The Untenanted Places of the Past: Thomas Carlyle and the Varieties of Historical Ignorance

This article argues that to the extent that a representation is historical it is necessarily selective or incomplete with respect to the real world: not everything is known and not everything known can be included in discourse. (In contrast, fictional representations are by definition complete in themselves.) It follows from the incompleteness of historical representations that historians and their readers may more or less thematize what has been left out of a historical text: what it ignores or fails to understand. Through an analysis of the manner in which Thomas Carlyle thematized his own ignorance in the face of the past, it is argued that the very limitedness of historical writing may be the source of a distinct aesthetic effect, the historical sublime. This effect is particular to historical writing and rooted in its cognitive function, although it may also be simulated for rhetorical purposes. L'echappee n'appartient a personne, pas meme a l'historien. Elle est la, intransmissible et secrete, presente et defunte. About Menocchio we know many things. About this Marcato, or Marco-and so many others like him who lived and died without leaving a trace-we know nothing.