"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

That Tendentious Pamphleteer Gibbon

If you carefully read Evelyn Waugh's hilarious historical novel Helena, which Waugh regarded as his real magnum opus and in which there are all kinds of puns and hidden howlers and deliberate anachronisms, you will find a very sly jab at Edward Gibbon, whom Waugh and others regarded as an anti-Catholic pamphleteer with little more than a rococo style to commend him. But Gibbon was more ecumenical than that, and it is clear he had equally little regard for Eastern Orthodoxy. It is from Gibbon that we find some of the earliest widespread uses of the term "Byzantine" as a pejorative--as connoting something dark, manipulative, endlessly complicated, and malevolent. Forthcoming in September is a new scholarly book that looks at Gibbon's historiographical methods: Charlotte Roberts Edward Gibbon and the Shape of History (Oxford UP, 2014), 208pp.

About this book we are told:
Edward Gibbon's presentation of character in both the History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and in his posthumously published Memoirs demonstrates a prevailing interest in the values of transcendent heroism and individual liberty, but also an insistent awareness of the dangers these values pose to coherence and narrative order. In this study, Charlotte Roberts demonstrates how these dynamics also inform the 'character' of the Decline and Fall: in which ironic difference confronts enervating uniformity; oddity counters specious lucidity; and revision combats repetition.

Edward Gibbon and the Shape of History explores the Decline and Fall as a work of scholarship and of literature, tracing both its expansive outline and its expressive details. A close examination of each of the three instalments of Gibbon's history reveals an intimate relationship between the style of Gibbon's narrative and the overall shape of his historiographical composition. The constant interplay between style and substance, or between the particular details of composition and the larger patterns of argument and narrative, informs every aspect of Gibbon's work: from his reception of established and innovative historiographical conventions to the expression of his narrative voice. Through a combination of close reading and larger literary and scholarly analysis, Charlotte Roberts conveys a sense of the Decline and Fall as a work more complex and conflicted, in its tone and structure, than has been appreciated by previous scholars, without losing sight of the grand contours of Gibbon's superlative achievement.

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