Sunday, February 09, 2014

Still more thoughts on Gaddis' book on writing historical narrative.

Chapter 6 of John Lewis Gaddis' book, The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past, is about the ways historians deal with causality in their narratives that seek to usefully explain past events. This is a discussion that could benefit most readers. We all try to understand the past, telling ourselves stories about what happened and why. Thinking about the legitimate and illegitimate ways to deal with causality can help us in doing so well.

Gaddis describes several taxonomies of causes, such as proximate, intermediate and distant, and necessary versus sufficient. He recognizes that thee historian will never know all the causes of an event, and that a good narrative is selective and will leave out causal factors of a really minor nature, He uses what I might term "a Goldilocks criterion" for inclusion of causal relations in narratives -- some are too distant, some too marginal, some just right. He points out that historians will develop more detailed narratives about the causes of the key event they are trying to investigate, and very sketchy (if any) narratives about the things in turn caused by that event.

I was struck by the fact that he does not discuss the audience for the historian's narrative. The choice of elements to include in a narrative should be different if it is intended for historians specialized in a specific field (e.g. U.S. Civil War battles), a more general audience of historians (e.g. the wider community of those working in American history), the general audience for non-fiction books, or secondary school use. All these audiences can be expected to intuitively understand the blindingly obvious -- that someone slipping from a mountain trail is likely to fall and be injured or killed (to use one of Gaddis' examples). All historians and readers of adult non fiction may be expected to know that the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor led to the U.S. participation in World War II, but high school students may have to have that fact made explicit (to cite another of Gaddis' examples).

Image source: "The Metaphysics of Causation"
I was struck by the fact that Gaddis focused on historical narratives that seek to explain the causes underlying an event, leading to a structure of causality that intuitively would have the form shown above. He is known as a historian of the Cold War, and it seems to me that the most interesting thing about the cold war is that the US and USSR avoided nuclear war from the end of World War II to the break up of the USSR -- that for some 45 years a fearful event was avoided. How would a historian deal with causality in describing a long period in which an event did not take place?

I am interested in the social and economic development of countries, especially those in Latin America, Asia and Africa. Some countries, such as the so called Asian tigers, have managed to progress from poverty to relative affluence since World War II, while many have failed to do so. There are narratives as to how the successful countries have achieved that success. I would have liked better, or at least more explicit guidance on how to evaluate the causality adduced in their narratives.

Returning to Pearl Harbor, it would seem that there were a number of relatively simultaneous failures on the U.S. side that resulted in the massive damage inflicted by the Japanese. U.S. government officials should have realized that there would be a Japanese response to the oil embargo that the United States had imposed. U.S. military intelligence suspected that the response would be military, and indeed would be a naval attack; warnings had been issued weeks before the actual attack. Yet the fleet was at anchor at Pearly Harbor, communications from Washington to be on the alert were delayed en route to Hawaiian headquarters, radar sighting of the incoming Japanese aircraft was ignored, as was the sighting of a submarine seeking to enter Pearly Harbor. Putting the fleet to sea and on guard, or heading any of the specific warnings might have ameliorated or avoided the major damage from the attack.

The basic point is that the military is supposed to have many fail safe measures in place that have to fail simultaneously specifically to prevent such a catastrophic event as the defeat at Pearl Harbor. In fact, such multiple fail safe elements are regularly built into modern society. We learn of them when they fail, as they did with the Fukushima Nuclear plant accident, destruction in New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina, or the crashes of U.S. bombers carrying nuclear bombs. Historians are increasingly going to have to write histories explaining why a number of events happened simultaneously leading to a catastrophe that should not have occurred; how are they to deal well with causality in those narratives?


Chapter 7 of Gaddis' book deals with the writing of biography. It makes two major points: that the author of a biography has to try to get into the mind of the person he is writing about while maintaining objectivity in the narrative he produces, and that moral judgments are impossible to avoid.

Gaddis is well aware that people in other countries have different knowledge and understanding of the world and come from different moral and ethical traditions; he is aware that "the past is a different country". But he is also correct I think, that one can not but judge Hitler as morally wrong in leading the Holocaust.

I personally find biographers who try to tell me what a subject thought or felt at a given moment to be annoying. As Gaddis says, people themselves may not be fully aware of why they are doing things. Certainly, they may not be frank in telling others (nor their diaries) of their motives, and certainly the records of what they have told others seldom come to us complete and unfiltered. I like biography to focus on the events of a person's life, the nature of the world in which he/she lived, and the people with whom the subject interacted.

I recently read a biography of James Madison by Richard Brookhiser. I was especially interested in his thinking about the United States Constitution. A great deal is known about how he prepared for the Constitutional convention, there are records of his interventions in that convention, and his contributions to the Federalist papers are available. Thus a biographer has a great deal of material available from which to construct a narrative about what Madison thought about the structure and processes for the U.S. government. Who needs a biographer to tell us what Madison felt about Dolly, or what his emotions were as the British burned the White House during his presidency. We can imagine those things, imputing ourselves emotions based on his actions.

Gaddis mentions character as a focus for biography, and I find his example of Stalin as convincing; Stalin's behavior is illuminated by a fundamental part of his mental makeup which we might as well call character. I liked also the "scaling" discussion -- that Stalin's character is illuminated by a series of events in his life, from the murder of a parrot, to the suicide of his wife, to ordering the murder of Trotsky, to the mass murder of the opponents to his agricultural policies; these are alike in ruthless use of power, differing only in scale.

Note that my two previous posts are also thoughts on reading Gaddis' book.

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