French historian Paul Weiner: History is a kind of "true novel" | the dead

author:Beijing News
French historian Paul Weiner: History is a kind of "true novel" | the dead

Paul Weiner (13 June 1930 – 29 September 2022) was an expert in Roman history. His major works include "Whether the Ancient Greeks Believed Their Myths", "Sex and Power in Ancient Rome", "How Man Wrote History", etc., and edited the first volume of "History of Private Life", "From Rome to Byzantium".

Born in 1930 in Aix, the capital of Provence, France, Weiner graduated from the École Normale Supérieure de Paris, France, in 1955, and was deeply influenced by the Annals school. Later, Weiner became famous in the academic circles for his research on ancient Greek and Roman civilizations, and later became an honorary professor at the Collège de France. He once claimed that he chose history and archaeology not out of any "humanist impulse or specific cult", but only from a chance encounter with artifacts as a child: at the age of 8, Weiner found a fragment of a amphora jar at the Celtic site near the village of Cavaillon, which aroused his special interest in Roman civilization.

After graduating from the Hauptat de Paris, Weiner settled in his hometown of Aix-en-Provence and became a professor at the University of Provence. During this time, he published a number of articles on historical epistemology. At a time when metrology dominated French historiography, these essays expressed Weiner's unique view of history: "History is a 'true story'", which also foreshadowed his subsequent special attention to historical narratives.

Weiner is the author of Did the Ancient Greeks Believe Their Myths? "How Man Wrote History", "Sex and Power in Ancient Rome", "Foucault" and other well-known works (the works mentioned here have been translated into Chinese). His research upends many stereotypes about history. Weiner is concerned with the broader economic, social, and psychological histories beyond political history and the history of war. In his view, there is no so-called "capitalized history", only a kind of ".... History" – a concrete history. Historians should strive to tell "stories of people as performers" and "history is the true novel." From this point of view, history is not a science with universal laws.

In a 2014 interview, Weiner said that a person is never born to be a historian, and that being a historian means "reacting adequately to the biases of one's environment and times." Thus, "the sacred mission of the historian is to think about how to oppose himself". In addition to being a professional researcher, Weiner also actively focuses on public affairs. He has been involved in debates among French intellectuals, and in 2015 he published a book about the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra, which was being sabotaged by the Islamic State group.

The following content, with the permission of the publishing house, is excerpted from the chapter "Everything is history, so the history of capitalization does not exist" in "How Man Writes History", with deletions.

French historian Paul Weiner: History is a kind of "true novel" | the dead

How Man Writes History, Paul Weiner, translated by Han Yiyu, East China Normal University Press, March 2018.

Historical incoherence

The field of history is therefore completely uncertain, except in the case that everything that is there has actually happened. As for the rest, it does not matter whether the structure of the field is tight or evacuated, whether it is complete or missing; The pages of the history of the French Revolution are tightly structured enough that the logic of many events can be understood almost thoroughly, from which a Machiavelli or Trotsky can extract some kind of political art; But a page of ancient history of the East, confined to only some kind of rudimentary chronicle, including all we know about one or two kingdoms with only one or two names, is still history. This anomaly has been vividly revealed by Levi-Strauss: "History is an incoherent whole, made up of many fields, each defined by its own specific cycle."

There were times when numerous events provided extraordinary event characteristics in the eyes of historians; The rest, on the other hand, was the opposite, and for him (or, of course, for those who lived in that era), very little happened, or sometimes simply nothing happened. All these dates do not form a series, they belong to different kinds. If encoded in a pre-historical system, the most famous episodes of modern history would no longer be appropriate, and perhaps (again, we know nothing about it) except for certain important aspects, the evolution of the population on a global scale, the invention of the steam engine, electricity, and nuclear energy. What corresponds to the hierarchy of a model: "The relevant choice of historian has never been between a history that teaches more and explains less, and a history that explains more and teaches less."

French historian Paul Weiner: History is a kind of "true novel" | the dead

Anthropology in the Face of Modern World Problems, by Claude Lévi-Strauss, translated by Luan Xi, Chinese University Press, January 2017.

The history of biographies and anecdotes, at the lowest level, is a weak history that does not include comprehensibility in itself, and can only be acquired when one places it as a whole in the middle of a history stronger than it; However, it would be wrong to think that this chimerism progressively reconstructs a complete history, because what we get from this side is always lost from the other. The history of biographies and anecdotes is the least explanatory, but because it examines individuals in terms of individuality, detailing the nuances of each characteristic, the ebb and flow of motivation, the different stages of thought, it is richer from the point of view of information. This information simplifies itself and subsequently dissolves itself in the transition to an increasingly powerful history.

The idea of a non-major event

Thus, historians of every era have the freedom to cut history (political history, erudite history, biography, ethnography, sociology, natural history) at will, because history has no natural joints; It is time to distinguish between the "field" of historical events and history as a genre, using the different methods that have been developed in different centuries to conceive of this distinction.

Because, in its continuous evolution, the historical genre has expanded to varying degrees, and in some epochs it has shared its field with other genres, such as travel history or sociology. Let us therefore distinguish between the field of historical events and the virtual realm of the historical genre—and the various degrees of extension of the genre that have been cut into its realm as the times have changed. The ancient East had its own list of kings and dynastic chronologies; In Herodotus, history is political and military, at least in principle; It tells the story of the Greeks and the barbarians; But the traveler Herodotus did not distinguish it from a historical ethnography. In our time, history merges demographic, economic, social, and spiritual outlooks, and it aspires to become "histoirc totalc," ruling over all its potential spheres.

French historian Paul Weiner: History is a kind of "true novel" | the dead

History: Detailed Notes on the Revised Edition, by [Ancient Greek] Herodotus, translated by Xu Songyan, Century Wenjing | Shanghai People's Publishing House, April 2018.

Between these successive kingdoms, a deceptive continuity is established in our eyes; From there arose a fictional genre in evolution, continuity from the word history itself (however, it was convinced that sociology and ethnography must be excluded) and the stability of the capital city, which is political history: however, in contemporary times, there is a tendency for the role of the capital to shift to social history or what we call the history of civilization.

So, what is historical and what is not? We will pursue this question below; But we are about to say at this moment that in order to distinguish this, we cannot trust the boundaries of historical genres at a particular moment as their boundaries; It's like we believe that Racine's tragedy or Brecht's play embodies the essence of drama. At this stage of reasoning, it is impossible to rationally establish the distinction between history, ethnography, biography and popular social news; It is impossible to say why Louis XIV's life should be history, but not that of a peasant living in Navers in the 17th century; It is impossible to claim that the reign of Louis XIV in three volumes is history, and that it is no longer history to describe it in a hundred volumes.

One can try to make a distinction and try to set a definition (history is the history of society, history of important content, history of things of great importance to us...). German historicism has shown this, and its failure has reluctantly confirmed that no definition is tenable; For now, the only boundaries remain those changes in the genre's conventions. At best, we can confirm that this genre, in the course of its development, has undergone many changes, tending to spread more and more since the time of Voltaire; Like a river in an area that is too flat, it spreads freely and can easily change the position of the riverbed.

Historians eventually took the establishment of this imperialism as a doctrine; They turn to the parable of the forest rather than to the parable of the river: by their words or deeds, they declare that history, as one writes in any era, is but a cleared frontier in the middle of an endless forest, to which it rightfully belongs. In France, the school of yearbook historiography, gathered around the magazine founded by Marc-Bloch, dedicated to the reclamation of the frontier of this pioneering land; According to these pioneers, traditional historiography was too selective in studying events that had been recognized as sufficiently important since antiquity; What it does is "treaties - history of war"; However, there are still "non-major events" left in the huge territory to be reclaimed, and we can't even see the edge of it; Non-major events, that is, events that have not yet been given significant attention: the history of land, the history of the mind, the history of madness, or the history of the search for security. Therefore, we will call this historical event that we were not aware of its existence as it is, a non-major event; It is fair that this phrase will be used in this sense in this book, because this school of thought and its views have well demonstrated their prolifism.

There is no absolute dimension for an event

Within this frontier, the ideas or practices of each epoch were cut in a historical field, and there was no solid hierarchy between the provinces; Neither zone governs the other nor under any circumstances can it annex the other. At best, one might think that some events are more important than others, but that importance itself depends entirely on the criteria chosen by each historian and has no absolute weight. It is convenient to distinguish between economic history, political history, technological history, etc., but no rule of any method can tell us which of these histories is ahead of the others. If it tells us this, Marxism will be a proven truth, it will be a very platonic truth, and it will not affect the way history is told; Technology does not make the economy disappear, and the economy does not make society disappear, so the social events, economic events and technical events that can be described as conventional wisdom always exist. Sometimes, a flexible director installs a huge set: the Battle of Lepando, throughout the 16th century, forever Mediterranean and desert, where Allah is the only existence; This is the establishment of a stage installation with depth of field, and in the style of Baroque artists, the various rhythms of time are juxtaposed, rather than the serialization of historical determinism.

French historian Paul Weiner: History is a kind of "true novel" | the dead

"Do the Ancient Greeks Believe Their Myths: On the Constructed Imagination", by Paul Weiner, translated by Zhang Zhu, East China Normal University Press, June 2020.

To a Koyrc reader, even if the idea that physics was born in the 17th century and can be explained by the rising bourgeois demand for technology is not unreliable or even absurd, the history of science does not disappear because of this interpretation; In fact, when a historian insists on the dependence of the history of science on the history of society, it is often the case that he is writing a general history of an entire epoch and obeying a rhetorical rule that requires him to build some bridge between the chapter on science and the chapter on society. History is a juxtaposed kingdom.

However, the impression remains that the war of 1914 was, after all, a major event more important than the fire at the Paris Charity Market, or the Taffairc Landru; War is history, the rest is nothing more than social news. This is just an illusion that allows us to confuse the series of events of each of these events, as well as their relative dimensions in the series; The Randu incident killed fewer people than the war, but was it out of proportion to a detail in the diplomacy of Louis XV or to the cabinet crisis in the Third Republic? Moreover, how to tell the horror of Hitler's Germany that tarnished the face of human nature, how to tell the huge social news of Auschwitz? The Landu incident occupies the first place in a criminal history. But this history is less important than political history, and it occupies a relatively secondary place in the lives of most people? One can say the same thing about the history of philosophy, and the same is true of science before the 18th century; Does it have fewer practical consequences? Did Louis XV's diplomacy really have more practical consequences?

Let's be serious, however: suppose a genius allowed us to learn about the past of a hitherto unknown civilization in ten pages. Will we prioritize learning about superb crime, or will we try to figure out what this society is more like, like the Melanesian tribal system or the British democracy? Obviously, we first want to know whether it is tribal or democratic. It's just that we've just confused the size of historical events and their series. The history of crime is only a small part of the history of society (but very suggestive, in the hands of a superb historian); Similarly, the permanent diplomatic service, the invention of the Venetians, is a small part of political history. It is necessary to compare either the size of the crime with the size of the ambassador, or the social history with the political history. What do we want to prioritize understanding that this unknown civilization is democratic rather than tribal? Or want to know if it was industrial or still in the Stone Age? It could be both; Unless we'd rather dwell on determining whether politics is more important than society, is the sea better than a vacation in the mountains? A demographer pops up and declares that demographics must come out on top.

What gets us confused is the genre commonly known as Thistoirc dit gcncralc, whose criteria are tacit: this is not uncommon and subjective. The main axis of this general history has been political history for quite some time, but today it is more of a non-major event: economic, social, civilized. This is not our report of disproportionality, or talking about what is most important to the French under the rule of Henry III; Political history will no longer be of importance, since most of the king's subjects have nothing to do with the authorities except as taxpayers and criminals; We will talk in particular about the labor and life of the good guy Jacques Bon hommc; A short chapter sketches the picture of cultural life, but the shrewd will be there especially to talk about almanacs, pamphlets that spread everywhere, and the quatrains of Pibrac.

But what about religion? As far as the 16th century is concerned, it is a huge gap. But are we committed to describing the average of everyday life in this era, or is it the apex of its emotions, which is undoubtedly at the same time intense and ephemeral? Also, do we speak of the 16th century in general, or do we tell the difference between it and the centuries before or after? Geographers are well aware of this dilemma: in a coastal province known for its fishermen, it was found that fisheries accounted for only a small fraction of its population; And the uniqueness of this province is indeed due to it; It is also true that fisheries are sensitive factors and are their weakest strategic point in terms of economy; So, do you choose averages, differences, or strategic points? Another historian emerged, and in his eyes, the most important thing was the length of the events chosen: the deep structure, the slow pulse, the centuries-old cycle; Quantitative criteria. A third historian prefers works over events: the 17th century, a century of physics, Baroque, Cartesian and absolute kingship. An equally acceptable principle for a historian of ancient cultures is intelligability: instead of providing the reader with a history with gaps and omissions, like Sappho's collection, he chooses to reduce history to an anthology of events in order to be less mutilated than other practices; The study of Pompeii's local history and the figures of the members of government will take up more space than the Roman city-states and the entire 3rd century, or also, he will define the twenty civilizations in terms of its peak, not in terms of its total: Virgil's piety will therefore be a point of view for Roman piety that is so difficult to understand.

French historian Paul Weiner: History is a kind of "true novel" | the dead

Foucault: His Thoughts on His People, by Paul Weiner, translated by Zhao Wen, Henan University Press, Shanghe Zhuoyuan Culture, February 2018.

It is impossible to decide that one event is historical and the other is an anecdotal episode that deserves to be forgotten only because all events enter a series and are of relative importance only in its series. So, is it the scale of the consequences that makes one event seem more important than another, as people say? Those who were able to separate the consequences of the defeat of Athens in 404 B.C., and who traced it all the way to our time, are lucky; Then, as one knows, "there are very few good origins' Moreover, those consequences will inevitably make them the object of a choice in themselves; here the nasty question of "the meaning of history" is inserted, by which people give meaning to history: the fate of Virgil and Rome, Marx and the bourgeoisie, Augustin Thierry and the third estate, Lavissc and the unity of France.

In any case, the criterion of the importance of consequences is nothing more than a fiction inspired by a serious mind: history tells the story of Louis XIV's war for its own sake, not for the distant consequences it might have. Shouldn't it be more appropriate to judge the relative importance of each event according to the value criteria of that era itself? This is a kind way of treating the subjectivity of the parties as objectivity; Unfortunately, the value criterion itself is also of the nature of the event. We are not speaking of the Treaty of Westphalia for the concerns of our contemporaries; If such a treaty arises without being noticed, this indifference is itself an additional event.

People did not take an interest in the arena with the precision with which the Romans were interested in it, but people were also interested in the Roman's interest in the arena. So, are those things that are not personalized, those things about man's existence as a social nature, will be historical? Those who think they can make that distinction, or those who think they can find a meaning for it, have the right to speak.

Louis XIV's flu, even the King's, was not a political event, but it concerned the health history of the inhabitants of France. The field of events is the interweaving of the series. Thus, we see what kind of regulatory view historiography turns towards: towards a general history, for which events can no longer be irrelevant; In fact, no one is surprised to find in the journal catalogue the history of a concept of time or the history of color discrimination (or classification). But on the other hand, we can no longer clearly see what fundamental difference there is between a social history under Louis XIV, a history of Pompeii's paintings, or a vernacular history of Tuscany in the 13th century, and a description of the present society in the Trobrion Islands of Papua New Guinea, a description of North African workers on the outskirts of Paris, or between photography as popular art: the distinction between history, descriptive ethnography, and sociology as the history of contemporary civilization, is purely traditional. Or it is based on the university teaching system.

Original author/[French] Paul Weiner

Excerpt / Liu Yaguang


Introduction part proofreading/Wang Xin

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