Since we’re scheduled to be talking about field definition at our next meeting, I thought now would be a good time to share some excerpts from a book which I just discovered and am really excited about. If we’re talking about what constitutes the “Long Nineteenth Century,” we ought not to take for granted the term “century” itself before lengthening or shortening it.

For a class I’m taking with Juliet Fleming on “Shakespeare’s Language,” I encountered Daniel Milo’s Trahir le temps (Paris: Belles Lettres, 1991), referred to in Margreta de Grazia’s “Soliloquies and Wages in the Age of Emergent Consciousness” (Textual Practice 9.1 [1995]). De Grazia offers two provocative thought experiments. The second is, what if Hamlet’s famous “soliloquy” were not the revelation of his own interior consciousness, the enunciation of which signals the rise of the modern individual? A stage direction in the first quarto (the so-called “Bad Quarto”) specifies that he enters carrying a book just before the speech. So, de Grazia asks, “Is it possible that Hamlet’s, Shakespeare’s, the culture’s most celebrated soliloquy: is read from a book?” (74). And if it is a book, it could be a commonplace or table-book, a collection of notable quotations, referred to in Hamlet’s earlier encounter with the ghost.

But more relevant in our discussion of periodization is her first thought experiment, taken from Milo:

Suppose the Christian world had started counting time from the Crucifixion rather than the Nativity. On the traditional assumption that Christ was 33 when crucified, every date (‘year of our Lord’) would have to be set back 33 years…. As it turns out, there is historical precedence for this particular adjustment: time was actually counted frm the Crucifixion in the early centuries of the Christian era before it became standard practice to begin with the Nativity. (de Grazia 68)

What would happen to the centuries that provide the epistemological foundation for the practice of history? De Grazia focuses on the “early modern” period, but Milo has this to say about the nineteenth century:

The 19th century would see itself separated, by this disorder, from the Napoleonic Wars, from the Restoration, from Byron and Keats, from Hernani and the Meditations, from Stendhal, from Beethoven and Schubert, from Hegel and Goethe, from Romanticism, in sum. Here would be the Enlightenment and Romanticism within the same century, a dramatic consequence for all those who need more or less clear-cut oppositions in order to think about History… Others could prefer to see in this a helpful clarification, by the inauguration of the “bourgeois century” no longer with Napoleon Bonaparte but with Louis-Philippe and Queen Victoria…

But what the 19th century would “lose” from one side, it would “regain”–and with interest–from the other. Thus the “First World War,” which we might guess would keep its initial neat of the “Great War,” the “Second” becoming simply “The World War.” Another notable “defect” would be the October Revolution, which would allow Lenin and Trotsky to reunite not only with Marx, Engels, and Bakunin, but also with 1848 and 1871–to give us “The Revolutionary Century.” (18)

As literary critics, we tend to be embarrassed by our periodizations. Everybody knows that they’re arbitrary, a fiction imposed by historians rather than any effective description of historical events as experienced by contemporary observers. But whereas there has been endless debate about whether our periodizations are justified or not, whether it makes sense to think of the Victorian Age as a historical period, and what years would mark its boundaries, Milo’s book examines the genealogy of periodization, particularly the origin of the century as historical tool. His argument is that the century was a relatively recent, and literally revolutionary invention, a tool created in the wake of the French Revolution. He summarizes his findings as follows:

-the century certainly exists within historical writing;

-it is of recent invention (c. 1560);

-its diffusion was more recent (Le Goff speaks of the 18th century, I will date its true launch in 1800);

-it acts as a form of classification;

-it is a form of periodization with two characteristic principals: it has a unity, and this unity is in opposition with the unities of the centuries which surround it;

-it is a very particular periodization, which rests on an arithmetic prinicipal, hence artificial, hence outside of reality: the division of history into centuries is an a priori periodization;

-nevertheless, it was an important conquest in chronology (Le Goff);

-but that it is now necessary to destroy it in order to advance knowledge of the true historical era (la véritable durée historique). (Milo 28)

There will be more from Milo in coming posts.