29 December 2010. “Tell me the story about the animal family,” my daughter says. She curls her body on top of my lap and puts her head against me. Her hair tickles my nose and I can feel the thinness of her body as it grows. She wants to be a princess and a soldier and a cheetah. She is five years old. I am thirty two. In The Animal Family, a hunter lives by the shore. His father built the house but his father is dead. A mermaid comes to live with him and a wild bear cub and a boy after that. Then things are different. They are all so different from one another and none of it makes any sense. But it is a beautiful story. The hunter misses his father. The mermaid takes care of the bear cub. It makes sense when you read it in the story.
When I take my daughter to bed, she says her prayers. “I want to say the prayers for your dad,” she says. We say the Requiem Aeternum and she asks me if it makes my father happy. I tell her that I don’t know; you don’t know how other people’s lives end. She doesn’t like that; she’s going to be a soldier and a princess. She asks me if we’ll read about the animal family again tomorrow. “No,” I say, “I have to work on daddy’s story.” She likes that I’m making a story. She wants it to be like The Animal Family. “It is a little like that,” I tell her, “and it has pirates.” She wants to know if the pirates are real. “Yes,” I say, “these ones are real.”
The boy, the hunter, the strange neighbors, the house by the shore, the pirates and the constant possibility of bloodshed. It’s all there, and yet when I look at what I’ve written, I know that I’ve hidden it all; I know that I’m almost ashamed to recover the story, to tell the story beyond saying that it was an interesting case study of everyday life in the eighteenth-century British Empire: John Fontaine, born in 1693, the first English son of a Huguenot refugee, the Rev. James Fontaine of Vaux and Royan, who fled France after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. A grain speculator, merchant, manufacturer, fisherman, and sometimes minister, James moved to Ireland with his wife and six children on Christmas Eve, 1694, and by the beginning of the War of Spanish Succession, he had established himself at Bearhaven, where he earned the favor of the Crown and the hatred of his Jacobite neighbors by interrupting the regular activities of smugglers and foreign privateers along the coast.
When John came of age, his father bought him a commission in an infantry regiment headed for Spain. He spent his tour near Barcelona, saw little action, and by 1714, “John, the officer, was without employment, and so it was determined that he should make a voyage to America” aboard the Dove out of Cork, that he should “travel through every part” of the colonies “where the climate was temperate, and purchase a plantation.” By 1716, John was speculating on land in Virginia. That same year, he accompanied Governor Spotswood on an expedition to scout real estate. They went as far as the Shenandoah country accompanied by fourteen rangers, four Meherrin tribesmen, sixty-three attendants, seventy-four horse, several dogs, and ten Tidewater gentlemen. John kept the records. When they returned, Spotswood presented each officer with a gold, jewel encrusted stickpin in the shape of a horseshoe, so that his companions became known in later years as the “Knights of the Golden Horseshoe.” And inscribed on each: Sic Juvat Transcendere Montes, or Thus He Swears to Cross the Mountains.
But in 1719, John returned, landless, to Dublin, even as his siblings began to trickle, one by one, to the Virginia he had left behind. In 1722, his father, James, began to write his Memorial for the benefit of his children. It described his family’s history at Rochelle, their service in the causes of French kings and the Reformed faith, his own flight, his sufferings, and his triumphs. He appended it to it his son John’s Journal, a decade’s worth of writing that recounted by fits and starts his military service in Spain, his tempestuous journeys home and abroad and back again, as well as the sum of his experiences in colonial Virginia. It is a communal document; both voices, the father and the son, expand the limits of what the other one’s experiences can speak to. It is enough material to construct a history from, or rather a series of histories that divide the “living history” into what Fernand Braudel calls the “various planes” of historical narrative, “or, to put it another way, to divide historical time into geographical time, social time, and individual time.” James’ life, or John’s: “individual time,” but nested in the conflicting traditions and expectations of others around them, the “social time” that plays out long, gradual currents of change through short bursts of tangible violence. So that -
1 June, 1704. While the world warred for a vacant throne in Spain, he lived in the little stone house at the end of the world where his father had brought him. Where there was land beneath him, it heaped to the low, sandstone peaks of the An Ceachach until it broke like jagged tides against the midmorning. Everywhere, it seemed, the stubborn, broken ground resisted its possessors, any possessors, erupting wherever you stepped or settled or rested your eyes with the fraught and dreamlike litter of history: wild saint’s graves, forgotten megaliths, nameless stone cottages left unthatched and tenantless, the mossy ruined outline of the Caislean Dhun Baoi where the long-dead Gaelic lords bore their foreign arms against Elizabeth, and the old market square at Castletownbere, where the victors hanged them dead.
But through the window now, the boy, John, could see only the craggy rim of “the little cove” where the longboats hove in the sand. It sunk beyond in the vast, clear surface of the Cuan Baoi to a depth of nineteen fathoms at high tide; there it lay littered like the inland peaks themselves with the violent rubble of men: whitewood currachs with pierced hides, smugglers’ craft, French and Spanish six-pounders, the salted bones of the drowned. Conger and dogfish swam above them like flocks of gulls where they fled from nets, but today there were no nets. No boats but one.
A French privateer: ten guns, mounted, and a crew of eighty. Aboard were four of the boy’s “Irish neighbors, who acted as guides,” leading the swift ship “toward the mouth of the creek” until it came around, broadside, directly “opposite one corner of the house.” There it stopped and it “cast anchor about a long musket-shot distant” from the window where John watched, “floating,” ever so slightly, “toward … [the] house in a perfect calm.” To the boy, how could it not have seemed like the trompe l’oeil backdrop to some stage play, one from behind which the men in the longboats issued to play their scene against the shore with muskets and knives before retiring? They played for a rapt audience. For “during the whole time,” John’s father later recalled, “there were two or three hundred Irishmen collected on a neighboring height, watching the conflict, rejoicing in the anticipation of our defeat, and waiting for the moment when they might come down and participate in the plunder.”
They watched as below the French “lieutenant landed with twenty men, and made haste” across the open ground toward the house. From behind a “barricade of mattresses and large books,” John watched, too, counting their paces, ranging them in the iron sights of his father’s musket as his older sister and his three brothers, posted “all at different windows,” did the same. His mother passed behind them “here, and there, and everywhere, carrying ammunition, and giving encouragement to all, as well by what she said, as by her own calm deportment.” She was “perfectly fearless,” her husband remembered: “I wanted a needle to broach the [jammed] muskets, which she went to fetch for me from a place where the balls were coming in at the window like hail, and she did not think of stooping to avoid them until I called out to her to do so.” For his part, John’s father, James, posted himself “in one of the towers over the door,” where he could hear the slates above him “shiver” under fire. He was alone; he felt the “tremors of fear” in his solitude; his sons could not see. Perhaps it mattered. Quickly, he recounts, though, he “humbled” himself, “committed” himself “both soul and body” to his God, and “suffered from fear no more.”
While James Fontaine struggled with his soul and his God, the young “lieutenant” outside (some cousin or nephew, himself, to the “pirate” captain) was “advancing with every appearance of confidence in his mien” across the open ground. Then he was almost at the door. He could see the outline of John’s father above him in the window, moving the shadows and assuming a sudden firing position. John, if, in fact, he saw what was to happen at all, would have known from his vantage point nothing of what caught the lieutenant’s eye; could have seen nothing reflected in that eye of the blunderbuss “loaded with large shot” that his father held out from behind his poor concealment and aimed center-mass at the Frenchman. Somewhere above him, the flint on his father’s weapon was striking the frizzen; it shrouded the shadowy figure behind the flared muzzle in balls of smoke and flashes of fire so completely that for the subaltern below, and no less for the sanguinary audience of some “two or three hundred” that waited with bated breath on the nearby ridge, John’s father played the part of some prodigious magician in a masque, or a little devil from Faust making its entrance at the appointed scene.
For the boy, there would have been only the sudden report of the shot, the ground for two or three feet around the lieutenant churning with dust, the leaden shot rending the earth in groups, and the sudden arresting of the figure in motion, its face and its belly hidden by little mists of blood. Fontaine had shot wide but the shot spread; it tore open the lieutenant’s “neck above the shoulder-blade;” it settled in “his side.” It happened quickly. Even as he fired, Fontaine later wrote, the subaltern “was taking aim at me as he fell,” which, fortunately for John’s father, “made the fire go too high” and strike the stone face of the tower as harmlessly as rain. Immediately, Fontaine “ran for another loaded piece which was in the next room,” and by the time he returned, the lieutenant’s men had taken “him up, crossed the ditch, and carried him back to the vessel.” The boy would have seen that much.
When their assailants returned, they brought with them a new officer and “twenty more men and two small cannon” which they manned “under cover of the rocks and hedges.” For the next several hours, they “cannonaded the north side of the house, while the guns of the vessel bore up on the south-east.” Then stopped. Then the new officer was gone and the cannons and the men who manned them were gone, and “in a short time” the harried family “had the satisfaction of seeing the vessel draw up her anchor and sail away.” They went down to the shore where the longboats had been. They “inspected the stations” that the privateer’s crew “had occupied on shore.” Under the “rocks and the hedges,” they “found a quantity of blood” which the assailants “had evidently tried to hide by treading earth and leaves into it.” Later some of the “Irishmen who were on board” told them “the loss sustained by the enemy.” Three killed, seven wounded. The lieutenant, and perhaps two others, had bled to death among the rocks.
29 December 2010. The ship sulking in the bay. The “satisfaction of seeing” her “draw up her anchor and sail away.” The blood in the crook and furrows of the rocks. The curiosity, perhaps even the “satisfaction of seeing” the blood and the groove in the sand where the smugglers had dragged their dead. It is hard for me, even at this remove, to stop thinking about it and in the thinking, perhaps, risk doing my own violence to the scene, to the little family whose members are all too easily masked behind the language of the time, behind their own names scrawled onto pension petitions to Queen Anne, military commissions, prayer books.
The dramatic story of the family guarding their stone house against the crew, the pathos of the beautiful, stately Mrs. Fontaine reloading the muskets, the eerie presence of Irish audience – none of this would have come about in the first place if deeper cultural dynamics at play in eighteenth-century Europe had not created, magnified, or sustained the animosities of the French, Irish, and English players. But they did not encounter one another as one encounters religions, cultures, economies, or states. They encountered each other individually in an evolving present, and in James Fontaine’s case, the present was a dramatic encounter through bloodshed that resolved in what he later remembered as his “glorious victory.” That is the record we have. Being the only account, it is also the best record of what cultural dynamics looked like on one given day at one extremity of the British Empire. And if James’ antagonists had left their versions, they would have remembered it differently; it would all have the hues of embarrassment and defeat. Surely for the privateer captain, who swore he would “roast” James and “salt” him alive, any narrative of that day would have been first a narrative of violation and retribution. The dead lieutenant’s body, that was his brother’s or his sister’s son. The blood on the rocks: that was his blood, too.
The more we try to respect the integrity of first-hand or contemporary accounts, or try to see history as its initial narrators saw it, the more we risk becoming fiction writers. The questions raised by a first encounter with the individual lives we encounter in the past, and thus our entry point into broader questions about the reach and meaning of social structure, have a great deal to do with how imagine intent behind the actions narrated by contemporary writers. Why, for example, did James’ Gaelic neighbors hate him with such fervor? Or did they even really hate him in the way that James imagines? Did they, laughing at their smuggler cousins aboard the French ships, suppose that the whole affair would end bloodlessly? That the Fontaines would simply surrender to the French officers and the French officers would laugh and leer a little at Mrs. Fontaine and send the little family off with a good scare back to the Lord Lieutenant in Dublin?
To ascribe motives to them, even the motives James assumes them to have had, involves a slippery shift into the modes of fiction. We cannot know what they thought. We cannot even, with absolute certainty, know what James, himself, thought. We can know only how he reflected on his state of mind at a remove of almost two decades. At a distance of over three hundred years, what can I say about it all? I want to zero in on the day. I try to adduce as much as I can from the records available: James’ Memorial, the geography of the place, contemporary descriptions of fisheries, trade patterns, family lore, baptismal records. I could go further. The problem, though is this: the closer I get to that day, the more I feel the nearness of the “kind of men” who “held the world” or lost it there; the more I feel this closeness, the easier it becomes to imagine how it must have felt, what they must have felt. And when I write that into my account as what they did feel, I am no longer writing history. I am writing a novel. A historical romance.
Time refracts when you read history, the way it seems to refract when you enter the fictive time of novels. Your life refracts into the lives of others. The father, James: he seems so much like my own at times, and perhaps I am a little more like John than suits my conceit of myself. Salyer, Fontaine: Huguenot names. My father’s people came out the south, Toulouse, and moved like James through England and Ireland within a generation until they came to New York. In the Revolution, they served the King – he had preserved them – and after defeat fled south and west until they came to the Appalachians, where they settled, stayed, remembering that that once they had been Hugeonots and had written it Sallier. They feared their God, fought; they stayed and flourished on hard land. It is hard not to see my own father crouched, his big scarred face clenched against its own unexpected gentleness, in “one of the towers over the door.”
And Bearhaven: go north, not far. Follow the coast. When you come to Cahersiveen, stop. Find the moor. My mother knows the name for it in Gaelic. My grandfather, who learned his hard, gutteral English in Willimantic, Connecticut, never knew a different name for it. Those are my people, more so than my father’s distant people are to me. Those are the ones who raised me, here, Waterbury, in the shamble of a New England factory city, as an Irish kid with a strange, foriegn name. It is hard to read the story of James Fontaine and not remember that I am Irish, I am Catholic, and I am accustomed to violence. As a scholar, I can tell you a great number of facts with a suitable rhetoric of detachment: the depth of the Bantry, the names of Spanish ships that sank in its depth a half century before James settled his family there, the shot spread of his blunderbuss or the number and general characteristics of the Huguenots who found their way into the service of the British Crown on the years after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. But none of that is who I am. I am Irish, or Irish enough; I am Catholic; and as much as I see my father in James Fontaine or myself in John, the proximity I get to the events of 1704 through a more critically informed reading of the historical record refracts me again: I would, no doubt have stood on the opposite ridge with some “two or three hundred” others. I would have waited to see my cousins and my neighbors – Irish, Catholic, partisan – kill the decent man who reminds me so much of my father and the boy who may have been a little like me. I may have even held my breath and hoped for it to happen. The foreign father, the foreign son; my own father, myself. I could have hated them both so much.
Because James’ story is not my own, retelling it implicates me; it reveals me as the living, interested, and fundamentally limited speaker that I am; sometimes I am the advocate of my subjects; sometimes, even in ways that I cannot even fully understand, I suspect that I am their enemy. Without such a confession, there is no honest way to begin writing this or any other story about the past, for everything, as Fernand Braudel argues, everything “must be recaptured and relocated within the general framework of history, so that despite the difficulties, the fundamental paradoxes and contradictions, we may respect the unity of history which is also the unity of life.” And to recapture and relocate everything within the “general framework of history,” the historian must also recapture his or her own speaking identity from the rhetorical ethos of objectivity; it, too, must be “relocated” within the text as one voice among many.
What, after all, is Braudel’s inclusive “unity of life” if it is not time considered as a whole? This is ultimately a metaphysical argument; it seeks to “recapture” all manner of human and inhuman events within a “general framework;” it seeks to reconcile all possible combinations of “difficulties … and contradictions” together into a temporal fullness which, Braudel concludes, “we must respect.” Must. It becomes an imperative; it cannot be questioned in Braudel’s model because the “unity of life” presupposes that you can see the end of things, that what Frank Kermode calls the “humble genesis” and “feeble apocalypse” of tick and tock in our daily lives points toward an absolute and resounding tock, “an end [that] will bestow upon the whole [of time] duration and meaning.” If we stood outside of time, we could see its delineated beginning and its end; we could see, interpreting backward through the end, the tock, all the ways in which the duration of events and their proximity to one another contained and produced meanings.
But we cannot. We do not have an eternal perspective. For the human subject, acting as though the end, wherein we see this “unity of life,” is certain and inevitable is an act of faith. It requires accepting history as a kind of revelation, just as we accept that events that unfold in novels will be made whole by the last page. Historical consciousness, then, is ultimately an act of piety for Braudel; if we must, now, in time, respect the end of time, it is only because we allow ourselves to be convinced that “however remote tock may be, all that happens happens as if tock were certainly following.” This is simple enough for the human who looks at history from the outside, but such a figure is ultimately an abstraction and not a living person at all. For actual historical subjects, this historical piety remains one of Braudel’s “fundamental paradoxes” of experience, as much so as any measurable change in customs, commonwealths, and geographies over time.
Like Keats’ description of powerful aesthetic experiences, living and reflecting as if the tock is coming means that the historical subject acquiesces to a kind of “negative capability” whereby he or she becomes “capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts.” For Keats, all “irritable reaching after fact and reason” distances the reader from the totality, the aesthetic tock of “Beauty” that “overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.” But to tell time, one reaches “after fact” in a special way. As Braudel suggests, the periplum into the domain of facts, relics, texts, geological records, and human traces of all kinds, produces a greater sense of the whole: the underlying “unity of life.” At the same time, the variety and scope of experience means that the exact nature of how the tock comes and what it will mean – what it will make facts mean – remains shrouded in “uncertainties, Mysteries, [and] doubts.” History itself – and by history we distinguish a special relationship with time which we believe is moving to an end but which has not yet ended – history, in this sense, “overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.” But we cannot, living in the middle of it, see how.
How, then, can we accept the one for one exchange between Braudel’s “unity of life” which we experience piecemeal, and the “unity of history” which we encounter as a formal unity manufactured and repeated and transmitted whole through texts? Begin with what Paul Ricoeur calls our impulse to safeguard the “fundamental bifurcation between fictional and historical narrative.” This Aristotelian distinction helps us to distinguish between real and imaginary referents; we align the mode of fiction with the unreal and the historical with the actual, but if the equation is between the “unity of life” and the “unity of history,” the problem of finding a form for representation needs to be restated: how should we produce historical texts that align with the experience of history? Can we claim authority as narrators and witnesses in texts when we would not claim similar authority with respect to actual experiences? On the other hand, what becomes of the “unity of history” – not to mention the unity of texts – when our stories about the past foreground our own limited understanding, our biases, our predisposition to see events passing in their courses as the preludes to some unrealized tock?
I do not know. At the same time, I believe it is important to try to know in practice, just as I believe that it is important for you to hear just who I believe myself to be at the present time, and for much the same reason: namely that I -both as living man and narrator, functor – may be wrong. Both are elements in an experiment with narrative and yet I am claiming – even by asserting the right to curtail it – an authority to tell stories that are not really my own. By insisting, moreover, on telling social history as a narrative, while at the same time refusing to believe in my own disinterestedness, I risk doing ethical violence to the past, to the lives of others, now dead, who can no longer speak for themselves. They can, however, render me answerable to other voices within texts, just as I may, in turn, as narrator and rhetorical I, question their own judgments about their experiences, their world, their declared selves.
This dialogic relationship, present in complex, multivocal narratives, illuminates what Alasdair MacIntyre argues when he writes that “narrative form is neither disguise nor decoration.” Voices answer to one another within texts, just as narratives that claim a special explanatory relationship with reality are held accountable to what Braudel calls the the totalizing “unity of life.” And this experience – this formal mandate – of answerability,# both within texts and without, opens the very real possibility of a mimetic correspondence between the organization of texts and way that time structures actual experience. Jean-Francois Lyotard has argued – and with great reverberance – that narrative form is “losing its functors, its great hero, its great dangers, its great voyages, its great goal … [it is] being dispersed in clouds of narrative language functions – narrative, but also denotative, prescriptive, descriptive, and so on.” But this is true only where there is a poor mimetic correspondence between the kind of omniscient, disinterested, narrative voices we suspend our disbelief to accept in texts and the finite, endlessly conflicted, and answerable selves that we know ourselves to be in real life. In Braudel’s terms, narrative fails where the “unity of history” fails to approach the “unity of life.” However, because the narrative form of history forces us to encounter other voices that would elsewhere remain effaced, servile, or else monologic and unanswerable, it forces us to recognize the scope and boundaries of our own moral agency in the historical forms of the world around us. It allows us to imagine answers to the question of “‘What am I to do?’” MacIntyre observes, because we can first “answer the prior question, ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’”
20 August 2011. “Tell me the story again,” my daughter says, “the one about the animal family.” The one about the whole wide world. She curls her body on top of my lap and puts her head against my chest. Her hair tickles my nose and I can feel the thinness of her body as it grows. She wants to be a princess and a soldier and a cheetah. Her left ear comes to a point like my father’s did, and when she sleeps, she sleeps like him. When he died, he looked like he was sleeping. She is five years old and I am thirty two. She doesn’t know why her ear does that or what my father looked like when he died. I haven’t told her that story. In The Animal Family, a hunter lives by the shore. His father built the house but his father is dead. A mermaid comes to live with him and a wild bear cub and a boy after that. Then things are different. They are all so different from one another and none of it makes any sense. But it is a beautiful story. The hunter misses his father. The mermaid takes care of the bear cub. It makes sense when you read it in the story. There are stranger stories for children to get lost in. Real ones. There are always bad neighbors, frightened fathers, empires, ends of the earth, animal families.
And there are always strangers on the shore. Real ones.