Into Cleanness Leaping: The Vertiginous Urge to Commit History

Surely one of the key issues in historiography is how to account for those mind-boggling and sometimes extremely bloody events in which we enter something really, sublimely new. In this essay my point of departure is that retrospectively it is almost impossible even for the historical actors themselves to get access to the contingent, irrational, "sacrilegious" aspect of the sublime event they brought about. In order to get a grip on the evanescent essence of the historical sublime, I propose to bring to a head, instead of leveling down, the tension that characterizes all historical and biographical discontinuities: the tension between the fact that discontinuities are made by the participants, yet are portrayed by these very participants as having come as a surprise. I will argue that discontinuity is not a regrettable side-effect of our ambition to attain goals that are in line with our identity, but that every now and then we give in to the urge to cut ourselves loose from our moorings. A key concept of the perspective that with sublime historical events "in the beginning is the deed" is vertigo. Vertigo may feel like a fear of falling, but really it is a wish to jump, covered by a fear of falling. Vertigo predisposes, as psychoanalysts say, to "counterphobic" behavior. Giving in to vertigo is a strategy for escaping from an unbearable tension by doing something-by breaking apart from what one used to cherish, by eating the apple, by committing an "original sin". Making history-in the sense of embarking upon something that is as sublimely new as the French Revolution or the First World War-thus is not a matter of pursuing some interest but of willfully fleeing forward into the unknown.