Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Is History Really a "Tonic of Tragedy?"

I just finished reading Simon Schama’s attack on Downton Abbey.  This apparently first appeared in The New Statesman and then migrated to Newsweek, from which it was picked up by The Daily Beast, which is where I read it.  Schama has a way with words that can only be compared to Jack the Ripper’s way with a knife.  It is at least far more entertaining since the only bloodshed is figurative, rather than literal:

Downton serves up a steaming, silvered tureen of snobbery. It’s a servile soap opera that an American public desperate for something, anything, to take its mind off the perplexities of the present seems only too happy to down in great, grateful gulps.

Since there was a tureen of disgusting material that figured in last Sunday’s episode, this particular turn of phrase could not have been more apposite.  Still, the bottom line is that Downton Abbey is a successfully calculated maneuver to wrest audience share on Sunday night away from HBO by trying to revive the glory days of Upstairs, Downstairs;  and it has been so successful that it has made the attempt at a sequel to Upstairs, Downstairs seem feeble by comparison.

However, while Schama may be entertaining, I am not sure about how informative he is.  His current credentials are as Professor of both History and Art History at Columbia University;  and one would think, at least where the reputation of Columbia is concerned, that he would do better than concentrate on strutting himself about with all the entertainment trappings of a Kenneth Clark-like “television don.”  I was particularly put off by his decision to end his attack with what is posed as an apology but is actually just as caustic as the rest of his text:

Sorry, but history’s meant to be a bummer, not a stroll down memory lane. Done right, it delivers the tonic of tragedy, not the bromide of romance. But then that wouldn’t get the high ratings, would it?

Is that “tonic of tragedy” there are any reason other than clever alliteration?  I agree that history should not be a “bromide of romance;”  but trying to frame history in terms of tragedy (Aristotelian, Marxian, or otherwise) is equally misconceived.  I prefer Hayden White’s position that history is best approached as literature, assessed for its quality of writing as well as its consistency with documented evidence.  It is from that point of view that, on, I waxed so enthusiastically over the history writing of Leta Miller and, by way of contrast, vented such a harsh opinion of Harvey Sachs.  As far as Downton Abbey is concerned, I am willing to take it as the same kind of escapism that I enjoyed in Joss Wheedon’s Dollhouse;  and I can do that without feeling even the slightest tinge of guilt!

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