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Wesleyan University Anecdote and History Author(s): Lionel Gossman Source: Histor y and Theor y, Vol.

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Anecdote and History Author(s): Lionel Gossman Source: History and Theory, Vol. 42, No. 2 (May, 2003), pp. 143-168 Published by: Blackwell Publishing for Wesleyan University

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History and Theory 42 (May

2003), 143-168

C WesleyanUniversity 2003 ISSN: 0018-2656



Eine Anekdoteist ein


historischesMolecule oder Epigramm. -Novalis'


Although the term"anecdote"enteredthe modem Europeanlanguagesfairlyrecently and

remainsto this day ill-defined, the short,freestanding accountsof particularevents, trueor

invented, thatare usually referredto

ial. They have also always stoodin a close relationto the longer, moreelaboratenarratives

of history, sometimes in a supportiverole, as examples and illustrations, sometimes in a challenging role, as the repressed of history-"la petite histoire."Historians'relationto them, in turn, variedfrom appreciative to dismissive in accordancewith theirown objec-

tives in writing history. It appears that highly structuredanecdotes of the kind that are

rememberedand find their way into anecdotecollections depend on

establishedviews of history, the world, andhumannature.In contrast,loosely structured

anecdotes akin to

views and stimulatenew ones, either by presenting materialknownto few and excluded

from officially authorized histories, or by

lished views of history, the world, andhumannaturedo not easily account.

as anecdoteshave been aroundfromtime immemor-

and tend to confirm

the modemfait divers have usually worked to undermineestablished

reporting "odd"occurrencesfor whichthe estab-


How are anecdotes related to history and to the writing of history? The question was raised in an unusually vivid way by David Edmonds and John Eidinow's

recent, highly successful book Wittgenstein's Poker: The Storyof a Ten-Minute

Argument Between

The kernel of the book is a fairly


phers, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper, at a meeting of the Moral Science Club of Cambridge University on October 25, 1946. Before the end of Popper's talk, according to some, Wittgenstein became so incensed by the visitor's delib-

erately provocative rejection of his own view that there are no philosophical problems, only language puzzles, that he rose to his feet, brandishing a red-hot poker in Popper's face before storming angrily out of the room; according to oth-

having used the poker "in a philosophical

ers, Wittgenstein,

example" before

dropping it on the tiles around the fireplace, then "quietly (left) the meeting and

Two Great Philosophers.

anecdote about the encounter of two celebrated Viennese philoso-

1. Novalis,Schriften, ed.PaulKluckhohnandRichardSamuel,vol.2:"Das philosophischeWerk,"

ed.RichardSamuel, Hans-Joachim Mdihl, andGerhardSchulz (Stuttgart:Kohlhammer,1960), 567.



(shut) the door behind him."2The competing versions of the anecdote told by those who witnessed the scene raise one of the oldest and most fundamentalof

all historiographicalproblems: how to determinewhat actuallyhappened when

eyewitness reports areat variance.The

the fact thatall the eyewitnesses in question were philosopherspresumably ded- icated to the disinterestedsearchfor truth.

Intriguing as this aspect of Wittgenstein's Poker might be, it is hardnot to be disappointedby the basic strategy the authors adopted for the writing of their book. This consistedin expanding the dramaticanecdoterecountedat the begin- ning into a complex, circumstantial, novel-like story. Edmonds and Eidinow drawon standardintellectual biographies of Wittgenstein and Popper, as well as published historicaltestimonies by persons close to them, historiesof Viennese

society and culture, andaccountsof modem philosophy, to

of the two principal charactersandtheirworld andto explain theirintense rival- ry. We learnaboutthe competingphilosophicalpositions of the two protagonists and the largerbackground of early twentieth-century Viennese philosophy from which they both emerged; we learnaboutthe families in which they grew up- both highly assimilatedJewish families, one fabulouslywealthy andalmost aris- tocratic, the other solidly bourgeois; we learn aboutthe different layers of the

Viennese society they belonged to and in particular abouttheirdifferent experi- ences, as Austrians of Jewish descent, in a pervasively anti-Semitic culture; about how each was affected by and responded to National Socialism and the incorporation of Austriainto the Third Reich; abouttheir differentconnections

with English philosophers and English society; and so on. The anecdote thus unfoldsinto something close to a culturalandintellectual history of an important part of Europe in the firsthalf of the twentieth century. "The story of the poker," in Edmonds'sandEidinow's own words,"goesbeyond the charactersandbeliefs of the antagonists. It is inseparable from the story of their times, opening a win- dow on the tumultuousand tragic history that shaped their lives and brought them together in Cambridge."3 As the representation of a dramaticencounterof two rival philosophers, the original anecdote had a stripped-down, almost abstract characterwhich left


besides the competition between two particularways of looking on the world- "theschism in twentieth-centuryphilosophy over the significance of language," as EdmondsandEidinow put it4-was perhaps the more general, comic contrast between the ostensible natureof philosophy, as the disinterestedand disembod-

ied pursuit of truth,andthe intense personal conflictof the two philosophers, cul- minating in an apparent threat of physical violence; between the tranquil,

unworldly locus of the event-a

problem is aggravated in this instance by

paint a broadtableau

typical featureof many oral forms-for

variationsof detail. Its focus,

shabby roomin a quietCambridgecollege-and

2. David EdmondsandJohn Eidinow,Wittgenstein's Poker: The Storyof a Ten-Minute Argument

Between TwoGreat Philosophers (London: Faberand Faber,2001), 16-17.

3. Ibid., 5.



the passions thatwere unleashedin it.5The particularphilosophical views of the

rival protagonists were barely alludedto in the anecdote,which-fairly

ly as

Edmondsand Eidinow, in contrast, fill out the anecdote's elementary,essentially dramatic structure,put fleshon its bones, anddeck it out in colorful clothing. The

300-pagehistory to which it gives rise is an intelligently conducted amplificatio, but it containsno surprises. The antithesisat the core of the anecdote continues to structurethe history,providing the frameworkon which the authors arrange and display theirrich but familiar borrowings.


it turnsout- supposes thatthe audience already has certainnotionsof them.


The relationof the epic and dramatic genres, and the implications, in termsof ideology or Weltanschauung, of narrativeversus dramatic representations of the world, have been a major topic of reflection on literaturesince Antiquity. As

anecdotes, I now believe, may favor either--they may reduce complex situations to simple, sharply defineddramatic structures, but they may also, if more rarely, prise closed dramaticstructures open by perforating them with holes of novelis-

tic contingency-a

brief discussion of this topic is in order.


development of narrativein the eighteenth century seems to have been the general critical approach of the Enlightenment andits questioning of

part of

the normsandbeliefs aboutthe natureof human beings andthe world enshrined

in thecontentandthe formof Frenchclassicalliterature.Thesenormsandbeliefs

had the undeniablemerit of facilitating a

ing of particularactions, situations, and personalities and thus of reinforcing social cohesion. The novels of Marivaux,Sterne, and Diderot, in contrast, car-


sage: that if we examine particularactions, situations, and personalitiesclosely and in individual detail, we will find that they are not neatly orderedand pre- dictablein the manner suggestedby the limited repertory of actionsandthewell- defined, often antitheticalsets of characters (old man/youngman,master/servant, and so on) to which they arereducedin classical drama, or by the equally gen-

common recognition and understand-

both formally and thematically-a

deliberatelydisorienting mes-

eral antithetical categories (appearance/reality,substance/accident,mind/matter, and so on) to which they arereducedin classical philosophy.6 WhatMarivaux's La Vie de Marianneand Diderot's Jacques le fataliste imply is that reality is a process of unpredictable and continuous mutations, not somethingalreadypre-

5. In his essay on the structureof


feature of the "genre"--if the fait divers can be designated a

the fait divers, RolandBarthesconsiders "disproportion" and

"slightly aberrant causality" to be a

genre. ("Structure du fait divers," in Essais critiques [Paris:Seuil, 1964], 188-197) Most of what Bartheshas to say about thefait diversholds equally for certain types of anecdote.In the presentcase,

the disproportionmight be said to arise from the spectacle of philosophers, who are meantto argue, to use words, resorting to physicalviolence, andfrom upsetting the "normal" relation,amongphiloso- phers, of body andmind.

6. The repertory of gestures and expressions codifiedfor paintersby CharlesLe Brun, Directorof

Louis XIV's Acad6mie Royale de Peinture, is another example,alongside the "emplois" or stockchar- actersof the theater, of a view of the world in which the general was deemed more real and funda- mentalthanthe particular.



formed and simply waiting to be elaboratedand unfolded (literallydivelopped, with local variations, as in classical comedy, the classical nouvelle or, for that

matter, Cartesianmechanist biology).7 In the greateighteenth-centurynarratives, life is an adventure, not the acting out of a dramatic part. It is probably not for-

tuitousthatthe hero of Rousseau's groundbreakingautobiographical narrativeis a thoroughlyuprootedbeing, or thatthe centralcharactersof key eighteenth-cen- tury novels, such as La Vie de Marianne and Fielding's Tom Jones, are foundlings or persons of unknown origin. To such individualsthe world has no obvious markersbut is an enigma whose workingsthey have to explore.They in turndo not present themselvesto the worldwith obvious markers, butmustcon- stantly invent and reinventthemselves in a complex negotiation with the world

and its expectations.Appearance and reality, truthand fiction, virtue and vice, body and soul, masculine andfeminine turn out, in much of the literatureof the

eighteenthcentury, to be not nearly as clearly distinguishable as

sical literatureand philosophymight have been encouraged to suppose. Human behavior and the human psyche no longer appear reducible to the clearly bal- anced designs and categories of the maxims of La Rochefoucauld. Writing in the secondhalf of the eighteenthcentury,Chamfort, for one, didnot believe matterswere so simple. "Things are miscellanies," he declared; "menare patchworks. Ethics and physics areconcernedwith mixtures. Nothing is simple,

nothing is pure."8 To the authorof Maximeset Pensees, Caract&res et Anecdotes,

the anecdote itself, by situatingmorality in a

represented a much-needed correction to the abstractformal structureof the maxim as practiced a century earlier by La Rochefoucauldanda challenge to its seemingly incontrovertibletruths. "Moralists, like those philosophers who have

constructed systems of physics or metaphysics, have overgeneralized, and laid down too manymaxims," he wrote.

What, for instance,becomesof the saying of Tacitus, "Awomanwhohaslosthermod-

esty willnotbeabletorefuse anythingafterward," whenconfrontedwiththe examples of

so many womenwhoma momentof weaknesshasnot prevented from practicing a num-

berof virtues.I haveseenMadamede

Manon Lescaut,conceivein her riperyears a passionworthy of Heloise.9

readersof clas-

narrative context, however slight,


aftera youth whichdifferedlittlefromthatof

7. A weakening of classical models of composition is also visible in historiography. In one of my

first attempts to study the structureof a

historical text ("Voltaire's Charles XII: History into Art,"

Studies on Voltaireand the EighteenthCentury 25 [1963], 691-720), I tried

early Histoirede Charles XII could be seen as the filling out of an essentially dramaticstructure or, in rhetorical terms, as the elaborationof anantithesis (Peter of RussiaversusCharlesof Sweden, mod- em calculationandruthlessnessversusold-fashioned chivalry and honor,etc.) or a chiasmus (the vic-

toris vanquished, the vanquishedvictorious). The informing antitheticalstructureof the work, I held,

is reinforced by the pervasiveness of proleptic embeddedanecdote of the

workof Voltaire'swith the laterSihclede LouisXIVandtheEssai sur les moeurs, bothof which I saw

as less dramatic, more trulynarrative, more open-ended,tendingaway fromthe paradigmatic toward the syntagmatic(despite the recurrentantitheticalstructureof enlightenment versus superstition).

8. "Dansles choses, toutest affairesmldees; dansles hommes, toutest pieces de rapport. Au moral

et au physique, toutest mixte. Rien n'est un, rien n'est pur."

parallels andantithesesat thetextuallevel and epitomized in the CzarafisArtfchelouin Book 2. I contrastedthis early historical

to show that Voltaire's

9. "Les Moralistes, ainsi que les Philosophes qui ont fait des systhmes en Physique ou en

Mdtaphysique ont trop generalise,ont trop multipli6 les maximes. Que devient, parexemple, le mot



Though only evoked andnot recounted, the anecdoteaboutMadamede

claim to reality signaledby the delivery of the first-persontestimony in the per- fect, not the past tense), does not provide a concrete particular instanceto illus-

tratea generalrule;rather, it bolstersa propositionchallenginggeneral rules and, along with them, the view of the world implied andcommunicated by classical drama, the classical maxim, the classical caract&re, andsome of the basic figures of classical rhetoric.As Chamfort put it, it is necessary to pay attentionto peo- ple's actualbehavior"afinde n'etre pas dupe de la charlataneriedes Moralistes" ("in ordernot to be fooled by the quackery of ourtheoristsof human nature")-- such as La RochefoucauldandLa Bruybre.




These preliminary observationsleave the anecdotestill undefined.In fact, schol- ars cannot even agree whether there is anything definable there, whether the

anecdote can properly be considereda particular form

the maxim, or the fable. The scholarly literatureon the topic, moreover, is scat- teredand fairlythin, as though the anecdotewere thought to be too triviala form

to deserve serious consideration.While much has been writtenaboutthe essen-

or genre, like the novel,

de Tacite: Neque mulier, amissa pudicitia, alia abnuerit aprdsl'exemple de tant de femmes qu'une

faiblesse n'a pas emp&ch6es de pratiquerplusieurs vertus?J'ai vu madamede

peu diff6rentede celle de Manon Lescaut, avoir, dans l'age mfr, une passion digne d'Hdloise." SdbastienRoch Nicolas de Chamfort, Products of the Perfected Civilization:Selected Writingsof Chamfort, transl.W. S. Merwin (New York:The Macmillian Company, 1969), 130 (chap. ii), 160 (chap. v). Original Frenchtexts in Maximes et Pensdes, Caractureset Anecdotes, ed. Claude Roy (Paris: Union G6ndrale d'Editions,1963), 56, 88. Cf. the firstmaximof chap. i: "Maximsand axioms, like summaries, arethe worksof persons of intelligence who have labored, as it seems, for the conve- nience of mediocreand lazy minds. The lazy are happy to find a maximthat spares themthe necessi- ty of making for themselvesthe observationsthatled the maxim's authorto the conclusion to which he invites his reader.The lazy and the mediocre imagine that they need go no further, andascribeto the maxim a generality thatthe author, unless he was mediocre himself, as is sometimesthe case, has not claimedfor it. The superior man grasps at once the resemblances, the differences, whichrenderthe maxim more or less applicable in one instanceor another, or not at all. It is much the same with nat- ural history, wherethe urge to simplify has led to the imagination of classificationsanddivisions. They

could not have been framedwithout intelligence for the necessarycomparisons and the observing of

relationships; but the greatnaturalist, the man of genius, sees thatnatureis prodigal in the invention of individually different creatures, and he sees the inadequacy of divisions and classificationswhich

Axiomes, sont, ainsi

are so commonly used by mediocreand lazy minds" (109). ("LesMaximes, les

que les Abrdg6s, l'ouvrage des gens d'esprit, qui ont travailld, ce semble, 'a l'usage des esprits m6diocres ou paresseux. Le paresseux s'accommoded'une Maxime qui le dispense de fairelui-meme

les observations qui ont mendl'Auteurde la Maxime au r6sultat dont il fait

paresseux et l'homme m6diocre se croient dispens6s d'aller

qu'il ne soit lui-meme m6diocre

g6ndralit6 que l'Auteur, A moins

.n'a pas pr6tendu lui donner.

L'homme sup6rieur saisittoutd'un coup les ressemblances, les diff6rences qui font que la Maximeest

plus ou moins

naturelle, oil le d6sir de simplifier a imagind les classes et les divisions.II a fallu avoirde l'espritpour

les faire. Car il a fallu rapprocher et


applicable a tel ou tel cas, ou ne l'est pas du tout. Il en est de cela comme de l'Histoire

, apres une jeunesse



son Lecteur.Le

au-deli, et donnentAla Maxime une

observerdes rapports. Mais le grandNaturaliste,I'homme de

voit que la Nature prodigue des dtresindividuellement diff6rents, et voit l'insuffisance des divi-


(Maximes et

sions et des classes qui sont d'un si grandusage aux esprits m6diocres ou paresseux

pensdes, 33).



tial natureof tragedy,comedy, the epic,

have been able to find only a few works, almost exclusively

that attempt to define the nature,form, andfunctionof the anecdote.10Valuable

as these studies are, they focus mainly on a particularspecies of anecdote that

was elevated in the firsttwo decades of

recognized and admired, if minor, literary form in Germanyby the Prussian dramatistand short story writerHeinrichvon Kleist andthe Basel-bornSwabian preacher and popular dialect poet Johann Peter Hebel. (The conjunction of drama,short-storyform, andanecdotein the case of Kleist does not, as we shall see, appear to be fortuitous, inasmuchas the drama and the short storyare, like a certain kind of anecdote, condensed forms representing a critical moment in which the "essence"of a situationor characteris supposed to be made visible.) The word"anecdote"itself was and is used to describea wide range of narra-

tives, the defining featureof which appears to

are quite short) thantheirlack of complexity. As the OED putsit, an anecdoteis

the novel, the short story, the maxim, I

by German scholars,

the nineteenth century to the statusof a

be less their brevity(though most


"narrativeof a detached incident, or of a single event, told

as being in itself

interesting and striking."" That general dictionarydefinition,

which obviously


to distinguish the anecdotefrom more complex narrativeforms like histo-

10. In particular Klaus Doderer, "Die deutscheAnekdoten-Theorie"in his Die Kurzgeschichte. IhreFormundihre Entwicklung[1953] (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft,1969); Hans Franck, Deutsche Erzdihlkunst(Trier: Friedrich Winter,1922); Richard Friedenthal, "VomNutzenund Wertder Anekdote," in Sprache und Politik: Festgabefiir Dolf Sternberger zum 60. Geburtstag, ed. Carl-JoachimFriedrichand Benno Reifenberg(Heidelberg: Lambert Schneider,1968), 62-67; Heinz Grothe, Anekdote, 2nd ed. (Stuttgart:Metzler, 1984); Robert Petsch, Wesen und Formen der Erzdhlkunst(Halle/Saale: Max Niemeyer, 1934); Rudolf Schifer, Die Anekdote: Theorie,Analyse, Dialektik (Munich:Oldenbourg,1982); WalterErnst Schhifer, Anekdote-Antianekdote:Zum Wandel

einer literarischenForm in der Gegenwart(Stuttgart:Klett-Cotta,1977). In addition, in English, are the hard-to-come-by Dissertationon Anecdotes (1793) of Isaac D'Israeli (himself no mean compiler

of anecdotes), and the Introduction by Clifton Fadimanto the Little,

(Boston/Toronto:Little, Brown & Co., 1985). Most of these works attempt to define the essential characteristicsand functionsof the anecdote.The morehistorical approachadoptedby Volker Weber,


Anekdotisches Erzdhlen im Zeitalter der Aufkldirung: Zum Struktur-und Funktionswandelder

Gattung Anekdotein Historiographie, PublizistikundLiteraturdes 18. Jahrhunderts (Stuttgart: M&P

Verlag fir Wissenschaft und Forschung,1997)-provide

wise preeminently formal studies of the anecdote. In French, in additionto Roland Barthes's essay

(see n. 5

light on the closely related, sometimes indistinguishable form of the anecdote,notably Marc Ferro, "Pr6sentation" (821-826) andMichelle Perrot, "Faitdiverset histoire au XIXeme sihcle" (911-919). 11.The OED definition correspondsremarkably to RolandBarthes'sdefinitionof thefait diversin

"Structuredu fait divers":"Lefait divers

savoir: point besoin de connaitre riendu monde pour consommerun fait divers; il ne renvoieformelle-

ment a rien d'autre

meurtres,enlevements,agressions,accidents,vols, bizarreries, tout cela renvoie i l'homme, ason his-

toire, h son alienation, ta ses fantasmes." ("Thefait divers

lui-meme; bien sur, son contenu n'est pas dtranger au monde: ddsastres,

Brown Book of Anecdotes

andere Geschichte (Tiibingen: StauffenburgVerlag, 1993) and Sonja Hilzinger,

an invaluable complement to these other-


above), severalarticlesdevotedto the fait diversinAnnales 38 (1983), 821-919,


est une informationtotale

.; il contienten soi tout son

is a complete piece of informationin

afait divers requires no knowledge

itself It containsall its knowledge within itself: consumption of

of the world; it refers formally to nothing but itself; of course, its contentis notunrelatedto theworld:

disasters,murders,abductions,robberies, and eccentricitiesall refer to human beings, their history, theirconditionof alienation, their fantasies.") But it containsits own circumstances, its own causes, its own past, its own outcome. It is "sans dur6e et sans contexte" (It has "neither temporal duration nor context")(189).



ry andthe novel, still accommodatesa wide variety of verbal practices, bothoral and written, both popular andcultivated:the joke or the tall story; the jewel-like

short narrative, with its witty punchline, thatwas developed in the salons of the

elite in the

of the type composed (or adapted)by JohannPeterHebel for Swiss andGerman

popular almanacs or Kalender; the highly stylized, now classic anecdotes of Heinrichvon Kleist.12 The later,carefully crafted works, entitled Anekdoten, by

Wilhelm Schifer, and the so-called Kalendergeschichten of Bert Brecht-a sophisticated kind of anti-anecdoteintendedto underminethe shared assump- tions thatthe traditionalanecdote depends on for its intelligibility and effective-


anecdote may be fairly

lections.13 Orit may be

detachedand free-standing, as in anecdotebooks or col- integrally connectedwith andembeddedin a largerargu-

eighteenthcentury; the short tale, usually containing a moral lesson,

also be regarded as productions of high literary art. Moreover, the

ment or narrative, as in sermonsand most historical writings. As to its form, whatmost people would considerthe classic anecdoteis a high- ly concentratedminiaturenarrativewith a strikingly dramaticthree-actstructure

consisting of situationor exposition, encounteror crisis, andresolution-the

usually marked by a "pointe" or clinching remark, often a "bonmot."l4 But rel- atively unstructuredshort narrativesof particularevents, such as the miscella- neous murders,trials, and natural catastrophes recordedin Smollet's late eigh- teenth-centuryHistoryof Englandfrom theRevolutionto theDeath of GeorgeII, as a kind of addendato the principalpoliticalevents,'5 or the faits divers report-


12. ThoughKleist first published his anecdotesin a newspaper with which he was associated, the

Berliner Abendbldtter, it is fairto assumethatthe readership of the paper, unlikethatof almanacsor Kalender, was the educated middle and upper class of the Prussian capital. See Heinrich Aretz,

Heinrich von Kleist als Journalist: Untersuchungen zum "Phdbus,"zur "Germania"und zu den "BerlinerAbendbldttern" (Stuttgart: Hans-Dieter Heinz, 1983).

13. Inthe well known PercyAnecdotes, individualanecdotesare grouped in thirty-eightcategories,

according to the themes they are held to illustrate, such as "Humanity,""Eloquence,""Youth," "Enterprise,""Heroism," "Justice," "Instinct," "Beneficence," "Fidelity," "Hospitality," "War," "Honor," "Fashion." (Thomas Beyerley and Joseph Clinton Robertson [pseud. Reuben and Sholto

Percy], The Percy Anecdotes, revised ed., to which is added a valuable collection of American Anecdotes [New York: Harper and Brothers,1843]).

14. There is still work to do to explore the relationof the anecdote to the joke, the Renaissance

facitie or Schwank, and the apophtegm. One of the chief repositories of apophtegms, the De vita et moribus philosophorum of Diogenes Laertius, a favoritework of Renaissancescholars (it was print- ed in Basel by Frobeniusin 1533), becamethe object, in the last thirdof the nineteenth century, of the

scholarly attentionof the young Nietzsche, whose own disruptive,fragmentaryphilosophical style had a good deal in common with collections of apophtegms.

15. Book III, chap. xiii (covering the year 1760) may be considered fairly typical of Tobias

Smollet's practice. "Before we recordthe progress of the war [the Seven Years' War]," the author announces, "it may be necessary to specify some domesticoccurrencesthatfor a little while engrossed the public attention."Therefollows a series of anecdotesof murders,trials, etc. only loosely connect-

ed by the generalproposition(para.12) that"Homicideis the reproach of England: one would imag- ine thatthereis something in the climateof this country, thatnot only disposes the nativesto thisinhu- man outrage, buteven infects foreigners who reside among them."These moreor less extensive nar- ratives,along with the many narrativesof individualsand particularepisodes interspersed in the "pub-

lic" history, should doubtlessbe Annals), such as that (para.42)

repeatedshocks," thatstruck Syria and "began on the thirteenth day of October, in the neighbourhood

distinguished from more generalreports(reminiscent of traditional of "the horrorsand wreck of a dreadful earthquake,protracted in



ed in the newspapers, have also often been referred to, since the eighteenth cen-

tury, as anecdotes.16

In addition, the term "anecdote"was widely used in the late eighteenth and early nineteenthcenturiesto designate a species of historical writing thatdelib-

erately eschewed large-scale"narrativization," to borrow Hayden White'suseful term.These anecdote-histories--Anecdotes des Republiques(1771), Anecdotes arabes et musulmanes (1772), Anecdotes espagnoles et portugaises depuis l'o-

rigine de la nation jusqu '

so on--seem to be defined by their ostensible refusal of systematization, total- ization, and ideological interpretation and by their reporting of only particular, relatively isolated episodes, often enough in simple chronologicalorder, as in the annalsand chronicles of the Middle Ages (interest in which revived, as it hap- pens, aroundthe same time).17

nos jours (1773), Anecdotesameiricaines (1776), and

of Tripoli." The report is a list ratherthana narrative:"A great numberof houses were overthrownin

Seyde, and manypeople buriedunderthe ruins

heaps of rubbish.At Acra, or Ptolemais, the sea overflowedits banksand poured into the streets.The

its inhabitants perished. At Damascus


lives." (The History of Englandfrom the Revolutionin 1688 to the Death of George the Second, 6

vols. [London: J. Walker,1811], VI,

16. "VermischteAnekdoten"was the heading underwhich the writerChristianFriedrichDaniel

Schubart (1731-1791) gatheredtogether a great variety of reports of events and personalities in his bi-weekly newspaper TeutscheChronik (1774-1777; under other names until 1793). The term fait

diversdates only from 1863 and appears to have no equivalent in other languages, which simply bor- row theFrenchterm.Whatis now understood byfait diversused to be designated in Frenchas "anec-

dotes," "nouvelles curieuses,singulibres," or "canards." (See Michelle Perrot, "Faitdiverset histoire au XIXeme siecle" [as in note 9]).


city of Saphet was entirelydestroyed, andthe greatestpart of

an infinitenumberof villages




were reducedto







189-216, 261).

17. The catalogue of Princeton'sFirestone Library lists well over 200 volumes undertitles such as

Anecdotes africaines, Anecdotes amdricaines, etc. Most were published between 1750 and 1830, but the genre continueswell into the nineteenth century. These texts vary in character.Some authorsinsist on the fragmentary, eyewitness character of their work. Thus the author of Anecdotes and CharacteristicTraits respecting the Incursion of the French Republicans into Franconia in the Year 1796, by an Eye-Witness(translated fromthe German [London: J. Bell, 1798]) declaresin his Preface:

"I do not here present the public with a complete history of the Frenchincursioninto Franconia; but supply the futurehistorianof thatmemorableevent with a few facts and incidents, of which I was an eye-witness, collected within the districtwhere I reside. Every circumstancerelatedhere is genuine. I endeavouredto be an attentive observer, to collect with fidelity, andto delineatewithout prejudice." George Henry Jennings, the author of An Anecdotal History of the British Parliament from the EarliestPeriod to the Present Time (New York: Appleton, 1883), aims to "bringtogether in anecdo- tal form some of the most striking facts in the history of our Parliaments, andthe public lives of dis- tinguished statesmen"in orderto returnto the "original" of certain statementsand episodes which have suffered, he says, from what Gladstone called "mythical accretion."L. A. Caraccioli'sbrief Anecdotes piquantes relativesaux Etats-Gindraux (1789) retailhow the news of the EstatesGeneral

was received in various European capitals (Rome, Warsaw, St. Petersburg, Stockholm, Constantinople,Vienna,London), in Parisandat Versailles, andin many French provincial towns. In

contrast, Guillaume Bertoux's Anecdotes espagnoles et portugaises depuis l'origine de la Nation,

jusqu '

XV (Paris: Vincent, 1767), the anonymous

Anecdotes des Rdpubliques, 2 vols, (Paris: Vincent, 1771), divided into "Anecdotes G6noises et

nos jours, 2

vols. (Paris:Vincent, 1773) and his earlierAnecdotes fran!aises depuis l'dtab-

lissment de la monarchie jusqu'au rkgne de Louis


Corses," "Anecdotes V6nitiennes," "Anecdotes Helv6tiques," etc., the Anecdotes arabes et

l'dtablissementdu Mahomitanismeen Arabie par

manes depuis l'an de J.-C. 614, edpoque de

ProphkteMahometjusqu'd l'extinctiondu Caliphat en 1578 of LacroixandA. Harnot (Paris:

le faux




Though anecdoteshave been aroundin one form or anotherfor a very long time, as long, no doubt, as rumorand gossip, it was not until fairly late-around 1650 in French, a few years laterin English-that the term"anecdote"itself enteredthe

Europeanlanguages. Its introductionwas probably a resultof the discovery and publicationby the Vatican Librarian, in the year 1623, of a text referredto in the

Suda, an eleventh-centuryByzantineencyclopediccompilation, as Anekdota (lit- erally"unpublishedworks") andattributedto Procopius, the sixth-century author of an officially sanctioned History in Eight Books of the Emperor Justinian's Persian,Vandal, andGothic warsandof a laudatory accountof Justinian'sbuild- ing program, De Aedificiis. At first, the termretainedin the modem languages the purely technical meaning of "unpublished" thatit hadhadbothfor those whoused it in antiquity(Cicero, Diodorus Siculus) andfor the eleventh-centurycompilers of the Suda. In the mid-eighteenthcentury, Dr. Johnson's Dictionary defines "anecdote"as "somethingyet unpublished."According to the Encyclopidie arti- cle (by theAbbe Mallet), "anecdote" designates "tout 6crit de quelquegenrequ'il soit, qui n'a pas encore 6t6 publie"("anypiece of writing, of whatever kind, which has not yet been published").18 From this literal meaning of "unpublished" springs, in all likelihood, the meaning of "anitem of news orfait divers" (thatis, something hitherto unknown or unpublished) which seems quickly to have attacheditself to the term "anecdote," andwhich is most probably the meaning of the word in the rarely cited subtitleof Benjamin Constant'sfamous early nine- teenth-century novella Adolphe: "Anecdotetrouveedansles papiers d'un incon- nu" ("Anecdote found among the papers of an unknown"). Constantno doubt intendedit to convey the impression thathis tale describeda "real"event. Its associationwith Procopius's textalso provided theword"anecdote"with yet

another meaning in the modern Europeanlanguages. The Anekdota, now usually referredto as Procopius's Secret History or Storia arcana, turnedout to consistof instancesof the most brutalexerciseof despoticpower, as well as scurriloustales of palace and family intrigue, thatwere completely at odds with the celebratory narrativeof Procopius's official History. The second meaning of the word"anec-


Procopius's text. In the Encyclopddie it is already the first meaning given: "his-

in Johnson's Dictionary-"secret history"--reflects this influenceof

Vincent, 1772), and the Anecdotes am6ricaines, ou histoire abrigee des principaux eve'nements

arrives dans le

chronologies,thoughonly those years areincludedin which something occurred that, in the authors' view, can be told as a story. Numerouscollectionsof "Episodes" and"Curiosities"seem closely relat- ed to "Anecdotes."Therewas a curiousrevivalof "anecdote history" in the period following the First WorldWarin Germany, in response to anothercrisis of historical understanding; see the discussionof the prolific Alexander von Gleichen-Russwurm's Weltgeschichte in Anekdotenund Querschnitten (Berlin: Max Hess, 1929) in Volker Weber, Anekdote--Die andere Geschichte, 152-167 (as in note 10). 18. When the Italian Enlightenment scholarLudovico Muratori published some of the Greekand Latin manuscripts in the Ambrosian Library in Milan between 1697 and 1713, he entitledhis collec- tions AnecdotaLatinaandAnecdotaGraeca.

Nouveau Monde depuis sa dicouverte (Paris: Vincent, 1776) are all essentially



toiressecretesde faits qui se sont passes dansl'int6rieurducabinetou des coursde Princes, & dansles mystbres de leur politique"("secret historiesof whathas gone

on in theinnercounselsor courtsof Princesandin the mysteries of

From its earliest usage in the modern Europeanlanguages, then, the term "anecdote"has been closely relatedto history, andeven to a kind of counter-his-

tory. Procopius's Anekdotacover exactly the same years as his History of the Wars:527-553 CE.But in the unpublishedwork, the secretary and companion of Belisarius, Justinian'sfamous general,exposes the censored, seamy underside, the chroniquescandaleuse, of the reign he himself had presented in noble colors in his official history. The Justinianof the Anekdotais a tyrant, the Empress Theodoraa vindictive, cruel, low-bornformerharlot.Belisarius is venal, avari-

cious, prone to acts of gross violence and injustice,spineless and disloyal in his personallife, and enslaved to his scheming, licentious wife Antonina.Like an

ideal humanform

ic and orderlypublic narrativeof the History is undercut by a ragbag of stories

of depravity andabuse of power. Procopius's Anekdotaor secret history was the explicitly acknowledged model of several late-seventeenth-and early-eighteenth-centuryhistories, the barely disguised target of which appears to have been the new absolutist European monarchies. The best known of these is probably Antoine de Varillas's Les

Anecdotesde Florence, ou l'histoiresecrete de la maisondes Mddicis, published in 1685, supposedly in The Hague. Likewise, Les Anecdotesde Suede, ou His- toire