In which Robert Darnton appears to have the answers

I mentioned that I had another post brewing featuring a further interview from Maria Lúcia Pallares-Burke’s The New History, and that interview is with French Revolutionist Robert Darnton. I once studied this stuff, as an undergraduate, and I didn’t know the name, which is odd because I recognise a lot of what he seems to have said from lectures; Tim Blanning and he must work in parallel brains. All the same, I’m not going to go hunting his work right now: I did mention a to-read pile half a mile high, as you’ll recall, and I finished that book chapter today and generally Clio is keeping me busy right now.

Robert Darnton

But there are a couple of really heartening perspectives in the interview. Pallares-Burke tailored her questions to her subjects, and edited out the least interesting answers I assume, but there are some running themes that come up in most of the interviews: the importance of women’s history, the balance between empirical work and theory, and so on. Sometimes the interviewees have answers, sometimes they gloomily disclaim the possibility of answering them, but Darnton frequently comes over as just having the answers to everything and making them seem obvious.

The first of these is where he is asked why he has such a passion for history, and his answer really is for me “what oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed”:

I find something deeply satisfying about the study of the past, and I don’t know quite what it is. I feel it most when I work in the archives. As the tenor of a life begins to emerge from the manuscripts and I see a story unfold from one document to another, I have the sensation of making contact with the human condition as it was experienced by someone in another world, centuries away from mine. It may be an illusion, and I may get it wrong. I may sound like a romantic. But the archives, in all their concreteness, provide a corrective to romantic interpretations. They keep the historian honest. Unlike literary scholars and philosophers, we must marshal evidence in order to sustain our arguments, and we cannot pull it out of our heads. We extract it from boxes in the archives.

And he goes on with a short defence of the existence of actual facts, but already he’s got my vote there: that is exactly what I do it for, and if I’d paid attention to this when I first read it you’d all have been saved my waffling for several screens trying to say the same thing only worse. You get a glance of someone else’s life for a short space of time: and you know that it was real, that this character you find or envision really did have a life and that you may with some luck and judgement be imagining them correctly, because there was a reality that you might be able to approach. Real people. It is the point.

The latter, and less inspiring perhaps but still very neat, is where Pallares-Burke poses him the query that she has put to several of the other historians interviewed: when you go to the archives, do you go with no idea of what to look for, and just report on what you find, or do you go with a theory and a set of questions? The one risks finding nothing because of lack of focus, the other risks finding what you looked for and no more. And, well, yes, true to an extent but surely there’s some better conception because look, we do in fact get some history work done. It takes Darnton to add sense and a third way:

I love to do research because you never know what you’ll find when you open an new dossier and start reading… I think that intellectually it’s also invigorating, even though in my manner of describing it it may sound as if the historian’s task is digging a ditch. The reason for its being invigorating is that you go to the archives with conceptions, patterns and hypotheses, having, so to speak, a picture of what the past was like. And then, you find some strange letter that doesn’t correspond to the picture at all. So what is happening is a dialogue between your preconceptions and your general way of envisaging a field, on the one hand, and on the other hand, this raw material that you dig out and that often does not fit into the picture. So, the picture changes and you go back and forth between the specific empirical research and the more general conceptualization.

Again, he is right. Those Casserres parchments I blogged about earlier were my latest case of this: I went expecting to find a vicecomital takeover of a small church and a raft of donations and found instead what seems to be the wholesale adoption of a substantial mother church’s archive by making what French diplomatists would call “copies figurés”, copies meant to look like originals, and getting people to sign the new copies but putting them all onto as few parchments as possible… And I’m still going back and forth between what monastic archives are supposed to do and what this one seems to have done as a result. He has it right, I tell you.

Darnton seems to interview a lot: I found two more, both focusing on the impact of the Internet and Google (and Google Books, in one case), whilst looking for an image of him just now; so if you would like to know more, and since those subjects are hot concerns of both mine and others, you may find these links interesting.

Robert Darnton, interviews with Maria Lúcia Pallares-Burke, Oxford, July 1996 & May & June 1999, ed. Pallares-Burke as “Robert Darnton” in eadem, The New History: confessions and conversations (Cambridge 2002), pp. 158-183, quotes from pp. 162 & 170-171.

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