Gotham Diary:
I’m not going to say it in the Header, if that’s what you’re afraid of.
21 April 2017

Friday 21st

All week, I’ve been agonizing about history. What’s the point in talking about it? Everybody hates it. Nobody knows what it is. And without it, we’re lost.

History is not “what happened.” We’ll never know what happened. We can’t even say what happened yesterday. It’s too vast, too complicated, and its implications have barely begun to unfold.

Neither is history a treasure that lies buried in archives, waiting to be discovered by research. The researcher, sorting through boxes of documents, already knows what he or she is hoping to find. Within a narrow range, the researcher is prepared for surprises. Outside of that range, what might be an enlightening surprise for another researcher with other questions is for our researcher nothing but an irrelevancy.


History is one kind of explanation. The questions that need explaining are always, basically, the same: How did we get here? Whether what you mean by that question is (a) how did the human species invent civilization or (b) what was Rudy Giuliani doing in Ankara the other day, the historical explanation is arrived at in the same way, by a likely story. The story is likely because it is based on historical evidence. Historians, the people who come up with explanations for a living, have developed a set of criteria for evaluating raw facts and determining their value as historical evidence, and that is as far as we’re going to take this adventure in circularity. History is objective in that historians observe their professional standards. But it has no existence apart from historians. Unlike Scripture, which is another kind of explanation, history depends on no higher authority for validation. I ought to point out that journalists, the people who explain Rudy Giuliani for a living, are a kind of historian; they follow pretty much the same rules of evidence.

Last night, I was reading a book that Laura Kipnis published ten years ago, The Female Thing. Kipnis is not a historian, but she has a sense of history — “a sense of history” is my subject today — and it gives her writing about feminism an uncommon ballast. I was reading the chapter on “Dirt.” Kipnis notes that, while we associate slovenliness with men these days, women used to be the dirty sex. She thinks that this changed in the Eighteenth Century — she has a wonderful way, as I hope I do, too, of accompanying such claims with the disclaimer, “Don’t hold me to it.” — and I don’t really disagree, but because I have a pet theory of my own, I would argue that the way was paved by the pious and prosperous Protestant women who, from the time of the Reformation, took up wearing black and white, reading the Bible, and, sometimes, setting the example expected of a preacher’s wife (a new role, historically); and that, furthermore, this appropriation of cleanliness, which came to be called “respectability” in English — Is Kipnis too young to have been bothered by respectability? She doesn’t mention it — lost its carnal teeth, so to speak, when women gained the political franchise. Somehow, Kipnis notes ruefully, women have gained the right to sleep around, but they’re still stuck with changing all the sheets.

How did that happen? In the blink of an eye, my pet theory produces an explanation. Women internalized the commands of respectability that governed outward appearances. They continued to scrub counters and to hoover the carpets, because everyone can see those. The commands that governed private behavior were ignored. The result, at least in the pages of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, is the look of an extremely well-tended hooker. Even Mme de Pompadour would not be seen in such outfits. Not even Cleopatra, I daresay. It’s quite inexplicable — until you apply your sense of history.

There, that wasn’t too bad, was it?

Bon week-end à tous!