Tag: narrative

do I feel fine?


My friend Adam Roberts has recently released a delightful and provocative little book called It’s the End of the World: But What Are We Really Afraid Of? It’s not about the end of the world, but about the stories we tell about the world’s end — and why we tell them.

The central idea of his interpretation is announced fairly early on, in a discussion of Ragnarök — and what comes after Ragnarök:

The end turns out not to be the end – Ragnarök turns the universe off and on again. We still can’t bring ourselves to come to terms with the total absence of life. Something must continue, something must exist. And so we are locked into a cycle – imagining an end to the story, but afraid to really bring it to an end once and for all. This, counter-intuitively, turns out to be one of the most reliable features of all the stories about the end of the world. A world ends. The world never does.

In fact sometimes it does, and in texts Adam cites: Byron’s terrifying poem “Darkness,” the unsurpassably bleak vision at the end of H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine, etc. But yes, it is true that far more often than not the end of the world is the portal to a renewed cosmos: the New Heaven and the New Earth of John the Revelator’s vision; the end of this kalpa leading to the eventual emergence of another.

Having laid out this general framework, Adam moves on to instances, brief sketches of what we might call the various genres of conclusion: endings brought about by the gods, by zombies, by plagues, by machines, by the heat death of the universe, by climate change. You can see that for some of these the relevant phrase is “the end of the world,” while for others it’s “as we know it.” Climate change won’t end the world, though it will certainly reshape it; and as Adam writes, “the secret core of the zombie story” may be that it describes “not so much the end of the world, but the end of the values that underpin that world – not the end of humans as a species but of our very humanity.” (There’s a very stimulating comment in that chapter on Huxley’s Brave New World as a kind of zombie story.)

There’s also a fabulous digression on the horror of a world that won’t end: I’m compelled by Adam’s description of Groundhog Day as “a masterpiece of supreme existential terror.”

In his final pages he writes, “We use the stories to make sense of it all, to impose order on an uncaring and chaotic universe, creating the fantasy that we have some measure of understanding and control.” That’s something close to the book’s conclusion, but I think it conflates several different experiences. The problem lies in the phrase “understanding and control.” Understanding and control are not the same thing, and I’m not even sure they arise from the same impulse. After all, one of the things that we might understand about the world, or about our lives in more specific ways, is that we don’t have any meaningful control over it or them.

I think it’s fair to say that Adam shares the view articulated by Wells at the the of The Time Machine and by Byron in his great poem:

The waves were dead; the tides were in their grave,
The moon, their mistress, had expir’d before;
The winds were wither’d in the stagnant air,
And the clouds perish’d; Darkness had no need
Of aid from them — She was the Universe.

If that vision is true, then to grasp that is certainly to understand something; but it is not to control anything, except perhaps — perhaps — our hopes for something better. The control of emotion that one achieves when one accepts what one cannot control: Stoicism in a phrase.

Which leads us back to one of Adam’s key points, that all of our stories about the end of the world are really, to some degree and often to a very great degree, refractions of our sense of our own ending, our own death. And Larkin, for one, didn’t think much of the Stoic answer:

                                      Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.

One may control one’s fear, but that’s not the control that any of us wants. I think Larkin has understood something here.

For me, a Christian, everything about this, about what will happen to me when I die, about what will become of this sweet world, hinges on one question. As Auden put it: “Now did He really break the seal / And rise again?” The biggest of all Ifs, for me. But I’m staking my claim on “Yes.” And I think, along with the say-but-the-word centurion given voice by Les Murray,

If he is risen, all are children of a most real high God
or something even stranger called by that name
who knew to come and be punished for the world.

the greatest of the Wedgwoods

National Portrait Gallery

Cicely Veronica Wedgwood (1910–1997) was the most distinguished of the Wedgwoods — with the possible exception of her great-great-great grandfather Josiah. In the estimation of Anthony Grafton — himself one of the most distinguished historians of our time — she is “the greatest narrative historian of the twentieth century.” And that counts for a lot, in my book.

By the adjective “narrative” Grafton means to distinguish Wedgwood’s way of writing history from what has become the standard academic one, which is less concerned with telling a story than providing an analytical and often data-driven framework for understanding historical events and patterns. That model has become sufficiently dominant that most of us these days think of the writing of history as something very different than the writing of “literature,” but ’twas not always so. When Gibbon wrote his great Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire he was understood to be just as literary as Alexander Pope or Henry Fielding (probably more so than Fielding). In the next century Lord Macaulay’s History of England was every bit as literary as his Lays of Ancient Rome. George Steiner, writing decades ago, understood that Wedgwood was working in this tradition, and celebrates it even as he denounces what has replaced it:

The ambitions of scientific rigour and prophecy have seduced much historical writing from its veritable nature, which is art. Much of what passes for history at present is scarcely literate…. The illusion of science and the fashions of the academic tend to transform the young historian into a ferret gnawing at the minute fact or figure. He dwells in footnotes and writes monographs in as illiterate a style as possible to demonstrate the scientific bias of his craft. One of the few contemporary historians prepared to defend openly the poetic nature of all historical imagining is C. V. Wedgwood. She fully concedes that all style brings with it the possibility of distortion: ‘There is no literary style which may not at some point take away something from the ascertainable outline of truth, which it is the task of scholarship to excavate and re-establish.’ But where such excavation abandons style altogether, or harbours the illusion of impartial exactitude, it will light only on dust.

“The poetic nature of all historical imagining” — preach it, sir! But few historians today, even those rare birds who even make an effort to tell a good story, can hold a candle to Wedgwood. Peter Ackroyd, for instance, who has shifted from being primarily a novelist to being primarily a historian, presumably because of his skills at narration, is a mechanical plodder in comparison to Wedgwood. (And he’s getting worse. His ongoing history of England is coma-inducing.)

Wedgwood didn’t describe what she did as more literary or artful than the work of academic historians, even though, of course, it is. Here’s how she understood her work:

The application of modern methods of research, together with modern knowledge and prejudice, can make the past merely the subject of our own analytical ingenuity or our own illusions. With scholarly precision we can build up theories as to why and how things happened which are convincing to us, which may even be true, but which those who live through the epoch would neither recognize nor accept. It is legitimate for the historian to pierce the surface and bring to light to motives and influences not known at the time; but it is equally legitimate to accept the motives and explanations which satisfied contemporaries…. This book is not a defence of one side [in the English Civil War] or the other, not an economic analysis, not a social study; it is an attempt to understand how these men felt and why, in their own estimation, they acted as they did.

That from the Introduction to The King’s Peace, the first volume of her history of the fall of King Charles I. This interest in representing people and events by employing categories that they themselves would have recognized may be seen in this brilliant brief portrait of Charles:

He had never had the painful experience from which his father, as a young man, had learned so much; he had never confronted insolent opponents face-to-face and had the worst of the argument. No national danger had compelled him to go out among his people and share their perils. He was, at this time, not only the most formal but the most remote and sheltered of all European kings.

Less virtuous monarchs escaped from formality in the arms of lowborn mistresses, but for the chaste Charles, no Nell Gwynne, prattling cockney anecdotes, opened a window into the lives of his humbler subjects. Like many shy, meticulous men, he was fond of aphorisms, and would write in the margins of books, in a delicate, beautiful, deliberate script, such maxims as “Few great talkers are great doers” or “None but cowards are cruel.” He trusted more to such distilled and bottled essence of other man’s wisdom than to his own experience, which was, in truth, limited; his daily contact with the world was confined within the artificial circle of his Court and the hunting field. He was to say, much later, in tragic circumstances, that he knew as much law as any gentleman in England. It was true; but he had little conception of what the laws meant to those who lived under them.

That last sentence is simply devastating. (Whenever Wedgood pauses in her narrative for a character sketch of one of her actors, you are always in for something superb.)

Wedgwood pauses from time to time in The King’s Peace, especially in its early pages, to sketch not personalities but social orders and patterns and beliefs, including the experiences of those very people whom Charles never knew. Here’s a sample:

In the wilds of Lochaber from time to time a green man could be seen, one that had been killed between daylight and starlight and belonged neither to earth nor heaven. Some thought these apparitions were only the unhappy dead but others thought them one of the many forms taken by the devil. The strong forces of nature, with the advent of Christianity, had become confused with the devil, and after the lapse of centuries witchcraft had become indivisibly compact of pagan and Christian beliefs. The devil, in many forms, bestrode the islands from end to end. Sometimes he was “a proper gentleman with a laced band,” as when he came to Elizabeth Clarke at Chelmsford; at other times you might know him, as Rebecca Jones of St. Osyth did, by his great glaring eyes. He was cold and sensual and rather mean: he offered Priscilla Collit of Dunwich only ten shillings for her immortal soul; she gave it to him and off he went without paying. Respectably dressed in “brown clothes and a little black hat,” he spoke in friendly terms to Margaret Duchill of Alloa in Scotland; “Maggie, will you be my servant?” he asked, and when she agreed he told her to call him John and gave her five shillings and powers of life and death over her neighbours.

I could quote paragraph after paragraph, page after page, of this kind of thing. And her ability to immerse you in a battle, or a court scene, or a back-room political argument, is unexcelled. Moreover, all this is based (as Grafton notes) on exceptionally thorough archival research, sometimes in multiple languages. I am writing a book that attempts to convince people that the past can be, and should be, a living world to us. That case would be much easier to make if there were more historians like C. V. Wedgwood.

She should be remembered as one of the best storytellers writing in English in the twentieth century. And yet her major works — with the sole exception of the early but masterful history of the Thirty Years War — are out of print. That is a travesty.

Editors! Publishers! Let’s redress this injustice. If you need someone to edit and/or write an introduction to a new edition of Wedgwood’s work, just call on me. I am here for you.

And readers! You can of course start with The Thirty Years War, which is as good as advertised. But I prefer her work on English history. For those, AbeBooks is your friend. If you’re not sure you want to commit to one of the big books, her third volume on the English Civil War, A Coffin for King Charles, works perfectly well as an independent story and comes in at around 250 pages. It is absolutely riveting.