Friday, April 25, 2008

How history gets written -- ignore the man at the clavier

As my grading chores wind to an end, I will be able to be a little more timely with my blogging, something I consider to be part of my professional duties, actually. At the moment I'm a little oppressed ( gray day and all) by the fact that I've missed a number of good opportunities.

A couple of posts on other blogs in the past week or so have neatly pointed out how tricky the notion of historical knowledge is. Phil Paine, over at, has an essay called Who Wrote Don Giovanni? (under April 16, 2008) on the long-established historical habit ( or perhaps long-established historical fraud) of attributing the creative output of an era to the rulers of that era; credit the Emperor Josef (Mr. "Too Many Notes") with Don Giovanni rather than that obscure Mozart fellow. (Thus my image for this post, from Amadeus.) Couldn't happen, you say? Read what Phil has to say.

I noted one point of disagreement between us here. Some creations do come from monarchs. Phil says:

If a legal code or a proclamation survives from a monarch’s lifetime, historians are quick to see it as evidence of the workings of his mind, even if common sense tells us that it was probably conceived, devised and written by some nameless clerk, while the monarch was snoring and farting, dead drunk, sprawled on the cushions of the harem. Just because the title “Code of Hammurabi” is poked in cuneiform wedges at the top of the clay tablet doesn’t mean that he either wrote it or thunk it. Yet, even if a historian concedes this in a footnote, it is instantly forgotten, and every word written on the subject belies the footnote, and promotes the fantasy.

Phil has forgotten something that I know he knows. The working laws of Babylonia in Hammurabi's time were indeed written by scribes and jurisprudents, and they still survive on their clay tablets, which sometimes record actual court cases. Hammurabi's laws, however, were carved on an 8 foot stone pillar, imported to the mud flats of Mesopotamia at great expense from some distant rocky place, to show how pious he was, and his "laws" seem never had to have been used in any practical context.

Which kind of makes Phil's point.

Over at the American political blog is another revelatory post on the nature historical memory and its malleability. It is an on-video conversation between Rick Perlstein and David Frum about Perlstein's recent book about Richard Nixon and his behavior in office. David Frum of course is a well-known "conservative" pundit (responsible for that destructive phrase "axis of evil," though he has since denied it) who tries to make the argument here that Nixon was nothing extraordinary, that he did what predecessors had done, and was singled out because the rules had changed. Perlstein does not buy that and, more importantly, thinks that from Frum's arguments in many cases are "not-so's," things that are frankly "not so." Whatever you think of this exchange, surely things like this happen all the time, and affect our historical understanding and the historical record that comes down later generations. Is it in fact true that Richard Nixon wrote all the Lennon and McCartney songs?

I want to note here that I am in awe of how Pearlstein uses a combination of text and video to construct his argument, and then shows you material you have seen before to let you test his argument. And of course the entire interview is available at the originating site,

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