Beyond the ‘New History’

Theodore Zeldin

  • The Identity of France. Vol I: History and Environment by Fernand Braudel, translated by Sian Reynolds
    Collins, 432 pp, £20.00, December 1988, ISBN 0 00 217773 0

Shortly before his death, I talked to Braudel about the motives that lay behind his final book, The Identity of France. He had made his reputation as a universal historian, with a global curiosity. Why should he seek to crown his achievement in such a parochial fashion, proclaiming that it was France, after all, that he really loved?

‘I am a Frenchman, just like any other,’ he said.

‘But,’ I said, ‘you spent the decisive years of your life, those in which you developed your ideas, abroad.’

Had he been a normal Frenchman, he would have become a history master at the lycée of Bar-le-Duc, and stayed there till he retired: but instead he went to teach in Algeria, where he lived, as he admitted, ‘with extraordinary satisfaction’, and then he spent long periods in many different countries.

He agreed. ‘I became intelligent by going to Brazil. What I saw there was a historical spectacle, a spectacle of such social kindness’ – I translate his words literally; I shall try and decipher them in a minute – ‘that I came to understand life in a different way. The best years of my life were those I spent in Brazil.’ Being called a ‘bizarre Frenchman’ irritated him a little – ‘because it is true and not true’.

The first thing to understand about this book is that Braudel was an outsider in his own country for much of his career. So, too, was Lévi-Strauss, who also went off to Brazil, and became an ethnologist rather than the philosophy teacher he was trained to be, because he found France’s intellectual life claustrophobic. Braudel was repeatedly inspired by foreign experiences. It was not on the Côte d’Azur, but in Yugoslavia, that he discovered what his first book would be about: it was in Dubrovnik that ‘I began to understand the Mediterranean and see it as a whole.’ And Spain ‘has meant a great deal in my life’.

He was a man who was happiest on the frontiers: he had homes in the Alps and the Pyrenees. Lévi-Strauss is an Alsatian. Braudel was a Lorrainer. His ancestors became French subjects only in 1766. His attitude towards Germany was ambivalent: before 1939, ‘my love for Germany was intense.’ And in old age he was still saying: ‘I think like an Easterner.’ Born in 1902, of the generation of French people who were at once obsessed by the German menace but also fascinated by German philosophy and art, a prisoner of war from 1940 to 1945, he believed that his liberty depended on ‘France being a strong unity’. But there was an awful lot about that unity that he disliked: though French civilisation was ‘dazzling’, it was also ‘élitist, dominating, constraining’. His determination to reform it caused him endless trouble and pain.

Because it is now customary to call him the finest French historian of our century, it is seldom realised for just how long he was a thorn in the flesh of France, and what resentments he harboured at being treated as an inconvenient heretic. He complained that he was not properly appreciated by his fellow-countrymen. Even after he had been elected to the highest of all literary honours, membership of the French Academy (and it is significant that this did not happen till he was 82), he could not forgive the Sorbonne for not having made him a professor, where he would have had the power to impose his ideas on the young. His difficulties resemble, in some respects, those of Namier, whom Oxford refused to make a professor: in every country most academics, while devoted to the cult of originality, like it only in moderate, safe doses which will not threaten their habits.

‘I have had a difficult life,’ said Braudel just before the end. ‘No, not a difficult life, but a very difficult life ... I spent it being black-balled in French university life, and in French life as a whole. I am one of those people who like to reform, to improve ... I never really succeeded ... God knows, I exasperated most people.’ His ambition was to unify the ‘human sciences’. That meant sacrificing history’s right to be an autonomous subject. He despised the Agrégation examination – the initiation rite through which professors passed, and on which their prestige rested. No wonder he was looked on as a threat to vested interests by his colleagues.

It took a long time for the French to be impressed by his masterpiece on the Mediterranean. He published it at his own expense; it remained out of print for many years. Only when an English translation appeared, and was greeted enthusiastically abroad, did the French public become aware that they had a historian of major importance among them. It was only when a television series was made about his work that he became a national figure.

At the Collège de France, he was outside the university system. At the Maison des Sciences de l’Homme (the defiantly modern monument he built in the Boulevard Raspail), he presided over a sort of sect of highly original and gifted scholars, but theirs was a marginal intellectual movement, and by no means a united one. His disciples often disagreed with him. When I asked him who among them really understood him, he could think of only one, an Argentinian of Russian-Jewish origin. Braudel was like a hedgehog, both bristly and cuddly, a fierce individualist who longed to be part of a team held warmly together by shared sympathies. This is what he meant by ‘social kindness’, a condition he probably found more readily among foreigners than among his own compatriots.

So The Identity of France is a testament of Braudel’s reconciliation with his country, in old age, but a tortured reconciliation, a declaration of love full of questioning, of coquetry and of contradictions. He even volunteered that there was an element of guilt behind it, a sense that as a cosmopolitan he had been disloyal to France. Brought up as a nationalist, and then ‘detached’ from nationalism by his foreign travels, he stated firmly: ‘I am no longer a nationalist.’ But he added: ‘I have a nostalgia for the greatness of France, even though it is not rational ... I do not pretend that I have escaped completely from the mentality of my childhood.’

Braudel achieved his reconciliation by a process that made a virtue of confusion. He says at the beginning of his book that he intends to study France as a scholar, impartially. Then he adds that he cannot do that, he can only describe ‘what I see’. His aim is to analyse France as though it were not his own country: but he adds that it is impossible for a country to be fully understood by a foreigner, and of course he had spent his life studying foreign countries. He rejects Michelet’s mystical notion that France is ‘a person’ with a soul, but ends up finding something very akin to the soul of his country, what he calls ‘a France buried deep inside itself’.

The identity of France turns out to be a paradox: ‘France is diversity.’ But surely other countries are diverse too? ‘Yes, but not with the same exuberance or obstinacy,’ he replies. But is Marianne more obstinate than John Bull, whom the Encyclopédie Larousse defines as ‘the nickname given to the English people to indicate their obstinacy’? He gives no answer. This book is not a work of comparative history. Intellectually, it is less powerful than his earlier ones.

Despite the breadth of his learning, he did not take the study of diversity as far as he might have. It is not satisfactory to conclude with a formula which is not much more than a je ne sais quoi. Most of his case studies are from his favourite period, the 16th-18th centuries. Half of the book is about towns, but he has little to say about the growth of towns in the 19th century and virtually nothing about their transformation into conurbations of a new kind since the last war. Today roughly half of French people live in small towns, and half in anonymous cities, but even the former no longer have much in common with the traditional urban life he describes. The motorcar, the telephone and television have created a new sort of imagination: France no longer feeds on its past: instead, it munches Hollywood fodder almost every evening, without complaining more than it usually does. Braudel describes with masterly vividness the isolation of villages in former times, but he does not investigate the new kind of loneliness which has replaced it in the ‘Age of Communication’. It is not clear that there is much identity between the world he writes about and the one we live in.

His attempt to prove that geography dominates identity – to the extent of calling his book a study in retrospective geography – only serves to emphasise that he did not succeed in his ambition to unify the human sciences. When he lists those human sciences, he does not mention psychology. The individual is absent from his work. He fails to make any connection between personal identity and national identity. If he had done so, he would have been forced to jettison the whole notion of identity, which is the child of an outdated view of time as continuous but illusory.

It was understandable that individuals should have been content to have simple, single identities when they lived short lives, when they knew their place in the social hierarchy, and when they were the property of their lords, or husbands, not of themselves: but once introspection came to be cultivated as a civilised art, once the idea of a divided or dual personality started transforming modern thought and literature, identity and uncertainty combined inextricably. Just as nations are increasingly being revealed as bundles of minorities, so individuals are having more and more trouble discovering their identity, demanding to have more lives than one.

The problems which preoccupied Braudel most were not those of the present day. ‘I belong to an older generation than that which my date of birth indicates,’ he admitted, considering himself to be, spiritually, a contemporary of his master Lucien Febvre, ‘the man I loved most’, born in 1878. Febvre had lectured on the French identity too, though he called it Honneur et Patrie; the manuscript of the book which resulted was mysteriously lost, but Braudel read it. He imbibed a view of the world tormented by nationalism, the religion of the 19th century. He wanted to liberate himself from nationalism, but did not entirely succeed. Marc Bloch wanted to also: he wrote that there could be no national history, only world history: but he was killed by the Nazis for it. Today nationalism is no longer a religion, only a superstition. The nation has been replaced by the individual, not only as an object of reverence, but also as the great mystery. Why individuals have such difficulty in understanding one another, how they communicate, how they can achieve their full potential, are questions that matter more to us than worries about which nation is the greatest. Braudel did not get beyond asking how hunger and poverty and economic organisation obstructed human potential. Though he saw the need to answer on a global canvas, he did not find a way to make the individual, the atom of history, visible on his canvas.

The reason was that Braudel lived in the age of Newton, struggling to reconcile his ambitions with a view of the universe as stable and predictable: that was the purpose of his great idea, the longue durée. His hero was the scientist who explained why things were the way they were. Determinism recurred over and over again as the central theme in the histories he told, as though the inevitable, the probable and the accidental formed an adulterous trio whose infidelities he hoped would one day make sense. But the age of Newton is over. The universe has ceased to be a piece of clockwork, and is now an exploding, ever-changing puzzle. Today science is more impressed by nature’s flexibility than by its permanence; it is more concerned with transforming it than with marvelling at its orderly perfection; at the micro level it emphasises unpredictability as much as it was once obsessed by certainty. Science no longer stands as a contrast to imagination.

Historians have been very slow to adapt themselves to these new perspectives. Even the ‘New History’ with which Braudel’s name is associated has its roots firmly planted in a view of the universe that pre-dates quantum physics and chaos theory. The great divide in historical writing, in my view, can no longer be seen as being between narrative history and the so-called Annales School, a divide that has become meaningless with the increasing versatility of both. I believe that henceforth one must distinguish motives. One must distinguish between history which is interested in the past for its own sake, and that which has an eye on the future, which is always asking the questions What can we do? What freedom do we have? The first kind is the historians’ history, contenting itself with trying to show why what happened had to happen. The second I would call ‘Free History’, because it regards what happened as only one element among many alternative possibilities; it looks upon history as the process by which humanity discovers, loses and constantly re-invents its freedom. So just as an avant-garde painter treats a landscape as raw material out of which new forms of beauty can be created, so a ‘free historian’ treats the writing of history as one of the ways of creating new forms of freedom. Some historians want to bring the past to life; others want to escape from the past. It seems to me that after the alliance of history with science and social science, which are concerned with establishing laws, the next phase will involve investigating freedom, as literature and art have already begun to do.

Hard though he tried, Braudel did not become a mere scientist. The reason why he has triumphed over his adversaries is not that he knows more than they do (though that gets him listened to) but that he is a poet. He creates images, combines them in unusual ways, decorates them with unexpected learning, always in irregular shapes; there is never any hint of textbook order about him, but he knows so much that he is forgiven; he is bold enough to ignore chronology, to jump from epoch to epoch, using facts as pole-vaults. These are the qualities I like most about him. This is his avant-garde side. The ultimate criterion of the avant-garde historian is to surprise readers, make them sit up, whereas the traditional historian aims to comfort them in their beliefs.

Erudition was never enough for Braudel. He distinguished his own New History from what he called the New New History of his disciples, who became specialists, solving limited problems. He himself wrote big books on subjects that had no limits, weaving his pupils’ discoveries into patterns, and the more colours he used the happier he was.

This book does not contain the conclusion of Braudel’s life’s work. The sort of conclusion for which he was groping eluded him. He regretted that he could not draw more practical results from his history. He said he admired Sartre because Sartre committed himself to action. Braudel did not know what to replace the past with, and lamented his inability to create a plausible vision of the future as ‘a terrible emptiness’. He would have liked to replace religion by reason, but he doubted whether humans were capable of living without myths and marvels. It required too great an effort. Ultimately, he admitted, he was a pessimist. He was not a sage, he said, and there was sadness in that confession.

In a recent issue, the Annales has an editorial saying that the journal no longer knows where it is going, and inviting its readers to suggest ‘new alliances’. It is because I have felt, for some years now, that the New History was growing middle-aged, and that its ‘surprises’ had become predictable, that I wrote a book in which I tried to discover what would happen if history allied itself with what used to be its worst enemy, fiction. The crucial difference between this alliance and the now almost century-old alliance of history with the social sciences is that there can be no disciples, there can be no limits, there can be no orthodox methodology.