Beautiful and Sublime in History Writing

Haydn White argued that historical writing was disciplined as it moved from the sublime to the beautiful. As a result, modern historical writing is “domesticated” as it strips away all the tropes that lend themselves to the strange and terrifying possibilities of the sublime. 

In History and Tropology (15-16) F. R. Ankersmit questions that point and observes that the very distinction opens up other possibilities for history writing. He characterizes White’s project as an effort to remove “everything that might not fit into the tropological explanatory patterns that Western man has devised for making sense of sociohistorical reality.” 

Then this: “we are tempted to exclaim that we could not possibly expect historical writing to do anything else; what else could we expect from the historian’s text than that it succeeds in making an unfamiliar past familiar to us? Put differently, how could we possibly refrain from making use of figurative language since metaphor and figurative language are our ultima ratio in the task of transforming the unfamiliar into the familiar? However, it is precisely this category of the sublime that reminds us that the tropological appropriation of the past is not the only option that is open to the historian: representation – and even historical representation – leaves the historian the possibility of presenting the terrifying strangeness and sublimity of the past to his readers.”

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