Monday, May 18, 2009

5 degrees

Faire une recherche, faire des recherches, mots voluptueux; tout pleins,tout gonflés des promesses ultérieures.

(Do research, do some researching, voluptuous words; full, swollen with ulterior promises)

This is from the mouth of Peguy’s Clio, who obviously understand the obscure, persistant, immersive pleasure of a project that consists of tracking down innumerable sources and putting together innumerable facts. Facts, like jigsaw puzzle pieces, are, after all, made to be put together – and like puzzle pieces, the shape of the edges reflects the factory decision as to where, precisely, they fit.

But in contradistinction to the jigsaw puzzle, the historian is always seeking some dreamy fact, some key fact, from which one can go outward, ever outward, to the world. For in history, the box contains too many facts – and, of course, cut the piece differently and you will find a different place for it. Although it will bear, on its surface, one hopes, that glimpse which, collected with all the other glimpses, will give you a picture, a piece of verisimilitude.

It is in the spirit of Clio (version Peguy) that I read, with delight, the Peter Hennesy’s review in the TLS of Brian Harrison’s Seeking a Role: the United Kingdom, 1951-1970. I couldn’t resist the first paragraph:

“Brian Harrison has a special gift which historians prize. He can turn the grains of history into fascinating and convincing patterns. How about this as an example of his grasp of the granular? From a journal to which I was hitherto a stranger, Heating and Ventilating Engineer, he has gleaned that in the UK, the “average living room was over 5° Fahrenheit warmer in 1970 than in 1950”. In terms of what one might call the softening of Britain, this is hugely significant. Those of us on the rim of middle and old age can vividly remember living in homes with but one warm room enlivened by a coal fire and, on winter nights, leaping into bed and hoping to fall asleep before the chill bit, and waking up to patterns of frozen condensation on the window panes in the morning. I have been a weaker man since the winter of 1966–7, when the underfloor heating of St John’s College’s new Cripps Building in Cambridge corrupted me for ever.”

Of course, in that special code of class that the British sneak into all statements, the way Chinese restaurants in the U.S. use MSG, we learn, from this, about Cambridge – it is the neverending echolation of class that will forever keep me from understanding Britain. I admit it. But that 5 degrees – oh, that lovely 5 degrees! Of course, to the inattentive reader, it might seem like only 5 degrees – but to those who love to track a fact, back through its distortions in the literature – and you will find that the simplest facts (to change my metaphor) are as distorted, in their transmission from one text to another, as the faces of the protagonists in the Fun House mirrors at the end of Lady from Shanghai – to some sure source, that 5 degrees is everything. The holy of holies. And whether at Cambridge or in some room in a housing project, that the reviewer recognizes the role played by 5 degrees in his life makes it all the sweeter.

If I were a historian, I cannot imagine a more positive review – at one point, Hennesy actually compares Harrison to Macaulay. For the sake of the 5 degrees alone, I am going to read this book – or maybe review it myself.

And so I’ll hie me hence – and leave this to end my song:

To what base uses we may return, Horatio! Why may not
imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander till he find it
stopping a bung-hole?

'Twere to consider too curiously to consider so.

No, faith, not a jot; but to follow him thither with modesty
enough, and likelihood to lead it: as thus: Alexander died,
Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth into dust; the dust is
earth; of earth we make loam; and why of that loam whereto he
was converted might they not stop a beer-barrel?
Imperious Caesar, dead and turn'd to clay,
Might stop a hole to keep the wind away.
O, that that earth which kept the world in awe
Should patch a wall to expel the winter's flaw!

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