process, in other words, was a way of creating differentation within their audience, with those who got the joke being in the club. How different it is nowadays: in Naiman’s description of the Harvey affair, the culprit is an independent scholar who sits outside the club. But if the rules of the club do not allow a certain playfulness or a challenge to standards by testing their perceptiveness, then should we really want to be members?