December 12, 2009


I love re-enactors. On a recent visit to the Old Manse in Concord, Massachusetts on a sunny autumnal afternoon, we entered an upstairs room to find Ralph Waldo Emerson. He read aloud a passage from Nature, and Jane, reminded of Wordsworth, asked him about the English poet. We chatted amiably, then, leaving, I turned at the door sill and caught an out-of-time glimpse of Emerson himself, standing by the window, engrossed in the octavo book in his hand.

Historical impersonation can catch you unawares, usually at those in-between moments when the figure is not conscious of being watched yet remains unselfconsciously in character. At that moment—but only for a moment—part of my mind was convinced that, yes, the year is 1834, when Emerson was living at the Old Manse with the Rev. Ezra Ripley, his step-grandfather. My immediate involuntary reflection on that moment revealed it as truly uncanny, in Freud’s sense of being cognitively dissonant. What was happening?

On such occasions, we confront two contradictions. First, we know ourselves to be in the present, yet momentarily we seem also to be in the past. Second, we confront a person who at that moment is not only whom he appears to be but also his double. This is so even if we believe in the unique individuality of each person, so that we treat doubles of the kind explored by Washington Irving, Edgar Allan Poe and others as no more than fictions. Such uncanniness—an instance of what Stanley Cavell terms the uncanniness of the ordinary—is profoundly unsettling, yet I suspect it to be a constituent of historical understanding, perhaps even a necessary constituent, for history entails grasping aspects of the relationship between the present and the past to the extent that one is momentarily confused about where one stands in relation to each.

Multiply the double, though, and something quite different ensues. Had I encountered two or even more Emerson re-enactors in that upstairs room in the Old Manse, I cannot believe that I would have had a similar flash of cognitive dissonance. Rather I would have experienced bathos. This is the response that the photographer Greta Pratt invokes and explores in her remarkable assembly of 18 large photographs of Lincoln re-enactors, Nineteen Lincolns (2005). I saw this arranged in three rows of six inkjet prints at the DeCordova Museum, Lincoln, Massachusetts last summer, but you can get a sense of it in a different format on Greta Pratt’s website. Each re-enactor presumably chose his own pose, whether genial, distant, resigned, stoical, visionary, or regretful. Only three of the 19 Lincolns (one photograph is of a pair) look at the lens directly. They are members, I learned, of the Association of Lincoln Presenters, comprising “150 Living ‘Lincolns.’”

Counter-intuitively, I think that the bathos evoked by a multiplicity of Lincolns is no less serious an element of historical understanding than the cognitive dissonance induced by a single re-enactor. I honor the longing on the part of the re-enactors that such re-enactments embody. History is our most fragile and fugitive intellectual and affective undertaking, and not only do all honest attempts to grasp the past deserve respect, but re-enactors, singly or strangely multiplied—as in Greta Pratt’s photographs—can evoke facets of the past through both cognitive dissonance and bathos.