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“Boundless dreams of the Levant”: Paul Wittek, the Geokge-Kreis, and the writing of Ottoman history 1.

  • Colin Heywood


That history may be read as literature is an aesthetic judgment, which does not deflect from the essential difference between the two modes. To paraphrase Gibbon, who above all in this context knew what he was talking about, “the end of history is truth … the end of poetry is pleasure”. History, by definition, must fail to attain its ultimate goal of recreating the past “exactly as it happened”: that such is the case, whether because of the fallibility of the human intellect, or the difficulty (but not impossibility) of constructing history in a non-linear mode, or even – that stock excuse of historians – the doubtful, maybe putatively “fictional” quality of “the sources” – does not mean, as is from time to time suggested, that the attempt should not be made, or that history and fiction are indistinguishable. Intent, in this context, is all, nor should one forget that earlier proponents of fictionalised history may on occasion prove to be somewhat uncomfortable intellectual bedfellows.



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2 Gibbon, Edward, Horace's Art of Poetry with two dissertations on Drama and Poetic Imitation, Cambridge, 1757, quoted (without page reference) by Bennett, J. A. W., Essays on Gibbon, Cambridge (Privately Printed), 1980, p. 4.

3 That it is the very impossibility of ever achieving the Rankean ideal which validates historical enquiry as an epistemologically autonomous activity goes without saying: cf. for what I take to be a coherent defence of (amongst other things) this view, Oakeshott, Michael, On History and other essays, Oxford, 1983.

4 “Wittek and the Austrian tradition”, JRAS 1988/1, pp. 7–25, where (p.8, n.5; p.9, n.13) further bibliographical references to Wittek's career and publications are provided.

5 At the Near Eastern Center, University of Michigan, in the academic year 1967–8.

6 In fact since 1971. I record my indebtedness to my former colleague at the University of California, Los Angeles, Professor J. D. J. Waardenburg, of Lausanne University, for his comments on my original and still only partially fulfilled plan for a study on “causation and its rationalisation in the interpretation of early Ottoman history”, when we discussed it in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in March 1971.

1 Earlier versions of this paper were delivered at a Symposium devoted to Paul Wittek which was held at the School of Oriental and African Studies in June 1984, and at the 6th Symposium of the Comité des Études Pré-Ottomanes et Ottomanes, at Newnham College, Cambridge, in July 1984. It is here published without the benefit of a full apparatus of footnotes and references, for which I beg the reader's indulgence. An exhaustively documented and expanded monographic version, incorporating much new material brought to light since 1984, will appear in due course. I thought it worthwhile, however, to reproduce here the stage my thoughts had reached in (approximately) mid-1984.


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