Louis Menand 评 Richard Cohen 的新书 Making History: The Storytellers Who Shaped the Past (Simon & Schuster, 2022)：
网络版：The People Who Decide What Becomes History
印刷版：Gibbon’s Left Testicle. The New Yorker, April 18, 2022, pp. 63-65.
书评印刷版的标题《吉本的左侧睾丸》显然是标题党的作为（杂志目录页上印着的标题其实是“Historians and the writing of history”），颇有吸引眼球的功效；而网络版的标题则中规中矩，点明主题，因为所评之书是讲的是“讲故事的人”即历史书写者（或最广义上的历史学家）的。标题党归标题党，针对这样一本书，书评选择由吉本引入主题，再正当不过了。事实上也确实让我涨了一点知识，一是吉本的“悲催”人生，二是其人生对其历史写作的影响。二者合起来，正是书评文章和书本身的主题。
“It was at Rome, on the 15th of October 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefooted friars were singing vespers in the Temple of Jupiter, that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the city first started to my mind.” Those are the words of Edward Gibbon, and the book he imagined was, of course, “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.”
The passage is from Gibbon’s autobiography, and it has been quoted many times, because it seems to distill the six volumes of Gibbon’s famous book into an image: friars singing in the ruins of the civilization that their religion destroyed. And maybe we can picture, as in a Piranesi etching, the young Englishman (Gibbon was twenty-seven) perched on the steps of the ancient temple, contemplating the story of how Christianity plunged a continent into a thousand years of superstition and fanaticism, and determining to make that story the basis for a work that would become one of the literary monuments of the Enlightenment.
Does it undermine the gravitas of the moment to know that, as Richard Cohen tells us in his supremely entertaining “Making History: The Storytellers Who Shaped the Past” (Simon & Schuster), Gibbon was obese, stood about four feet eight inches tall, and had ginger hair that he wore curled on the side of his head and tied at the back—that he was, in Virginia Woolf’s words, “enormously top-heavy, precariously balanced upon little feet upon which he spun round with astonishing alacrity”? Does it matter that Gibbon’s contemporaries called him Monsieur Pomme de Terre, that James Boswell described him as “an ugly, affected, disgusting fellow,” and that he suffered from, in addition to gout, a distended scrotum caused by a painful swelling in his left testicle, which had to be regularly drained of fluid, sometimes as much as three or four quarts? And that when, late in life, he made a formal proposal of marriage, the woman he addressed burst out laughing, then had to summon two servants to help him get off his knees and back on his feet?
Cohen thinks that it should matter, that we cannot read “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” properly unless we know the person who wrote it, scrotal affliction and all. Gibbon would not, in theory, at any rate, have disagreed. “Every man of genius who writes history,” he maintained, “infuses into it, perhaps unconsciously, the character of his own spirit. His characters . . . seem to have only one manner of thinking and feeling, and that is the manner of the author.” When we listen to a tale, we need to take into account the teller.
And what about the poor fellow’s body and its sad infirmities? Cohen thinks (as [Virginia] Woolf did) that his unattractiveness provided Gibbon with an impenetrable cloak of irony. He learned to keep his emotional expectations in check, and this made him a cool analyst of religious zeal.
Lévi-Strauss maintained that history in modern societies is like myth in pre-modern cultures. It’s the way we explain ourselves to ourselves. The decision about what we want that explanation to look like can begin with the simple act of picking the date we want the story to start. Is it 1603 or 1619? We choose one of those years, and events line up accordingly. People complain that this makes history ideological. But what else could it be? “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” is ideological through and through. No one thinks it’s not history. Certainly Gibbon never doubted it. “Shall I be accused of vanity,” he wrote in his will, “if I add that a monument is superfluous?”
As the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss once put it (dismissively), all history is “history-for.” What did Gibbon write the “Decline and Fall” for? Cohen says it was to warn eighteenth-century Britain of mistakes that might threaten its empire, to prevent it from suffering the fate of Rome. In other words, Gibbon thought his story could be useful. He therefore needed to portray Roman civilization in ways that Britons could identify with, and Christianity in ways that suited the anticlerical prejudices of the Age of Reason.
Making History 一书所述“storytellers”含义很广，包括学院历史学家、通俗历史学家、写作历史的新闻记者、历史小说作家、电视记录片制片人等。书中报道了很多历史书写者的轶事，除了上述吉本的之外，让我感兴趣的还有：
Winston Churchill[’s] history of the Second World War made him millions, even though it was researched and partially written by persons other than Winston Churchill.
号称“读书笔记”，实际是读书评的笔记，以摘抄为主。以上引文均出自 Menand 教授书评文章，斜体为引者设置。