- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 17, 2002

The "Wanderer," back turned on the painter, gazes out over rocky crags that often are but indistinct shapes off in the distance, and fog bound valleys below. Clearly, there is much in his field of view that he cannot not see clearly, if at all.
A second image, with which the writer pairs the "Wanderer" at both start and finish of his book, is no less suggestive albeit left to the reader's imagination or memory as the case may be. It is from the last scene of John Madden's 1998 film "Shakespeare in Love" with Gyneth Paltrow, playing Viola at the opening of "Twelfth Night" and shipwrecked at the edge of an unknown continent dangerous yet rich in possibilities.
Here in Mr. Gaddis' eyes, "as in Freidrich's Wanderer, it's a backside we see in that last long shot as she wades ashore …" and asks, "'What country, friends, is this?'"
The play on "backside" is one of the numerous lighter touches with which the distinguished Yale scholar and historian of the Cold War leavens his closely reasoned text in "The Landscape of History." The great question raised by both the "Wanderer" and Miss Paltrow is, Are they looking backward toward the past, or toward the future? Either way, how much can they hope to see given the inevitable constraints.
Mr. Gaddis' book is based on lectures given at Balliol College, Oxford. He had five purposes in preparing this material, some of which has been published elsewhere: to consider how historians think; to clear what he felt to be his own increasingly cluttered mind on the subject; to "do some updating. A lot has happened since the Nazis executed [Marc] Bloch in 1944, leaving us with a classic that breaks off, like Thucydides, in mid-sentence …"; to encourage fellow historians to be more explicit regarding their methods; and lastly, to share with history students today some of the "clarity, brevity, and wit in a word, the elegance" of those who have gone before and thereby succeeded in speaking to all of us rather than merely to each other.
The visiting American's love of Oxford is transparent, from dinners at High Table to the town's famous High Street that winds around and up and down like nothing any government-reasoned attempt at creating "reality" could achieve, be it the avenues of Paris or North Dakota roads built in a succession of 90-degree angles to accommodate narrowing longitudes in the approach to the North Pole.
Reality is crucial to the discussion, it being the one thing the historian never can hope fully to attain. It is, as R.G. Collingwood, cited by Mr. Gaddis, observed, confined to direct experience. Once time has elapsed, permitting gathering of source material, analysis and reflection, we are not dealing with reality anymore, rather the representation and simulation of it.
The historians' job is to get what can be had from available sources, decide what reasonably can be left out or simply is not known (e.g., Was Napoleon at Waterloo aggravated by wearing itchy underpants?) and using what is available to achieve a "fit" or "consilience" in representation that will win consensus among peers.
Crucial to consensus is methodology, a matter in which historians, as compared to their opposite numbers in the hard sciences and social sciences, have tended to be fairly quiet, though not, in Mr. Gaddis' view, at the cost of impairing their work's effectiveness. He believes that historians could afford to share more of their methodology, rather in the manner of seeking at least "virtual" replicability of their research.
He is at his most feisty, and dismissive, commenting on the social scientists, whose projects in their vain search for "the independent variable" Mr. Gaddis judges at times to be around the level of freshman physics lab experiments. The social scientists' ruin, he reckons, lies in the temptation to reject a host of complications (impossible) in order to simplify in ways that will enable them to forecast the future (or so they think). His dismissal of the economists' rational choice theory, for example, and of international relations theory is withering.
To this end, Mr. Gaddis tends toward the thinking of William H. McNeill in his comparison of historians and social scientists as ships that have passed in the night, with the historians moving more toward the hard sciences, especially those whose practitioners, such as astronomers, geologists and paleontologists, have to come up with persuasive conclusions while largely working outside of the laboratory.
Mr. Gaddis organizes his discussion in a preface and eight chapters. Time and space are considered, starting with the ability of the historian, suspended between the arts and the sciences, to compress the two in ways the individual cannot. Examples offered range about an eclectic cultural field, as when using Virginia Woolf's "Orlando" to illustrate protest against literal representation of reality. Discussing structure and process, meaning what the researcher finds in place in relation to how it got there, Mr. Gaddis likens the historians' work to that of geologists, which brings up two more scholars he admires, Bloch and the more recent E.H. Carr.
Writing about chaos and complexity, Mr. Gaddis recalls the effect upon Henry Adams, in his pursuit of the "great generalization," of digesting the implications of the mathematician Henri Poincare's equations (it turned him "green with horror"). Mr. Gaddis, by his own admission, employs a lot of metaphors in these pages, and in his discussion of fractals a truckload of Marmite (a British vegetable paste universally deplored by Americans who have met it) tips up on the Oxford-London road altering the distance between the two centers. The lesson: no such thing as a definite map.
This chapter is followed by related pages on causation, contingency and counterfactuals, the latter requiring an especially high level of responsibility on part of historian's employing them. The discussion ends with what the lay reader intuitively grasps as having to be the right conclusion, that what we learn is a higher priority than the purity of method employed in learning it.
A penultimate chapter, "Molecules With Minds of Their Own," brings Mr. Gaddis to the great difference between historical scholarship and the hard sciences, whose practitioners do not have to deal with people. This is where the issue of moral judgment presents itself, with Mr. Gaddis reaching back to Plutarch: "[T]he most outstanding exploits do not always … [reveal] the goodness or badness of the agent, … often in fact a casual action …" The trick here for the historian is putting himself in the mind of the subject without being subsumed by doing so, and more besides.
No enemy of recent developments in socially bottom-up historical methods (as opposed to the celebration of leadership figures), Mr. Gaddis visits Laurel Thatcher Ehrlich's "A Midwife's Tale." He also touches upon advocacy in the writing of history, for which some younger scholars have been criticized, but tempers it with the thought that to want to make one's work control the future was always human nature. The implied tilt toward liberation doesn't worry him.
In a closing chapter, "Seeing Like a Historian," Mr. Gaddis wraps up his discussion, combining recapitulation with the question, What is History For? Of his own Cold War studies, he relates how still-living participants in the events he described in his narratives usually were disappointed, feeling that he had not given the whole story or failed to get it right. But the historian's subjects all have to die eventually, and the history tends, willy nilly, to become "reality" as it is absorbed into continuously accumulating human experience. (Unless it be an attempt to uproot the past, like the notorious "Protocols of the Elders of Zion.")
This is another of those books that rewards the effort it requires. Besides providing invaluable insights into how the historian goes about his business, it teaches like all really good books of life beyond its boundaries. As to the "Wanderer" and Gwyneth Paltrow's derriere and the question of are they looking back or forward toward the future? Mr. Gaddis, claiming to be fudging his answer, says both ways.
By John Lewis Gaddis
Oxford University Press, $23, 192 pages, illus.

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