Civil War fallacies: Fischer, Sebba, Fellini, Carpenter

Continuing this thread, we have David Hackett Fischer, in Historians’ Fallacies, cautioning us against the reductive fallacy, which he relates to temporal/causal sequences that have been unduly compressed: The kingdom was lost for want of a horseshoe nail, etc.

Then we have Gregor Sebba telling us, in an essay, that historical myths are reductions of historical reality - not necessarily causal or temporal - into a few facts that "everyone knows" – that they are unassailable because the few facts they rest on are solid, and that this distortive compression has the additional benefit of being "emotionally satisfying."

Which took us into pop history, where job one is satisfying emotions through storytelling. Remember how the plagiarist Stephen Ambrose confronted an accuser demanding sources: "I tell stories!" (Translation: What am I supposed to be, a scholar or something?) Federico Fellini says "I don’t think that anyone who has chosen this profession [filmmaking] or who has a calling to tell stories can distinguish it [truth]. From the moment he creates his own little universe, that creation is absolute."

It is made absolute in Civil War history by setting up mutually-reinforcing Sebba type myths arranged into patterns that make sense only as literature. I gave as examples of possible Civil War myths some summary judgements about Grant: he was apolitical; he was unconcerned about enemy capabilities; he had a fine working relationship with Lincoln. One year ago in this blog I noted how great strings of such myths can then be arranged into incredibly compact formulas that act as a tokens for large streams of argument, e.g. "Lincoln finds a general."

The expression "Lincoln finds a general" is meaningless historically but voicing it triggers images of hirings and firings, defeats, victories, disappointments, and eventual triumph. It triggers a replay of a particular line of argument that has been accepted as truth. It's almost as dense a term as "Trinitarian theology." How historians get to Lincoln finding a general is nicely explained in another context. An anthropologist named Carpenter, reviewing a Robert Graves work, once made these points about Graves’ pop-history tendencies [emphasis added]:

Graves, not incidentally, has "corrected" Greek mythology in two volumes, eliminating contradictions, adding omissions, arranging lineally, and generally "straightening out." What I am getting at is that they [such as Graves] first turn these myths into what they are not; by arranging symbols [read Sebba’s myths] they create "content": then they pigeonhole these various "contents" and come up with "archetypes."

I read this passage with the best-selling ACW "historians" in mind, of course, and fell out of my chair; it’s from a McLuhan essay, of all things. Carpenter sums up:

… they [such as Graves] direct their attention to a most important problem and … build humorless, watertight systems … that instead of answering the problem or even illuminating it, block access to it.

In ACW history, the blocking has been terrible and even in new studies disclosing new discoveries we find self-censorship as the authors attempt to integrate their anomalous material into the generally accepted interpretive framework. This week and next I’ll give some extraordinary examples of this self-blocking.

Carpenter’s builders of airtight historical systems are more about the art of literature than information discovery. Fellini, again:

Art, on the other hand, is something that comforts us, reassures us, tells us something about life in terms that are extremely protective.

Extremely protective of the readers’ sensibilities - without "Lincoln finds a general," we have an ugly, chaotic string of events, not to mention good men who died in vain. And "Lincoln finds a general" is just one container for hundreds of reductive fallacies. There are many more containers besides.