Historiography for Beginners: A Crack Teacher

Does History – including fashion – really repeat itself? If so why haven’t we ever gone back to wearing wigs? Above is a valued memorial from the wig’s golden era, the age of the Sun King. Painted c1697 by society portraitist Largillière, it displays a Nicolas Lambert de Vermont, later mayor of Paris (Prévôt des Marchands), now remembered solely for his part in this painting. The sumptuous, resplendent golden hair is genuine, it just isn’t his. The mane was bought at high cost from what surely must have been a top wigmaker. (Public domain.)

Inspiring films about gifted teachers – such as To Sir, with Love, Dead Poets Society, or more recently Entre les murs – are infrequent enough. Eloquent movies on how we write & communicate difficult ideas are rarer still.

Half Nelson (2006) weaves together these themes. Known today not only for Lars & the Real Girl, but already for his part in Nick Cassavettes’s stunning The Notebook, Ryan Gosling plays Mr Dunne, teacher of History to 13 year-old blacks & Hispanics in a US school. Young Mr Dunne seems outstanding at his job – were it not for his secret vice of smoking crack after school hours.

Still, he shows great authority & is popular with the class. What is his recipe? Hardly the crack, since both his teaching & professional position deteriorate alarmingly as his drug habit progresses.

Certainly one recipe of his is to keep things simple. Take dialectics. Volumes have been written on that opaque philosophical concept, but in Mr Dunne’s explanation it’s simply “Opposites”, & how they clash. What are Opposites? he asks his class. The pupils answer: “Black & white”. “You & me”.

Sharp enough for Mr Dunne. Such contrasts supply the first of his 3 key definitions of history, chalked up on the blackboard. The full list goes:

(What is history?)
1. Opposites
2. Turning Points
3. Evolution in a Spiral, not in Circles

This is less trivial than a jaded scholar might think. Consider the first 2 items, Opposites & Turning Points. Some historians like to focus on the great Turning Points of our past – coronations, victories, first publications – or, even when they hotly deny this, on some development they believe should be promoted to Turning Point status – some significant, perhaps unjustly ignored date or innovation. But these Turning Points are generally the culmination of a slower social or intellectual tension, of a contradiction between several more static patterns, in short, of a conflict of Opposites. So: from the very moment you open a browser or book to study what other people have thought & done before you – up from the page pop exactly Mr Dunne’s first 2 definitions. Also worth remarking, neither of them seems to do much good without the other.

Again Dunne’s gift is to illustrate these forces & their delicate interplay in the most primal way imaginable: by physically wrestling arms with one of his pupils, “T”. For a while, we watch T’s arm slowly “oppressing” his teacher’s. Until the Turning Point – when Dunne, first deliberately then suddenly, overturns the balance & defeats T. To the predictable hilarity of his class.

Selling a tricky subject to unfamiliar audiences is that simple. Even the crudest metaphor can be improved later, but we need a vivid starting point. Arm wrestling not only does the job. It may be the one lesson the class recalls by the time of its 25-year reunion.

So much for Mr Dunne’s first 2 concepts. But what of the last & more bizarre: “Evolution in a Spiral, not in Circles”?

Let me answer with an illustration (or bugbear) of my own. We often hear fashion described as a cyclic “repetition” of themes from past fashion. This may then justify another received idea, that fashion is somehow “superficial”. If both these ideas were true, fashion, & the more fundamental social forces that connect to it, might be exactly what Mr. Dunne calls an evolution “in Circles”: no spiralling outward, no continuous addition of new elements. But not even fashion works like that.

The fashion in the Paris of, say, Louis XIV (The Sun King, ruling 1661-1715) was famously different from that during his predecessor Louis XIII (ruling 1610-1643). After each style had run its course not only in France but in the Western & colonial world, neither has ever come close to repeating. The wig has now vanished, while modern elements such as denim or the printed T-shirt have gained enormous presence. Other old parts have of course recombined, but the recombination is so thorough & at such multiple, microscopic levels that any notion of “repetition” becomes misleading.

It’s not only that each style expresses the political & economic regimes, the intellectual & cultural assumptions, of its age. The Paris of Louis XIV thus aspired to be universal capital of fashion as naturally as it had conquered everything else worth ruling in the world.

Essential though politics, economics, or culture still are, the closer we get to our own age, the sharper one factor stands out: technology. Technology is certainly, to borrow Mr. Dunne’s imagery, spiralling: able perpetually to add new outer elements to an older & inner core.

An early ancestor of the modern business suit, with its trinity of a restrained, well cut wool suit, a smooth cotton shirt, & a distinctive necktie, was made popular by London’s Prince of Dandies, Beau Brummell (1778-1840). But would his epigrams & genius for drama have gone exactly the same way had they not been preceded or accompanied by Arkwright’s spinning machines (1769), the cotton gin (1793), the looms of Lancashire & the vessels of the Eastern silk trade? These engines gave Brummell his precious suits & shirts. In turn the English dandy gave London its decisive ascendancy over Paris.

Who can claim that today’s fashion is unaffected by tech such as microfibre, Gore-Tex, Super 120+, or the automated, hi-resolution weaving of complex patterns? Sure, the fashion of the 1990s & 2000s was in parts inspired by the 1970s & late 1960s. A given tie from the Summer of ‘69 may very well resemble a given tie from today. But while the pattern on the former was often printed & 2-dimensional, that of the latter is very, very finely weaved, & 3-dimensional. With a subtle effect so different as to constrain the shirt, the jacket, the shoes, & even the belt buckle into entirely different courses.

Of course, these finer points of fashion may themselves sound superficial. Mr Dunne, a dandy in his own right, certainly enjoys dressing like some prissy male model. Regrettably, there remains that drug addiction of his. Crack cocaine chic.

Not even this problem stands still or stays level. It spirals too – sharply downward – & Dunne confronts a Turning Point himself: the choice between change for the better (rehab, a general cleanup, or just no longer incarnating denial) or change for the infinitely worse: the disintegration of what, surely, must be his calling, teaching young minds the demanding art of thought.

This would affect not only Mr Dunne, but the children under his care. In his absence, the well named Mr Light takes over: a robotic, insubstantial drill instructor, without true insight into the magic possibilities that the past holds for the future.

That’s evolution in Circles. Repeating the past without renewing it.


Half Nelson. Dir: Ryan Fleck. 2006. DVD. Axiom Films, 2007. Page on IMDb.

Categories: History Unplugged

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