February 14, 2007

Gibbon's 18th Century Hypertextuality

A quick note on the hypertextuality of The Decline and fall of the Roman Empire (1776-1788)

After the murder of Alexander Serverus, and the elevation of Maximin, no emperor could think himself safe upon the throne, and every barbarian peasant of the frontier might aspire to that august, but dangerous, station.

First, though the passage drips with foreboding — we’ve passed a line, we’re heading for the disaster — it’s also very funny. "August, but dangerous": that’s terrific.

More to the point, the parallel, periodic parentheticals that make passages like this so recognizably Gibbon function as little stretchtexts, inviting the reader to skip over and back, to insert detail gradually into the emerging picture. It’s a style of rhetoric that runs through Madison and Lincoln, but it also embodies a theory of history, of how things happen. Not through the activities of great individuals nor through the soundless working of great forces, but through the simultaneous collisions of many forces, great and small, pushing together and pulling apart and gradually, sometimes imperceptibly, drifting with majestic slowness and gradual violence to some great, but unexpected, end.