Sunday, October 12, 2008
It says here that Ezra Pound wrote his Cantos in the form of a fugue. The basic principle is this: to introduce the major themes in the beginning, then develop them in any number of contexts, each time allowing the natural process at the heart of the work to reemerge in the succession of elements as it did in the introduction. (This happens to virtue, corruption and rebirth, for instance, as the work develops). So I started thinking: could the fugue serve as a style for scholarly--specifically, historical--argument? What opportunities would such a technique afford us?
At present most academic history books are written in one of two ways. Either a single context or frame of reference is set up and the narrative moves through it in a neatly chronological order, or a set of social phenomena is identified and each is traced more or less independently of the others. Some books combine elements of both, and some rely, explicitly or implicitly, on some kind of dialectical structure. But the fact is, neither of the two main techniques is wholly satisfactory. The first creates the need to identify some kind of progression or radical change that would set the end of the narrative apart from its beginning--a sort of chronological payoff that, if it does not actually exist, needs to be invented. The result is often a perversion of the historical texture. The second technique creates the illusion that the historical field--the entire life of a society at a given moment in its existence--can be neatly parceled out into almost monadic subject areas. The dialectic is the most interesting style, but applied artificially it collapses into a caricature of itself.
The fugue, as I imagine it, would be a sequence, rather than a progression, of dialectical processes. That is, the subject of the fugue is a dialectic--an organic movement rather than the frozen and abstract thesis-antithesis-synthesis sequence that is often taught in the manuals. (Why a dialectic? Because, after all, the fugue is a genre based on counterpoint.) The fugue then assembles thematic/chronological units, fluidly defined, and follows the emergence of the subject as it recapitulates itself within them. The key is that the subject undergoes changes, but not a development: it adapts itself to each new setting, but retains a certain core that is resistant to fundamental transformations. An ideal subject would, like a pattern in a fractal, be visible at the most intimate as well as the grandest levels of historical inquiry.
The purpose of relying on the fugue rather than on traditional argumentative styles is to return (as Pound does so well) to the question of the recurrent in history. Historical writing at least since Hegel has deliberately occluded the processes that reappear in every historical moment, because the profession is invested in studying the superficial--the dynamic rather than the static. This is not to create a base/superstructure distinction: the dynamic includes economics as well as ideas, material substances as well as cultural forms. But it is this very thoroughness of historical change that creates the impression that everything is subject to it.
By taking the fugue as their grounding, historians can move closer to discovering how much their argumentative form impacts the narratives they create. Hence the fugue is nothing more than another perspective, another partial and limited form. And yet the intricacy of the episodes, the subtle construction of the subject, may allow for a particularly rich and aesthetically compelling work--to say nothing of the possibility of double and triple, and quadruple, fugues. A universal history written today would take the form of a fugue with an unlimited number of subjects.