And what thoughts or memories, would you guess, were passing through my mind on this extraordinary occasion? Was I thinking of the Sibyl's prophecy, of the omen of the wolf-cub, of Pollio's advice, or of Briseis' dream? Of my grandfather and liberty? Of my father and liberty? Of my three Imperial predecessors, Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, their lives and deaths? Of the great danger I was still in from the conspirators, and from the Senate, and from the Guards battalions at the Camp? Of Messalina and our unborn child? Of my grandmother Livia and my promise to deify her if ever I became Emperor? Of Postumus and Germanicus? Of Agrippina and Nero? Of Camilla? No, you would never guess what was passing through my mind. But I shall be frank and tell you what it was, though the confession is a shameful one. I was thinking, So, I'm Emperor, am I? What nonsense! But at least I'll be able to make people read my books now. Public recitals to large audiences. And good books too, thirty-five years' hard work in them. It won't be unfair. Pollio used to get attentive audiences by giving expensive dinners. He was a very sound historian, and the last of Romans. My History of Carthage is full of amusing anecdotes. I'm sure they'll enjoy it.
That was what I was thinking. I was thinking too, what opportunities I should have, as Emperor, for consulting the secret archives and finding out just what happened on this occasion or on that. How many twisted stories still remained to be straightened out. What a miraculous fate for a historian! And as you will have seen, I took full advantage of my opportunities. Even the mature historian's privilege of setting forth conversations of which he knows only the gist is one that I have availed myself of hardly at all.
- Robert Graves, I, Claudius
For me, and probably not just for me, being hopelessly unworldly is actually something of a romantic dream. One of these days I won't have to go to department stores or drop off dry cleaning or have awkward first dates, I'll just lock myself up with my Loeb Classical Library and that's the last this cruel world will see of me! This is linked, in my head, with a fantasy of detachment. It's true that being "objective" is no longer considered a viable possibility for historians, even if the more recondite among us still consider it a worthwhile ideal. But no matter how politically-engaged (and hence avowedly unobjective) a historian gets, detachment as an ideal never quite disappears. This is a rather different kind of detachment from the one we are normally encouraged to pursue. It's not about remaining unswayed by partisanship or treating historical subjects with fairness and dignity.
No, our kind of detachment is more of an abiding sense of professional superiority over effectively anyone who has opinions about things. This comes at least in part from the fact that it is now very difficult, if not impossible, to publish a book about (say) abolitionists that strides confidently to a conclusion that the abolitionists were stand-up dudes and were right about stuff. Even an audience composed entirely of leftists would jeer at this kind of presentation. No, we've moved on from the '60s, and all our books have to show how the agents were trapped by cultural structure n and achieved icky unintended consequences x, y, z. It's hard not to feel superior to everyone if you watch the news knowing firmly that fifteen years on someone's gonna publish an article about how the heroic freedom fighters on the screen were really the apostles of some fresh hell. You're not detached because of some conscious choice; you're detached because irony is your most important professional habit.
I, Claudius, in its tragicomic final third, is a beautiful illustration of the stupidity of this way of viewing the world. Graves surely had more than a casual acquaintance with historians and their occupational illnesses--or, at any rate, knew enough about the classical historians to discern the similarities. Graves's Claudius imagines himself as a classic unworldly recluse, engaging with the court around him only to the extent that he needs materials for his history-writing. In practice, of course, this is far from being the case: the narrative makes it plain that he is in fact far from obscure, and although his physical defects marginalize him, he is still on the minds of many of the people who are carrying on their intrigues. In the final third of the novel, with the last years of Tiberius and the reign of Caligula, this narrative pushes towards its absurd denouement. Rome is falling apart, and while Claudius constantly makes outraged noises, it is obvious that he is relishing the opportunity to ironize over the unenviable careers of people foolish enough to have played a part in the world of politics and rank. This conceit breaks down when Caligula makes Claudius a court jester. As he struggles to save his own skin, Claudius turns into the most obsequious of courtiers. He is, it turns out, no more dignified and aloof than anyone else at court. Meanwhile, Caligula's reign only heightens his tendency to ironize. What is supposed to be a popular tragedy is described as a sequence of comic interludes in which Caligula doesn't even come off that badly. Crazy? Sure, but what a clever guy!
So it is with us. Ironic detachment helps us, modern historians, deal with the unpleasantness of living in a ridiculous world, but when it's needed most it becomes more and more of a figleaf. I won't belabor the point: it's not hard to see how academics these days are structurally servile, whether your starting point is Marx or Nietzsche or someone else. To a certain extent, the narrowing of horizons that comes from being able to see yourself from history's point of view is adaptive. If you're mostly helpless to do anything about student loan delinquency rates or bloodthirsty state legislatures, you may as well sigh and be the jester for a bit. What the gesture doesn't carry with it--as in Claudius's case--is the luxury of distance. I don't know if it's only my generation of graduate students that seems ready on command to adopt the melancholy-ironic pose and then to relinquish it, but it's a good time to develop that kind of skill, as long as you're not entertaining too many illusions. But then someone has to end up writing those histories.