On calendars and historical time

Calendars keep track of important events in our lives. In a sense historians do the same, but over a longer perspective, and only backwards into the past, rather than also looking forwards into the future as we do when we check our personal calendars. In Time and Narrative (vol.3, chapter 4, 104-109), Ricoeur reflects on the significance of the historians’ use of calendars. Time, in this context, which he terms historical time, is in his view, a bridge between our ordinary lived time and cosmic time.

The antecedents of calendars lie far back in the mists of time, in a primordial or a mythic time comprising the entirety of human existence and the world. In mythic time, through periodically occurring rituals, human beings gave meaning and order to their lives in relation to the rhythms of life they observed within and around them in the cosmos and the biological cycles.

In Ricoeur’s words, ordinary time, “the lived experience of active, suffering individuals was integrated into the time of the world outlined by the visible heavens” (p. 106). Thus calendar time with its universal structure makes it, according to Ricoeur, a socialized form of time bridging lived time and cosmic time. Here, he quotes Emile Benveniste who calls this “chronicle time” (fn. Le Langage et l’expérience humaine (1965).*

All calendars start from a founding event in human history, such as the birth of a religious leader or the beginning of a king’s reign. And, from this, all other events are dated, directed forwards or backwards in the calendar. Finally, calendars also take into account measurable cosmic features, such as the movements of the sun, moon and the seasons.

Yet, a calendar is far more than mere physics and astronomy. According to Ricoeur, the smallest common denominator: the instant, or the “present moment” (p. 107) is something we recognize and experience as human beings, i.e. it is phenomenological. Hence, the concepts of yesterday, today and tomorrow which hold meaning for us. Our ability to situate events in time requires us to actively pinpoint the present, the now (pp. 108 -109). Similarly with our measuring of time as near or far away.

We have the capacity to situate events that lie greatly distant from us in terms of time and space. An incident like the storming of the Bastille in 1789, symbolizing the French Revolution, a huge event in terms of history, enables us to define other lesser events in relation to it. Similarly, we define our lives from moments of history, such as where we were when we heard about the assassination of John Kennedy or the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Thus, the calendar by chronicling time, which belongs to both lived time and physical cosmic time, stands outside the latter two, and, at the same time, mediates between them, and thereby, according to Ricoeur, brings narrative time into the world (p.109).

*See his footnotes in pages 299-300 for the other sources he uses in this connection.


On the thread that unravelled

When at a bootcamp for employees last year, the concept of our impact on the audience, viewer or reader was avidly discussed, my thoughts turned to Ricoeur’s concept of refiguration.

History abounds with tales of how a book once published takes on a life of its own, unforseen and unintended by its author. How early computer users revolutionized life as we know it by ways unintended or unforeseen by designers and makers of the early computers, supremely attesting to the ingenuity of the human mind, that takes a thing and turns it into another.

As a historian I waded into the deep sea of Paul Ricoeur’s Time and Narrative without any background in philosophy or literature studies. Much of what I read puzzled me, some of it I simply couldn’t fathom, yet one passing phrase enchanted me: “One time, one history, one humanity” (vol. 3, p. 258).

The next book of his I read, Memory, History and Forgetting was easier to understand. Relatively, that is, to Time and Narrative, as here too, there were labyrinthine thought processes, which were not easy to follow. Until the day, I read a footnote.
Here I must digress. Compared with his texts, Ricoeur’s footnotes are a joy to read. Sometimes, when faced with an incomprehensible text, I would go to the back of the book and read the footnotes for a while, as he writes more simply in these.

The footnote in question, no. 2 on page 527, was a thread that helped me to unravel Ricoeur’s thoughts, one that literally helped me to understand his writings. Perhaps what the ancient historian who employs me would surely say was Ariadne’s thread that led me out of the labyrinth. This footnote concerned an article he had written on Architecture and narrativity.

Here, he considers the three concepts of Mimesis 1, 2 and 3 in poetics and history writing, incomprehensible to me in my first reading of Time and Narrative, and explains them more simply, as prefiguration, configuration and refiguration.

Thus, in the coming to being of an artefact, e.g. a building, the first stage is prefiguring the field, i.e. assessing and understanding the pre-existing formal structures, symbolism and temporal constraints, pertaining, in this case, to fulfilling the need for inhabiting and for moving through space. This is the knowing how to aspect of what architects, building engineers, skilled construction workers and interior designers, among others, do.

Configuration is the actual process of crafting, here, how people make, craft and construct.

And refiguration is what the users of the artefact do with it. What in literature is termed reception, thus its afterlife.

Refiguring Ricouer’s insights into history may help us unravel the very crafting of history.

On an impact of WWI

Among the approximately 1.3 million Frenchmen killed in WWI, were two young family fathers: 28 and 33 years of age respectively.

The first, a member of the 54th Company of the 1st Zouave regiment died in hospital on the 11th of October 1914 as a result of wounds from the first battle of the Marne in September 1914. The second, a sergeant in the 75th infantry regiment went missing in Perthes-lès-Hurlus, during the second battle of Champagne and was declared dead on the 26th September 1915.

The first was buried in Saint-Brieuc, far across the sea from his family and home in Algeria, in a country he had never lived in before, while the body of the other was only found in 1932 when a field was being ploughed, and the body identified by its tags.*

The first was a poor vineyard worker, a cellarman by trade, and the other a teacher of English.

The first left behind a partially deaf, illiterate widow, Catherine Hélène née Sintes (1882-1960), and two sons born in 1911 and 1913; the other  already a widower, left behind a daughter and son, again born in 1911 and 1913 respectively.

The first had grown up in an orphanage from infancy, after the deaths of both his parents, and his widowed wife moved with her 2 young children to her mother’s home, eking out a living thereafter as a cleaner.

The sergeant’s orphaned children continued living in Rennes with his parents and sister in whose care he had left his motherless children before he went off to war; his children having scant or no contact to the family of their mother, Florentine née Favre (1878-1913).

The deaths of  Lucien Auguste Camus (1885-1914) and Léon Jules Ricoeur (1881-1915) not only had a profound impact on their bereaved families, but also on 20th-century literature and philosophy through the writings and political engagement of their fatherless younger sons, Albert Camus (1913-1960) and Paul Ricoeur (1913-2005) respectively.

* Paul Ricoeur, La critique et la conviction, 1995, p. 11.

On pioneering digital history

When I returned to the workplace in 2006, after several decades of being a housewife and free-lance copyeditor, I was struck by what was occurring to the written word. Never having had access to computers in my workplaces in London in the early 1980’s, words in digital media seemed to have other qualities than in the analogue world. As words on, and in, documents are fundamental to the historian, I began looking into the world of digital history.

My first port of call, was a book: Digital History by Roy Rosenzweig and Daniel J. Cohen. The late Roy Rosenzweig had founded this pioneering digital history centre , the Centre for History and New Media in 1994. Among the technical wonders created by the CHNM were the free software Zotero and Omeka. Today when reading through Daniel Cohen’s blog, begun in November 2005, one receives a brilliant overview of the very beginnings of digital humanitities and developments ever since.*

In the USA, the Valley of the Shadow by Edward Ayer’s team (begun in 1993) is one of the earliest and most fascinating history websites ever. Robert Darnton’s digital essay, “An Early Information Society” (2000) with links to all kinds of documentation is another pioneering venture, as is Philip Ethington’s “Los Angeles and the problem of urban historical knowledge” (2000);  and in the UK, the Old Bailey online (ca. 2000).

Today, the world is full of state-of-the-art digital projects that enhance our knowledge of the past. The success of the early pioneers, I believe, was due to several factors. First, a huge enthusiasm and sheer determination in the face of countless frustrations, not least, the scepticism of many colleagues who considered digital history, at best, as a niche operation. Another is that, it was due to teamwork, something historians who often work alone, found difficult to deal with.

A third was that at some point, these teams obtained the support of funding bodies, like the National Endowment for the Humanities  who funded not merely huge projects, but also a succession of small ones needing much smaller grants. I especially remember the emailed lists from the office of Brett Bobley, with descriptions of these small award-winning projects, wistfully wishing that funding agencies in our part of the world followed suit.

The questions that rose in my mind 10 years ago are still pertinent though: How do we study digital documents? How do we archive digital material? (see, e.g. Niels Brugger’s writings on the subject); what happens to time, space and memory in the digital world? How different is the praxis of history after the advent of digital history?

*The information above mostly stems from an unsuccessful Phd application I made in 2007, but for those interested in knowing more, I recommend chapter seven of Jeremy Popkin’s marvellous book, From Herodotus to H-net, the story of historiography (OUP, 2016), and Daniel Cohen’s publications accessible online.

Gift giving and the historian

In his last major work, The Course of Recognition (2007, p. 238), Ricoeur sees historians’ work as providing a valuable corrective to the more theoretical concept of ideal types.

Ideal types are simplifications of real life phenomena. The danger being that sometimes one forgets that these are merely theoretical aids. Historians through their enquiries dissolve these rigid boundaries, and endeavour to show the complex interactions that took place, in other words, providing the nuances.

The example that Ricoeur gives in this connection takes place in a discussion on gift giving and mutual recognition. He explores Marcel Mauss’s seminal work, the Gift (1925), and looks further into the spirit of a gift and the differences between a gift and merchandise, and when a piece of merchandise turns into a gift, i.e. a non-commercial good. In this connection, he refers to how Nathalie Zemon Davis’s The Gift in 16th-century France, provides a valuable corrective.

In cases of spontaneous gifts in acts of friendship and neighbourliness, gifts on festive occasions- do we have to give a gift of equal value in return? When is a gift considered gratitude for a service rendered and when corruption? What is the borderline between a gift and a sale? And when an author acknowledges and dedicates a book, which is then sold commercially by the publisher? Questions that have accompanied us throughout history. For celebrations, festivals and gift giving have been part of human life since time immemorial. Sacrificial offerings to the gods, gifts to family, friends and neighbors, spontaneous gifts, gifts from duty or compulsory gifts, gifts come in many sizes shapes and purposes. According to Ricoeur, it all seems to depend on the spirit in which the gift is given.

Despite the historical enquiry being confined in time and space, he observes that we can draw valuable conclusions from her findings: about the different beliefs that lie at the heart of the spirit of gift giving; the confusion between the giving of a gift and the selling of a good or service; and the unintended drawbacks of the practice of giving a gift.

In other words, Ricoeur’s view of history as a useful corrective in a sense embraces both fundamental aspects of history as describing how things exactly were, and how history can provide examples of how and how not to act in certain situations.