Panat in postcardThe Ranums'

Panat Times

Volume 1, redone Dec. 2014


Volume 1


Orest's Pages

Patricia's Musings



Musical Rhetoric

Transcribed Sources


Informal Remarks on Fernand Braudel

This text was written at the request of the late Edward Gargan
 and was read at a French history conference

What is it to have presence? What is it that makes newcomers at a party immediately recognize that there is a Grand Quelqu'un in the room? Not the thick glasses, rosy cheeks, or carefully cut suits and discrete tie. Fernand Braudel possessed a spontaneity and a power to capture eye contact with virtually everyone in a room. This gift and the effortless ability to carry on candid conversation with one person while casually speaking to three or four other listeners around him, gave him a presence that was truly remarkable.

During the stay of Fernand and Paule Braudel in our home in 1974, there was plenty of time to listen and to observe not only the eminent historian, but the man, and to compare the reality with the legend. Indeed, without going over the themes of the legend, awareness of it had been enough to lead the Ranums to prepare for heavy weather on the seas of emotion. News arrived, and I have forgotten by what route, that "M. Braudel never serves himself at table," thus we must always be careful to be there and put the desired last leaf of salad on his plate.

This alleged mannerism came as part of the legend that was about to become human in our house. Lack of time does not permit further discussion of the legend, but it is interesting to confirm the reality of the legend by recounting how we learned about Braudel's arrival in this country. Philippe Ariès, a good friend, was a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington in that year, and since Braudel was also scheduled to stop there before coming to Baltimore, Ariès offered to phone us to announce Braudel's arrival. One morning our bilingual twelve year-old son announced at breakfast: "Philippe phoned last night, and said that I should tell you that the tangerine had arrived." Our children have always been on first-name relations with close friends, so I knew that the caller was Ariès. But what did the message mean? Translated back into French, it made perfect sense: "Le mandarin est arrivé." In the 1960's this term for high-ranking professors gradually shifted from being one of ironic meaning to one describing the supposed enormous power which senior professors wielded over their students. It became a corrosive political epithet in 1968. When Ariès used it, he was merely expressing an aspect of the Braudel legend at that time.

Ariès and Braudel had never met before they found each other, searching for a table while carrying trays of breakfast at the Smithsonian home of the Wilson Center. Ariès had enormous respect for Braudel as a historian -- he had spent an entire summer reading La Méditerranée the year that it has been published -- but like the Ranums he almost feared the man because of the legend that preceded him. It should be added that Ariès and Braudel were immediately charmed by one another. Indeed, in just a few days, when Ariès phoned again, he referred to "son ami" Fernand Braudel. Ariès never used affective terms loosely, because he lived his social history and personal life as a whole. Braudel, always capable of finding just the right phrase, said of Ariès after spending a long night of dining and drinking with him at our home: "C'est un de ces êtres qu'on rencontre une ou deux fois dans la vie."

Before recounting more significant aspects of Braudel's presence and thought, it seems appropriate to confess that I have a minor talent: I know how to prompt people to talk about themselves and their work. I am a good listener, and I know how to mention just the right name or word to prompt another short monologue. Errors of memory may have occurred. Still, the following themes were on Braudel's mind in the spring of 1974. There was no particular order in the themes discussed at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but conversation was constant. Never did Braudel ask to be spared an encounter with someone, or to delay coming downstairs for a cocktail party.

There was most certainly a theme of summing-up his career, but this was mixed with anxieties about whether or not his forthcoming volumes on material civilization would be well received. He would vacillate about the critical reception, moving from "tant pis pour les critiques, je sais que c'est bon," to a deep philosophical chagrin about whether or not his subject had escaped him. He would recount how one or another historian had been nervous about criticisms of his work, and then he would add: "Moi, je suis bien dans ma peau." As he said it however, he gave the distinct impression of being unsure about the future. The candid Braudel was vulnerable, indeed, almost fragile about his work and his reputation, despite his achievements and honors. Never have I met a man so capable of expressing a nearly complete range of emotions in so short a span of time -- from feelings of exhilaration to near depression in just a few minutes, and always engaging his listener in those same emotional stretches. And friendships could grow out of criticism. The urbanity, learning, and sarcasm of J.H. Hexter's famous review of La Méditerranée prompted respect and warm feelings in Braudel, who recognized Hexter to be a true lover of language, and a historian with a passion expressed in writing history.

Beyond the volumes on material civilization and capitalism he already had ahead of him the vast project of writing a history of France. When mentioning it, Braudel would add: "I may not live to finish it," and then he would reminisce about how Lucien Fèbvre had wanted him to do this (the antecedent being no more precise than the history of France) for his doctoral thesis, and how he would now do it. Mention of Fèbvre invariably brought expressions of filial affection, and then Braudel would add that he simply could not understand why Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie had never thanked him in a preface or given him a dedication. This was not only a source of grief to him, partly because of the omission itself, but also because he simply could not understand it. In conversation about people, the "liens de parenté," whether biological or professional, always came first to mind, as if these accounted more for an individual's behavior than any creed or pursuit of autonomy. "X was the student of Y, and his father's profession was..." remained a favorite way of understanding an individual's work and his potential. Braudel's paternal feelings extended quickly and powerfully to our children, whom he insisted on having with him at table whenever possible. And he took them out to lunch to the best restaurant in Baltimore.

Among other themes that came up again and again was his deep disappointment in the youngest generation of historians in France. Repeating over and over again"; they do not know any history," he would predict a dismal end to the Annales because the youngsters had not really mastered Michelet, Lavisse, "or even Labrousse." What he meant by these assertions was never quite formally spelled out, but in conversation it immediately became apparent that he still took pride in being able to recall really quite small points of fact about ministerial changes, the Valtelline crisis, and what Richelieu had said in his Political Testament. These issues no doubt came up because of what he believed interested me. I think it would be correct to infer that he could have done the same for other periods of French history, and would have delighted in doing so. Always proudly evoking his years of teaching history at the lycée level, where the bases solides of places, events, and dates were learned, Braudel remained opposed to trying to convert lycée curriculum to Annales history. He always seemed to take what must be called a child-like joy in recollecting dates, place names, and events.

Braudel loved to tease fellow guests at table about the location of places and their different names, as well as about the use of words in different languages. One night at dinner, he started testing his fellow diners about the different words for things in the five modem languages he knew. An obtuse observer might have taken this for exhibitionism or sadism, but because he did it with just the right tone of voice, serious play was the result. He had a prodigious memory, and he continually exercised it, primarily, I think, in languages and in geographic place names. The sheer joy of being able to recall something gave him enormous satisfaction -- as his stunned listeners observed time after time. The game of changing meanings by exchanging prefixes and suffixes from German to French gave him enormous pleasure -- witness "world economy" and "economy world." He also was acutely aware of the ever-changing meanings of "buzz words" among the Parisian intelligentsia -- a milieu in which conceptual words go in and out of fashion very rapidly. In the lectures he gave in Baltimore, he carefully reviewed his vocabulary of concepts with his translator, Patricia M. Ranum, and also asked his wife, Paule, to go over the text, because he claimed that her English was better than his. In the final review of the lectures before publication a delicate diplomatic situation arose, because Fernand Braudel disliked one or two words that he thought had been chosen by the translator, but which, in reality, involved changes to the galleys made by his wife. Always gracious, he said no more, but the offending words were changed in page proof. He never was informed about who had selected those words. The incident testifies to Braudel's extreme sensitivity to language. Behind the apparent ease with which he wrote lay an immense effort of concentration and reflection on every word. Indeed, he gave me the impression of never suspending his work, or of knowing how to suspend it, in order to take a holiday or spend an hour away from it.

Once Braudel knew what he wanted to say, he could express it in 14 pages (the length of a one-hour lecture) or in several hundred pages, as he announced proudly to us when handing over the precisely honed four chapters of After-Thoughts on Material Civilization. This ability to condense or to extend his treatment of a text was, I think, characteristic of scholars of his generation. Education that stressed outlines, translations and memorization yielded this result. Ariès had exactly the same ability and never ceased to awe this scribbler of history.

Selecting wines and dishes for Braudel made us reflect at length, because of the legend that preceded him. The bottle of Puligny-Montrachet that I had carefully selected for the Braudels' first lunch of Maryland crab was carefully placed so that he could not see the label. Beginning with small talk, I said that sometimes French whites simply do not travel well. Braudel focused on the glass on the table for some time, picked it up in silence, tasted the wine, and expostulated: "Il est exquis." Then he attacked the crab and began to talk about the battles over budget and space allocations that he had fought in order to create the Maison des Sciences de l'Homme. In the account that followed it became evident that Braudel was claiming that the search for a site, and the political maneuvering to outwit competitors for it, had been as important and as difficult as the victory of having the funds allocated for the building. Braudel loved to remark that, in the ultimate exchange with the government about the project, he had said: "Écoutez, mon petit ministre....." Political acumen was certainly not the least of Braudel's talents. His effectiveness derived in part from his profound belief in the order of things, in their meanings, and in their constituted powers. The French state was a powerful reality to him, as was the Left: and though it may be said that he gave unswerving allegiance to both, it was as an insider, a critic, and a challenger of public and party notions of both. Just what kind of reality the French state was for Braudel, is not for me to suggest, but I offer a clue in stressing his extreme sensitivity to the meanings of words. Readers of the Mediterranean have recognized that, though they picked up the book thinking that they would be reading about a sea, they were actually reading about a gigantic imaginative concept -- a word -- whose meanings are both historical and present.

Over dessert the subject of the French Academy came up, and Braudel instantly recounted that some of his friends had pressed his candidacy. His response had been: "Je suis bien trop jeune pour y penser." Happy about the formula, he repeated it several times, savoring it like a sweet. I think it is evident that he was in fact thinking about the Academy, and had already resolved that he would be part of what was to be a movement to protest the custom of paying visits in order to be elected. His quest for precision in his writing, his anxieties about the public reception of his writings, his solid belief in the reality of institutions such as states and academies, and his pursuit of gloire, made it inevitable that Braudel would think of being elected to the "illustrious company of the Forty."

Hopkins celebrated its centennial in 1974, and the Braudel visit had been timed so that they could be part of the festivities. Provost Harry Woolf graciously bestowed on Braudel an impressive leather-bound certificate and a specially crafted crystal containing a bit of moon dust. The ceremony over, Braudel immediately handed the certificate to his wife Paule and, taking the crystal as if it had incantational powers, turned it over and over. He did not share with us the imagined worlds that we onlookers could glimpse in his eyes, but we all felt that we had witnessed a special moment of discovery, of honor, and of joy for him.

In 1974 it already seemed to Braudel that the center of the economy world was about to jump still farther west -- leaving New York for either Chicago or San Francisco and eventually, perhaps, to Hong Kong. "Why always toward the West?" he would ask repeatedly. The trajectory was clear from Venice to Amsterdam, then to London, and on to New York. As he would go over these issues in conversation, it remained obvious that Braudel remained morally and ideologically (not the mot juste) disengaged as he spoke about the power and the violence of capitalist activity. He tended neither toward a Social Darwinist nor toward a moralist-Leftist attitude after researching the dislocations, the impoverishments, and the enrichments of concentric circles of population around these capitalist centers. The contrast between the physical degradation of Harlem and the new office towers on Sixth Avenue in New York, neither surprised nor outraged him, nor did it prompt moral reflection. "How can you say that he is on the Left?" guests would query in private, after hearing Braudel on capitalist centers. My reply then, and now, was to insist that the moralism of Braudel was situated at a more abstract, and for that reason, much more analytical level. In casual asides he would repeat: "There is always capital -- plenty of capital." Indeed, his uvre can be read as a critique of those economic theories which rest on the argument that capitalism is indeed fragile, and that governmental fiscal and taxation policies must be favorable to accumulation of capital. He observed with satisfaction the predictable behavior of Rockefeller investments, as reported that year in New York Review of Books, not because he approved of them, but because the continuity in their pattern was séculaire. They were buying up, cheap, whole groups of dilapidated warehouses and houses in lower Manhattan, along a projected route for a superhighway. Here was Capitalism centered in oil and high technology all over the world and regularly playing for stakes in the hundreds of millions of dollars, yet it also continued trying to pick up profits through $60,000 real-estate transactions in New York. Operations that probably projected profits from public funds. As he had put it in After-Thoughts, Westerners simply did not understand or accept Lenin's teaching about the difference between Capitalism and the market economy.

Continuities of social behavior in the world -- described by judiciously and occasionally whimsically selected statistics that measured that behavior -- would be discerned by Braudel. He took pleasure in observing the routines of buying and selling in the bustle of activities around the vegetable stalls in Baltimore's Lexington Market. Indeed, whenever he had some free time, as my colleague Richard Kagan recalls, it was not toward museums that he would turn, but toward markets and the port in the city. On one of these excursions, he found that he needed a pen to take a note. The ones offered were politely refused. Seeking out a stationery shop, he gleefully bought pens for himself, for Kagan, and for the Ranum children. The joy with which he presented these gifts seemed primordial and sublime, like gifts of fire from an ancient god. The possibility of interpreting this action by Freudian theory occurred immediately, I suspect, to everyone present -- including Braudel. But the inference seemed banal. It did little to enrich our sense of what had happened. The ability to turn the tiniest courtesy or gesture into a meaningful and gracious ceremony came naturally to Braudel. He enjoyed greetings, he enjoyed receiving and extending marks of respect à la vieille France. His graciousness quickly prompted others to want to serve him -- just to receive his thanks. Help he would give, and help he would seek. Deeply moved by personal tragedies, he would reach out and try to caser the children of colleagues and students, or would say a word to a publisher about a manuscript.

For this observer, distanced from his spheres of contacts by the Atlantic, it was, easy to understand how the legend of Braudel, the mandarin, had come into being. No man could fulfill the hopes for graciousness and reward which his conversation prompted. There simply could never be enough research posts or publication funds to go around. This inevitably left disappointment and envy in the wake of this man who seemed to know no boundaries between professional routines and criteria, and the private impulse to arouse in others both creative energies and a willingness to take risks. No man in history has raised more funds for research posts and for publication than Braudel, yet the legend of disappointments came into being.

Braudel also had the habit of asking advice on matters that were really quite private. Discretion prevents me from discussing these, but I shall risk giving two examples. Did I think a translation of Daniel Boorstin's new book would sell in France? My reply was "probably not," because the French elite families have a taboo about the power of technology, which is associated in their minds with manual labor. He replied: "Tant pis! Vous avez peut-être raison, mais je vais le faire traduire quand même. J'aime tous ses gadgets." Another time, bolt out of the blue, he asked me whether he should accept the proposal that a center be named after him by Immanuel Wallerstein at the State University of New York at Binghamton. I replied that I did not know anything about it, but that I considered Wallerstein a scholar, ex-colleague and friend. Then I added that, over the long term, there might almost be a danger that the Center would try to trade on his reputation in order to raise funds. He replied: "Je le sais, mais que voulez-vous? J'aime Wallerstein." Graciousness and generosity at a deeply personal, intimate level, while writing a history that remained abstract and somewhat critical of the creed that mankind really has the power to control the principal economic and social institutions that frame human experience.

One evening, after a particularly noisy and cheery dinner during which Primerose Ariès had covered her ears at one point in a futile attempt to block out the din of ten people talking at once, my wife and I started for the kitchen to confront the mountains of plates and glasses that only a French menu can produce. The Ariès pitched in as usual, sorting silver and stacking plates, Paule Braudel attacked the crumbs strewn everywhere, while Fernand Braudel solemnly began to fold and pile up the soiled napkins. I could not help but think: "He may have done and said things that prompted that legend about him, but he will always go on writing and enriching the history of human experiences." It is difficult to think of a market place, a merchant ship or a banal routine of daily life without thinking of the gracious, living Braudel.

Orest Ranum
The Johns Hopkins University