Again as Farce
Does anyone actually read the book?
History repeats itself – once as tragedy, and again as farce.You’ve heard that before. Or read it somewhere. Or may have even used it yourself, God help you. As a tag to events in contemporary culture or politics, it is one of the most overused. And as is often the case, being overused means being underunderstood.
Here’s the actual quote, at the start of Karl Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte:
Hegel says somewhere that that great historic facts and personages recur twice. He forgot to add: "Once as tragedy, and again as farce."I’m using the 1897 translation by Daniel De Leon, available from Gutenberg.
The idea that history has some underlying form of recurrence is old, and linked to cyclic cosmological theories, the assumption of a human nature with an underlying constancy, the presumption of theories of government that rely on broad controlling features of action and reaction, or the wheel of fortune. G. W. Trompf provides a good review.
Man makes his own history, but he does not make it out of the whole cloth; he does not make it out of conditions chosen by himself, but out of such as he finds close at hand. The tradition of all past generations weighs like an alp upon the brain of the living. At the very time when men appear engaged in revolutionizing things and themselves, in bringing about what never was before, at such very epochs of revolutionary crisis do they anxiously conjure up into their service the spirits of the past, assume their names, their battle cries, their costumes to enact a new historic scene in such time-honored disguise and with such borrowed language.At times of revolution, when humans face the god of fortune, they discover unconsciously the shame of their uncertainty, and cover themselves with the costumes of their ancestors. Having set out on the unpathed ocean of possibilities, they must have a map – any map – and so they adapt their course to the portolans of past adventures.
For Marx, then, the farce lies not in the fact that the affairs of the descendants seem so small in comparison to those of their forebears. Rather, it is their aping of past structures, as if the ends of the old battles were still their own, as if the virtues of the old warriors were still their own. It is the uncomfortable sensation of carrying identification too far, as if the child wearing daddy’s hat or mommy’s dress insisted on going to the office and conducting business.
The farce is also in the awkwardness of a clumsy translation and in its necessity, for Marx sees these recurrences as necessary translations from the past to the present:
Thus did Luther masquerade as the Apostle Paul; thus did the revolution of 1789-1814 drape itself alternately as Roman Republic and as Roman Empire; nor did the revolution of 1818 know what better to do than to parody at one time the year 1789, at another the revolutionary traditions of 1793-95 Thus does the beginner, who has acquired a new language, keep on translating it back into his own mother tongue; only then has he grasped the spirit of the new language and is able freely to express himself therewith when he moves in it without recollections of the old, and has forgotten in its use his own hereditary tongue.This is all on the first page. Does anyone read it?
Marx does not bring this structure out in order to deflate the significance of the newer copies:
[T]he reviving of the dead in those revolutions served the purpose of glorifying the new struggles, not of parodying the old; it served the purpose of exaggerating to the imagination the given task, not to recoil before its practical solution; it served the purpose of rekindling the revolutionary spirit, not to trot out its ghost.But he insists that we maintain the double vision of capable original and struggling copy. He fills the book with examples of these historical echoes, found over intervals both short and long:
The new Constitution was in substance only a republicanized edition of the constitutional charter of 1830.
What else was the 29th of January, 1849, than the "coup d'etat" of December 2, 1851, only executed by the royalists with Napoleon's aid against the republican National Assembly? These gentlemen did not notice, or did not want to notice, that Napoleon utilized the 29th of January, 1849, to cause a part of the troops to file before him in front of the Tuileries, and that he seized with avidity this very first open exercise of the military against the parliamentary power in order to hint at Caligula.
Once we open ourselves to the need for this double vision, I think we have to approach all renewals, all renaissances with care. When historical events move out into time, they return to us like Einstein’s astronaut. What we have retained from direct transmission is clearly different, not as young, not as fresh.Public intellectuals will, of course, align their hortatory speeches with the goals and virtues of the glorious past. They are historically conditioned; what do they say that is a new interpretation to guide the future, and what is merely recycling the bullet points of previous struggles? Worse, what is new is often adapted, not to future improvement, but to concealing the persistence of abuse. With dispiriting frequency, revolutionary figures wear their histories like sheep’s clothing. We do not use history as a source; we commit misprision on it.
Curiously, the etymology of ‘farce’ resonates with this misuse. It appears in the 16th century as the term for a comic interlude in a mystery play, from the Old French farcir, meaning to stuff or to cram. The verb derives from the Latin farcire, ‘to fill completely, to stuff’, and thus farcimen, ‘sausage’. Apparently, doing politics in the framework of past battles is not only as hard to watch as making sausage, but according to Marx, is precisely making sausage. Of course, the original tragedy was a goat dance too.
But what do we expect when we try to use history to our advantage? Some look to history for exemplars of moral and political virtues, and some look for case studies to help analyze present hard cases. I think that Marx is saying that this is very dangerous; because we invariably construct the present with the framework of the past, we will assuredly ignore what is truly new in the present situation, and vitiate our labors. We must use the double vision to escape this trap.
And despite his claim that he comes to praise these revivications, Marx mostly buries them in their foolishnesses. He spends much of the early part of his book on the ineptness of the various factions during the period leading to Napoleon III and the Second Empire. Painfully, much of his fun is at the expense of people we have seen before as heroes and martyrs in Hugo’s LesMiserables. Again, echoes as farce. But the farce is not always unfortunate. The mere fact that we cannot repeat the past precisely guarantees that we will evolve. This is not only a Darwinian concept well established in nature, but a cultural one as well, explored by Harold Bloom in The Anxiety of Influence and A Map of Misreading.
There is probably as much to be gained by a creative misreading of history as by a creative misreading of literature. But to do it right, you need to understand it to begin with. When we ‘learn from history’, we take on the full framework of our misunderstanding, so we need to make that as thick as possible. If you must have the tragedy/farce combo, you really should read the book. If you snip off the first few lines and make the simplest possible misinterpretation, those who repeat you quickly come to a cul de sac. Once as quote, then again (and forever) as cliché.
What sustains us against the eternal Great Recurrence? It is not enough to know that we need the double vision; we know that we do not do good just because we know what is good. But we do have a perpetual safeguard in the resistance to the past that Freud outlined for us.
We do not like our parents. We rebel against their strictures. We do not want to be like our parents. When we recognize ourselves living out roles established by our parents, we rebel more vigorously. The double vision turns up in the Freudian therapeutic approach. Does it help? Perhaps, but we still slip into those roles again and again. Our only advantage is that our recurrences are self-aware.
You will have noticed that I have stuffed this post with allusions of various sorts. From Marx we get the suspicion that each repetition – of a figure, a trope, even an argument structured for a particular historical situation – has something of the farce in it. This means that the farcical element may be the most universal component of history.
Because it translates past to future, the whole idea of figuring in Christian theology must be intrinsically farcical. Figuring had always made me uncomfortable, because it meant using the prior person for the ends of the future one, or at least for the ends of the believers. That strikes me as a violation of a form of the Categorical Imperative; even historical figures should be treated as ends in themselves, not as means. But Marx suggests that every translation through history traduces the original; it is all betrayal. Very troubling.
It is supposed that Mark Twain said “The past does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.” There is, alas, no source for it in his writings. He did say “It is not worth while to try to keep history from repeating itself, for man's character will always make the preventing of the repetitions impossible.” (Mark Twain in Eruption: Hitherto Unpublished Pages About Men and Events (1940), ed. Bernard DeVoto; with thanks to Wikiquote.) What I say is that, if history rhymes, it does so with the grandly dissimilar lines of a poem by Ogden Nash.
[All my posts are drafts. Helpful comments are most welcome.]