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Why We Return to Certain Books Like Clockwork

On my return to Martin Guerre

When people ask me what I am teaching this semester, I bury the lede.

I first describe my exciting, five-section strong introduction to Internet studies. Then there is the big reveal: “I am also teaching a core course in our history graduate program,” I continue, “with a super-sexy title: Historical Methods!” Except the truth is — call me a nerd now and get it over with — I do think that historical methods is about the most fun thing to teach ever. I always have, ever since I started teaching a similar course to undergrads back in 1993.

I value the kind of teaching that brings us back to the bones of historical truth-telling now more than I ever did. This may be partly because so many scholars who should know better are consumed by arguments on social media that are less attached to evidence than they are to maintaining an ideological position that they believe is vital to defend in these troubled times. It’s not that ideology doesn’t matter, in life or when you are teaching methods: quite the opposite, in fact. It’s that historical methods can offer us relief from ideology, while still allowing a scholar to remain attached to a deeply held belief system. When a historian strips away the chaff of a book and looks for its methodological bones (which, by the way, are nearly always concealed), ideology can be isolated and clarified. This, in turn, makes it is easier to see how ideology is working in tandem with other tools — historiography, data, structural constraints — to frame the evidence and produce an argument about the past. The historian then gets to decide whether the ideological framework actually helps to reveal a history that seems real and true.

Let me emphasize: when I use the words “true” and “truth,” I am not defending materialism, or  structuralism, as paths to objective reality. I have my own ideological predilections, and I think post-structuralist methods drawn from other humanities and social science fields, as well as purely historical theory, can do work that is just as important as an argument deeply steeped in the archive. I also doubt that any form of historical writing can be done free of ideology or theory. But when I am inhabiting my most deeply historically trained self, I do tend to resemble a certain nineteenth century Missouri congressman. “I come from a state that raises corn and cotton and cockleburs and Democrats,” Willard Duncan Vandiver is said to have declared at one political dinner, “and frothy eloquence neither convinces nor satisfies me….You have got to show me.”

There are lots of good books in the world of historiography that don’t meet that standard, but in a Historical Methods class you have to rely on those that do. These are books that are your old friends, their authors your allies. Sitting with a group of MA candidates in history, along with (because this is The New School) a smattering of PhD candidates from the other social sciences, and dissecting how a book or an article came to be, is like taking a clock apart and putting it back together.

See? It works! Or, alternatively, See? However you try to tinker with it, this clock has a fatal flaw and will always stop at half past three. That’s the kind of clock it is.

This week, I taught a book I have loved ever since I read it in graduate school. In fact, Natalie Zemon Davis’s The Return of Martin Guerre was first published in 1983, the year I entered a Ph.D. program in history, so in a sense the book and I have grown up together. At the time it first landed in my hands, this slim volume, bearing the name of a French film released the year before, was remarkable and thrilling for several reasons. The first of these was that, at the moment women’s history was becoming a real field within the discipline, Davis showed with elegance and grace that the most rigorous historical methods championed by men (in her case, the Annalistes) could easily be turned to the recovery of women’s lives. In the introduction, Davis actually invokes the scientism of the late nineteenth century when she notes that during the writing process, her desk became a “laboratory” where she scrutinized “every scrap of paper left me by the past.”

The second reason that the book was exciting was that Davis wrote it because she had been a consultant on the film, a role that historians in general were almost never asked to perform back then, but which was unheard of for women historians. When she first read the principle account of the legal case that related the story of Martin Guerre, the crafty imposter Arnaud “Pansette” de Tilhs, and the pragmatic Bertrande de Rols (who did what she could to craft her own fate in the narrow path of freedom open to her in Basque peasant culture), Davis said she knew it had to be a movie. But historian that she was, Davis became troubled about the complexities and contradictions that a film must leave out to appeal to its audience. Thus, after completing her work on the script, she returned to her craft to re-insert “the uncertainties, ‘the perhaps’s,’ the `may-have-beens,’to which the historian has recourse when the evidence is inadequate or perplexing [.]”

Part of why The Return of Martin Guerre is such a wonderful book to teach is that Davis then uses the story itself, and the layers of historiographical and theoretical literature to which she had access at the time, to show exactly how such a “clock” might be made correctly. She also takes the bold step that few scholars will, which is to create a parallel between the village’s capacity to assuage its own doubts about the new Martin’s identity and historians’ capacity to create certainty about events they cannot ever completely know, a certainty that may collapse like a house of cards when new evidence, or new methods, arise. “The story of Martin Guerre is told again and again,” she writes at the conclusion of the book, “because it reminds us that astonishing things are possible…I think I have uncovered the true face of the past. Or has Pansette done it again?”

This admission that she might have been wrong about the whole thing was an astonishingly brave thing to do. It also opened the door for a severe critique of the book by historian Robert Finlay in the American Historical Review (June, 1988), to which Davis then responded. It is one of the best, and most illuminating, exchanges between historians that I know, illustrating beautifully what the stakes were for the field of women’s history as it was gaining traction.

Almost ten years ago I wrote about why I teach this exchange along with the book, but to quote a relevant paragraph from that 2008 post, Davis’s contribution is “one of the most lucid essays I have ever read,” I wrote. “Not only does Davis `recover’ the story of a woman, one principal task of women’s history, she uses that as a path to recover a better history of men, and to illuminate what it meant to be human in a particular world.” What “the other thing that the Davis-Finlay exchange demonstrates,” I continued,

is how to argue in a civilized way. Of course, they had editors, and bloggers don’t. But Finlay avoids an error that some historians, young and old, would do well to contemplate: do not use a machine gun when a .22, carefully aimed, will do; and be respectful of other people’s achievements even when you question their findings. Similarly, Davis avoids an error by not over-arguing or becoming defensive; and by illuminating a point of genuine disagreement about scholarly method while elaborating on why she thinks she is right.

Today, I might not use the word “civilized”: I may have chosen it at the time because I was resident in a department that had many good points, and functioned astonishingly well, but also had a reputation for uncivil argument (on all sides, I might add) that broke heavily along ideological lines. Perhaps I longed for a colleague like Finlay, a man who exposed his blunt prejudices, but provided ample evidence of why he believed them to be correct; perhaps I longed to be Davis, who parried these criticisms with a return to her core texts and a rapier wit; or perhaps I just wanted the editors of the AHR to moderate a department meeting. I don’t know. On the other hand, it was that divided department that had not only devised this course, but put together a diverse team of teachers to teach it every year – a team that was consciously, but unspokenly, drawn from the different ideological points of our little star.

Together, we worked with the students every year to take apart those clocks and put them back together. And in that way, by agreeing to agree that certain books were worth constant return and reflection, we in the department often surprised each other by what we had in common: the practice of history. So it isn’t strange that I found revisiting all three of these texts with my marvelous graduate students to be an immensely satisfying experience, not because of my nostalgia for a time when such argumentation was possible, but because of my belief that it still is.

Claire Potter is professor of history at The New School, and executive editor of Public Seminar. You can follow her on Twitter.

  • urbanexile

    With humane scholars like you around, yes, it is. Bravo, Claire. Beautiful article.

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