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Historiographic Metafiction, Or Lying with the Truth

The disciplines of history and literature have, like many other fields of critical inquiry, since the advent of Saussurian and Peircian semiotics, been re-evaluating the premises of their enterprise. The threadbare ‘truth’ offered by linguistics, that language, the basis of our only knowable reality, is founded upon an arbitrary and essentially meaningless relationship between the signifier and the signified, has caused both fields to examine anew the textual coding that historical and literary texts employ.

Writing after one of the momentous historical events of our century, the apocalyptic years of World War I, the philosopher/historian R. G. Collingwood roots his genealogical study of historiography in the ancient debate between Herodotus (who is interested more in a history of events) and Thucydides (who analysed the laws which order these events) in an attempt to describe a development of historiography. Following the evolution of historical writing (by use of an unproblematized progress narrative), Collingwood’s study traces historiography from the multiple narrative of Herodotus to Livy, to the Renaissance and Enlightenment historiographers, and the “single history” of Hegel and Marx (123). Collingwood does not merely catalogue the change in the philosophical underpinnings of historiography, however. Instead of merely working within what he condescendingly defines as a “common-sense theory” of historiography, he challenges and problematizes the premises of each historiographical system (234). Collingwood begins an investigation of history’s problematic faith in its own veracity by citing examples such as Kant’s claim that history uses “the language of metaphor,” and Wilhelm Dilthey’s question of “how the historian actually performs the work of coming to know the past, starting as he does simply from documents and data which do not by themselves reveal it” (95 and 172). Far from offering such pleasing narratives as Benedetto Croce’s dictum of art, which paraphrases Aristotle, “art in general, in the wide sense, represents or narrates the possible; history represents or narrates that which really happened,” Collingwood compares the similarities of historians and the novelist (192):

Each of them makes it his [her] business to construct a picture which is partly a narrative of events, partly a description of situations, exhibition of motives, analysis of characters. Each aims at making his [her] picture a coherent whole, where every character and every situation is so bound up with the rest that this character in this situation cannot but act this way, and we cannot imagine him [her] as acting otherwise. The novel and the history must make sense; nothing is admissible in either except what is necessary and the judge of this necessity is in both cases the imagination. Both the novel and history are self-explanatory, self-justifying, the product of an autonomous or self-authorizing activity; and in both cases this activity is the a priori imagination. (245-6)

This way of understanding history (similar to the thrust of Hayden White’s notion of narrativization many years later) stresses the importance of what Collingwood calls the constructive imagination (which he sees as a Kantian a priori structure) which orders the otherwise random facts that make up historical events. As Nietzsche suggests, “there are no facts in themselves, for a fact to exists, we must first introduce meaning” (in Barthes “Historical Discourse” 153). By use of “interpolation,” Collingwood argues, the historian, like Iser’s reader, “concretizes” the gaps between historical events and thus makes the narrative “without which we would have no history at all” (241).

It is worthwhile here to follow the implications that Iser’s model has for Collingwood’s notion of the constructive imagination. For the reader/historian to fully actualize the historical text, this ‘concretization’ must eliminate textual ‘indeterminacy’ and permit the consistency building which is essential for meaning-making. The reader/historian does this by filling in gaps, occupying vacancies, connecting segments, and negating the given according to instructions encoded textually which can be culturally agreed upon. Textual indeterminancies spur the historian to abolish them, to ‘normalize’ them into some firm structure of sense. Iser’s reader seeks to reduce the polysemic quality of the text by basing the intentional object’s simulation (which we may think of as the historical text) upon the ‘determinantness’ of ‘real’ objects. Collingwood does not carry his understanding of the historian’s process of narrativization to Iser's logical conclusion. He does allow, however, what he calls the “critical historian” to tamper, presumably in a responsible fashion, with facts in that s/he selects what s/he thinks are important and to omit what does not add to narrative understanding or what they read as being due to “misinformation” (245).

Before he is drawn into making even more daring statements about historical truth however, Collingwood lapses into an implicit positive empiricist faith that facts are knowable. His historian organizes, for the sake of comprehension, the facts in accordance to well known and understandable narratives. The similarity of the historian’s action to the manipulation of detail by the novelist is inescapable, however:

Where they do differ is that the historian’s picture is meant to be true. The novelist has a single task only: to construct a coherent picture, one that makes sense. The historian has a double task: he has both to do this, and to construct a picture of things as they really were and of events as they really happened. (245-6).

Collingwood’s distinction between the novelist and the historian is one that later theorists would not make. He claims that in this procedure of “scissors and paste,” the historian must take into account evidence or detail about which the novelist does not have to worry (281).  For Collingwood's historian picks and chooses from the evidence, or the contingencies of events, in order to incorporate those elements which make the most sense in terms of his/her project. So both historian and novelist are subject to the demands of narrative, Collingwood would argue, but the historian must write coherent narrative around unavoidable historical details while the novelist is subject to the demands of narrative only. He further shores up this narrative hole in scientific history’s defence by presenting three rules which guide the historian’s craft and to which, he would claim, the novelist is not subject. The historian’s image of the past “must be localized in space and time,” “history must be consistent with itself” and “the historian’s picture stands in a peculiar relation to something called evidence” (246). Collingwood’s novelist, presumably, is subject to nothing except the roving of his/her constructive imagination.

While Collingwood’s analysis might seem to end up in an excessively simplistic comprehension of history and narrative, his three rules are a useful summary of traditional historiographical expectations against and within which historiographic metafiction works. For example, the obsession that Elsa Morante's History, a Novel has with dates and historical fact foregrounds how little traditional or official history tells of the bulk of history’s story (a bulk foregrounded for the reader by the time spent following the travails of one family during the war). Likewise, history’s inability to be consistent with even its own report is foregrounded by both Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 and John Fowles' A Maggot. Both texts posit a problematic investigative narrator who uncovers endless discourse instead of an eventual truth. Collingwood’s “peculiar” relationship between the historiographical text and evidence is similarly flaunted by Daphne Marlatt’s Ana Historic in which Ana’s recovery from the forgetful chauvinistic historical record is almost total. Ana Historic foregrounds the minimal presence of women in official record in order to work against history's ideologically created silence. Citing the brief entrance of a woman into Vancouver's public record, Marlatt writes history's unsaid: "by 1873 she is there, named in the pages of history as 'Mrs. Richards, a young and pretty widow' who fills the suddenly vacated post of school teacher" (21). Deliberately foregrounding Mrs. Richards' lack of name, as well as definitions of self by other, Marlatt's text does not attempt to mine official documents in order to construct a past, but rather reveals the absence which is woman in traditional historiography by self-consciously creating both name and life for this unsung woman. Postmodern historiographic metafiction works within, by either tacitly accepting or self-reflexively undermining, these historiographical conventions in order to foreground the constructed nature of the conventions themselves as ontological objects of inquiry.

In “Narrative Form as a Cognitive Instrument” Louis Mink picks up on Collingwood’s comparison between fiction and history. He argues that narrative is “a primary and irreducible form of human comprehension” used by history as a transparent entity to organize historical truth (186). He claims that common-sense historiography, like that which Collingwood’s defines, works out of presuppositions from Universal History which presume that history relates an actual story. Mink questions the naturalized nature of these presuppositions by asking, and here he quotes Kant, how we discover, in the plethora of detail, “a single central subject or theme in the unfolding of the plot of history” (190). He asks how it is, in both fiction and history, that narrative detects the ‘evidence’ in its selection of events. Taking this analysis one step further, Mink also questions the seeming consensus which defines the historical event (this is similar to Nietzsche’s questioning of facts). He suggests that narrative organizes its selection of events, and that an event is an abstraction from narrative. Mink contrasts the faith of an objective history that presupposes “that past actuality is an untold story and that there is a right way to tell it,” with the “conceptual discomfort” history experiences when it encounters alternative versions (a discomfort history ignores by its facile categorization of subjective and objective truth) (196). This discomfort, he assures us, is not shared by fiction. Although Mink’s more esoteric questioning of historical events and Hegelian themes are not themselves useful to this study, his general arguments do build upon Collingwood’s discussion by further defining the narrative basis of historical truth and by problematizing the machinery behind the selection of evidence. They point to a more global questioning of history which is not undermined by an attachment to positive empiricism.

Hayden White’s examination of history similarly questions the epistemological status of historical knowledge and the role of narrative in historical presentation. He argues that “history remains in the state of conceptual anarchy,” that narrative is a meta-code which informs both fiction and historiography, and that the historical text shares many of its codes with the literary artifact (Metahistory 13). Citing Lévi-Strauss, White agrees with arguments like Mink’s by positing “the centrality of narrativity to the production of cultural life in all its forms” (“Question” 112). He claims that historians select and organize historical information in specific patterns in order to make their rendering more understandable to “an audience of a particular kind” and insists that the idea that you have found coherence in the historical record implies a belief in a desire for a kind of formal coherence. (Metahistory, 5). By ignoring the performative nature of narrative, traditional historiography leaves out the basis of what transforms mere chronicle to narrative historiography:

. . . in this process of literalization, what gets left out is precisely those elements of figuration, tropes and figures of thought, as the rhetoricians call them, without which the narrativization of real events, the transformation of chronicle into a story, could never be effected. . . . To leave this figurative element out of consideration in the analysis of a narrative is not only to miss its aspect as allegory; it is also to miss the performance in language by which a chronicle is transformed in a narrative. (“Question” 125)

Historians find data, organize, and construct it along the narrative lines of what White calls emplotment: “Providing the ‘meaning’ of a story by identifying the kind of story that has been told is called explanation by emplotment” (Metahistory 7):

Histories . . . combine a certain amount of “data,” theoretical concepts for “explaining” these data, and a narrative structure for their presentation as an icon of sets of events presumed to have occurred in times past. In addition, I maintain, they contain a deep structural content which is generally poetic, and specifically linguistic, in nature, and which serves as the precritically accepted paradigm of what a distinctively “historical” explanation should be. (Metahistory ix)

White uses Northrop Frye’s four archetypal categories of plot to argue that history is cast in particular literary modes. This “essentially poetic act” is one in which the historian “prefigures the historical field and constitutes it as a domain upon which he will bring to bear the specific theories he will use to explain ‘what was really happening’ in it” (Metahistory x). In White’s Romance, the hero overcomes his/her world, in his Satire, we are victims of the fates, Comedy allows its characters a temporary triumph and Tragedy allows the audience to gain consciousness. Both the novelist and the historian share this emplotment of subject matter, its strategies of exclusion, and demand for emphasis. The plausibility of history, says White, is dependent not on the coherence of the facts so ordered, but on the historian’s skill in matching up a set plot structure with a series of facts.

Both for history and fiction, facts are constituted by the questions we ask and are carved up and selected always by a manifest or latent motive or aim (Tropics 43). White would disagree with the freedom that Collingwood allows his a priori “constructive imagination”. He would instead argue that this imagination is bound and ordered in accordance to the rules of narrative, as well as is subject to the subjectivity of the particular historian and the “irreducible ideological component in every historical account of reality” (Metahistory 21).

Michel Foucault, whose paradigm has politicized and historicized the notions of the discursive text in such provocative and politically meaningful ways, also describes the ideological power of language and knowledge in society: “Foucault is seen as providing a call to or model for historical and political criticism that would relate texts to historically-defined forces” (Culler, Framing 62). Foucault’s methodology, by refusing to accept traditional distinctions between literature and non-literature, subverts notions of literature’s distinctive qualities by calling for a literary criticism which is aware of both history and literature’s provisional and changing character. Foucault’s heavily problematized notion of an author function, as a guarantor of meaning, can only work (that is make meaning) within societal conventions: “. . . he [she] can only write poetry, or history, or criticism only within the context of a system of enabling conventions which constitute and delimit the varieties of discourse” (Ibid. 30).

Foucault’s claims that social institutions construct themselves through these types of discursive practices, building the rules and systems that make possible certain structures and significations, and thus enable certain types of knowledge. Utilizing a concept of the ‘episteme,’ the epistemological paradigm governing what it is that is considered truth or knowledge at a time, this methodology argues both from “the assumption that reality is socially constructed,” and that a combination of discourses, assumptions and values distinguish historical power (Wuthnow 133). Foucault’s “Excerpts from The History of Sexuality: Volume I: An Introduction” envisions power as a site, upon which numerous discourses (not through reasoned action but rather a strategical sense) sort through a fluctuating dynamic equilibrium of power relations. Different forms of discourse are regulated by an array of institutional constraints, and the links between power and knowledge characterize the ‘disciplinary’ character of all modern political organizations and institutional practices. Institutions such as Law join in the production of knowledge of a particular field to exercise power in society as a whole. As social relationships change, however, power constantly renews itself through the discourse of truth:

There can be no possible exercise of power without a certain economy of discourses of truth which operates through and on the basis of this association. We are subjected to the production of truth through power and we cannot exercise power except through the production of truth. (Foucault, History of Sexuality 93)

The notion of hierarchical power has little to do with Foucault’s model. This is a network of relationships which ties ruler and ruled together, for there is no exterior of power. Operating in a vast web of specific conflicts, power regulates the language and comprehension of the speaker’s self. Foucault’s genealogical interpretation examines how we place our subjectivity in relation to knowledge and how we place the power relations of our subjectivity in relation to the general field of power (through which we constitute ourselves). This placement of the text and subject in history is not in any sense a conventional understanding of history, however:

Foucault performs the same renversement in relation to the accepted modes of historical analysis: those which describe history in terms of continuities, like tradition, influence or the genetic origin and development of phenomena, and those which describe it in terms of continuous teleologies like evolution or the progress of man [humanity] towards some future golden age; those which give history an anthropological subject, describing it in terms of human intentionality . . . Foucault [treats] history as a series of specific and concrete but changing events which occur by chance and exist with their own interrelationships. (Bannet 102)

This theoretical stance approaches history by foregrounding the way in which both the production and consumption of the historical text shows it to be a writing practice constituted within a restrictive discourse.

The implications this linguistic analysis of power has for the subject in history are far-ranging. In an examination of the prison system, for example, the conceptualization of power in “Discipline and Punish” reaches past the limits of law and repression to actually produce the individual as a subject in, as well as subject to, the disciplinary mechanisms of the state. Problematizing notions of individual specificity and unity, and positioning him/her in language as “reduced . . . to a grammatical function,” Foucault’s paradigm

demonstrates how . . . man himself [humanity] becomes an irrationality in a special sense, a structure that dramatizes the normally unthinkable relationship between the diversities of knowledge. No longer a coherent cogito, man [humanity] now inhabits the interstices, “the vacant interstellar spaces,” not as an object, still less as a subject; rather man [humanity] is the structure, or the generality of relationships between those words and ideas we call the human . . . (Said, “ABECEDARIUM” 350, 348)

By positioning the subject within the interstices of text (an argument which inevitably foregrounds the socially valorized discourse of historical text), Foucault’s notion of historical power is much more extreme than White’s. Foucault directly combats White’s vague statements concerning ideological constructions of the state by investigating this conjunction of textual historical truth with power. Foucault’s concepts not only empower historical truth but point out the ways in which discourses such as historiographic metafiction overturn that truth. Read through Foucault’s theorizing, historiographic metafiction is the minor literature (in Guattari and Deleuze’s terms) or the “unsaid” of historical practice, which works to subvert dominant historiographical assumptions and practice. For example, momentarily ignoring the more humorous Foucauldian implications a graduate dissertation implies, a Foucauldian reading of this project would problematize the narrative of influence my argument, for the sake of a White-type coherence, creates. Using militaristic terms like “combat” and “overturns,” my argument attempts to assert its truth value by reference to extant historiographical codes which valorize a narrative of progression.

This cursory examination of the historiography’s changing climate in regard to the knotty question of historical veracity, positions the argument that informs the postmodern historical novel. Working out of a wish to reexamine and, in some cases, rationalize, the truth practice of their enterprise, modern historians (although much more concerned with what literary technique, such as what narrative offers historical practice) have offered many valuable notions to literary theorists’ investigation of fictional historical texts. Although the focus of these historians was principally to question the specific strategies narrative offers history, the type of narrative history’s rhetorical stances imply, and how narrative not only delivers but constructs meaning, their theories were picked up by literary theorists with an entirely different agenda.

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