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Anecdote and History
by Lionel Gossman
Anecdote and History
History and Theory
Updated: March 6th, 2013
ANECDOTE AND HISTORY
Eine Anekdote ist ein historisches Element-ein historisches Molecule oder Epigramm. -Novalis!
Although the term "anecdote" entered the modem European languages fairly recently and remains to this day ill-defined, the short, freestanding accounts of particular events, true or invented, that are usually referred to as anecdotes have been around from time immemorial. They have also always stood in a close relation to the longer, more elaborate narratives of history, sometimes in a supportive role, as examples and illustrations, sometimes in a challenging role, as the repressed of history -"la petite histoire." Historians' relation to them, in tum, varied from appreciative to dismissive in accordance with their own objectives in writing history. It appears that highly structured anecdotes of the kind that are remembered and find their way into anecdote collections depend on and tend to confirm established views of history, the world, and human nature. In contrast, loosely structured anecdotes akin to the modem fait divers have usually worked to undermine established views and stimulate new ones, either by presenting material known to few and excluded from officially authorized histories, or by reporting "odd" occurrences for which the established views of history, the world, and human nature do not easily account.
I. WITTGENSTEIN'S POKER
How are anecdotes related to history and to the writing of history? The question was raised in an unusually vivid way by David Edmonds and John Eidinow's recent, highly successful book Wittgenstein's Poker: The Story of a Ten-Minute Argument Between Two Great Philosophers. The kernel of the book is a fairly well-known anecdote about the encounter of two celebrated Viennese philosophers, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper, at a meeting of the Moral Science Club of Cambridge University on October 25, 1946. Before the end of Popper's talk, according to some, Wittgenstein became so incensed by the visitor's deliberately provocative rejection of his own view that there are no philosophical problems, only language puzzles, that he rose to his feet, brandishing a red-hot poker in Popper's face before storming angrily out of the room; according to others, Wittgenstein, having used the poker "in a philosophical example" before dropping it on the tiles around the fireplace, then "quietly (left) the meeting and
1. Novalis, Schriften, ed. Paul Kluckhohn and Richard Samuel, vol. 2: "Das philosophische Werk," ed. Richard Samuel, Hans-Joachim Mahl, and Gerhard Schulz (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1960),567.
(shut) the door behind him.'? The competing versions of the anecdote told by those who witnessed the scene raise one of the oldest and most fundamental of all historiographical problems: how to determine what actually happened when eyewitness reports are at variance. The problem is aggravated in this instance by the fact that all the eyewitnesses in question were philosophers presumably dedicated to the disinterested search for truth.
Intriguing as this aspect of Wittgenstein's Poker might be., it is hard not to be disappointed by the basic strategy the authors adopted for the writing of their book. This consisted in expanding the dramatic anecdote recounted at the beginning into a complex, circumstantial, novel-like story. Edmonds and Eidinow draw on standard intellectual biographies of Wittgenstein and Popper, as well as published historical testimonies by persons close to them, histories of Viennese society and culture, and accounts of modem philosophy, to paint a broad tableau of the two principal characters and their world and to explain their intense rivalry. We learn about the competing philosophical positions of the two protagonists and the larger background of early twentieth-century Viennese philosophy from which they both emerged; we learn about the families in which they grew upboth highly assimilated Jewish families, one fabulously wealthy and almost aristocratic, the other solidly bourgeois; we learn about the different layers of the Viennese society they belonged to and in particular about their different experiences' as Austrians of Jewish descent, in a pervasively anti-Semitic culture; about how each was affected by and responded to National Socialism and the incorporation of Austria into the Third Reich; about their different connections with English philosophers and English society; and so on. The anecdote thus unfolds into something close to a cultural and intellectual history of an important part of Europe in the first half of the twentieth century. "The story of the poker," in Edmonds's and Eidinow's own words, "goes beyond the characters and beliefs of the antagonists. It is inseparable from the story of their times, opening a window on the tumultuous and tragic history that shaped their lives and brought them together in Cambridge.'?
As the representation of a dramatic encounter of two rival philosophers, the original anecdote had a stripped-down, almost abstract character which left room-a typical feature of many oral forms-for variations of detail. Its focus, besides the competition between two particular ways of looking on the world"the schism in twentieth-century philosophy over the significance of language," as Edmonds and Eidinow put it4-was perhaps the more general, comic contrast between the ostensible nature of philosophy, as the disinterested and disembodied pursuit of truth, and the intense personal conflict of the two philosophers, culminating in an apparent threat of physical violence; between the tranquil, unworldly locus of the event-a shabby room in a quiet Cambridge college -and
2. David Edmonds and John Eidinow, Wittgenstein's Poker: The Story ofa Ten-Minute Argument Between Two Great Philosophers (London: Faber and Faber, 2001), 16-17.
3. Ibid., 5. 4.Ibid.
ANECDOTE AND HISTORY
the passions that were unleashed in it.5 The particular philosophical views of the rival protagonists were barely alluded to in the anecdote, which-fairly typically as it turns out-supposes that the audience already has certain notions of them. Edmonds and Eidinow, in contrast, fill out the anecdote's elementary, essentially dramatic structure, put flesh on its bones, and deck it out in colorful clothing. The 300-page history to which it gives rise is an intelligently conducted amplificatio, but it contains no surprises. The antithesis at the core of the anecdote continues to structure the history, providing the framework on which the authors arrange and display their rich but familiar borrowings.
II. DRAMATIC AND NOVELISTIC CONSTRUCTIONS OF REALITY
The relation of the epic and dramatic genres, and the implications, in terms of ideology or Weltanschauung, of narrative versus dramatic representations of the world, have been a major topic of reflection on literature since Antiquity. As anecdotes, I now believe, may favor either-they may reduce complex situations to simple, sharply defined dramatic structures, but they may also, if more rarely, prise closed dramatic structures open by perforating them with holes of novelistic contingency -a brief discussion of this topic is in order.
The development of narrative in the eighteenth century seems to have been part of the general critical approach of the Enlightenment and its questioning of the norms and beliefs about the nature of human beings and the world enshrined in the content and the form of French classical literature. These norms and beliefs had the undeniable merit of facilitating a common recognition and understanding of particular actions, situations, and personalities and thus of reinforcing social cohesion. The novels of Marivaux, Sterne, and Diderot, in contrast, carried-again both formally and thematically-a deliberately disorienting message: that if we examine particular actions, situations, and personalities closely and in individual detail, we will find that they are not neatly ordered and predictable in the manner suggested by the limited repertory of actions and the welldefined, often antithetical sets of characters (old man/young man, master/servant, and so on) to which they are reduced in classical drama, or by the equally general antithetical categories (appearance/reality, substance/accident, mind/matter, and so on) to which they are reduced in classical philosophyf What Marivaux's La Vie de Marianne and Diderot's Jacques le fataliste imply is that reality is a process of unpredictable and continuous mutations, not something already pre
In his essay on the structure of the fait divers, Roland Barthes considers "disproportion" and a "slightly aberrant causality" to be a feature of the "genre"-if the fait divers can be designated a genre. ("Structure du fait divers," in Essais critiques [Paris: Seuil, 1964], 188-197) Most of what Barthes has to say about thefait divers holds equally for certain types of anecdote. In the present case, the disproportion might be said to arise from the spectacle of philosophers, who are meant to argue, to use words, resorting to physical violence, and from upsetting the "normal" relation, among philosophers, of body and mind.
The repertory of gestures and expressions codified for painters by Charles Le Brun, Director of Louis XIV's Academie Royale de Peinture, is another example, alongside the "emplois" or stock characters of the theater, of a view of the world in which the general was deemed more real and fundamental than the particular.
formed and simply waiting to be elaborated and unfolded (literally developpe, with local variations, as in classical comedy, the classical nouvelle or, for that matter, Cartesian mechanist biology).' In the great eighteenth-century narratives, life is an adventure, not the acting out of a dramatic part. It is probably not fortuitous that the hero of Rousseau's groundbreaking autobiographical narrative is a thoroughly uprooted being, or that the central characters of key eighteenth-century novels, such as La Vie de Marianne and Fielding's Tom Jones, are foundlings or persons of unknown origin. To such individuals the world has no obvious markers but is an enigma whose workings they have to explore. They in turn do not present themselves to the world with obvious markers, but must constantly invent and reinvent themselves in a complex negotiation with the world and its expectations. Appearance and reality, truth and fiction, virtue and vice, body and soul, masculine and feminine turn out, in much of the literature of the eighteenth century, to be not nearly as clearly distinguishable as readers of classicalliterature and philosophy might have been encouraged to suppose. Human behavior and the human psyche no longer appear reducible to the clearly balanced designs and categories of the maxims of La Rochefoucauld.
Writing in the second half of the eighteenth century, Chamfort, for one, did not believe matters were so simple. "Things are miscellanies," he declared; "men are patchworks. Ethics and physics are concerned with mixtures. Nothing is simple, nothing is pure.?" To the author of Maximes et Pensees, Caracteres et Anecdotes, the anecdote itself, by situating morality in a narrative context, however slight, represented a much-needed correction to the abstract formal structure of the maxim as practiced a century earlier by La Rochefoucauld and a challenge to its seemingly incontrovertible truths. "Moralists, like those philosophers who have constructed systems of physics or metaphysics, have overgeneralized, and laid down too many maxims," he wrote.
What, for instance, becomes of the saying of Tacitus, "A woman who has lost her modesty will not be able to refuse anything afterward," when confronted with the examples of so many women whom a moment of weakness has not prevented from practicing a number of virtues. I have seen Madame de L_, after a youth which differed little from that of Manon Lescaut, conceive in her riper years a passion worthy of Heloise,"
A weakening of classical models of composition is also visible in historiography. In one of my first attempts to study the structure of a historical text ("Voltaire's Charles XII: History into Art," Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century 25 , 691-720), I tried to show that Voltaire's early Histoire de Charles XII could be seen as the filling out of an essentially dramatic structure or, in rhetorical terms, as the elaboration of an antithesis (Peter of Russia versus Charles of Sweden, modem calculation and ruthlessness versus old-fashioned chivalry and honor, etc.) or a chiasmus (the victor is vanquished, the vanquished victorious). The informing antithetical structure of the work, I held, is reinforced by the pervasiveness of parallels and antitheses at the textual level and epitomized in the proleptic embedded anecdote of the Czarafis Artfchelou in Book 2. I contrasted this early historical work of Voltaire's with the later Siecle de Louis XIV and the Essai sur les moeurs, both of which I saw as less dramatic, more truly narrative, more open-ended, tending away from the paradigmatic toward the syntagmatic (despite the recurrent antithetical structure of enlightenment versus superstition).
"Dans les choses, tout est affaires melees; dans les hommes, tout est pieces de rapport. Au moral et au physique, tout est mixte. Rien n'est un, rien n'est pur."
"Les Moralistes, ainsi que les Philosophes qui ont fait des systemes en Physique ou en Metaphysique ont trop generalise, ont trop multiplie les maximes. Que devient, par exemple, le mot
ANECDOTE AND HISTORY
Though only evoked and not recounted, the anecdote about Madame de L_ (its claim to reality signaled by the delivery of the first-person testimony in the perfect, not the past tense), does not provide a concrete particular instance to illustrate a general rule; rather, it bolsters a proposition challenging general rules and, along with them, the view of the world implied and communicated by classical drama, the classical maxim, the classical caractere, and some of the basic figures of classical rhetoric. As Chamfort put it, it is necessary to pay attention to people's actual behavior "afin de n'etre pas dupe de la charlatanerie des Moralistes" ("in order not to be fooled by the quackery of our theorists of human nature")such as La Rochefoucauld and La Bruyere.
III. DEFINING THE ANECDOTE
These preliminary observations leave the anecdote still undefined. In fact, scholars cannot even agree whether there is anything definable there, whether the anecdote can properly be considered a particular form or genre, like the novel, the maxim, or the fable. The scholarly literature on the topic, moreover, is scattered and fairly thin, as though the anecdote were thought to be too trivial a form to deserve serious consideration. While much has been written about the essen
de Tacite: Neque mulier, amissa pudicitia, alia abnuerit apres l'exemple de tant de femmes qu'une faiblesse n'apas empechees depratiquerplusieurs vertus? J'aivumadame deL...,apresunejeunesse peu differente de celIe de Manon Lescaut, avoir, dans I'age mur, une passion digne d'Heloise." Sebastien Roch Nicolas de Chamfort, Products of the Perfected Civilization: Selected Writings of Chamfort, transl. W. S. Merwin (New York: The Macmillian Company, 1969), 130 (chap. ii), 160 (chap. v). Original French texts in Maximes et Pensees, Caracteres et Anecdotes, ed. Claude Roy (Paris: Union Generate d'Editions, 1963),56,88. Cf. the first maxim of chap. i: "Maxims and axioms, like summaries, are the works of persons of intelligence who have labored, as it seems, for the convenience of mediocre and lazy minds. The lazy are happy to find a maxim that spares them the necessity of making for themselves the observations that led the maxim's author to the conclusion to which he invites his reader. The lazy and the mediocre imagine that they need go no further, and ascribe to the maxim a generality that the author, unless he was mediocre himself, as is sometimes the case, has not claimed for it. The superior man grasps at once the resemblances, the differences, which render the maxim more or less applicable in one instance or another, or not at all. It is much the same with natural history, where the urge to simplify has led to the imagination of classifications and divisions. They could not have been framed without intelligence for the necessary comparisons and the observing of relationships; but the great naturalist, the man of genius, sees that nature is prodigal in the invention of individually different creatures, and he sees the inadequacy of divisions and classifications which are so commonly used by mediocre and lazy minds" (109). ("Les Maximes, les Axiomes, sont, ainsi que les Abreges, l'ouvrage des gens d'esprit, qui ont travaille, ce semble, a l'usage des esprits mediocres ou paresseux. Le paresseux s'accommode d'une Maxime qui le dispense de faire lui-meme les observations qui ont mene l' Auteur de la Maxime au resultat dont il fait partie ason Lecteur. Le paresseux et l'homme mediocre se croient dispenses d'aller au-dela, et donnent a la Maxime une generalite que l' Auteur, amoins qu'il ne soit lui-meme mediocre ... n'a pas pretendu lui donner. L'homme superieur saisit tout d'un coup les ressemblances, les differences qui font que la Maxime est plus ou moins applicable atel ou tel cas, ou ne l'est pas du tout. II en est de eela comme de l'Histoire naturelle.ou le desir de simplifier a imagine les classes et les divisions. II a fallu avoir de l'esprit pour les faire. Car il a fallu rapprocher et observer des rapports. Mais le grand Naturaliste, l'homme de genie voit que la Nature prodigue des etres individuellement differents, et voit l'insuffisance des divisions et des classes qui sont d'un si grand usage aux esprits mediocres ou paresseux ..." (Maximes et
tial nature of tragedy, comedy, the epic, the novel, the short story, the maxim, I have been able to find only a few works, almost exclusively by German scholars, that attempt to define the nature, form, and function of the anecdote.!" Valuable as these studies are, they focus mainly on a particular species of anecdote that was elevated in the first two decades of the nineteenth century to the status of a recognized and admired, if minor, literary form in Germany by the Prussian dramatist and short story writer Heinrich von Kleist and the Basel-born Swabian preacher and popular dialect poet Johann Peter Hebel. (The conjunction of drama, short-story form, and anecdote in the case of Kleist does not, as we shall see, appear to be fortuitous, inasmuch as the drama and the short story are, like a certain kind of anecdote, condensed forms representing a critical moment in which the "essence" of a situation or character is supposed to be made visible.)
The word "anecdote" itself was and is used to describe a wide range of narratives, the defining feature of which appears to be less their brevity (though most are quite short) than their lack of complexity. As the OED puts it, an anecdote is the "narrative of a detached incident, or of a single event, told as being in itself interesting and striking."!' That general dictionary definition, which obviously aims to distinguish the anecdote from more complex narrative forms like histo
In particular Klaus Doderer, "Die deutsche Anekdoten-Theorie" in his Die Kurzgeschichte. Ihre Form und ihre Entwicklung  (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1969); Hans Franck, Deutsche Erziihlkunst (Trier: Friedrich Winter, 1922); Richard Friedenthal, "Vom Nutzen und Wert der Anekdote," in Sprache und Politik: Festgabe fur Dolf Sternberger zum 60. Geburtstag, ed. Carl-Joachim Friedrich and Benno Reifenberg (Heidelberg: Lambert Schneider, 1968),62-67; Heinz Grothe, Anekdote, 2nd ed. (Stuttgart: Metzler, 1984); Robert Petsch, Wesen und Formen der Erzdhlkunst (Halle/Saale: Max Niemeyer, 1934); Rudolf Schafer, Die Anekdote: Theorie, Analyse, Dialektik (Munich: Oldenbourg, 1982); Walter Ernst Schafer, Anekdote-Antianekdote: Zum Wandel einer literarischen Form in der Gegenwart (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1977). In addition, in English, are the hard-to-come-by Dissertation on Anecdotes (1793) of Isaac D'lsraeli (himself no mean compiler of anecdotes), and the Introduction by Clifton Fadiman to the Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes (Boston/Toronto: Little, Brown & Co., 1985). Most of these works attempt to define the essential characteristics and functions of the anecdote. The more historical approach adopted by Volker Weber, Anekdote-Die andere Geschichte (Tubingen: Stauffenburg Verlag, 1993) and Sonja Hilzinger, Anekdotisches Erzdhlen im Zeitalter der Aufkliirung: Zum Struktur-und Funktionswandel der Gattung Anekdote in Historiographie, Publizistik und Literatur des 18. lahrhunderts (Stuttgart: M&P Verlag fur Wissenschaft und Forschung, 1997)-provide an invaluable complement to these otherwise preeminently formal studies of the anecdote. In French, in addition to Roland Barthes's essay (see n. 5 above), several articles devoted to the fait divers in Annales 38 (1983),821-919, throw much light on the closely related, sometimes indistinguishable form of the anecdote, notably Marc Ferro, "Presentation" (821-826) and Michelle Perrot, "Fait divers et histoire au XfXeme siecle" (911-919).
The OED definition corresponds remarkably to Roland Barthes's definition of the fait divers in "Structure du fait divers": "Le fait divers ... est une information totale ...; il contient en soi tout son savoir: point besoin de connaitre rien du monde pour consommer un fait divers; il ne renvoie formellement arien d'autre qu'a lui-meme; bien sur, son contenu n'est pas etranger au monde: desastres, meurtres, enlevements, agressions, accidents, vols, bizarreries, tout eela renvoie al'homme, ason histoire, ason alienation, ases fantasmes." ("The fait divers . . . is a complete piece of information in itself...It contains all its knowledge within itself: consumption of afait divers requires no knowledge of the world; it refers formally to nothing but itself; of course, its content is not unrelated to the world: disasters, murders, abductions, robberies, and eccentricities all refer to human beings, their history, their condition of alienation, their fantasies.") But it contains its own circumstances, its own causes, its own past, its own outcome. It is "sans duree et sans contexte" (It has "neither temporal duration nor context") (189).
ANECDOTE AND HISTORY
ry and the novel, still accommodates a wide variety of verbal practices, both oral and written, both popular and cultivated: the joke or the tall story; the jewel-like short narrative, with its witty punch line, that was developed in the salons of the elite in the eighteenth century; the short tale, usually containing a moral lesson, of the type composed (or adapted) by Johann Peter Hebel for Swiss and German popular almanacs or Kalender; the highly stylized, now classic anecdotes of Heinrich von Kleist.12 The later, carefully crafted works, entitled Anekdoten, by Wilhelm Schafer, and the so-called Kalendergeschichten of Bert Brecht-a sophisticated kind of anti-anecdote intended to undermine the shared assumptions that the traditional anecdote depends on for its intelligibility and effectiveness-must also be regarded as productions of high literary art. Moreover, the anecdote may be fairly detached and free-standing, as in anecdote books or collections.':' Or it may be integrally connected with and embedded in a larger argument or narrative, as in sermons and most historical writings.
As to its form, what most people would consider the classic anecdote is a highly concentrated miniature narrative with a strikingly dramatic three-act structure consisting of situation or exposition, encounter or crisis, and resolution -the last usually marked by a "pointe" or clinching remark, often a "bon mot."!" But relatively unstructured short narratives of particular events, such as the miscellaneous murders, trials, and natural catastrophes recorded in Smollet's late eighteenth-century History ofEnglandfrom the Revolution to the Death ofGeorge II, as a kind of addenda to the principal political events.P or the faits divers report
Though Kleist first published his anecdotes in a newspaper with which he was associated, the Berliner Abendbldtter, it is fair to assume that the readership of the paper, unlike that of almanacs or Kalender, was the educated middle and upper class of the Prussian capital. See Heinrich Aretz, Heinrich von Kleist als Journalist: Untersuchungen zum "Phobus," zur "Germania" und zu den "Berliner Abendbldttem" (Stuttgart: Hans-Dieter Heinz, 1983).
In the well known Percy Anecdotes, individual anecdotes are grouped in thirty-eight categories, according to the themes they are held to illustrate, such as "Humanity," "Eloquence," "Youth," "Enterprise," "Heroism," "Justice," "Instinct," "Beneficence," "Fidelity," "Hospitality," "War," "Honor," "Fashion." (Thomas Beyerley and Joseph Clinton Robertson [pseudo Reuben and Sholto Percy], The Percy Anecdotes, revised ed., to which is added a valuable collection of American Anecdotes [New York: Harper and Brothers, 1843]).
There is still work to do to explore the relation of the anecdote to the joke, the Renaissance facette or Schwank, and the apophtegm. One of the chief repositories of apophtegms, the De vita et moribus philosophorum of Diogenes Laertius, a favorite work of Renaissance scholars (it was printed in Basel by Frobenius in 1533), became the object, in the last third of the nineteenth century, of the scholarly attention of the young Nietzsche, whose own disruptive, fragmentary philosophical style had a good deal in common with collections of apophtegms.
Book III, chap. xiii (covering the year 1760) may be considered fairly typical of Tobias Smollet's practice. "Before we record the progress of the war [the Seven Years' War]," the author announces, "it may be necessary to SPecifysome domestic occurrences that for a little while engrossed the public attention." There follows a series of anecdotes of murders, trials, etc. only loosely connected by the general proposition (para. 12) that "Homicide is the reproach of England: one would imagine that there is something in the climate of this country, that not only disposes the natives to this inhuman outrage, but even infects foreigners who reside among them." These more or less extensive narratives, along with the many narratives of individuals and particular episodes interspersed in the "public" history, should doubtless be distinguished from more general reports (reminiscent of traditional Annals), such as that (para. 42) of "the horrors and wreck of a dreadful earthquake, protracted in repeated shocks," that struck Syria and "began on the thirteenth day of October, in the neighbourhood
ed in the newspapers, have also often been referred to, since the eighteenth century, as anecdotes."
In addition, the term "anecdote" was widely used in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries to designate a species of historical writing that deliberately eschewed large-scale "narrativization," to borrow Hayden White's useful term. These anecdote-histories-Anecdotes des Republiques (1771), Anecdotes arabes et musulmanes (1772), Anecdotes espagnoles et portugaises depuis 1'0rigine de la nation jusqu'a nos jours (1773), Anecdotes americaines (1776), and so on-seem to be defined by their ostensible refusal of systematization, totalization, and ideological interpretation and by their reporting of only particular, relatively isolated episodes, often enough in simple chronological order, as in the annals and chronicles of the Middle Ages (interest in which revived, as it happens, around the same time).17
of Tripoli." The report is a list rather than a narrative: "A great number of houses were overthrown in Seyde, and many people buried under the ruins ... an infinite number of villages ... were reduced to heaps of rubbish. At Acra, or Ptolemais, the sea overflowed its banks and poured into the streets. The city of Saphet was entirely destroyed, and the greatest part of its inhabitants perished. At Damascus all the minarets were overthrown, and six thousand people lost their lives." (The History of England from the Revolution in 1688 to the Death of George the Second, 6 vols. [London: J. Walker, 1811], VI, 189-216,261).
"Vermischte Anekdoten" was the heading under which the writer Christian Friedrich Daniel Schubart (1731-1791) gathered together a great variety of reports of events and personalities in his bi-weekly newspaper Teutsche Chronik (1774-1777; under other names until 1793). The term fait divers dates only from 1863 and appears to have no equivalent in other languages, which simply borrow the French term. What is now understood by fait divers used to be designated in French as "anecdotes," "nouvelles curieuses, singulieres," or "canards." (See Michelle Perrot, "Fait divers et histoire au XfXeme siecle" [as in note 9]).
The catalogue of Princeton's Firestone Library lists well over 200 volumes under titles such as Anecdotes africaines, Anecdotes americaines, etc. Most were published between 1750 and 1830, but the genre continues well into the nineteenth century. These texts vary in character. Some authors insist on the fragmentary, eyewitness character of their work. Thus the author of Anecdotes and Characteristic Traits respecting the Incursion ofthe French Republicans into Franconia in the Year 1796, by an Eye-Witness (translated from the German [London: J. Bell, 1798]) declares in his Preface: "I do not here present the public with a complete history of the French incursion into Franconia; but supply the future historian of that memorable event with a few facts and incidents, of which I was an eye-witness, collected within the district where I reside. Every circumstance related here is genuine. I endeavoured to be an attentive observer, to collect with fidelity, and to delineate without prejudice." George Henry Jennings, the author of An Anecdotal History of the British Parliament from the Earliest Period to the Present Time (New York: Appleton, 1883), aims to "bring together in anecdotal form some of the most striking facts in the history of our Parliaments, and the public lives of distinguished statesmen" in order to return to the "original" of certain statements and episodes which have suffered, he says, from what Gladstone called "mythical accretion." L. A. Caraccioli's brief Anecdotes piquantes relatives aux Etats-Generaux (1789) retail how the news of the Estates General was received in various European capitals (Rome, Warsaw, St. Petersburg, Stockholm, Constantinople, Vienna, London), in Paris and at Versailles, and in many French provincial towns. In contrast, Guillaume Bertoux's Anecdotes espagnoles et portugaises depuis ['origine de la Nation, jusqu'a nos jours, 2 vols. (Paris: Vincent, 1773) and his earlier Anecdotes francaises depuis l'etablissment de la monarchie jusqu'au regne de Louis XV (Paris: Vincent, 1767), the anonymous Anecdotes des Republiques, 2 vols, (Paris: Vincent, 1771), divided into "Anecdotes Genoises et Corses," "Anecdotes Venitiennes," "Anecdotes Helvetiques," etc., the Anecdotes arabes et musulmanes depuis l'an de f.-C. 614, epoque de l'etablissement du Mahometanisme en Arabie par lefaux Prophete Mahomet jusqu'it l'extinction du Caliphat en 1578 of J.F. de Lacroix and A. Hamot (Paris:
ANECDOTE AND HISTORY
IV. EARLY USES OF THE TERM "ANECDOTE"
Though anecdotes have been around in one form or another for a very long time, as long, no doubt, as rumor and gossip, it was not until fairly late-around 1650 in French, a few years later in English-that the term "anecdote" itself entered the European languages. Its introduction was probably a result of the discovery and publication by the Vatican Librarian, in the year 1623, of a text referred to in the Suda, an eleventh-century Byzantine encyclopedic compilation, as Anekdota (literally "unpublished works") and attributed to Procopius, the sixth-century author of an officially sanctioned History in Eight Books of the Emperor Justinian's Persian, Vandal, and Gothic wars and of a laudatory account of Justinian's building program, De Aedificiis. At first, the term retained in the modem languages the purely technical meaning of "unpublished" that it had had both for those who used it in antiquity (Cicero, Diodorus Siculus) and for the eleventh-century compilers of the Suda. In the mid-eighteenth century, Dr. Johnson's Dictionary defines "anecdote" as "something yet unpublished." According to the Encyclopedic article (by the Abbe Mallet), "anecdote" designates "tout ecrit de quelque genre qu'il soit, qui n'a pas encore ete public" ("any piece of writing, of whatever kind, which has not yet been published'TI" From this literal meaning of "unpublished" springs, in all likelihood, the meaning of "an item of news or fait divers" (that is, something hitherto unknown or unpublished) which seems quickly to have attached itself to the term "anecdote," and which is most probably the meaning of the word in the rarely cited subtitle of Benjamin Constant's famous early nineteenth-century novella Adolphe: "Anecdote trouvee dans les papiers d'un inconnu" ("Anecdote found among the papers of an unknown"). Constant no doubt intended it to convey the impression that his tale described a "real" event.
Its association with Procopius's text also provided the word "anecdote" with yet another meaning in the modern European languages. The Anekdota, now usually referred to as Procopius's Secret History or Storia arcana, turned out to consist of instances of the most brutal exercise of despotic power, as well as scurrilous tales of palace and family intrigue, that were completely at odds with the celebratory narrative of Procopius's official History. The second meaning of the word "anecdote" listed in Johnson's Dictionary-"secret history" -reflects this influence of Procopius's text. In the Encyclopedic it is already the first meaning given: "his-
Vincent, 1772), and the Anecdotes americaines, ou histoire abregee des principaux evenements arrives dans le Nouveau Monde depuis sa decouverte (Paris: Vincent, 1776) are all essentially chronologies, though only those years are included in which something occurred that, in the authors' view, can be told as a story. Numerous collections of "Episodes" and "Curiosities" seem closely related to "Anecdotes." There was a curious revival of "anecdote history" in the period following the First World War in Germany, in response to another crisis of historical understanding; see the discussion of the prolific Alexander von Gleichen-Russwurm's Weltgeschichte in Anekdoten und Querschnitten (Berlin: Max Hess, 1929) in Volker Weber, Anekdote-Die andere Geschichte, 152-167 (as in note 10).
18. When the Italian Enlightenment scholar Ludovico Muratori published some of the Greek and Latin manuscripts in the Ambrosian Library in Milan between 1697 and 1713, he entitled his collections Anecdota Latina and Anecdota Graeca.
toires secretes de faits qui se sont passes dans I'interieur du cabinet ou des cours de Princes, & dans les mysteres de leur politique" ("secret histories of what has gone on in the inner counsels or courts of Princes and in the mysteries of their politics").
From its earliest usage in the modem European languages, then, the term "anecdote" has been closely related to history, and even to a kind of counter-history. Procopius's Anekdota cover exactly the same years as his History of the Wars: 527-553 CEo But in the unpublished work, the secretary and companion of Belisarius, Justinian's famous general, exposes the censored, seamy underside, the chronique scandaleuse, of the reign he himself had presented in noble colors in his official history. The Justinian of the Anekdota is a tyrant, the Empress Theodora a vindictive, cruel, low-born former harlot. Belisarius is venal, avaricious, prone to acts of gross violence and injustice, spineless and disloyal in his personal life, and enslaved to his scheming, licentious wife Antonina. Like an ideal human form when it is inspected close up through a microscope, the heroic and orderly public narrative of the History is undercut by a ragbag of stories of depravity and abuse of power.
Procopius's Anekdota or secret history was the explicitly acknowledged model of several late-seventeenth-and early-eighteenth-century histories, the barely disguised target of which appears to have been the new absolutist European monarchies. The best known of these is probably Antoine de Varillas's Les Anecdotes de Florence, ou l'histoire secrete de la maison des Medicis, published in 1685, supposedly in The Hague. Likewise, Les Anecdotes de Suede, ou Histoire Secrete des Changemens arrives dans ce Royaume sous le regne de Charles XI, which appeared in Stockholm in 1716, took the lid off the official history of Charles XI of Sweden, the ally and emulator of Louis XIV.19
Not surprisingly, the friends of power, those concerned with maintaining public images and decorum, have generally been fearful of anecdotes and have lost no opportunity to denigrate them, while at the same time enjoying them in private and, when necessary, using them against their own enemies. "L'anecdote," the Goncourt brothers assert, "c'est la boutique aun sou de I'Histoire"2o ("The
19.Anecdotes continue to function in this way in modem use, as in the clandestine diaries in which Ulrich von Hassell, German Ambassador to Rome between 1932 and 1937, recorded not only his and his friends' efforts to organize a regime-change but living conditions and popular attitudes in Germany under National Socialism. Thus, to illustrate the unpopularity of the law requiring Jews to wear a yellow star, he tells of a worker in North Berlin "who had sewed on a large yellow star with the inscription: 'My name is Willy' ," and of another "herculean worker" who "said to a poor and aged Jewess in the train: 'Here, you little shooting star, take my seat!' and when someone grumbled, said threateningly: 'With my backside I can do what I like.'" Another anecdote, more properly defined as a joke, "illustrates the stupidity of the Party. 'At a crossroad three cars, each with the right of way, collide-Hitler, the SS, and the fire department. Who is to blame?' Answer: 'The Jews'" (Ulrich von Hassell, The VonHassell Diaries: The Story ofthe Forces against Hitler inside Germany 1938-1944 [Boulder, CO and Oxford: Westview Press, 1994],227,246-247).
20. Edmond and Jules de Goncourt, Idees et sensations (Paris: Bibliotheque Charpentier-Eugene Fasquelle, 1904), 13. See Michelle Perrot, "Fait divers et histoire au XfXeme siecle," 912-913, on the authorities' fear of anecdotes and "canards" and their attempts to suppress or domesticate them by removing them from the less controllable area of oral circulation to the more controllable area of the press. Even so, serious newspapers relegate them to an inconspicuous position on an inside page, and
ANECDOTE AND HISTORY
anecdote is the dime store of history"). But they themselves made abundant use of anecdotes in their Histoire de la societe francoise pendant la Revolution, the aim of which, in their own words, was "not to relate once again" the grand political history of the Revolution, but to "portray France, manners, states of mind, the national physiognomy, the color of things, life, and humanity from 1788 to 1800" ("peindre la France, les moeurs, les ames, la physionomie nationale, la couleur des choses, la vie et I'humanite de 1789 a 1800"). That meant, in this instance, discrediting the heroic Republican account of the Revolution and substituting an alternative, unheroic, and often petty counter-history. To write such a history, the Goncourts said, "we had to discover new sources of the true, to look for our documents in newspapers, pamphlets, and a whole universe of lifeless paper hitherto viewed with contempt, in autograph letters, engravings, all the monuments of intimacy that an age leaves behind.'?' In short, they had to explore the world of the anecdote and the anecdotal.
Voltaire had already expressed a similarly ambivalent view of anecdotes. In his "Discours sur l'Histoire de Charles XII" of the early 1730s, he lambasted his contemporaries for their "fureur d' ecrire" ("mania for writing"), their "demangeaison de transmettre ala posterite des details inutiles" ("itch to transmit useless details to posterity"). This passion for the allegedly trivial had gotten to the point, he alleged, that "hardly has a sovereign departed this life than the public is inundated with volumes purporting to be memoirs, the story of his life, anecdotes of his court."22 In Voltaire's own view, only great public events and events that had major consequences for the course of history deserved to be recorded and remembered." Two decades later, somewhat apologetically, the mature author of the Siecle de Louis XIV devoted the concluding four chapters of the political part of his history to "Particularites et anecdotes du regne de Louis XIV." Anecdotes may be of interest to the public, he conceded, but only "when they concern illustrious personages" ("quand ils concernent des personnages illustres"). In general, however, modem historiography has no place for anything
the most serious, like Le Monde, exclude them altogether. The conservative Barbey d' Aurevilly anticipated that the newspaper would destroy the book and would in tum be destroyed by the fait divers. "Le petit fait le rongera. Ce sera son insecte, sa vermine" (quoted by Perrot, 913).
"il nous a fallu decouvrir de nouvelles sources du Vrai, demander nos documents aux journaux, aux brochures, atout ce monde de papier mort et meprise jusqu'ici, aux autographes, aux gravures, a tous les monuments intimes qu'une epoque laisse derriere elle." Edmond et Jules de Goncourt, Histoire de la societe francoise pendant la Revolution (Paris: Bibliotheque Charpentier-Eugene Fasquelle, 1904), v-vi. In a section of the book devoted to the passion for the gaming table during the Revolutionary period, one reads, for instance, the story of an addicted gambler: "Mourant, le chevalier Bouju, le terrible ponte, se fit porter au trente et un et, dans les bras de ses amis, agonisant, crispant ses mains sur Ie tapis vert, comme sur les draps de son lit de mort, il se gagna, ce cadavre joueur, de superbes funerailles" ("As he lay dying, that formidable gambler, chevalier Bouju, had himself transported to a gaming house to play trente-et-un. In the arms of his friends, at death's door, clutching the gaming table like the sheet on his deathbed, this gambling cadaver won a superb funeral for himself') (26).
"a peine un souverain cesse de vivre que le public est inonde de volumes sous le nom de memoires, d'histoire de sa vie, d'anecdotes de sa cour."
23. Voltaire, Histoire de Charles XII (Paris: Garnier-Flammarion, 1968),30-31.
that cannot be properly verified, and that is often the case with anecdotes. Thus Procopius's Histoire secrete de Justinien is not, in Voltaire's view, a model for modem historians to follow. It is a satire "motivated by vengefulness" which "contradicts the author's public history" and "is not always true." Seventy pages of anecdotes later, Voltaire relents hardly at all. Anecdotes have value only when they are at least plausible and concern prominent figures in world history. "A philosopher might well be repelled by so many details. But curiosity, that common failing of mankind, ceases perhaps to be one, when it is directed toward men and times that command the attention of posterity.'?"
In part, Voltaire's disdain for anecdotes was consistent with his demand that history not be about individual monarchs but about nations and civilizations. It is the false view of history as the story of kings, he argued, that encourages the presumptuous belief that every detail concerning them and those around them must be of vast and enduring interest. Voltaire's mostly negative judgment of anecdotes was also determined, however, by the same classical, fundamentally conservative esthetics (and politics) that later led the editors of the Annee Litteraire to condemn Rousseau's Confessions as an act of literary arrogance and presumption. "Where would we be now," they protested in 1782, "if everyone arrogated to himself the right to write and print everything that concerns him personally and that he enjoys recallingv?" It is hard to read this indignant rejection of Rousseau's claim that the humblest anecdotes concerning the personal life of an obscure semi-orphan child (albeit one who became a famous writer) are worthy of interest as expressing anything but a classical (and conservative) desire to control the knowledge of history and to preserve hierarchy in history as well as in society by dictating what should count as important and worthy of being remembered and what should not.
Admittedly, this is a complex matter. As is well known, the eighteenth century was a great age of anecdotes. A considerable publishing industry was devoted to anecdotes on every conceivable subject-medicine, literature, the theater, the arts. Voltaire was one of many writers who deplored this development as a sign of the decadence of taste and the intrusion of the commercial spirit into literature, with publishers rushing to please a growing reading public allegedly no longer willing or able to engage seriously with literature or history." But that was almost certainly a simplification of the issue. The taste for particulars rather than extended formal narratives or arguments, for the concrete private detail rather than the public generality, probably did reflect a diminution of traditional culture
"Tant de details pourraient rebuter un philosophe; mais la curiosite , cette faiblesse si commune aux hommes, cesse peut-etre d'en etre une, quand elle a pour objet des temps et des hommes qui attirent les regards de la posterite." Voltaire, Siecle de Louis XIV, 2 vols. (Paris: Garnier-Flammarion, 1966), 1,307,379.
"OU en serions-nous si chacun s'arrogeoit le droit d'ecrire et de faire imprimer tous les faits qui I'interessent personnellement et qu'il aime ase rappeler?" Annie litteraire 4 (1782), 150-151, quoted in Franco Orlando, "Rousseau e la nascita di una tradizione letteraria: il ricordo d'infanzia," Belfagor 20 (1965), 12.
See Christopher Todd, "Chamfort and the Anecdote," Modern Language Review 74 (1979), 297-309, especially the opening pages.
ANECDOTE AND HISTORY
in an expanded reading public, a demand for easy distraction and quick stimulation. But it also had a good deal to do with Enlightenment empiricism, distrust of authority and "authorized" explanations of things, and suspicion of all-encompassing systems -in historiography and ethics, as well as in politics, theology, and philosophy.
V.ANECDOTES IN HISTORICAL WRITING
As it happens, the most common use of anecdotes by historians appears not to have been especially subversive. Anecdotes usually functioned in historical writing not as puzzling or unusual individual cases throwing doubt on notions of historical order, but as particular instances exemplifying and confirming a general rule or trend or epitomizing a larger general situation. The particular in this usage was not, as Voltaire feared it might be, disruptive or destructive of the general, but remained subordinate to the general. The detail or particular story or anecdote was admitted when it illustrated historical situations or personalities whose general character and importance had already been established-that is, when it illustrated, in Voltaire's own words, "men and times that command the attention of posterity."
As magistra vitae, early modern history was often a collection of episodes exemplifying general rules and lessons of behavior." Thus the "histories" related in the Historische Chronica, published by the celebrated engraver Matthaus Merian in the 1620s and frequently reprinted, were intended to demonstrate that vice is punished and virtue rewarded in the same way that examples in grammar books offer particular illustrations of the general rules governing noun declensions and verb conjugations. As a result, particular narratives are related to each other in the Chronica far more in terms of the virtues or vices they exemplify than in terms of an internal historical connection or relation among them. Only the succession of dates in the margins (calculated from Creation or from the birth of Christ) establishes a loose temporal connectedness-something akin to the connectedness Hayden White considers characteristic of annals, as distinct from "narrativized" histories-while also serving, at the same time, as a signal that the events being narrated are not to be regarded as fables but as having truly occurred. Furthermore, if they were to function as exemplary, the stories had to be relatively short, simple, and easily intelligible in terms of traditional values and a shared understanding of human beings and the world. The relation of part-individual short narrative or anecdote-to whole in this kind of history
27. Christoph Daxelmuller, "Narratio, Illustratio, Argumentatio: Exemplum und Bildungstechnik in der fruhen Neuzeit," in Exempel und Exempelsammlungen, ed. Walter Haug and Burghart Wachinger (Tubingen: M. Niemeyer, 1991), 79. In Plutarch-still Rousseau's favorite historian"past events only become history," that is they enter the narrative of history, only "when their exemplary character, their capacity to offer (the present) models to imitate, releases them from the sphere of the irrevocably vanished" (Eginhard Hora, "Zum Verstandnis des Werkes," in Giambattista Vico, Die neue Wissenschaft [Hamburg, 1966],232, quoted by Rudolf Schafer, Die Anekdote: Theorie, Analyse, Dialektik [Munich: Oldenbourg, 1982], 12).
might be described as allegorical. Each anecdote is a singular instance of a general rule that it exemplifies and points to.28
The late Enlightenment and Romantic invention of History as a process, rather than a simple diachrony or a playing out in varying successive guises of a limited repertory of acts, implied a different relation of part to whole, and of anecdote to history. In conformity with the shift in literature and art from Classicism to Romanticism and from allegory to symbol F' anecdotes ceased to be allegorical, exemplary of essentially extra-or transhistorical universal situations. In a world in which it was held that, in Ranke's famous words, "jede Epoche ist unmittelbar zu Gott" ("every age of history stands in an immediate relation to God"), their relation to a larger context beyond them ceased to be conceptual, and came to be understood as an internal relation to an evolving whole, of which the particular event recounted in the anecdote was a relatively autonomous but integral part, as an organ is part of a body. This change was underlined by a new-more than merely picturesque-emphasis on couleur locale and historical accuracy in the representation of costume and mores, in contrast with the free handling of these-the combining of ancient figures and modem attributes, for instance-in the engravings with which Merian illustrated the Chronica/" In the new historiography, in sum, the individual incident enshrined in the anecdote came to be more like a symptom, to borrow a term from medicine, than a sign.
It had long been used in that way in biography. In his "Life of Alexander" Plutarch declared famously that "a chance remark or a joke may reveal far more of a man's character than winning battles in which thousands fall, or ... marshalling great armies, or laying siege to cities."!' Therein, according to Plutarch,
On the Chronica, see Andreas Urs Sommer, "Triumph der Episode tiber die Universalhistorie? Pierre Bayles Geschichtsverfltissigungen," Saeculum 52 (2001), 1-39, at 15-23. Sommer points out that as the Chronica approached modem times and the historical material became overwhelmingly abundant, it became increasingly difficult to reduce it to the simple terms required by exemplary history. "Confronted by the sheer mass and extent of the material of modem history, the historian cannot control it or establish anything but the most imperfect connections. As moralist, he has to capitulate before the complexity of the material" (22). According to Volker Weber the "Historchen" of Wilhelm Schafer (Hundert Historchen [Munich: A. Langen, G. Muller, 1940]) are a modem case of the use of anecdotes to suggest the underlying similarity of different situations. (Volker Weber, Anekdote-Die andere Geschichte, 173-174 [as in note 10]).
See on the important transition from allegory to symbol, Bengt A. Sorensen, Allegorie und Symbol: Texte zur Theorie des dichterischen Bildes im 18. undfriihen 19. Jahrhundert (Frankfurt am Main: Athenaum, 1972).
30. Sommer, "Triumph der Episode tiber die Universalhistorie," 23.
31. "Life of Alexander," in The Age of Alexander: Nine Greek Lives, transl, Ian Scott-Kilvert (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973),252. In the same vein, more recently, Arthur Schnitzler: "By drawing on three striking anecdotes from his life, we may be able to take the measure of a man's character with the same precision that we measure the surface of a triangle by calculating the relation among three fixed points, whose connecting lines constitute the triangle" ("Das Wesen eines Menschen lasst sich durch drei schlagkraftige Anekdoten aus seinem Leben vielleicht mit gleicher Bestimmtheit berechnen, wie der Flacheinhalt eines Dreiecks aus dem Verhaltnis dreier fixer Punkte zueinander, deren Verbindungslinien das Dreieck bilden"). (Arthur Schnitzler, Buch der Spriiche und Bedenken, in Aphorismen und Betrachtungen, ed. Robert O. Weiss [Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer Verlag, 1967],53.) Cf. Nietzsche: "Three anecdotes may suffice to paint a picture of a man" (quoted by Clifton Fadiman, Introduction to The Little, Brown Book ofAnecdotes [Boston/Toronto: Little, Brown and Company, 1985]).
ANECDOTE AND HISTORY
lay the difference between the historian or chronicler of public events and the biographer. To the degree that, with the Romantics, history itself came to resemble a kind of national biography-Michelet, it will be recalled, boasted of having "been the first to present France as a person" ("pose le premier la France comme une personne'T'<c-Plutarch's distinction between the methods of the biographer and those of the historian ceased to hold. As early as the last third of the eighteenth century some of Chamfort's anecdotes appear to have had such symptomatic value. A story about the Duke of Hamilton, for instance-who, being drunk one night, heedlessly killed a waiter at an inn, and when confronted with the fact by the horrified innkeeper, calmly replied: "Add it to the bill"seems intended as more than an allegory of the general indifference of the rich and powerful to the poor and powerless; it is also symptomatic of the personage described, the Duke of Hamilton, and-beyond him perhaps-of the social relations of a particular historical moment, that of the ancien regime.P
This is the kind of anecdote we are most familiar with as modem readers of history. A couple of examples from Michelet will be enough to call many others to mind. In the Histoire de France Michelet presents an anecdote about a change in the relations of d' Aubigne and Henri IV as symptomatic of a fundamental change in the political and cultural climate in general at the end ot the sixteenth century.
D' Aubigne tells of a sad event. The King, still haunted by his bogeyman, the Calvinist republic, was determined to put him in the Bastille. The Huguenot, who knew his royal master well, in order to be left in peace, asked for the first time to be rewarded for his services with money, a pension. From that point on the king is sure of him; he summons him, embraces him; suddenly they are good friends. That same evening, D' Aubigne was having supper with two noble-hearted women. Suddenly, without a word, one of them began to weep and shed many tears.
"For good, too good reason, "Michelet comments, giving the sense of the anecdote. "The day D' Aubigne was obliged to accept a pension and ask for money the great 16th Century came to an end and the other began.'?" Likewise, in the section on the Bastille (section IX) in the Introduction to the Histoire de fa
32. "Preface de 1869," Histoire de France, Book III, Oeuvres completes, ed. P. Viallaneix, 21 vols. (Paris: Flammarion, 1971-), VI, 11. See L. Gossman, "Jules Michelet: histoire nationale, biographie, autobiographie," Litterature 102 (1996),29-54.
33. Chamfort, "Caracteres et anecdotes," in Products of the Perfected Civilization, appendix 1,
272. A somewhat similar point is made, more benignly, by an anecdote in which Madame du Chatelet admits a manservant into her bathroom while she is naked. There was no more shame in this, to an aristocratic woman, than being seen naked by a dog.
34. "D'Aubigne raconte un fait triste. Le roi, revassant toujours son epouvantail, la republique calviniste, voulait decidement le mettre a la Bastille. Le huguenot, qui le connoissait, pour avoir enfin son repos, lui demande pour la premiere fois recompense de ses longs services, de l'argent, une pension. Des lors, le roi est sur de lui; ille fait venir, il l'embrasse; les voila bons amis. Le meme soir, d' Aubigne soupait avec deux dames de noble coeur. Tout a coup, l'une d'elles, sans parler, se mit a pleurer et versa d'abondantes larmes. Avec trop de raison. Le jour ou d' Aubigne avait ete force de prendre pension et de demander de l'argent, le grand XVle siecle etait fini, et l' autre etait inaugure." "Histoire de France au Dix-Septieme Siecle" (1858), in Oeuvres Completes, ed. Paul Villaneix (Paris: Flammarion, 1982), IX, 153.
Revolution Francoise the essential arbitrariness Michelet considered characteristic of the ancien regime is conveyed by means of an anecdote.
One day, Louis XV's and Madame de Pompadour's doctor, the illustrious Quesnay, who lodged with her at Versailles, sees the King enter unexpectedly and becomes disturbed.The clever Madame de Hausset, the lady-in-waiting, who has left such curious memoirs, asked him why he was so flustered. "Madame," he replied, "when I see the King, I say to myself: There is a man who can have my head cut off."-"Oh!" she said,
"the King is too kind."
Michelet again concludes the anecdote by explaining its significance. "The lady in waiting summed up in a single word here all the safeguards offered by the monarchy''"
35. "Le medecin de Louis XV et de Madame de Pompadour, l'illustre Quesnay, qui logeait chez elle a Versailles, voit un jour le Roi entrer a I' improviste et se trouble. La spirituelle femme de chambre, Madame de Hausset, qui a laisse de si curieux Memoires, lui demanda pourquoi il se deconcertait ainsi. 'Madame,' repondit-il, 'quand je vois le Roi, je me dis: Voila un homme qui peut me faire couper la tete.' -'Oh!,' dit-elle, 'Ie Roi est trop bon.' La femme de chambre resumait la d'un seul mot les garanties de la monarchie." Histoire de fa revolution francoise, 2 vols. (Paris: Editions de la Pleiade, 1952), II, 67. Many other examples could be cited. Describing the drastically diminished authority of the monarchy in the years preceding the Revolution, Philippe de Segur expresses confidence in his Memoires that "On peut en juger par une anecdote." He then proceeds to tell how one day he ran into the Comte de Laureguais, whose witty and cynical sayings and writings had made him the object of countless "lettres de cachet" -referred to gaily by the Count as "rna correspondence avec le roi." Laureguais was strolling about openly in a place where there was horse-racing and to which members of the Court had therefore been attracted in large numbers. Remembering that the count had been exiled far from Paris by a recent "lettre de cachet," Segur went up to him and warned him that his brazenly showing himself there was an imprudent provocation that could have serious consequences for him. In response, Laureguais simply laughed. His escapade, Segur observes, could not have passed unnoticed, "and yet it went unpunished." (Memoires, souvenirs et anecdotes par M.le Comte de Segur, ed. M. F. Barriere [Paris: Firmin Didot, 1859], 90-91). In his pathbreaking Histoire de la Conquete de l'Angleterre par les Normands of 1825,Augustin Thierry frequently provides "anecdotal illustration(s) of the life and manners of the natives" and of the effect of the conquest on the hapless Saxons. A typical introduction to one of those anecdotes (which tells of the persecution and spoliation of a certain Brithstan by the Norman provost Robert Malartais) runs: "A circumstance which occurred some time before this may throw some light upon these decrees, which despoiled the unhappy Saxons of everything" (History ofthe Conquest ofEngland by the Normans, transl. W. Hazlitt [London: Bohn, 1856], 1,362-363 [Book VII]). Guizot relates an anecdote, in his History ofEngland, about Archbishop Sharp being set upon and, despite his pleas for mercy, stabbed to death by Scottish Covenanters as he passed in a carriage with his daughter through the environs of St. Andrews. The anecdote is intended to epitomize the cruelty and lawlessness of those "armed fanatics," as Guizot calls the Covenanters (A Popular History ofEngland from the Earliest Times to the Reign of Queen Victoria [New York: John
W. Lowell, n.d.], 111,378[chap. 30]). Describing Queen Mary's persecution of the Protestants, the nineteenth-century English historian, John Richard Green, inserts a one-page narrative about a single individual, Rowland Taylor, the Vicar of Hadleigh, on the grounds that it "tells us more of the work which was now begun (the persecution and the executions), and of the effect it was likely to produce (i.e. stiffened resistance), than pages of historic dissertation" (A Short History ofthe English People [New York, Cincinnati, and Chicago: American Book Co., n.d.], 365 [The Reformation. Sect. II, chap. 30]). The same basic approach to anecdote is still evident in Eileen Power's Medieval People (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1957), a successful work of modem social and economic history, first published in 1924. Power chose to present her account of medieval society by means of six portraits of "ordinary people," in the belief, as she put it, that "the past may be made to live again for the general reader more effectively by personifying it than by presenting it in the form of learned treatises on the development of the manor or on medieval trade, essential as these are to the specialist" (Preface, 7). Anecdotes play their customary role in the construction of Power's portraits; in addition, each portrait in itself might be regarded as a kind of extended anecdote epitomizing a larger general situation.
ANECDOTE AND HISTORY
VI. THE TRUTH OF HISTORICAL ANECDOTES
Being passed around by word of mouth or borrowed by one writer from another, most often associated with the private sphere, and almost always unverifiable, anecdotes were generally regarded as of doubtful veracity by "modem" historians determined to apply to their work the critical methods elaborated at the beginning of the eighteenth century." In parallels of Herodotus and Thucydides, the Father of History did not usually come out well. But if the meaning of an anecdote were to be sought less in its factual accuracy than in what it conveyed about states of mind and general trends, then even when its factual veracity was in doubt it might still be thought of as in some way illuminating historical reality. Prosper de Barante, for instance, justified his method of closely following the chronicle accounts, on which he based his immensely popular Histoire des Dues de Bourgogne de la Maison de Valois in the third decade of the nineteenth century, by claiming that the "naive" vision of the chroniclers was in itself as historically significant as any fact, since it told a great deal about how the men and women of an earlier age thought and felt. Prosper Merimee's justification of the anecdote in the Preface to his Chronique du Regne de Charles IX was similar. "Anecdotes are the only thing I like in history," he declared ("Je n'aime dans l'histoire que les anecdotes"). Traditional historians, to whom the only history is political, military, and dynastic, would doubtless consider this "not a very dignified taste," but he himself "would willingly give Thucydides for some authentic memoirs by Aspasia or by a slave of Pericles.t"?
Something of the character Burckhardt later ascribed to myth in his Cultural History of Greece was thus attributed to the anecdote: that is to say, it was seen as an essentially popular or communal creation, the validity of which resides not so much in the accuracy with which it reports particular positive facts as in its ability to reflect the general reality underlying those facts or the general view of that reality. It was thus the true raw material of the cultural historian. Burckhardt himself made the connection between anecdote and myth. "The oral tradition does not cleave to literal exactness ," he declared in a lecture on "The Scholarly Contribution of the Greeks ," "but becomes typical; that is to say that it does not
On hearing a string of anecdotes about a famous figure of the day, Kant is said to have remarked: "It seems to me I recall similar anecdotes about other great figures. But that is to be expected. Great men are like high church towers: around both there is apt to be a great deal of wind" (quoted by Fadiman, Little, Brown Book ofAnecdotes). Investigating anecdotes about local characters in relatively small communities, Sandra K. D. Stahl reports that such anecdotes, "presumed to be true by the local populace . . . are often made up of motifs found in other regions as well" ("The Local Character Anecdote," Genre 8 ,283-302).
Prosper Merimee, Chronique du Regne de Charles IX (Paris: Nelson, n.d.), 6; A Chronicle of the Reign of Charles IX in The Writings of Prosper Merimee, introduction by George Saintsbury, 6 vols. (New York: Croscup & Holby, 1905), VI, v-vi. In the middle of the eighteenth century a similar argument had been proposed by the antiquarian La Curne de Sainte-Palaye as a justification for scholarly study of the Old French romances. According to Sainte-Palaye, the very anachronisms and errors of the old romances were historically revealing (L. Gossman, Medievalism and the Ideologies of the Enlightenment: The World and Work of La Curne de Sainte-Palaye [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1968],247-253).
cleave to a factually exact grounding of the events narrated, but brings out their inner significance, what is characteristic about them, what has a general human or popular content. Often an anecdote is all that remains of a long chain of events, circumstances, and personalities ."38
In fact, historians do not shrink, on occasion, from invoking anecdotes, for the truth of which they freely admit they cannot vouch. Voltaire relates an anecdote about a priest who dared to take the King to task in a sermon he preached at Versailles. The anecdote culminates in a "pointe," the memorably pointed remark characteristic of the classic eighteenth-century anecdote: "We are assured that Louis XIV was satisfied to address him thus: 'Father ... I am happy to accept my share of a sermon, but I do not like being the target of one.'''39 Whether the King actually spoke those words or not, Voltaire concedes, they are instructive and revealing. In Burckhardt's work, as one might expect, the "fictional" anecdote serves an unequivocally historical function. In Part I, Section 3 of The Civilization ofthe Renaissance in Italy "an old story, one of those which are true and not true, everywhere and nowhere," is recounted to illustrate "the thoroughly immoral relation" between city governments and powerful condottieri in fifteenth-century Italy. In the following section Burckhardt cites another "legendary history," which, he says, "is simply the reflection of the atrocities" perpetrated by
"Uber das wissenschaftliche Verdienst der Griechen" (lecture given in Basel on 10 November 1881), in Jacob Burckhardt, Votriige, ed. E. Durr, 3rd ed. (Basel: Schwabe, 1919), 188-89. Burckhardt goes on to describe the process of creation of an anecdote in terms reminiscent of his defense of myth in the Griechische Kulturgeschichte: "In the meantime, of course, the narrators have also filled out the story as it passed from mouth to mouth, not only by drawing on other information but by drawing on the general nature of the situation in question; they have added color to it and recreated it; they have in short attributed to the most celebrated representatives of certain human situations and relations what happened in them at one or another time. Thus the lives of most of the well-known Greeks are full of traits that have been observed in others like them and are then transferred to them-on ne prete qu'aux riches-and modem criticshaveaneasytimeofitexposingsuchfictions....Yetthistypical, anecdotal material is also history in its way-only not in the sense of the singular event, but rather in the sense of what might have happened at any time ("des Irgendwannvorgekommenen"), and often it is so beautifully expressive that we would on no account want to do without it." During the First World War a similar justification of the anecdote was offered by the editor of a German collection of anecdotes devoted to the War and doubtless designed to raise morale. (It was one of a series of fourteen immensely popular anecdote books put out in the early twentieth century by Lutz of Stuttgart, each one devoted to a particular subject, such as Bismarck, the Hohenzollems, the Habsburgs, Bluecher, Frederick the Great, Napoleon, Schiller, etc.) Like Burckhardt, the editor claimed not that the stories were true (in fact these "Anekdoten" are a mixed bag of anti-English poems and songs, newspaper reports, supposed letters from or to the front, as well as classic anecdotes), but that they gave an authentic picture of the spirit of the German people at the time, its gritty energy in adversity, its pride, its humor, its capacity for laughter and for tears, its ability to celebrate triumphs and to mourn losses: "ein getreues Seelengemalde des deutschen Volkes" (Der grosse Krieg. Ein Anekdotenbuch, ed. Erwin Rosen, 9th ed. [Stuttgart: Robert Lutz, n.d.]). After the War, in the late 1920s, the anecdote was again justified as "the only valid artistic form of cultural history" in the Introduction to Egon Friedell's Kulturgeschichte der Neuzeit: Die Krisis der europiiischen Seele von der schwarzen Pest bis zum ersten Weltkrieg, 3 vols. (Munich: C. H. Beck, 1927-1931), 1,18: "Pars pro toto: this is not the least effective or vivid of figures. Often a single hand movement can characterize an individual, a single detail an entire event, more sharply, more essentially, and with greater force than the most detailed description."
"On assure que Louis XIV se contenta de lui dire: 'Mon pere ...j'aime bien aprendre rna part d'un sermon, mais je n'aime pas qu'on me la fasse.'" Voltaire, Siecle de Louis XIV, 1,367.
ANECDOTE AND HISTORY
the petty tyrants of the fifteenth century.t" Implicit in such use of anecdotes is the idea that, even if they are not factually true, their very fabrication and success are in themselves a kind of evidence.
VII. CRITICAL USES OF ANECDOTES IN PAST HISTORIOGRAPHY
Alongside the predominantly confirmatory uses of anecdote by historians, there is also, but more rarely, a negative use. In addition to the histoire secrete tradition, stemming from Procopius'" and alluded to earlier, what one might call the "Cleopatra's-nose anecdote" aims to debunk grand general arguments about history by finding the cause of major historical transformations in some minor "anecdote" or "particularite historique, petit fait curieux dont le recit peut eclairer le dessous des choses" ("a historical particularity, a small curious fact whose telling can reveal the underside of things"), to borrow one of the Dictionnaire Robert's definitions of the word "anecdote." Several examples of this use of anecdote are to be found in John Buchan's 1929 Rede lecture at Cambridge University on "The Causal and the Casual in History." The defeat of the Greeks in the War of 1922, for instance, and the resulting consolidation of the revolution of Kemal Ataturk in Turkey, are traced via a chain of causally connected incidents to the death, in the autumn of 1920, of the young King Alexander of Greece from the bite of a pet monkey in the palace gardens. "I cannot," Buchan concludes, "better Mr. Churchill's comment: 'A quarter of a million persons died of that monkey's bite."'42
The Cleopatra's-nose anecdote does not produce a richer and more complex history than the grand narratives-of which the Marxist was probably the grandest-that it purports to undercut; on the contrary, it presents a drastically simplified one. The opposite effect may be produced, however, by anecdotes that offer themselves neither as links in a simple causal chain nor-in the style of the Romantics-as parts of a whole, from which they derive their meaning and which they in tum epitomize. Anecdotes as fragments of some undeciphered whole, as instances that resist neat interpretation, far from consolidating what we think we know, may cause us to question it and provoke inquiry into it. Such anecdotes will have to be different, however, from the classic, welldesigned anecdote, with its triadic structure of exposition, confrontation or encounter, and "pointe" or punch line, since that form of anecdote works precisely to the degree that it can count, like traditional theater, on commonly shared assumptions to drive home its meaning despite, or even because of, its brevity. If an anecdote is to be truly disruptive and disorienting, it cannot have
Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilization ofthe Renaissance in Italy, ed B. Nelson and C. Trinkaus, 2 vols. (New York: Harper and Row, Colophon Books, 1958), 1,40,49.
Now largely neutralized, if one can judge by a series of so-called "histoires secretes" of the French provinces currently being put out by the publishing house of Albin Michel in Paris.
John Buchan, The Causal and the Casual in History (Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 1929), 19-20.
the structural coherence that the classic anecdote possesses in far higher degree than history itself.43
The disruptive or negative anecdote can already be found in Pierre Bayle, and a little later Diderot took delight in demonstrating how undecipherable the reality behind a seemingly transparent story may be. The most ardent champion of the anecdote as a disruptive element may in fact be a novelist rather than a historian. "Just think," wrote the author of Le Rouge et le Noir, itself developed from afait divers reported in the newspapers, "Just think that what fools despise as gossip is, on the contrary, the only history that in this affected age gives a true picture of a country.... We need to see everything, experience everything, make a collection of anecdotes.'?" Not the contrived narrative of history, in short, but only the anecdote, understood as a naive, unreflected, and unvarnished report of a fragment of reality, offers reliable clues to the way things are (or were), unaltered by either ideological or formal-esthetic elaboration. As the only window onto reality as it is, rather than as we have pre-shaped it, the anecdote valued by Stendhal could not, obviously, be the polished product of salon wits that finds its way into the anecdote books. Its chief merit being that it is "exactement vraie" ("exactly true"), it could not, in Stendhal's own view, be "fort piquante" ("very snappy"). It could not, in other words, be literature .45 It is because this kind of anecdote is raw, unpolished, not "piquante," that it is more easily found in the provinces, according to Stendhal, or in legal documents or newspapers, than in the spoiled and cultivated circles of the capital.
As any narrative telling, however naive, involves a minimum measure of shaping according to a priori moral, psychological, epistemological, literary, and linguistic categories, there was something inherently paradoxical about Stendhal's
See, for instance, Richard N. Coe, "The Anecdote and the Novel: A Brief Inquiry into the Origins of Stendhal's Narrative Technique," Australian Journal of French Studies 22 (1985), 3-23: "In the remoter origins of all narrative literature there may be discerned two fundamental elements: history, which creates out of 'real life' a model of quasi-arbitrary, but strictly chronological development, retailing facticity from day to day; and the anecdote which, starting from a factual-historical 'happening,' proceeds to refashion it in terms of structural coherence, endowing it with a beginning, middle and end, and imbuing it with significance and point. History may well be haphazard and shapeless, and yet command attention nonetheless because 'that's how it was'; the anecdote depends, for its viability, entirely on its formal structure-a fact which in no way contradicts its necessary dependence upon a profound substructure of historically, socially or psychologically verifiable truth" (3). In his study of Brecht's "anti-anecdotes," Walter-Ernst Schafer highlights the structured dramatic form of the anecdote and its dependence, like the drama, on stereotypes and shared assumptions.These are what Brecht set out to deconstruct. "Eine 'epische Anekdote' muss diese Gattung iiberhaupt sprengen und Erzahlung oder Roman an ihre Stelle treten lassen" ("An 'epic anecdote' should explode the very genre of anecdote and replace it with an extended narrative or a novel") (Schafer, Anekdote-Antianekdote, 29).
"Songez que ce que les sots meprisent sous le nom de commerage, est au contraire la seule histoire qui dans ce siecle d'affectation peigne bien un pays ... il faut tout voir, tout eprouver, faire un recueil d'anecdotes." Stendhal, Memoires d'un touriste, I, in Oeuvres completes, ed. Victor Del Litto and Ernest Abravenel (Paris/Geneva: Slatkine Reprints, 1986), XV, 174 (dated Lyon, 24 May, 1837); Journal litteraire, 25 frimaire, an XI (16 December 1802), in Oeuvres completes, XXXIII, 31.
"Le premier merite du Petit nombre d'anecdotes qui peuvent faire le saut du manuscript dans I'imprime sera d'etre exactement vraies, c'est annoncer qu'elles ne seront pas fort piquantes" tMemoires d'un touriste, in Oeuvres completes, XV, 189, cited in Coe, "The Anecdote and the Novel," 9.
ANECDOTE AND HISTORY
requirement. It is fascinating to follow his desperate attempts to protect the anecdotes he valued from such shaping-to the extent that he sometimes refrained altogether from giving them verbal form and confined himself to a simple reference, such as "Mlle Camp's reply to her lover" ("Reponse de MIle Camp ... a son amant") or "heartbreaking anecdote this morning" ("anecdote dechirante ce matin") .46 The preservation of authenticity at the expense of communicability inevitably leaves the reader with an undecipherable notation.'? It has taken Stendhal scholars over a century to track down and identify some of these enigmatic references.
From our point of view, the most important difference between the unliterary, radically realist anecdote that seems to have been Stendhal's preference and the anecdote as it appears in most historical texts lies in the fact that, in traditional historical usage, the anecdote is mainly borrowed, not found. It has already been worked over and made into literature. It does not lie at the beginning of a historical investigation or prompt one, but is imported from a repertory of anecdotes, after the historical argument is already in place, as an illustrative rhetorical device. In that respect, the Romantic symbolical anecdote does not differ markedly from the Humanist allegorical anecdote. In contrast, the anecdote as Stendhal appears to have imagined it is not found after the historical argument has already been drawn up, but, precisely because it cannot be easily understood in terms of existing notions of past or present reality, becomes the starting point of a longer story (fictional or historical) that explores that reality and seeks a new understanding of it. The Stendhalian anecdote, in short, disturbs intellectual routines and stimulates new explorations of history.
VIII. MODERN HISTORIANS, MICRO-HISTORY, AND THE ANECDOTE
In an essay outlining a proposed "History of the Anecdote," a scholar of English literature observes that, "as the narration of a singular event," the anecdote is "the literary form or genre that uniquely refers to the real." By the very fact that it does not refer to the real through direct desciription or ostention, it inevitably has a literary character; nonetheless, Joel Fineman insists, "however literary, [it] is nevertheless directly pointed towards or rooted in the real," and it is this that "allows us to think of the anecdote, given its formal if not its actual brevity, as a historeme, i.e. as the smallest minimal unit of the historiographic fact." The function of the anecdote is thus essentially disruptive, according to Fineman. His thesis, he declares, is "that the anecdote is the literary form that uniquely lets histo
Memoires d'un touriste, in Oeuvres completes, XV, 224, cited in Coe, "The Anecdote and the Novel," 9.
See Coe, "The Anecdote and the Novel," 8-10, 12, 13 [as in note 43]. Stendhal did not, of course, succeed in his endeavor to deconstruct the literary anecdote. Indeed, he pursued the goal only intermittently and also made use of familiar anecdote forms. In fact, he was not above the kind of transposition of anecdotal material from one subject to another to which Kant and Burckhardt referred: thus an anecdote about Haydn in Carpani's biography, which Stendhal knew inside out, since he made abundant use of it for his own Vie de Haydn, reappears in Stendhal's Vie de Rossini applied to the Italian composer (Coe, 10-11).
ry happen [italics in text] by virtue of the way it introduces an opening into the teleological, and therefore timeless, narration of beginning, middle, and end. The anecdote produces the effect of the real, the occurrence of contingency, by establishing an event within and yet without the framing context of historical successivity." To Fineman, the Hegelian type of historical narrative is the "purest model" of the kind of "timeless" historical design or grand recit that the anecdote disrupts by injecting contingency and thus real, open-ended time into it. Though I cannot agree with Fineman that this is how the anecdote has always functioned or must, by its very nature, function, it is, I believe, a fair description of how Stendhal may have wanted it to function and how it functions for a number of modem or, more accurately perhaps, "postmodem" historians."
The collapse of confidence in the widely accepted grands recits or "metahistories" (Jean-Francois Lyotard) of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is also the context in which the Italian historian Giovanni Levi'? situates the success of "microhistory," a modem, or perhaps one should again say postmodem, form of history that often seems to start from an anecdote or a narrative grounded in a non-literary source, such as a court or other archival record. One thinks of Natalie Davis's Return ofMartin Guerre (1983), Robert Darnton's The Great Cat Massacre of the Rue Saini-Severin (1984), Alain Corbin's Le Village des cannibales (1990) or, albeit the action takes place in a more elevated social milieu, Edward Berenson's The Trial of Madame Caillaux (1992). Whereas in the heyday of Femand Braudel, "microhistoire" was a pejorative term-a character in Raymond Queneau's Les Fleurs Bleues of 1965 applied it humorously to the lowest, pettiest kind of history, "a peine de l'histoire evenementielle'P'l-e-by the 1980s, it marked, for many historians, the discovery of a new method, as well as new objects and topics, of historical investigation and analysis. It did indeed reject the hierarchy of historical objects still adhered to in some measure even by Voltaire, but it was defined less by the small-scale and humble character of its objects than by its way of looking at all historical objects -through a microscopic lens.
Joel Fineman, "The History of the Anecdote," in The New Historicism, ed. H. Aram Veeser (New York and London: Routledge, 1989),49-76: "Governed by an absolute, inevitable, inexorable teleological unfolding, so that in principle, nothing can happen by chance, every moment that participates within such Hegelian history, as the Spirit materially unfolds itself into and unto itself, is thereby rendered timeless; such moments exist ... outside of time, or in a timeless present, and this because their momentary durative appearance is already but the guaranteed foreshadow, the already all but realized promise of the concluding end of history toward which, as but the passing moments in a story whose conclusion is already written, they tend" (57). Other quotations from page 61. One is reminded of Karl-Heinz Stierle's comment that "Die Problematik der Konstitution von Geschichten ist ein Beispiel jener Problematik der Relation von Allgemeinem und Besonderem, die in der Perspektive Montaignes die eigentliche Erkenntnisproblematik darstellt" ("The problem of how history is constituted is an instance of the wider problem of the relation of the general and the particular, which in Montaigne's perspective, is the essential problem of all knowledge") ("Geschichte als ExemplumExemplum als Geschichte," in Geschichte-Ereignis und Erzdhlung ; ed. Reinhart Koselleck and Wolf-Dieter Stempel [Munich: Wilhelm Fink, 1973], 375).
"On Microhistory," in New Perspectives on Historical Writing, ed. Peter Burke (Cambridge, Eng.: Polity Press, 1991),93-113.
50. Raymond Queneau, Les Fleurs Bleues (Paris: Gallimard, 1965),85.
ANECDOTE AND HISTORY
Instead of setting out with a set of established macrohistorical categoriessuch as the individual, the family, the state, industrialization, urbanization, and so on-the new history stayed close to the ground. Typically, it worked out from some limited, often perplexing, incident or person, in order to investigate, concretely and without prior parti pris, networks of relations in the small Lebenswelten in which people actually live, with the aim of discovering unsuspected patterns of action and interaction, motivation, and behavior. By opening up original fields and modes of inquiry, it was hoped, the unusual or statistically exceptional case might make it possible to look behind the well-mapped surface of history to those "silences de l'histoire" to which Michelet famously referred in a journal entry for January 30, 1842. One could say that the new history was doing what innovative writers of fiction, including Marivaux, Diderot, and Stendhal, have repeatedly done, almost always in the name of "realism": that is, it was attempting to break through categories that may once have led to better understanding, but had become conventions facilitating the production of a particular kind of institutionalized discourse. Where that discourse often ended up acting as a screen rather than a lamp, the new history hoped to serve as a kind of reconnoissance flare illuminating a darkened landscape .51
Nothing could be further from the polished miniature mostly used by historians in the past, or closer perhaps to the petit fait social of Stendhal's ideally unliterary anecdote, than the deliberately raw eight-line recounting of a strange incident, followed by an equally brief, puzzlingly contradictory contemporary judgment of it, with which, in a section with-in the original French-the musical title "Prelude," Alain Corbin opens Le Village des cannibales (1990; published in English as The Village of Cannibals, 1992).
The date is August 16, 1870. The place is Hautefaye, a commune in the Nontron district (arrondissement) of the Dordogne departement, On the fairground, a young noble is tortured for two hours, then burned alive (if indeed still alive) before a mob of three hundred to eight hundred people who have accused him of shouting "Vive la Republique!" When night falls, the frenzied crowd disperses, but not without boasting of having "roasted" a "Prussian." Some express regret at not having inflicted the same punishment on the parish priest.
The scene now shifts forward in time to February 1871. The republican journalist Charles Ponsac supplies details that tum tragedy into historical object: "Never in the annals of crime has there been so dreadful a murder. Imagine! It happened in broad daylight, in the midst of merrymaking, before a crowd of thousands [sic]! Think of it! This revolting crime lacked even the cover of darkness for an excuse! Dante is right to say that man sometimes exhibits a lust more hideous than concupiscence: the lust for blood." Later in the article we are told that "the crime of Hautefaye is in a sense a wholly political act."
The enigma of Hautefaye . . . lies in this tension between horror and political rationality. We must therefore turn to history, to what it was that first brought horror and politics
51. Inquiring into neglect and even disdain of the fait divers among historians until quite recently, Michelle Perrot observes that "le choix du long terme, l'ambition macrostructurelle, les obsessions du seriel ... ne pouvaient qu'en detourner, comme aussi le peu d'ineret porte al'histoire de la sphere privee" ("the focus on the long term, the interest in macrostructures, the obsession with quantitative series, along with the lack of interest in the private sphere, could only distract from the fait divers") ("Fait divers et histoire au XfXeme siecle," 917).
together and then prized them apart, in order to clarify our understanding of what proved to be, in France, the last outburst of peasant rage to result in a murder.V
The point of departure of Corbin's Les Cloches de la terre (1994; published in English as Village Bells, 1998) is again anecdotal-in this case a series of three anecdotes about the ringing of bells. The first relates an incident in which a group of girls and unmarried women repeatedly rang the bells of the commune of Brienne in the department of Aube on the 4th Frimaire of the year VIII (25 November, 1799), in flagrant violation of laws passed in 1795 and 1796 restricting the use of bells to national festivals, and in uncomprehending defiance of the attempts of the "authorities" to get them to desist. The second anecdote tells of a riot that broke out in the same place in December 1832 following a decision by the municipal council to sell one of the village bells-the oldest, known as the "great" bell-which was cracked, in order to satisfy a request of the sub-prefect of Bar-sur-Aube that the commune pay for the arming of the local national guard. Finally, in the third anecdote we learn of the uproar caused in 1958 in the solidly religious commune of Lonlay-l'Abbaye in Normandy by a decision of the municipal council to have the restored bell of the local church resume the ancient tradition of marking the noon hour, in place of the siren on the roof of the town hall to which that function-important in a rural community-had been entrusted after the destruction of the church tower by the Germans in 1944.53 This text is further punctuated by innumerable stories of disputes over bells. "Many will be astonished at the idea of treating bell-ringing as a subject of historical investigation," Corbin concedes in a foreword to the English translation, "and yet it offers us privileged access to the world we have lost.">'
A few years later, in writing the life of an unknown clog-maker (Le Monde retrouve de Louis-Francais Pinagot: sur les traces d'un inconnu 1798-1876, 1998; published in English as thelife ofan unknown: TheRediscoveredWorld of a Clog-Maker in Nineteenth Century France, 2001), Corbin seems to have wanted to distance himself even further from basing his own text on a previously existing structured narrative. His "hero" is chosen at random, the only condition of selection being that not a single pre-shaped biographical or autobiographical account of him, not even a criminal record, was to be found."
According to Corbin himself, his story of Louis-Francois Pinagot is "not really an exercise in micro-history." Whether it is or is not is of less interest than the lengths to which Corbin went in order to make sure that the starting point of his investigation would be as undetermined as possible. Pinagot himself was selected not simply by excluding any figure who "left an unusual record of any kind"
52. Alain Corbin, The Village of Cannibals: Rage and Murder in France, 1870, trans!' Arthur Goldhammer (Cambridge, Eng.: Polity Press, 1992), 1.
53. Alain Corbin, Les Cloches de la terre: paysage sonore et culture sensible dans les campagnes au XIXe siecle (Paris: Albin Michel, 1994),9-13.
Corbin, Village Bells: Sound and Meaning in the 19th Century French Countryside, transl. Martin Thorn (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), ix.
Corbin, the life ofan unknown: The Rediscovered World ofa Clog-Maker in Nineteenth Century France, transl, Arthur Goldhammer (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001), viii, ix, x.
ANECDOTE AND HISTORY
or about whom any personal or family recollections remained, but by the historian's picking out, eyes closed, "a volume from the inventory of the municipal archives ... on which (his) hand happen(ed) to fall" -which turned out to be that for the commune of Origny-le-Butin, "a nondescript locality, a tiny cell in the vast tissue of French communes," one, moreover, that "like so many other tiny communes . . . has vanished from memory in the same way as its individual inhabitants." Two names were finally chosen "at random" from the de.cennial tables of vital statistics for the late eighteenth century. Only here did the historian intervene: one of the two was eliminated because he died young and thus would have been of limited heuristic value.
It is hard to imagine a starting point more at odds with that of Wittgenstein's Poker, with which I began this paper. Corbin's task was not to fill in an existing structure, to elaborate an existing story, as Edmonds and Eidinow do. There was no such structure. His starting point was a cipher, a mystery about which everything had to be learned. Moreover, the aim was not to make Pinagot himself an object in his world, but to use him "like a filmmaker who shoots a scene through the eyes of a character who (himself) remains off screen," in order to "paint a portrait of his world as he might have seen it, to reconstitute his spatial and temporal horizon, his family environment, his circle of friends, his community, as well as his probable values and beliefs ."56 Between the historian and his character the distance remains unbridged and unbridgeable. Unlike Edmonds and Eidinow, Corbin does not present himself as an omniscient narrator describing a world of readily identifiable and intelligible objects, relations, and personalities, but as a historically limited subject engaging with other historically limited and deeply unfamiliar subjects. Conjuring away the strangeness of the other is not part of Corbin's historiographical project.
Compared with the experimental and exploratory work of Davis, Darnton, Corbin, and others, Wittgenstein's Poker must strike one, in the end, as "potted" history, skillfully cobbled together from other books by a couple of intelligent and well-read journalists. Like a large class of traditional anecdotes-anecdotes of Napoleon, Bismarck, Churchill, De Gaulle, and so on-the opening anecdote of Wittgenstein's Poker is a well-structured narrative involving a famous individual about whom the reader can be expected to have the usual common notions. Characteristically also, it has been borrowed from the public domain and is not itself the product of historical research or discovery. Not surprisingly, it produces fairly predictable results and does not contribute to the opening up of new historical questions or lead to new areas of historical exploration.
As a structured form, written or oral, that is passed from hand to hand or mouth to mouth and, transcending the particular circumstances it relates, that pretends to a broader significance, the anecdote depends on, epitomizes, and confirms generally accepted views of the world, human nature, and the human condition. It may be invoked to illustrate a problem or even a paradox, but it will not usu
57. Ibid .• 12.
ally lead to a rethinking of the terms of the problem or paradox. In contrast, as an unpublished, often secret record of events excluded from the official record, anecdotes may challenge the historian to expand and revise established or authorized views of a historical situation, event, or personality or of human behavior generally. In the modem guise of the fait divers, that is, as a raw journalistic or archival report of a striking, disturbing, or perplexing event or behavior, anecdotes may likewise provoke a reconsideration of what we believe we know about history and society and lead us to consider previously unobserved aspects of the past. As Marc Ferro notes, the "fortuitous incident" -dismissed as a non-event by churches, governments, political parties, and similar established institutions-is in fact a "necessity of (the writing of) history ... a privileged historical object" in that it serves as an "indicateur de sante," a signal of trouble in the texture of society, politics, the economy, or the prevailing value system.'?
57. Marc Ferro, "Presentation," Annales 38 (1983),824-825.