The Gestae and the History of Ideas

When I was a young bibliophile, I was a devoted fantasy fan — and like many fantasy fans of my age, I devoured the Shannara books. I was just a child, really, and I wasn’t entirely equipped to answer the primary question that The Sword of Shannara raised in me: What kind of history was Terry Brooks telling me? On what level was it a satisfying history, and on what level was it unsatisfying?

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the Shannara books, a quick recap: In this fantasy world, a nuclear holocaust has devastated the land and wiped out nearly all of the technology, as well as making humans mutate into fantasy races (but for the elves, who apparently survived the nuclear destruction more or less intact). The titular Sword of Shannara is a centuries-old object that’s necessary in order to defeat a powerful warlock.

As an eight-year-old, that was my primary, fairly inelegant objection: You mean technology seriously hasn’t changed enough over time to render the Sword of Shannara obsolete? Even if this is a world where magic has come to stand in for technology, there’s no such thing as progressive magic? There’s only a sort of anxious attempt to reclaim the lost treasures of ages past?

It was only later, when I received some training as a historian (and got more deeply invested in science fiction and, later, steampunk) that I recognized what it was that made me anxious about this model of reclamation. I was turned off by the mode of history that Brooks was employing, for which technology was only a sort of distanced signifier. Technology is, for both fantasy readers and laypeople, the sign of advancement, progress, ‘elevation’ from the past. Technology is how we situate fantasy worlds in relation to our own, identifying them as pseudo-Victorian or as medieval or as paleolithic — and this process assumes two things: The first is that our Earth eras are complete unto themselves, easily spotted based on their superficial characteristics and capable of generating spontaneously without a long history of development and growth and change leading up to them. The second is that the progression of technology and culture that we’ve experienced on Earth is the only progression that one might be expected to witness in any civilization, and thus it’s unnecessary to pay attention to the contingent factors that lead to the emergence of any particular technology in any particular era.

What was bothering me wasn’t that technology didn’t change — it was that culture didn’t change.

When I first read Hamlet, I was also taught about the historical mode of the gestae: the deeds of great men. The res gestae are a history of things done, and not necessarily of the contexts and consequences of those deeds; therefore, for me, the gestae mode stands in contrast to the history of ideas or even (as J.G.A. Pocock would have it) the “history of discourse.” It becomes clear, when we think of the res gestae in contrast to the history of ideas, that the former is one in which technology is used, and its value is measured by its efficacy; the latter is one in which technology is developed and discussed, and its value is measured by the value that cultures place on it. To oversimplify vastly, the former is a history of actions; the latter is a history of what people said and thought about those actions, and the latter is the mode of history that interests me.

The Shannara books were a history in the tradition of the res gestae, for which mapping changes in thought over time is of little consequence; I hope that my own works will be histories in the tradition of the “history of discourse,” in which the relics that must be recovered and made meaningful are relics of thought and belief.

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