Monday, 22 June 2009

The astonishing Cobb

Patrick Kurp references the historian Richard Cobb in his post of today. He quotes Julian Barnes describing Cobb, but in words applicable to Boswell:

“Cobb’s history is archival, anecdotal, discursive, button-holing, undogmatic, imaginatively sympathetic, incomplete, droll; sometimes chaotic, often manic, always pungently detailed.”

Cobb seems more or less forgotten nowadays (though I'm not sure what form remembering him would take). When I was at Oxford his memory was still revered - he'd been the previous Professor of Modern History - or at least it was in some quarters. He was particularly appreciated by those dons who could point to their own sometime ebullient behaviour and claim with conviction that it wasn't a patch on what Cobb used to get up to (including his successor, the great Professor Stone).

But he was a one-off in many ways. The French, whom he devoted a lifetime to studying, described him as 'l'étonnant Cobb'. He lavished his very considerable enthusiasm on the disregarded, the ordinary and the everyday thereby revealing intrinsic interest where none had been noticed before. In his more extensive works the accumulation of so many intriguing smaller facts becomes illustrative of larger, entirely satisfying pictures; a sort of historical pointillisme with each point retaining its individuality and importance.

The darker side of life - or should that be the more interesting side? - attracted him in particular. Affairs, drinking, prostitution, murder, bars, thrillers: he was fascinated by all of them, and not just in his studies (I Googled this obituary: I urge you to read it, it's hilariously funny in parts; 'astonishing' doesn't do him justice).

But why bother writing about subjects whose relevance and importance to the great historical narrative could be deemed doubtful at best? In A Sense of Place, in responding to questions on papers concerned with people and events forgotten or never really even remembered, he relates the following: 'I think I assumed that the death from hunger even of a poor woman, two hundred years ago, was in itself important'; moreover, 'a continued insistence on relevance would soon result in the abandonment of the study of the past and the end of history as we know it, that is as a cultural subject, enriching in itself.'

His approach was in a way congruent with his choice of subject. Again from A Sense of Place, he was asked by a Serbian exile, keen to write history, 'what methodological equipment he should acquire....I [Cobb] shocked him very much by saying that no such method existed, that the methodology of history was the invention of solemn Germans and was the ruination...of unfortunate pupils...One just went to the records, read them, thought about them, read some more, and the records would do the rest, they would dictate the exact limits of the subject, and provide both inspiration and material. All the historian had to do was to be able to read, and, above all, to write clearly and agreeably. I could see that he was very shocked.'

His interlocutor accuses him of being an 'incurable amateur and pragmatist', a label I would guess he was proud to bear.

To read such civilised but down-to-earth and commonsensical opinions is even more inspiring today than when I first read them about twenty years ago: learning as a good in itself; a humane intelligence and the ability to read and write well being sufficient for scholarship; a humbly enquiring approach to the people of the past.

Working as an independent scholar outside the academy in his early days must have helped this unusual intellectual formation (at least for an academic). Nevertheless, such views could only be convincingly put forward by someone of the greatest learning, humility and sensitivity. They would confound the vast majority of hi-falutin' theorists, despite their using the complicated methodologies of deconstruction to recover, supposedly, the excluded 'Other'.

But what a wonderful aspiration: to be an 'incurable amateur and pragmatist', devotedly appreciative of the smallest, least considered person or event. There's a sort of beautifully understated moral greatness in this.

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