hypothesis from liguria

between pages 468 and 480 of the Everyman’s Library Edition of Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain is a dizzyingly intelligent conversational exchange between Herr Settembrini and Herr Naphta (or humanistic liberal science versus obeisant dogmatic faith), which kept me stirred & flustered well into the middle of last night. It brought home to me the notion, which I have entertained fitfully before, that the world of a novel is contained entirely within the novelist himself; that the novelist is the limit of the worlds he creates, and that furthermore, the act of creating an intellectual in a novel is really an intimation of the intellectual level (limits) of the creator himself. This is why the Professor character in Little Miss Sunshine, vaunted in the movie as the “second cleverest intellectual in the world”, is so intellectually unsatisfying & unconvincing; why in children’s fiction it is always easier to write wise, clever & enigmatic characters than wise clever & concise characters; why even Gandalf fails to justify himself now and then…

and it led me to a small epiphany, which provoked me out of bed and into the kitchen to scribble furiously on kitchen roll (unable to find paper anywhere). A historian is the limit of her histories in just this way, unable to entertain or explore connections between sources and ideas she has never encountered; she is able to discuss and marshall only the information she actually has into narrative and explanatory coherence, and ultimately, only able to do so to the extent of her forensic and analytical capabilities as a historian.

And so, a hypothesis: a nation’s peoples can be bounded by their history in just this way –or at least, the methods by which they write their history delimit the ways they can conduct & discuss themselves as a nation. But perhaps I am not qualified to speak so generally. Let me just say, then, that Malaysia’s official history — bounded by stirring nationalist narratives, cast in rigidly racial terms, woven around sensitivities born from historically-ingrained fears and suspicions — makes the communitarian polity seem inevitable. We are Hans Castorp and Joachim Ziemssen clustering around Herr Settembrini earlier in the novel, listening in wide-eyed reverence, feebly protesting where we can, and only on Settembrini’s terms. What we need is a Naphta character — what we need is an alternate mode of history, or many alternate modes of history. We need social history to proceed from great man history; we need gender history to proceed from patriarchal or even feminist history; we need subaltern history to proceed from elite nationalist history. Ultimately, we’ll need something to proceed from subaltern history. But i haven’t read any further past page 480 yet.

Conjecture: at this point in Malaysian history, the historian must be Thomas Mann…


2 responses to “hypothesis from liguria

  • Darby O'Shea

    This almost *accidental* nature of knowlede frustrates me to no end. How am I ever to run down an author’s reference to some (at best) only semi-well-known or (at worst) completely obscure work that I’ve never read? The valid, not completly obvious connections I’ve been able to draw have come only from the most dubious of circumstances… reading something that someone very clever wrote in the margins or in a tourist’s guide, for god’s sake. Very frustrating indeed.

  • Kyle

    “It’s just incredible. It just does not explain. Or perhaps that’s it: they don’t explain and we are not supposed to know. We have a few old mouth-to-mouth tales; we exhume old trunks and boxes and drawers letters without salutation or signature, in which men and women who once lived and breathed are now merely initials or nicknames out of some now incomprehensible affection which sound to us like Sanskrit or Chocktaw; we see dimly people, the people in whose living blood and seed we ourselves lay dormant and waiting, in this shadowy attenuation of time possessing now heroic proportions, performing their acts of simple passion and simple violence, impervious to time and inexplicable […]. They are there, yet something is missing; they are like a chemical formula exhumed along with the letters from that forgotten chest, carefully, the paper old and faded and falling to pieces, the writing faded, almost indecipherable, yet meaningful, familiar in shape and sense, the name and presense of volatile and sentient forces; you bring them together in the proportions called for, but nothing happens; you re-read, tedious and intent, poring, making sure that you have forgotten nothing, made no miscalculations; you bring them together again and again nothing happens: just the words, the symbols, the shapes themselves, shadowy inscrutable and serene, against the turgid background of a horrible and bloody mischanching of human affairs.” (Absalom, Absalom! 80)

    I get the feeling history must be kind of like this sometimes.

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