Monday, March 2, 2015
Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.
STOPPING THE CLOCK
“Right class. We have finished our study of the Russian Revolution. As you now know, the reformism of the late tsarist era came too late to really transform Russian society, and then the stresses of the First World War led to the overthrow of the tsarist regime in February 1917. But the Provisional Government was too weak and divided to be able to assert its authority and to address the needs of the Russian people. Therefore Lenin and the Bolsheviks were able to seize power in October and November 1917 and establish a new regime on a firm footing. So that ends our study of the Russian Revolution. Next week we will move on to the causes of the Second World War.”
“Wait! Wait!” I want to call from the back row. “How can you say that a history of the Russian Revolution ends there in 1917?”
I want to hear something about the civil war that then raged in Russia for most of theearly 1920s and the role of Trotsky and the New Economic Policy when real Communism proved to be a failure and the dementia and death of Lenin and the struggle for power that ensued and the emergence of Stalin and the establishment of his dictatorship. Surely a real history of the Russian Revolution can only end with the logical outcome of the Bolshevik coup – a totalitarian state and all its works – by about 1930. No, I’m not suggesting that you have to tell the whole history of post-1917 Russia to tell the story of the revolution, but I am saying that to end in 1917 is to narrate only the end of the first phase of the revolution.
What is the phenomenon I am commenting on here?
It’s what I call “stopping the clock.”
History is a continuum. It never stops. Therefore, there is no neat point at which the consequences of some momentous historical movement or event can be said to have concluded. Logically, some would say, to give a full account of the Russian Revolution, one would have to discuss its repercussions up to the present day. (Immediately one thinks of that answer often – but probably erroneously – attributed to Chou En-Lai when asked what he thought of the importance of the French Revolution: “It’s too soon to say.”)
But I am not saying that all of subsequent history has to be retailed to give a truthful account of a set of historical events. I am saying that it is unsatisfactory to end an historical narrative at a certain point because it appears to give a satisfactory and dramatic conclusion, when it is no conclusion at all.
Why do popular versions of an historical movement so often “stop the clock” in this way? Because, I would suggest, they are mimicking the ways of fiction where a train of events has a neat beginning, middle and end. A vast audience is so used to narratives that provide “closure” in this way (to use a disgusting and demotic Americanism) that they have come to expect it in historical narrative.
There is nothing new in this “stopping the clock” phenomenon. It often occurs when popular histories are promoting some ideological or nationalistic agenda and want to end on a note of triumph.
“So Henry V goes to France with a little army in 1415 and really whallops those Froggies at the Battle of Agincourt and we’ll end our story there with that famous victory, showing once again that English soldiers can always beat French ones.”
“Erm, yes Mr Retro Chauvinist English Historian, but aren’t you ignoring the obvious fact that Henry V’s triumph was short-lived and within less than 14 years (Joan of Arc and all that) the French had rallied and whalloped the English right back, driving them out of most of France? The Hundred Years War basically ended on French terms, and you’ve only stopped the clock at Agincourt because you don’t want to remember that.”
“The Catholic Church was horribly corrupt in its practices and abuse of power, but fortunately the Reformation came along and Luther and Calvin and Knox purified Christian practice and worship and stripped away non-Biblical traditions and now you can read the Bible in your own language and follow your own conscience in a church relevant to your own culture.”
“Yer what, sunshine? Aren’t you stopping the clock in about 1540-something, without noticing how fissiparous Protestantism quickly proved to be, how it established itself only when it could lean on the coercive arm of the state, and how its net effect was to secularise much of Europe, not to spread a purified form of Christianity? Obviously you haven’t read Reid’s Reader which gives a good review of Brad S.Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation [which you can look up on the index at right].”
Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.
The lesson I am preaching is a very simple one. The terminus ad quem of any historical narrative is often the most revealing part when one wishes to work out an historian’s viewpoint or biases. Where you end serves as a sort of “moral” telling the reader what you think is most important about a story and what lesson can be drawn from it. But where you end is always artificial, given the never-ending nature of history. Where the clock stops in an historical narrative is not of itself history.