25 August 2008

Decisions, decisions

So, in good news today, I heard back from another professor and it looks like the university has recently hired a specialist in the French Revolution and have a few French modernists not listed on the website (yet). This is particularly of note since the other possible thesis topic I'm considering is an exploration of Pauline Bonaparte -- Napoleon's younger, and slightly less-than-respectable sister. This has the decided bonus of opening up another possibility for me... ...and the setback of introducing another decision after I'd pretty much resolved on the ethics of violence topic. I suppose the decision is really a matter of what sort of history I want to get into -- and get a name for. The violence topic is far more macro-history: looking at sweeping cultural changes and trends, and how they filter down to a more personal level. I know already that this is a sort of history I'm very good at writing and researching: it has echoes of what I did in my baccelaurate for Robson, on a different subject, but the same general approach. I can see the path I want to follow -- not all the details along the way, of course, but I have a general idea formulating that I think is both solid and original without crossing into the rather murky uncomfortableness of revisionist history, and I think it definitely opens the way to a rather solid founding in the place where military and cultural history intersect. Which I find immensely interesting and could definitely devote my life to the subject: there's certainly no lack of things to research and paw over academically. The only hesitation I have in this topic is that some of the ground I'll be covering is well-trodden and established -- and while the approach I take is (I think) innovative, I'm hardly expecting to discover anything frightfully new or groundbreaking, though there is something to be said for lending new perspective. Pulling 125-150 pages out of this won't be any sort of difficulty at all -- nor will be defending my conclusions. Pauline Bonaparte is, however, something quite considerably different. I've not really put a lot of thought into biographical writing, and it strikes me as the sort of thing fraught with peril. How presumptuous it is, to cut into another person's life with the cold scalpel of historical analysis, tear it apart, expose things meant to be private to postulation and inference, and then neatly sew it back up with a neat conclusion that makes it seem as if it were all planned, all representative of deep political currents and trends, all indicative of a solid, consistent personality. And yet, for a thesis, that is exactly what needs to be done, though perhaps not quite so harshly, because not to analyse, not to postulate or conclude, is simply a regurgitation of events. The opposite difficulty, of course, is leaning too far the other way -- turning the world in which she lived into a splendid backdrop against which she is the principle actress, being too sympathetic, identifying too much and turning the lot into a rather bad collision of historical research with historical romance. Given Pauline's notorious reputation for boudoir intrigue, and the alternately scandalous and scandalised claims made against her by contemporaries, even the most clinical treatment will resonate with elements more appropriate to popular film than serious history. Which raises another problem: As a) a woman b) a woman married to another woman and c) a woman married to another woman writing about a historical figure renowned for her sexuality and flouting of convention it is almost inevitable that I will labeled a feminist historian. Which is hardly true (or a bad thing, in itself), it rather depends on the definition of feminist one happens to be using. Gender is undeniably a factor in social expectation and identity, but I think that the habit of many feminist historians (not all, of course) of rigorously working to reclaim the voice and identity of every female in history, while simultaneously reducing the opinions and actions of that great humbug "male dominated society" to nothing more than gender-influenced social robotics is disingenuous and ultimately flawed logic. It is no more appropriate to say "women played a passive role through most of history, because of their natural sexual receptiveness, they are meant and created by nature to be passive recipients of male ideas, male actions, and male society" than it is to suggest that the predominance of war and violence through history is the direct result of the shape and intended function of masculine genitalia. I far prefer the term equalist as a historian. If I write about Pauline, regardless of what I say, there is a very good chance of getting pigeon-holed this way. That said, Pauline is a very promising subject in that no one seems to have written seriously about her (except to express shock or admiration of her sexual habits), there seems to be plenty of primary sources to get into (letters, memoires, etc), and near-Byzantine levels of political agenda to sort out, which sounds both challenging and fun. I can certainly drag in some cultural history -- Corsican vs French vs Italian sounds likely -- and I think the primary trick in writing it will be to avoid being overly narrative and focus on analysis (with events as springboards). Hmm. Such joyous choice!


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