Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Some Better Use of History

Having spent some happy hours again in the company of Alexandre Dumas, his Chicot and the rest, I am thinking still about history and how it comes down to us not so much from those that made it, or those that knew them or witnessed the making, as from the artists long after who've picked it up from where it was shelved and made something from it that suits us better for being made over to fit the artists', and our present needs. I include historians among the artists, though some wouldn't take that as much of a complement, and I know it's true that one needn't be one thing to be the other. I suppose the distinction to be made then is between scholar and writer. I can respect the former, but have no real interest in his efforts unless he's achieved something in the other way as well. Thus I'm prepared to admit that I'd rather read Macaulay, for his style, than his critics for all their corrections. This makes me a poor student of history, I know, but an honest reader, I should think. And I would go further in confession and say that much of the little I do know of history, I've had as much from novels as from even the best historians. Whole tracts of human history I know almost exclusively, if I know them at all, from the use to which they've been put by novelists. If I know something of Dickens' London beyond what I've had of it from Dickens, I know the little I do because I've read, after the novels, first about Dickens, then about London, and only then about such things as Victorian political economy, sanitation, prostitution and Christmas customs. Trollope may have led me to further reading about the conditions of marriage among the English aristocracy, but not to any serious study of fox hunting, or the post office. It was from Tolstoy that I took my first measure of Napoleon, and perhaps something of my lingering distaste for the monstrous little Emperor, but I have read further, finding a different, if no less likely Napoleon in Stendhal, Balzac and elsewhere, and have read even so far beyond fiction as to have tried a biography or two, but really, for me, such a titan is still best seen and understood at a distance, in Tolstoy's novel, or if closer up, then as Shaw's comically Shavian hero in The Man of Destiny. There are exceptions. Lincoln I've found better observed in David Herbert Donald's biography than in Gore Vidal's novel, but I did read Vidal's novel first, and still think it among his best.

But this is still just history as biography, and yet what history written can equal the pathos, and realism of this, just before Prince Andrew is felled:

"Another time, general attention was attracted by a small brown dog, coming heaven knows whence, which trotted in a preoccupied manner in front of the ranks with tail stiffly erect till suddenly a shell fell close by, when it yelped, tucked its tail between its legs, and darted aside. Yells and shrieks of laughter rose from the whole regiment. But such distractions lasted only a moment, and for eight hours the men had been inactive, without food, in constant fear of death, and their pale and gloomy faces grew ever paler and gloomier."

No statistical description of soldiers arrayed for battle in 1812, no soldier's reminiscence of the day, could better describe the tensions and terrors, and the strange unreality of war, than Tolstoy does with just the fleeting appearance of a small brown dog.

We got an interesting book across the desk awhile ago, Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies, general editor, Mark C. Carnes, from Henry Holt, 1996. What a wonderful idea: various historians, each taking a movie apiece, and then analyzing how well, or ill, history was treated in each. The contributors are many, and some of these so well known that even I've heard of them: Antonia Fraser, writing about Anne of a Thousand Days, for example, and Michael Grant on Julius Caesar, James M. McPherson on Glory, and on and on. I wish someone had taken on my favorite movie, Les enfants du paradis, but others of my favorites are here. Among them, Robert Darnton on the great Andrzej Wajda's Danton.

I'd read not only Darnton's histories of the French Revolution, among others, but also the classic play by Georg Büchner, Danton's Death, before I saw Wajda's film. Before I'd seen the movie, I confess, I hadn't heard of the great Polish director, and I suspect I thought the movie was in fact an adaptation of Büchner's play. It's not. Wajda was a great hero of the Solidarity Movement, and eventually was elected a Senator after the fall of communist rule in Poland. He was also perhaps the greatest of that generation of east European film-makers who managed to make brilliant, and often brilliantly satirical films while all the while under the watchful and oppressive gaze of a totalitarian government. (Thanks in large part to the wonderful people at Scarecrow Video, here in Seattle, I've since been able to see many of Wajda's movies.) I don't know that any film I've ever seen better captures the true horrors of that moment when the Revolution began to eat it's own.

Wajda's Danton, as played by Gérard Depardieu, is a great shell of a man, already facing the loss of his power to, and death at the order of, his former friend and comrade, the ruthlessly fanatical Robespierre (Wojciech Pszoniak.) The film enacts Danton's fall, and the triumph of The Terror over the Revolution that spawned it. The parallels to Poland under the communists are obvious, but the criticism extends to any revolution, and any revolutionary, forgetful of the cost in blood when ambition arms itself with absolutes; sooner or later there will always be rival prepared to go further in the name of fidelity to "the people."

Darnton's essay traces the fascinating controversy, previously unknown to me, the film created on its release in France. Seems the then Socialist government was put in the awkward position of condemning the famous Solidarity film-maker for daring to suggest, as late as 1983, that the French Revolution was an imperfect expression of the people's will. Who knew?

As to the accuracy of Wajda's history, despite Sant-Just's earring, and a few other liberties, and despite the offense given to French patriots, left and right, Darnton does not find much in the film with which to argue. Rather, Darnton's essay uses the film, and the facts, to skewer French politicians, and the Socialists in particular, for their blustering defense of "... an old-fashioned kind of history that no longer seemed tenable to their intellectual avante-garde and no longer existed for their children or grandchildren."

What a wonderful description of the way history is made to serve a purpose that changes as we do. The facts are what they are, but what we do with them, and more importantly, to what use a great artist may put them, in fiction or on film, can not always be left to the judgment of historians, let alone politicians. It's good to know though just how faithful an artist has been to his sources, and reassuring to know that a favorite artist, despite the protest of surprisingly still interested parties, can be truer to the spirit of the past even than those who claim it as an exclusive inheritance or birthright. (A good lesson then in our Republic as well, I should think.)

And for now, I think I'll go back to Dumas' France, trusting his Romance for truth, if not entire, than of a markedly superior kind.

No comments:

Post a Comment