Monday, December 29, 2014

You know I've been reading Roy Foster; here's why

Tell someone you like crime fiction, and odds are you’ll get asked “Oh, yeah? Who do you like to read?” Tell someone you like history (god knows, that word can mean so many things), and you’re likelier to be asked not who your favorite historian is, but rather what historical period you like best. Why should this be? Historians are writers, too; the just-the-facts school of history went out of fashion once Herodotus came on the scene.

And that brings up (again) Roy Foster, this time his book of essays called The Irish Story: Telling Tales and Making It Up in Ireland. Are you fed up with theoretical gobbledygook? You might like this bit:
“As a general rule, the more hermeneutic and convoluted the post-colonial theorizing in the text, the more reductionist, naive and reactionary the political views expressed in the footnotes.”

Tired of the sentimentalization of victims? You might like
“One of the fundamental stories of the Irish diaspora is of Irish emigrants choosing to do unto others what others had already done to them. In neither case was that a matter of kind and tender mercies.”
but only not if you’re an unreconstructed Irish nationalist.

Wary of touchy-feely microhistory but wish your unease had an empirical basis? How about

“The dangers of new, deconstructed history, with its stress on the personal and the unmediated, include complacent anti-empiricism and aggressive sentimentalism, often reinforcing each other, and often relying on assumptions that actually contradict recorded experience.”
“The process has also led to some well-qualified scholars endorsing (intentionally or not) an odd view of the historians' task: redefined as a duty to reinforce the self-understanding of a `people', no matter how it relates to the historical record (or the self-understanding of other people).” 
"But the effect of the [Famine] commemoration year (or years) was to highlight the issues of guilt and pain, driven by the idea that some sort of empathy could be achieved, and a therapeutic catharsis brought about. The language of popular psychotherapy replaced that of historical analysis. This was popularized by a strange alliance of populist journalists, local political wheeler-dealers, erratic rock stars and those born-again newly Irish Eng. Lit. academics again. Performance artists staged presentations where they wept for hours in public to demonstrate what they felt about the Famine."

Looking for thrill of new light cast on an intractable problem you'd taken for granted (I could use more of that every day)? You can't do better than
"It was not simply a `Protestant' versus `Catholic' tradition: varieties of identification certainly took religious labels, but as often as not the religious identification was simply a flag for a whole range of attitudes and values."
I know little to assess the validity of Foster's judgments about Irish history. (Read Terry Eagleton's review of The Irish Story for a dissenting judgment.) But my first experience with that history predisposes me toward Foster's approach. Like many in America, especially those who had not thought carefully about Ireland or its history, I had a vague idea that Irish = Catholic = Republican = good, and English = Protestant = Unionist = bad. I knew nothing of the Irish Civil War, nor did I know there had ever been such thing as Irish-speaking Protestant nationalists.  Then a friend took me to the Irish Republican Museum off the Falls Road in Belfast, where I saw mentions of Wolfe Tone but nothing about Michael Collins, and I thought, "Aha! This is an interesting country."  I think the same when I read Foster.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Blogger Philip Amos said...

Splendid post again, Peter. Micro-History has been with us for some decades now, and I must say that I've never thought of it as touchy-feely. Rather, it reached the point at which it very much justified the old quip that 'PHD' stands for 'Piled higher and deeper'. I'm more inclined to see the third and fourth quotations from Foster, two of the three which sparked your comment on micro-History, as arrows pointed straight at the heart of post-modernist History. Indeed, I think the fifth quotation is such also, although Foster does not include the post-modernist historians among those to whom he attributes this trend. No matter, never mind, as Bishop Berkeley might have said -- I agree with every word quoted and savour Foster's superb style.

December 30, 2014  
Blogger Unknown said...

Bravo, Peter. I think that reading history forces us to be realists whereas reading fiction allows us to ignore reality. Is that too simple? Perhaps. But that is the state of my mind this afternoon. In any case, your posting -- even though I cannot appreciate it all without having read the book under consideration -- is the perfect echo to my 2015 "resolutions" (posted at my blog) in that reading history is almost always worthwhile whereas reading fiction can too often be a waste of time. Does that make sense? If not, consider the increasingly senescent source.

BTW . . . Happy New Year.

Now, without further delay, I must return to watching King Kong on TCM . . . Fay Wray has just be served up as a sacrifice by the natives to the big monkey!

December 30, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Philip, though I don't know much about the course of academic history in recent decades, I lay great stress on Foster's reference to "deconstructed history, with its stress on the personal and the unmediated." Foster attaches significant importance to the personal, or at least the biographical. He wrote a two-volume work on Yeats, for example, and his new book examines generation of 1890-1923, taking what I think will be a biographical approach. But as far as I can tell from my reading of Foster, biography is important to him only in so far as the biography relates to the historical record.

December 30, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., you honor history by watching the old King Kong.

In re reality and ignoring it, the first of my three Roy Foster posts suggests that the line between reasons for reading fiction and non-fiction need not be as neat as all that. Among the things I like about the Northern Ireland crime I discussed in that post is how their fiction comes to grip with reality.

And Happy New Year to you, too.

December 30, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Philip, you could be right about micro-history. I don't think Foster ever uses the term.

December 30, 2014  

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