Image credit: Adapted from Singular Pasts: The “I” in Historiography by Enzo Traverso. Used with permission of the publisher, Columbia University Press.

Historians began writing in the third person as early as antiquity, when there were no distinct boundaries between history, poetry, tragedy, and eloquence, these being, to borrow the words of Nicole Loraux, “institutions of speech anchored in the city-state.”

Despite having participated in the Peloponnesian Wars, first as an Athenian general then as an exile, Thucydides did not wish to give his own testimony of the event. He wanted to write as a historian and reconstruct the conflict through objective description of the facts, an approach that required third-person narration. And so, he pointed out, he did not write History of the Peloponnesian War as a poet, because he did not wish to embellish the events of that time. He also distanced himself from the “prose chroniclers”—his designation for those annalists of the sixth and fifth centuries BC—whose stories were “written more to please the ear than to serve the truth,” and who spoke of facts that were not verifiable and therefore could not make any claims to authenticity. His method was different because his account was grounded in “the clearest evidence available.” He carried out “the greatest possible rigor in pursuing every detail” for events that he had himself lived through just as he did for those of which he only had indirect knowledge. He thus asked the indulgence of readers who may have found “the lack of a romantic element in [his] story” as rigorously and factually reconstructing the past demanded an impersonal narrative voice. According to the classicist Luciano Canfora, it was the sudden introduction of an “I” in chapters 25 and 26 of book 6 that allowed Xenophon to identify himself as having completed Thucydides’ text. The transition from third- to first-person narration also served to authenticate the veracity of his account through his status as an eyewitness: “I lived through the whole of the war, studying it with mature perception and in the intellectual pursuit of an accurate understanding of events.” Hence, Thucydides’ successor chose a double narrative register to articulate both the historian’s impersonal narrative voice (Thucydides) and an eyewitness account written in the first person (Xenophon himself).

From the birth of modern historiography as purported scientific discipline, toward the end of the eighteenth century, writing in the third person has been one of its cardinal rules. In fact, until relatively recent times, it has been assumed to be unquestionable. The premise is quite simple: conceived as a rational operation of factual reconstruction and contextualized chronological description of past events, history implies a distance, a looking outward, which the impersonal narrative alone could assure. To be meticulously rebuilt and understood to its greatest extent, the past must be relieved from any depth of feeling that envelops it, an essential task that only the external observer— chronologically and even psychologically detached from the facts they describe—can accomplish. Leopold Ranke, the founder of the German historical school, envisaged history as a convergence between science (Wissenschaft) and self-education (Bildung), between scrupulous research methodology and the pedagogical mission implicit in any effort to produce knowledge. At once occupation and calling—two notions that come together in the German concept of profession (Beruf) per the Weberian definition for scientific work—history could not, he argued, be recounted subjectively or, worse, intimately. While the nation-states seemed to embody its accomplishment in Hegelian terms, history becomes a necessarily impersonal, objective, collective, and public narrative, sometimes at risk of being mistaken for a notarial deed, a report ready to be archived. Conceived as a scientific discourse, history codified its rules by assimilating and merging procedures put in place by other disciplines, notably the rhetoric of law (an art of persuasion based on the exhibition of evidence) and the experimental practices of medicine (a diagnosis based on empirical observations). Above all, knowledge of the past involved its objectification and its rational description in accordance with a vision that has only recently been called into question with the advent of the linguistic turn in the humanities and social sciences.

Even the irruption of memory in the realm of historiography did not alter these principles. Attentive to its eminently subjective nature, historians have always treated it as a source like any other, to be validated, corroborated, and compared. In short, the historian approached memory as a new object of investigation. In his introduction to Realms of Memory (1984), Pierre Nora reaffirms an almost ontological distinction—previously observed by Maurice Halbwachs in the 1920s—between memory and history by emphasizing their constitutive dichotomy: memory is made of recollections while history is founded on sources; memory is the presence of a still living past while history supposes that past to be absent, cold, and long dead; memory is the subjective perception of a past that history deems concretized and sealed. In order to write a history of collective memory, scholars must locate themselves on the side of the former, not the latter. For them—we should emphasize this point—memory is but one of many sources that clutter their workshop among documents, archival materials, texts, letters, images, films, and all manner of material objects. Should they come across or gather memories, these sources must be verified, deciphered, contextualized, and interpreted. That is to say, they “reify” them. They cannot replace them or mix them with their own memories, even if they feel tempted to do so. The oral history expert must collect voices of actors of the past with the respect, humility, and care that these eyewitness accounts demand, all the while maintaining the critical distance needed to scrupulously verify the correlation between the accounts and facts. In certain cases—as long as one is not confronted by liars—it is precisely the gap between testimony and established fact, once analyzed and explained, that has allowed knowledge of the past to progress. The historian’s objective is to understand what has happened and not to reveal the extent to which discovery of the past affects them or helps them probe the depths of the soul. Interrogating the past through the lens of their own memories is not the task of the historian, but rather that of the memorialist. Anyone who feels this urge would do better to satisfy it in a location as discreet as the pages of a diary. This is why Tocqueville, author of The Old Regime and the Revolution (1856), envisaged his recollections of 1848 as a sort of “mirror,” in which he could examine his contemporaries and himself, and not as a tableau intended to be shown to the public. This collection of observations was of a strictly private nature and could only become a matter of record posthumously. His friends were not permitted to read it, and it was only published in 1893:

these recollections shall be a relaxation of the mind rather than a contribution to literature. I write them for myself alone. They shall be a mirror in which I will amuse myself in contemplating my contemporaries and myself; not a picture painted for the public. My most intimate friends shall not see them, for I wish to retain the liberty of depicting them as I shall depict myself, without flattery. I wish to arrive truly at the secret motives which have caused them, and me, and others to act; and, when discovered, to reveal them here. In a word, I wish this expression of my recollections to be a sincere one; and to effect this, it is essential that it should remain absolutely secret.

Since writing in the third person had become a shared and unquestionable rule within the discipline of history, writing one’s own memories was seen by the historian as a sort of transgression. Jeremy D. Popkin stresses that history “requires considerable sublimation of the self,” which returns to a definition of autobiography as the expression of a (more or less) conscious desire to violate this fixed norm. In an age when positivism triumphed, French historians openly aired their repugnance for individuality in an ostentatious manner. Gabriel Monod, founder of the Revue historique, and his followers—notably Numa Fustel de Coulanges and Charles Seignobos—conceived of their discipline as a sort of radical asceticism that completely erased their subjectivity. Charles Péguy—one of the first writers who refused to distinguish between history and literature—deplored this posture. In his eyes, it consisted in being unaware of the present—the surroundings of the historian himself—and lauding this ignorance as a virtue, if not “the very condition for accessing knowledge of the past.” To qualify as objective and sufficiently distant from the events in question, historical narration had to be anonymous and the historian undetectable lest they make their presence known in any way.

Throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, the institutionalization of history—now viewed as a scientific discipline ultimately emancipated from literature—supposed the expulsion of the “self.” As Ivan Jablonka explains, the “I” had to be progressively submitted to an objective paradigm borrowed from the natural sciences—for which Claude Bernard had laid the foundation in his Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine (1865) that required a radical separation between, on the one hand, observation and analysis of events and, on the other hand, the subject that carried them out. By erasing their subjectivity, the historian hid behind an “absence-omnipresence” that gave the illusion of having established an objective, neutral narrative; to express themself, Jablonka concludes, like a sort of “Author-God.” The subjectivity on display could only belong to actors of the past. As explained in his major works from The People (1846) to The History of the French Revolution (1850–1853), Jules Michelet’s ambition was to restore and revive the past with its emotions, passions, hopes, tragedies, and urges. Meticulously reconstructing events based on his exploration of sources was equally essential to such a task as identifying empathetically with the actors of a given time. In his eyes, the historian’s aim was the “resurrection” of the past; he wished to resuscitate that which had happened by penetrating the minds of those who had participated in making it happen. Beneath its apparent coldness, the archival document hid the secret of life:

These papers and parchments, so long deserted, desired no better than to be restored to the light of the day; yet are they not papers, but lives of men, of provinces, and of nations. . . Softly, my dear friends, let us proceed in order, if you please. All of you have your claim on history. . . And, as I breathed on their dust, I saw them rise up. They raised from the sepulcher, one the hand, the other the head, as in the Last Judgement of Michelangelo, or in the Dance of Death. This galvanic dance, which they performed around me, I have essayed to reproduce in this work.

According to François Hartog, Michelet’s approach is, in many ways, the antithesis of that of Fustel de Coulanges: rather than conceal himself, he tries to commune with the dead. Fustel, Hartog writes, “strives to not exist, negating himself in order to know the past; the other [Michelet] creates a contract with absence and becomes a visitor to the dead. . . Here you have two types of absence, two relationships with time, two strategies for acquiring knowledge, two ways of writing history. Like Péguy, Michelet sides with memory, Fustel with history.” Citing his Journal, Christophe Prochasson points out that Michelet is the inventor of the “me-history” (moi-histoire). Departing from different premises, proponents of German historicism also consider identification with actors of the past to be a necessary condition for reconstructing a historical account. Ranke calls it “empathy” (Einfühlung), and Dilthey “lived experience” (Erlebnis). For Michelet as for Dilthey, this methodology allows the historian to penetrate the mental and emotional world of a bygone society in order to understand it. However, it certainly does not authorize the historian to replace their own individuality with the mental universe conjured: the “empathy” they recommend is not a dialogue between interchangeable interlocutors. These two historians do not so much call the third-person historical narrative into question as they do problematize it.

This tension between the emergence of a new subjectivity and the positivist imperative of an impersonal narrative spans the entire nineteenth century. The historiographical debates are but one expression among many. The same epoch also saw literature fracture around this new “ego.” Researchers have traced its appearance to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions (1782), the first modern autobiography. François-René de Chateaubriand, Alphonse de Lamartine, George Sand, and Alexandre Dumas follow his example, but run up against resistance and misunderstanding. For Chateaubriand, eloquence too often supersedes sincerity, and his Memoirs from Beyond the Grave (1849–1850) are often considered the outpourings of a senile Narcissus. Gérard de Nerval was the first poet to put his own dreams on paper and to transform his illness into a source of aesthetic creation, a half a century before psychoanalysis and surrealism. Yet his autobiographical texts are seen as the foolishness of a madman, more interesting for medicine than literature.

The artistic potential of the subjectivity of writers would not be fully recognized until the advent of the avant-garde at the beginning of the twentieth century. Naturalism came to an end, realism in painting fizzled out, and photography was emancipated from these original aesthetic models. Such shifts mark a break in the representation of the real and disrupt the chronological unity of literary narratives by allowing the author’s subjectivity to come through alongside that of their characters. Marcel Proust, Franz Kafka, Joseph Conrad, Italo Svevo, Luigi Pirandello, and James Joyce exemplify this irruption of modernism in literature by transforming the novel into a sort of “interior monologue;” T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound will do much the same with poetry and Bertolt Brecht with theater. However, during the “long nineteenth century,” from Benjamin Constant to Proust, writers are obliged to remind their critics that the “I” in their novels does not make them autobiographies nor does it challenge their standing as “works of imagination.” As for historians, they remain impermeable to these literary quarrels around the “I.” What interested the author of the Confessions, the book that set up the autobiographical paradigm for the nineteenth century, “is not the historical truth, but the emotion of a conscience letting the past emerge in it.” Autobiography thus does not yet concern historians.

Almost a century after Michelet, Siegfried Kracauer reaffirms that it is the historian’s job to “resuscitate” the dead. For him, history is at once a multiform reality and a narration, an ensemble of facts and their representation. In its capacity as a retrospective creation that inevitably entails some amount of subjectivity, history cannot be assimilated to the natural sciences and without question possesses a literary or even artistic dimension. In other words, historians are neither naturalists nor novelists, even if, like the former, they work with material that has not been invented and if, like the latter, they write. That is, they transform this material into a narrative fabric, into a plot. Like Orpheus, Kracauer explains in History: The Last Things Before the Last (1969), “the historian must descend into the nether world to bring the dead back to life” and while this perilous experience may become an artistic accomplishment, they must respect the rules if they wish the work to remain “history.” Kracauer concludes that their art “remains anonymous because it primarily shows in historian’s capacity for self-effacement and self- expansion and in the import of his diagnostic probings.”

For those historians who accept the principle of causal determinism, impersonal writing is a dogma. According to François Simiand and Karl Lamprecht, the goal of historical science is not to recover the uniqueness of a life, but rather its inscription in a landscape and temporality of constraints, repetition, and conformity. What is unique, Simiand writes, “has neither cause nor scientific explanation.” This
“scientific” interpretation of the past is antipodal to the meeting of the subjectivity of the historian and that of historical actors. Postwar structuralist historiography, the age of the “death of the subject,” will abandon the most radical forms of this determinism but will not renounce the sacred norm of impersonal writing. For Fernand Braudel, author of The Mediterranean (1949), history is an “anonymously human” process in which living beings are thrust into vast spaces and shaped by stratified demographic, geographic, economic, and mental structures. It is Louis Althusser, a Marxist philosopher, who will take it upon himself to codify this concept with his well-known definition of history as “process without a subject.” Stressing that a “subject” only exists within a social space and an inherited habitus, Pierre Bourdieu will in turn denounce what he called the “biographical illusion,” offering the metaphor of a trip on the subway: “trying to understand a career or a life as a unique and self-sufficient series of successive events without any other link than association with a ‘subject’ . . . is almost as absurd as trying to make sense of a trip on the metro without taking the structure of the network into account, meaning the matrix of objective relations between the different stations.” Entangled in the complex fabric of social, economic, cultural, and symbolic relations, subjectivity disappears.

Excerpted from Singular Pasts: The “I” in Historiography by Enzo Traverso. Copyright (c) 2023 Columbia University Press. Used by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved. 

Enzo Traverso is a historian of modern and contemporary Europe and Susan and Barton Winokur Professor in the Humanities at Cornell University.