September 19th, 2021

voice of the city

Global history in perspective

David E. Bell:
What social history was to the 1960s and 1970s, and cultural history to the 1980s and 1990s, global history has become in the first decades of the new century. Forty years ago, a young historian interested in the era of the American Revolution might have undertaken a dissertation on how independence affected daily life in small-town New England. Twenty years ago, she might have traced discourses of masculinity in the newspapers of the early republic. Today, a typical topic is more likely to involve the impact of “global” commodities such as tea and wine on American cities, or the role of foreign sailors on American merchant vessels, or the establishment of correspondence networks between slave-owners in the American South and the Caribbean.

So, the advantages of the global history approach:
• decentralizing historical narratives and exploring fresh connections;
• offstaging Europe and putting the Global South in the spotlight;
• giving voice to the subalterns;
• shedding prejudice, questioning the assumptions, avoiding reductionism.

And the weaknesses:
• cautious, overly controlled writing style and avoidance of strong statements;
• depersonalization/disappearance of important individual actors;
• disregard for large conventional frameworks (war; Communism);
• preference for global patterns to the detriment of local histories;
• tendency toward unwieldy, sprawling texts.

Solution? The authors should "come armed with strong, overarching theses, not just about how things changed, but why," to "trace an underlying logic to the way they developed".

Michael Goebel offers the specific solution – urban history:
Global historians have been good at drawing attention to connections, but in doing so they are tempted to “overuse the network metaphor,” as the Princeton historian David Bell has complained. Grounding their empirical work in specific places such as cities can work as an antidote to this problem. It helps to make their work more tangible and testable. Looking in detail at the local nodal points of long-distance connections of the past may actually also tell us something new about the nature of historic globalization.
voice of the city

The Encounter in Berlin (1923)

You easily recognize Berlin in these lines: "under the chestnuts, along the canal..." They were written soon after Nabokov met the masked Vera Slonim for the first time, at a charity ball on May 8, 1923. During that fateful encounter, Vera never took off her mask and recited from memory one of Nabokov’s poems that she read in the Russian newspaper Rul, which he signed as Vl. Sirin. Which poem was that? Researchers are inclined to think it was "Бережно нес", printed two days before, or one of his Spring 1923 poems ("Жемчуг", "В каком раю", "Я Индией неведомой владею").

Now, this later poem aboout the encounter was published in the June 24 issue of Rul.


Тоска, и тайна, и услада...
Как бы из зыбкой черноты
медлительного маскарада
на смутный мост явилась ты.

И ночь текла, и плыли молча
в ее атласные струи
той черной маски профиль волчий
и губы нежные твои.

И под каштаны, вдоль канала,
прошла ты, искоса маня;
и что душа в тебе узнала,
чем волновала ты меня?

Иль в нежности твоей минутной,
в минутном повороте плеч
переживал я очерк смутный
других – неповторимых – встреч?

И романтическая жалость
тебя, быть может, привела
понять, какая задрожала
стихи пронзившая стрела?

Я ничего не знаю. Странно
трепещет стих, и в нем – стрела...
Быть может, необманной, жданной
ты, безымянная, была?

Но недоплаканная горесть
наш замутила звездный час.
Вернулась в ночь двойная прорезь
твоих – непросиявших – глаз...

Надолго ли? Навек? Далече
брожу и вслушиваюсь я
в движенье звезд над нашей встречей...
И если ты – судьба моя...

Тоска, и тайна, и услада,
и словно дальняя мольба...
Еще душе скитаться надо.
Но если ты – моя судьба...

More Russian poetry about 1920s Berlin.