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Review of "The Future of History" by John Lukacs

 

I must admit that I am something of a sucker for short books by master thinkers of encyclopedic scope. That's a good description of The Future of History by John Lukacs.  It's a dense meditation on the art and practice of history, aligning it more closely with literature than science, that contains one especially stimulating chapter (for me, at least): "History and the Novel."

 

But I'll get to that chapter in a moment.  First some quick observations and issues: Lukacs wants to define history as we know it as something that sprang up in the 17th or 18th centuries along with a human self-awareness that he refers to as interiority. This is an observation that parallels, to some degree, Harold Bloom's contention that Shakespeare essentially invented the modern personality and put it on full display in his plays.

 

I find both these contentions odd. Lukacs knows, of course, about Thucydides and Bloom knows about Catullus, but each scholar is seeking to define a new phase in human experience and so each sets aside pretty good examples of historians and self-reflective, ironic literary personae that appeared on the human landscape thousands of years before their heroes of the "modern."

 

In general, Lukacs is writing a lament for what he calls the European or Bourgeois Age, which he argues required disciplined, well-trained historical researchers and writers whose principal job has been to ferret out untruths and secondary job has been to assert truths about that which has slipped away from us on the river of time.

 

History, he says, is always revisionist because it deals in a continuously evolving past that shapes and reshapes itself along with our perceptions of it. But he notes that history is not taught as much as it used to be in high schools and colleges and that the first print run of a history book by a university press often is 500 copies.  Will we eventually lose interest in reading?  Or the ability to read and reflect?  Are we doomed to a future that will be defined by images,  not words? What will this do to the critical faculties of the human mind?

 

These are pretty common concerns, but Lukacs does note that trade publishers sell more history books than novels, that history books written by what he calls "amateurs" are often better than history books written by PhDs, and that technology, rather than making us more materialistic, in some ways is freeing us to wander about in a more spiritual sort of way.

 

Example: I am sitting in my study in Arlington, Virginia. In a few minutes I will "publish" this review.  And people I don't know in places I've never visited will have the chance to read, or ignore, what I've written.  Why? Technology.  But the subject is history, thought and books, and neither you nor I will pay much attention to the technological procedures bringing us together. What will interest us is Lukacs's provocations.

 

Now, the chapter on history and the novel: It's full of wonderful quotes, beginning with "Every novel is a historical novel, in one way or another."

 

Lukacs's point is that novelists often record social history better than historians do through accurate observation and that they often tease out of an "age" characters who, while fictional, define that age as well or better than actual historical figures--Madame Bovary, for instance.  But the novel is limited by, or defined by, class divisions in a given society.  That's what makes it a strong symbol of bourgeois consciousness.  And as classes melt (slowly, to be sure), the novel has lost its way, becoming too interior (Ulysses, for example) or too "exterior" (Norman Mailer's last novel attempting to write "faction" about Hitler's youth.)

 

You will have your own views on whether Lukacs makes a good case or not, but he so at ease ranging over all of modern history and literature that you're likely to take him seriously.  His suggestion that the turn toward subjectivity (Ulysses, again) strengthens poetry while it weakens fiction seems somehow right to me, much as I admire Ulysses and don't share his questioning attitude toward it.

 

This book is only 177 pages.  It's well-written but dense with erudite observations and citations.  Lukas, having written more than twenty books, apologizes at the end for many historical scholars having ignored his work and not included it in their bibliographies or surveys of topical historical literature. This is typical of him. He's not really apologizing. He's admitting that he's vain and shouldn't be overlooked. And he's right.