The Character of History
Page 1 of 1

Author:  MadArchitect [ Fri Jul 14, 2006 2:34 pm ]
Post subject:  The Character of History

Here's a theme that's come up in several threads already, but which probably deserves a discussion all its own. The more I read "Peace" the more obvious it becomes that Fromkin's method is largely psychological. Amid the variety of recorded facts and events that he depicts is the ongoing attempt to settle those facts in the context of full-fledged people. It seems that, to Fromkin, understanding history requires more than running a finger along the course of events; to understand the connections you have to, in some sense, raise the spectres of the pivotal historical figures and figure out what sort of people they were, what informed their decisions, and what inner fires moved them. In that sense, he's a bit like Ulysses, scratching a trough in the sand to summon up ghosts from Hades.

We could (and probably should) ask all sorts of questions about this method. A few spring to mind immediately. Do you think this is a worthwhile method, for one? Is it really necessary to try to understand the figures of history in order to understand why one event led to another? And if so, to what extent is it possible to understand those figures based on the documents they left or that others left about them?

Specific to this book itself, does Fromkin put the right emphasis on the psychology of the pivotal figures?

I've got a few books on the philosophy and methodology of history at home, and when I get a chance to sit down and review them a bit, I think I'll try to post some summaries of how the professionals view the psychological assumptions of this sort of history.

Author:  Dissident Heart [ Sat Jul 15, 2006 11:06 am ]
Post subject:  Characters in History: A History of Character

MA: The more I read "Peace" the more obvious it becomes that Fromkin's method is largely psychological. Amid the variety of recorded facts and events that he depicts is the ongoing attempt to settle those facts in the context of full-fledged people.

I think you're on to something here in highlighting Fromkin's reliance upon psychology in guiding his narrative. I think the character of his history is a History of Characters...a History of Personality. His primary sources are the attitudes and aspirations of, as you say, "full-fledged people" wrestling with one another to achieve usually contradictory, conflicting and often impossible goals.

I should qualify the term "primary sources" with the understanding that his utilization of letters, memos, comuniques, diaries, anecdotes, offical statements, planning documents, recorded conversations, etc. are delivered largely in character: a particular blend of personal attributes and appetites are behind everything.

I think this makes for great drama, keeps the narrative tied to personal interaction and individual choices more than impersonal fate or random chaos. It may be that impersonal fate and random chaos have their role in any historical event, but Fromkin is working to show the power of personality in shaping history.

MA: Is it really necessary to try to understand the figures of history in order to understand why one event led to another?

I think the figures in history do figure in understanding historical events and processes. I suppose it depends upon your goal/s in telling your story. I think the historian brings a whole host of goals/agendas to their historical projects: their personal aspirations and professional obligations, who their primary audience will be, as well as political allegiences. Why tell the story of the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the struggles between European nations to control the Middle East? Fromkin, I believe for the most part, is telling this story to help interpret current events. He's not writing this narrative simply to exhibit his genius for historical scholarship, bolster his credentials in the field, add a few more feathers to his retirement nest (though all of these are probably present)...but to engage our contemporary quandry in the Middle East.

Fromkin is hoping his narrative might guide future decision making in this trouble region by illuminating past ignorances that helped create this contemporary mess.

It would then seem that his emphasis upon personality and character would point to his desire and/or assumption that the contemporary solutions we seek require unique persons with particular characters.

MA: And if so, to what extent is it possible to understand those figures based on the documents they left or that others left about them?

Do we really ever understand members, friends, loved ones, aquaintances for a lifetime, ourselves? I think it's possible (and necessary) to figure out some patterns of behavior, general habits, persistent attitudes, tastes, proclivities in others. But all of this (as important as it may be for developing trust, intimacy, keeping promises, maintaining ties) never really captures the always present, often surprising, ineffable fire and angst that drives a person.

All the moreso when exploring persons we have never met and have to rely upon the experiences of others. Even the most careful observations cannot contain the whole of another's life. Perhaps we don't need to grasp the whole of a person to understand key themes and patterns worthwhile to our objectives in exploring their lives in the first place. Again, it comes down to what we want out of the process, who are we looking for and why?

I also think individual memory can be highly suspect. Autobiographical accounts should not be taken as objective certitude: personal aggrandizement, fear of exposure, frustrated relationships, traumatic events...all of these play into how people tell their personal stories. And, the simple fact that we don't always remember very well what the hell happened. Who was involved, where did it happen, what was said, why did it occur just then, what preceded it...pieces are missing, get confused, left out, transposed where they weren't, etc.

I think one important key to good history is the utilization of multiple perspectives: bringing a variety of eyes to an event or person. This is no guarantee that we will get to the core of what actually happened, or who a person really is, but it will remind us of the varieties of ways people can interpret the same set of facts. Crucial to this point is to seek out the silent characters in any historical narrative. Why aren't they heard from and why has our Historian kept them out of his story? What difference would it make to his thesis, and what new conclusions would we draw if these silent characters were introduced to the drama?

I think a great deal can be understood about the Character of History when we try to listen to those historical characters kept historically silent.

Author:  MadArchitect [ Sat Jul 15, 2006 12:46 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: The Character of History

A thought that just occurred to me is that Fromkin's use of psychology in his historical narrative has the effect of attributing a particular character to the nations involved, as almost alchemical blends of the personalities deciding policy. Britain becomes a kind of filter, catching certain of the beliefs, opinions, motives and biases of those determining her policy. And through that process, Britain herself becomes a kind of actor, the public face of a morass of personalities, stratified between the hundreds of points of contact.

This relates, I think, to the discussion that we're having in another thread ("Race and Nationality..."). The nationalistic drive seeks to find any number of bases for the construction of national identity, but we haven't given much thought to the notion that national identity may center itself around a national character. It's a dynamic relationship, if it exists: the individual responds to the national character as they perceive it at the time. If they respond positively, then it contributes to their feeling of national identity. If they respond negatively, it contributes to the dissolution of national identity. The individual, in turn, contributes, in some small measure, to that national character. In crudely sumplified form, perhaps, it's a kind of feedback loop. And the part that these major figures, like Churchill and Kitchener, play is that of a magnified contribution to national character. Kitchener is the Greek-styled military hero, shaping national opinion and boosting national morale, thereby impacting the state of national identity for millions of people.

It's an odd relationship, perhaps, but I think it clarifies for me, more than anything else, the currents that really coalesce into a nation.

Edited by: MadArchitect at: 7/15/06 1:47 pm

Author:  J Seabolt [ Sat Jul 15, 2006 11:29 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: The Character of History

The first paragraph of the Introduction reads as follows

The Middle East, as we know it from today's headlines, emerged from decisions made by the Allies during and after the First World War. In the pages that follow I set out to tell in one volume the wide-ranging story of how and why--and out of what hopes and fears, loves and hatreds, mistakes and misunderstandings--these decisions were made.

Wonder who owns the movie rights?

Fromkin takes a psychological look at some of the people: Churchill, Kitchener, Sykes, Enver, and Lloyd George more so than others. This approach is warranted given the nature of Fromkin's two main arguments in the book: 1. that Kitchener and Crew via Sykes had an impact on the 1922 settlement and 2. that the British failed to fully commit to the 1922 settlement. In both cases the peculiarities of the leadership played a part in the peculiarities of the results. This approach also helps with the readability of the book. However, from a historiographical viewpoint this could be a problem: does jazzing things up a little to make it more readable somehow make it less reliable as an interpretation of events?

Author:  MadArchitect [ Sun Jul 16, 2006 12:31 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: The Character of History

J Seabolt: However, from a historiographical viewpoint this could be a problem: does jazzing things up a little to make it more readable somehow make it less reliable as an interpretation of events?

I'm not sure that Fromkin views it "jazzing things up". It seems to me that he took a suggestion, and that the suggestion turned into something of a conviction. I don't doubt his sincerity in suggesting that these events really did coalesce around a few pivotal figures, and that the psychology of those figures is, in a very direct sense, the determining factor in the character of the times.

I keep forgetting to review the books on the discipline of history, but I do explicitly recall some sections on the view that history centers around pivotal figures, and that the historians business is to crawl into their heads as much as possible.

Author:  J Seabolt [ Sun Jul 16, 2006 1:53 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: The Character of History

I think you're overdoing it with the psychology angle, MA. It plays a part. Two examples come to mind. One is that I believe there is a connection between Kitchener's psychological characteristics and his clinging to the Great Game strategy. This has an influence on the map that came out of the Sykes-Picot agreement because the Arab ruled but French influenced region of what is today Eastern Syria was extended to include the Mosul region which today is in Norther Iraq. The original rationale for this from the British side was to have this as a buffer between what was assumed to become Russian controlled territory and British territory. Eventually this buffer zone was eliminated and that region became Northern Iraq, which was under British oversight after the war. Another example was the background of Lloyd George that, if you define psychology broadly, influenced his strong support for the request made by Zionists to have British support for the creation of a homeland in Palestine. In both of these cases, I believe that psychological factors (accidents of history, in a way) were factors in the later events, but in both cases there were many other factors that Fromkin deals with. I wouldn't say that according to Fromkin this psychological angle was "the determining factor in the character of the times."

Author:  MadArchitect [ Mon Jul 17, 2006 5:31 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: The Character of History

Well, that's a question we can examine a little more: how large a part does Fromkin attribute to his central characters and their individual psychology. I wouldn't say that it's to the total exclusion of other factors -- say, technology or geography -- but I think it's safe to say that it's an immense part, for Fromkin. This, from the book's introduction:

"Lloyd George, Woodrow Wilson, Kitchener of Khatoum, Lawrence of Arabia, Lenin, Stalin, and Mussolini -- men who helped shape the twentieth century -- are among those who played leading roles in the drama that unfolds in A Peace to End All Peace, striving to remake the world in the light of their own vision. Winston Churchill, above all, presides over the pages of this book: a dominating figure whose genius animated events and whose larger-than-life personality colored and enlivened them.

For Churchill, as for Lloyd George, Wilson, Lenin, Stalin and the others -- and for such men as Jan Christian Smuts, Leo Amery, and Lord Milner -- the Middle East was an essential component or a testing area of their worldview. Their vision of the future of the Middle East was central to their idea of the sort of twentieth century they passionately believed would or should emerge as a pheonix from the ashes of the First World War. In that sense, the history recounted in the pages that follow is the story of how the twentieth century was created, as well as the modern Middle East." (pp. 19 & 20)

Author:  J Seabolt [ Mon Jul 17, 2006 9:24 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: The Character of History

Well, ok, I'll go along with this just to avoid being a naysayer, but there are a couple of things I'd like to mention before the psychohistorical analysis begins:

1. I'm not sure Fromkin ever uses the term psychology.

2. A person's "worldview" is largely a product of culture.

Author:  Loricat [ Tue Jul 18, 2006 12:00 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: The Character of History

[small voice in the corner, finally picking up the book again after about 2 weeks hiatus, and while appreciating what has been said, has nothing extra to add at this point...]



"All beings are the owners of their deeds, the heirs to their deeds."

Loricat's Book Nook
Celebrating the Absurd

Author:  MadArchitect [ Tue Jul 18, 2006 12:44 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: The Character of History

Welcome back, Lori. I was a little worried that this was going to end up being a two-way conversation. Glad you're back in town.

Page 1 of 1 All times are UTC - 5 hours
Powered by phpBB © 2000, 2002, 2005, 2007 phpBB Group