History And Literature Research Paper

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Literature and history have many things in common, and one of them is the aesthetic form of narration. The many contemporary experiments not withstanding, modern historiography and the modern novel still share the common feature of narration. In narratology, some theoreticians have differentiated between the narrative modes in the two fields; others have shown how they conflate and that they can hardly be distinguished. This research paper wants to show what narration in literature and history has in common and in what respect the two modes differ from each other.

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For Aristotle (see Chapter 9 of his Poetics) the matter of the division of labor between historiographer and poet was easily decided: the historiographer relates ‘what has happened’ and the poet ‘what might happen’. In contrast to Plato’s devastating criticism of literature, Aristotle considered poetry to be of high value. In his eyes, literature dealt with problems of a more general and thus more significant nature, while the historian had to report about specific, and thus, less important matters.

Until approximately 1750, historiography was considered a branch of literature. Since the eighteenth century (when Aristotle’s distinctions were rediscovered), the differences between the two disciplines have been stressed, and it was only then that the term ‘literature’ became synonymous with ‘poetry’ and ‘fiction.’ Gottsched and Lessing still shared Aristotle’s prejudice against history. For them the field of history was merely a quarry from which they mined some of the raw material they used to build their preconceived literary plots. Of real importance to them was a moralistic story, and examples were taken from the repertoires in the areas of history, legend, and mythology. However, the late eighteenth century is an important turning point. As Koselleck has demonstrated, it is the time of the development of a genuinely new philosophical awareness about history (Koselleck 1976). The concept of a continuously progressing history as such replaces both the religious concept of a Christian teleology as well as the idea of history as a chaotic conglomerate of countless individual stories of an exemplary nature. Through this philosophical development, literature is seen as part of history, and thus it loses its Aristotelian superiority.

Today the relationship between fiction and historiography poses a number of hermeneutic questions, and there is no modern Aristotle who might offer a simple and acceptable solution fitting for our time. Narration can be viewed as one of the primary tools of knowledge, and it determines the structure and aesthetic form in the presentation of a real or a fictional event. Narration discloses the dimension of historical reality as well as the sphere of poetic fiction. The logic of narration provides access to the logic of historiography and fiction; it makes the structure of both historical consciousness and fantasy tangible. In every narrative, real or fictional events are supported by a structure through which happenings are accentuated, selected, or eliminated according to the law of relevance. Neither in historiographical nor in fictional narration are we dealing with a reproduction or duplication of events, but with a certain organization of actual or imaginary occurrences or experiences.

1. Narration In Historiography

Perhaps because it is so difficult to liberate it from its established forms, narration is constantly under attack. In the discussion of modern historiography from 1970–2000, it looked as if ‘narration’ would be replaced by ‘description’ and ‘explanation.’ ‘Historiography,’ Szondi argued, must ‘divest itself increasingly of its narrative character’; narrative historiography must ‘turn into description if a new concept of history is to do justice to our knowledge of history as an anonymous process, as a sequence of events and changing systems’ (Szondi 1973). The arguments of the antinarrativists can be summarized in the following way: the narrative recording of events in historicism was based on the belief that history was made by individuals. However, this categorization did not adequately take into account the development of social processes. Processes and structures can only be described, not narrated. Thus the old ‘histoire e enementielle’ has to be replaced by the new ‘histoire structurale.’ ‘The nouvelle histoire’ of French historians in particular, with their descriptions of structures underlying long periods of time, and their quantifying methods, forced the old paradigm of writing history by narrating events into a defensive position (Furet 1982, LeGoff and Nora 1974).

However, according to some historiographers, history as a narration of events and history as a description of structures are not mutually exclusive. These historiographers concede that history as a narration of events is no longer the center of the historiographer’s work and that it no longer provides the obvious support of historical writing. Nevertheless, they also concede that narration is allowed to stand as a possibility alongside the writing of history as a structural analysis of processes (Borst 1976). Other scholars will have nothing to do with a strict separation of the two methods and point out that narration and description are intertwined. The argument is that the fact that modern history is a series of processes, it can only be understood through the alternate explanation of events through structures and vice versa (Koselleck 1976 and Kocka 1984). Although the structures become more accessible through description and events through narration, nevertheless in practice it would be impossible to maintain a demarcation between the two methods. The complementary characters of description and narration are increasingly emphasized (Stone 1979).

The defenders of the descriptive method like to confront the narrators among the historiographers with their lack of theory. They assert that the historiographer must not only narrate but also explain, and that this is only possible by means of a theoretical concept of the realities, as it has long been practiced by social scientists. The proponents of the narrative method in writing history defend themselves vehemently against the charge of being anti-theoretical. From their initially defensive position, they have turned to attack. Danto has asserted that narration is vital for description and explanation; that the form of narration is at the same time a form of explanation. The narrative form always surpasses the given, and categorically uses all-encompassing concepts. Narrative structures influence our historical thinking in the same way theories do in the case of the sciences (Danto 1965). Ricoeur expresses the same idea in his phrase ‘to tell a story means to explain it’ (Ricoeur 1983). Rusen agrees that narration is part of the logical structure of historiography and that consequently ‘description and explanation have a function subordinate to the narrative scheme’ (Baumgartner and Rusen 1982).

2. Narration In Literature

In connection with Gottfried Benn’s poetics, Grimm described a type of novel from which the narrator had disappeared. It was called ‘the novel of the phenotype’ or ‘the inward directed novel,’ labels indicating a tendency toward lack of action and lack of characters (Grimm 1963). The world and its events are banned here. The reduction of the ‘I,’ the isolated subject, is significant for this novel: the ‘I’ speaks only of itself. Consequently, one reads in Rilke’s Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge from 1910: ‘It must have been before my time that stories were narrated, really narrated. I have never heard a person narrate a story.’ Benjamin’s discussion of the decline of storytelling in his essay Der Erzahler about the Russian writer Nikolai Lesskow echoes Rilke’s statement (Benjamin 1972).

The aesthetic designation of the phenotype novel— exemplified in the novels of Virginia Woolf, Benn, and Rilke—is also appropriate for the writing of some contemporary authors; the authors of the French ‘nou eau roman’ (like Alain Robbe-Grillet) as well as postmodern American writers (like William Gass) and contemporary German authors (like Peter Handke) come to mind. In the novel of the avant-garde (Joyce, Dos Passos, Gide, Doblin, Musil, Broch), narration was either complemented or largely replaced by montage techniques and cognitive means, by reflection or essayistic writing. Here it was not so much a matter of narration of events, action, and mimesis as one of the presentation of ideas and the provision of knowledge (Hinck 1995).

However, the best-known postwar novelists (like Garcia-Marquez, Vargas Llosa, Philip Roth, Bellow, or Grass) uphold traditional established narrative models. One can write purely narrative novels. However, nonnarrative epic fiction is nonexistent. Like historiography, the novel obviously cannot dispense entirely with narration, and thus it makes sense, now as ever, to adhere to the science of narrative technique (Lutzeler 1986). In the field of narrative technique, literary scholars are far ahead of the narratologists in the camp of the historiographers. Historians could learn from reader theories as developed by such literary theorists as Jonathan Culler (‘the competent reader’), Umberto Eco (‘the model reader’), Stanley Fish (‘the informed reader’), Wolfgang Iser (‘the implied reader’), Michel Riffaterre (‘the superreader’), and Gerald Prince (‘the narratee’) (Culler 1975, Eco 1979, Fish 1970, Iser 1974, Riffaterre 1971, and Prince 1982).

3. The Conflation Of Historiography And Fiction

In Metahistory, Hayden White draws interesting parallels between historiography and fiction. He strives for a poetics of historiography and attempts to describe the forms of historical presentation in order to compare them with literary forms (White 1973). White starts with the premise that no sequence of events—by itself—is a story; it is the task of the historiographer to transfer the events, the facts, to the narrative framework of a story. The connections between happenings do not occur spontaneously; they are the result of the historiographer’s reflection. In each historiographical text, White distinguishes between the ‘what’ (the narrated events) and the ‘how’ (the type of narration, the ‘emplotment’). He was not the only scholar to see that historiographical and fictional narration are related, but he was the first to make a systematic attempt to study the structure of historical consciousness—to show the fictional elements and their formal manifestations in historiography.

The situation in nineteenth century historiography and philosophy of history serves as an example. White could have given his book the title The Rhetoric of Historiography as a parallel to Wayne C. Booth’s 1961 study The Rhetoric of Fiction. In Metahistory he concludes that the writing of history has little to do with such qualities as true or false, correct or incorrect, and that ultimately historical writing cannot be distinguished from fiction. The historian’s style, White argues, depends on the combination of the following elements: first, there are three different strategies; he calls them ‘explanation by formal argument,’ ‘explanation by ideological implication,’ and ‘explanation by emplotment.’ Specific modes of articulation correspond to each strategy. In this context we are only interested in the strategy of ‘emplotment’ (narration) with its four corresponding ‘poetic’ modes of ‘romance,’ ‘comedy,’ ‘tragedy,’ and ‘satire.’

White’s references to certain structural similarities between the unfolding of tragedies or comedies and that of historical representations are interesting, but these similarities should by no means be construed as an actual fictionalization of history. Demandt has shown how thought-structures were mirrored in the poetic metaphors used by historiographers, and how, in turn, the ideologies of the historiographers influenced their use of rhetorical figures (Demandt 1978). However, the use of metaphors does not signify a fictionalization of history. There exist basic narrative concepts that are equally valid for historical and for fictional narration. Without action, images, and metaphors, narration per se is unimaginable.

Returning to White’s example of the different depictions and interpretations of the French Revolution, it is evident that this is not a case of fictionalization because the historical process is not depicted as an ‘as if,’ but as something that actually did occur. No one will deny that the depiction of history is a creative process. However, its qualitative difference from fictional narration remains, despite the use of literary interpretation patterns and flowery metaphors. While fiction has as its basis the so-called ‘as-if’ structure, and thus proves to be pretense, illusion, and unreality, historiography always relates to actual events. Hamburger clarified the difference through the example of a historical report about Napoleon and a novel about the French emperor. The historiographer cannot see Napoleon ‘in the subjectivity, the ego-originality of his inner thoughts, of his very ‘‘existence.’’’ If he does so, however, we ‘find ourselves in a novel about Napoleon, a piece of fiction’ (Hamburger 1968).

The narrative techniques with which novelists depict the psyches of their characters have been analyzed by Dorrit Cohn. She differentiates between psycho-narration, quoted monologue, and narrated monologue (Cohn 1978). These are narrative techniques reserved for fictional narration, which cannot occur in historical writing. Just as the use of a literary (tragic or comic, for example) interpretive category cannot turn a historical narrative into a fictional one, a historical novel does not become a piece of historiography simply by including historical reality in the fictional field. Kate Hamburger validly defines the line between fiction and reality, ‘where there is no crossing over from one category to the other,’ when she discusses the different perceptions of mimesis in novel and historiography. According to her, there is a definite relationship between the narrating process and the narrated material in historiography, while characters created by novelists are simply narrated persons. In fiction, there is no relationship, only functional context, between the narrating process and the narrated material. In other words, the fictionalization of the persons described consists in the fact that the characters are not presented as objects but as subjects, as ‘ego-origines’ (Hamburger 1968).

This difference between historiography and fiction also becomes evident when we look at the results of more recent studies of the theory of functionality. Assmann has shown that scholars in the fields of analytic language philosophy and of pragmatic communication theory insist on this distinction (Assmann 1980). In the analytic philosophy of language the point is made that fiction has a very peculiar status as far as its logic of statements is concerned: the authors of fiction are not obliged to come up with any proof; their judgments are quasi, pseudo, or as-if statements. In communication theory, fictionality is studied with respect to its reception effects: it involves the elimination of the normal connection that exists between the participants of an act of communication. Dealing with fiction leads to a temporary liberation from thinking in terms of fixed institutions; it means the absence of social sanctions and a lack of verification.

4. The Concepts Of Truth

Historia vero testis temporum, lux veritas, vita memoriae, magistra vitae, nuntia etustatis: Cicero’s classic definition of the function of historical writing is still valid today—with a few deviations and reservations. The modern formulations are somewhat less pretentious, but given such terms as ‘demand for truth,’ ‘imparting of meaning,’ ‘provision of identity,’ and ‘memory,’ the function of historiography is not defined so differently from Cicero’s wording. Only the postulate ‘magistra vitae’ is viewed more skeptically. Authors of novels are equally concerned with the pursuit of truth, the imparting of meaning, the provision of identity, and memory. Friedrich Schlegel wrote in his introduction to the Wissenschaft der europaischen Literatur: ‘As history aims at recognition and truth it approaches science, but as it is also representation (…) it is related to art.’ Here the double- faced aspect of historiography has been precisely formulated.

No historiographer would be so arrogant as to assume that his or her report could encompass the whole truth of a historical event. Historiography can claim with justification that its statements are ‘truthful’ insofar as they have been gained ‘scientifically,’ that is in so far as they can be proven. And they can be proven because they can be proven wrong: the truth capacity of the narrative statements of historical writing is based on the fact that they can be falsified. In this respect, one can imagine no greater difference between historical writing and fiction.

Since the statements of a novel are fictional to begin with, they cannot be falsified. While writers of fiction may embellish an event from the past with fantasy, historiographers must check the sources, which dictate what they cannot say. The truth of a poetic statement is not achieved by fiction imitating the principles of historiography. The propensity for truth and truthfulness itself are presented differently in the two narrative modes. The intent to provide the truth does exist in both literature and historical writing, but it is aimed in different directions. Historiographers at-tempt to achieve the most exact comprehension and representation of actual historical events; novelists have no such ambition. On the contrary, their strength lies not in the realm of facts but in that of possibilities.

The aesthetics of the modern as well as of the postmodern novel are focused on the opening up of possibilities. Modernist literature aims to distance itself from the mimetic-realistic principle that dominated the novel of the second half of the nineteenth century. Musil, for example, in Der Mann vohne Eigenschaften, plays with several types of utopias and arrives at the category of ‘possibility,’ in opposition to confidence in the power of history. The same is true in the postmodern novels of Thomas Pynchon.

5. The Concept Of Totality

In examining the truth postulate in literature and historiography, one must consider the premises on which historical and novelistic narration are based. In traditional narration the novelist, like the historiographer, is guided by ideas of totality as we know them, on the one hand from the aesthetics of Hegel to Lukacs, and on the other hand from Hegel’s and Marx’s substantialist philosophy of history. In both cases, the attempt is made to see events in such a way that they make sense within the context of a totality. Here the historical and artistic totalities are structurally identical. Danto has criticized as outdated the substantialist philosophy of history, with its concept of a teleological, continuous development. He states that this philosophy acts as if it knew of a ‘divine plan’ of history, as if one could determine past and present from the perspective of the future. Danto wants to replace the speculative and dogmatic substantialist philosophy of history with an analytical (descriptive and coordinating) theory of history. In this theory, the vantage point would not be from a postulated future goal back to the present and past, but rather from the past to the present, with no certainties about the future (Danto 1965). The ancient trust, reaffirmed by Nietzsche, in the continuity of history is questioned, as are the Christian and Marxist tenets of the eschatological or utopian direction of history.

Such beliefs once formed the foundation for the concept of continuity in history. Many contemporary historians shun these labels and are consequently faced with two choices: giving up the concept of continuity altogether, or adopting it from the tradition of historiography and perhaps developing it in their own fashion. Historians at present are more aware than ever of the heuristic character of the concept of continuity; they see it merely as a ‘regulative idea’ in historical narration (Rusen 1982). Today the focus is more on discontinuity. In this respect the impact of Foucault as an outright anti-Hegelian thinker (especially with his 1969 study L’archeology du sa oir) is not to be underrated.

The dismissal of the concepts of continuity and totality has also had an impact on the writing of the novel. The idea of the ‘self-contained’ work of art that provides totality by way of typical characters is dead. Its place has been taken by the ‘open’ novel with its open-endedness, as first envisioned by the early German Romantics. In his Theorie des Romans (1916), Georg Lukacs declared that the modern novelist could outdo the historiographer if, after the loss of totality of meaning and being, he or she would counter the partial insights into the course of history with concern for a new, homogeneous cosmology. In contrast, however, the modern novel plays an important role as an instrument of cognition because such concepts of systems are now distrusted. Not a new cosmology of being, but a view of the disparity of what is to be, of the diversity of possibilities, is what this medium can provide.

In twentieth-century philosophy, a similar discussion to the one between Plato and Aristotle about the truth-value of fiction took place. Adorno was convinced that, due to its autonomy, art ‘as a creative, nonalienated work’ was the last vestige of freedom. According to him, art and literature alone can unveil what is hidden in reality and can destroy ideology and lies (Adorno 1970). What Adorno criticized as a web of ideological deceptions is close to what Roland Barthes calls the ‘mythicizing’ of everyday life. Like Adorno, Barthes affirms that poetic language maintains direct contact with reality and, unlike historiography, escapes mystification (Barthes 1957). In contrast to Adorno and Barthes, Eagleton and Jameson argue that the writing of literature is just another form of ideological production (Eagleton 1976). Jameson maintains the following position: ‘Ideology is not something which informs or invests symbolic production; rather the aesthetic act is itself ideological, and the production of aesthetic or narrative form is to be seen as an ideological act in its own right’ (Jameson 1981).

All four authors make extremely one-sided statements. The common ground of historiography and literature is narration. And when narration, through the eyes of Jameson, is seen as an ideological act per se, we cannot expect much truth in either historiography or fiction. But if, on the other hand, literature is able to destroy ideology and deception—to cite Adorno—this virtue should also be attributed to historiography. Narration can lead in both directions: it can help to approach truth, or it can produce ideological veils. Neither literature nor historiography is immune to the virus of error or the distortion of truth, but both are capable of making reality be seen more clearly.

6. Meaning, Memory, And Identity

Among the functions of historiography and the novel are, along with the search for truth, the imparting of meaning and the provision of identity. The imparting of meaning (Sinnbildung) is far from the creation of meaning (Sinnstiftung) (Rusen 1982). Surely there were, and still are, historiographers and novelists who have declared themselves ideological creators of meaning, but neither modern novelists nor critical historiographers are interested in such ambitious goals. In historical narration, the imparting of meaning is achieved through memory alone. And although novelistic narration cannot be reduced to memory, it plays an important role here as well. This is especially evident when historians fail to bring to mind certain aspects of historical experience through memory; then it is often the novelist who must assume this task. The 1950s in West Germany provide a clear example of this phenomenon. With regard to the National Socialist past, repression rather than grief was prevalent. It was a novel that broke this taboo: Die Blechtrommel, by Gunter Grass (1959). This literary breakthrough was fallowed by the works of the historiographers. George Steiner listed a number of examples of this function of the ‘writer as remembrancer’ (Steiner 1973). It is particularly in cases of the conscious falsification of history by historians that the writer steps in.

Writers and historiographers can help define the identity of a generation, a nation, or a culture. Since the Enlightenment and secularization, historiography and fiction have been burdened increasingly with the function of providing an identity. By dealing with memories, the experiences of the present attain a coherent perspective that provides the reader with an orientation for the future. Repeatedly correlating experiences of the present with those of the past can bring about the dissolution of stagnant patterns of identity, with a critical view of ideological prejudices (Lutzeler 1998). The factual orientation of the historiographer as well as the novelist’s interest in what is possible are part of the provision of identity. By means of memory, a potential of historical and literary meaning is activated that, along with the demonstration of actual limits and the allusion to yet untested possibilities, makes the provision of identity possible. Historical and literary consciousness is a complex construct in which memory is the prerequisite for interpretation and expectation. To structure an identity means, first, to identify with stories. During an identity crisis, society may show greater interest in historical remembering (as was the case in Europe in the nineteenth century), or demand a fictional provision of identity (as is presently the case in Latin America). The weaker the link with the historical past and the more suspect it appears, the stronger will be the desire for fictional patterns of identity.


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