History vis-a-vis Fiction: A Fascinating Dialectic

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The much contested debate pertaining to the relationship between Literature and History dates back to the classical times. Beginning with Aristotle, there have been constant efforts to identify the links and natures of these two domains of knowledge. In the traditional scholarship, History was often regarded as an art of particulars, while on the contrast, Literature was identified with universals. As Aristotle states in his Poetics: “For a historian and a poet/writer do not differ from each other because the one writes in verse and the other in prose…But they differ in this, that the one speaks of things which have happened, and the other of such as might have happened. Hence, poetry/literature is more philosophic, and more deserving of attention, than history. For poetry/literature speaks more of universals, but history of particulars. But universal consists, indeed, in relating or performing certain things which happen to a man of a certain description, either probably or necessarily [to which the aim of poetry is directed in giving names]; but particular consists in narrating what [for example] Alcibiades did, or what he suffered.”

What this implies is that Historian could speak only of what has happened in the past while the poet speaks of what could or might happen and so could deal more with universals. At a broader level, the role of imagination and language are the focal points which History shares with Literature. It is also obvious that whatever be their differences, both deal with people, relationships, families, events, communities, societies, nations and mankind. Both partake of the specific ideological positioning of their creators while endeavouring to offer a peek into reality or as Hubert Royster puts it in his essay “Literature and History: A Comparison and Contrast”, “together literature and history are joint manifestations of learning and culture” which implies that History as well as fiction aim to present a reality which gives insights into understanding the society and humanity in a better way. Also, the reader-writer relationship is one more common denominator between them. In her work A Poetics of Postmodernism, eminent theorist Linda Hutcheon explores that “History and fiction have always been notoriously porous genres, of course. At various times, both have included in their elastic boundaries such forms as the travel tale…”. Similarly, Hayden White offers a detailed explanation on the close relationship between History and fiction in his well known essay “The Fictions of Factual Representation” published in his book Tropics of Discourse: “Historians are concerned with events which can be assigned to specific time-space locations, events which are (or were) in principle observable or perceivable, whereas imaginative writers—poets, novelists, playwrights—are concerned with both these kinds of events and imagined, hypothetical, or invented ones. The nature of the kinds of events with which historians and imaginative writers are concerned is not the issue. What should interest us in the discussion of “the literature of fact” or, as I have chosen to call it, “the fictions of factual representation” is the extent to which the discourse of the historian and that of the imaginative writer overlap, resemble, or correspond with each other, Although historians and writers of fiction may be interested in different kinds of events, both the forms of their respective discourses and their aims in writing are often the same… There are many histories that could pass for novels, and many novels that could pass for histories, considered in purely formal (or, I should say, formalist) terms. Viewed simply as verbal artifacts histories and novels are indistinguishable from one another. We cannot easily distinguish between them on formal grounds unless we approach them with specific preconceptions about the kinds of truths that each is supposed to deal in. But the aim of the writer of a novel must be the same as that of the writer of a history. Both wish to provide a verbal image of “reality.”

One can see how many points of confluence are there between History and fiction. And probably, it was because of these similarities that historical writings could play a vital role in the rise and development of novel in its earlier phases. One knows how the historical conditions of eighteenth and nineteenth centuries especially the Industrial Revolution facilitated the growth of novel in England. Not only this, the early practitioners of novel like Fielding, Swift or Defoe could be seen delving into history or histories, however, contemporary, in their novels. David Lodge in his work The Art of Fiction observes that many novels can be approached, more or less, as alternative histories and the fascination with the past or recent past has been a desired theme of the majority of the novelists. This is perhaps best illustrated by the novels of novelists like Walter Scott, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Meredith, Thackeray and Thomas Hardy who provide more insights into the history of the early Nineteenth century and Victorian Britain. In other countries and cultures writers like Flaubert in France, Dostoyevsky and Leo Tolstoy in Russia, Rushdie and Ghosh in India, and Hawthorne and Melville in the United States of America have created fiction on the similar lines. However, Walter Scott stands apart with respect to his obsession with history in his novels where seemingly only the form bore characteristics of fiction while the content was wholly historical. So we see in almost every nation or culture, it is the literary writers who have captured its history in their literary works and especially in the novel. In the recent past, perhaps the most path breaking event that has taken place in the domain of knowledge or more so the academic knowledge is the advent of what we broadly call Theory.  It has truly impacted almost all the discourses or realms of human knowledge besides one’s approach in engaging with a certain discipline. The importance of theory as a broad conceptual or philosophical framework within which we study the various contours of literature has only grown in the recent times. It is the theory that defines our approach and method in studying the nuanced and varied strings of literature ranging from the linguistic analysis to the understanding of specific ideologies and hidden power relations in the various texts.  Though different theories outline different approaches and methods, they also often overlap, supplement and complement each other.

In the most literal senses of the term, History has been meant to understand as a domain of knowledge which refers to studying the past, text of past, construction of past, narrative of past, understanding of the past, past as past and how the past looks from present and many more. Oxford Reference defines History as “the academic study of the past of the human race, stretching back as far as the earliest written records.” Prof G.R. Elton defines it in these words: “History is concerned with all those human sayings, thoughts, deeds and sufferings which occurred in the past and have left present deposit; and it deals with them from the point of view of happening change and particular.” (qtd. in HistoryDiscussion 2018). For the sake of convenience here, History may be described as a systematically documented narrative concerning past. Whatever be one’s way of defining it, one thing is obvious that History involves “past” and “narrative”. However, it does give rise to certain questions about that “past” and “narrative”—often it is not an absolute past but only a partial component of the past. This brings it to the question of one’s subjective choice of selection of the “components” of the past. As the eminent British historian and theorist E.H. Carr says in What is History?: “The historian is necessarily selective. The belief in a hard core of historical facts existing objectively and independently of the interpretation of the historian is a preposterous fallacy”.

Since History involves systematic documentation of the past, it has to necessarily take recourse to linguistic signs and symbols, logic, hermeneutics and narrative to give itself the shape of a corpus and all these have their own specific standards and complexities. It is also worth mentioning that History is not only about the past per se but its major concern as a discipline of knowledge is also to interpret the past. As E.H. Carr reminds us in What is History?: “Historical inquiry is a social process and the historian like other individuals is also a social phenomenon, both the product and the conscious or unconscious spokesman of the society to which he belongs; and it is through this capacity that he approaches the facts of the past”. To put it in other words, History can also be referred to as a narrative of the past in which language, socio-political positioning, frame, and selection are the necessary ingredients. What all this implies is that the formulation of History primarily occurs through narrative or one can even say that the historian’s imagination like any creative writer’s imagination is located into the lexicon of language in the form of words and sentences. And inevitably this construction of the past is done through the ingredients of knowledge and language. This also leads us to a notion about the past which is that it in no ways is a monolith that can be deciphered in its total enormity. As Keith Jenkins rightly remarks in his work What History Is?, “The sheer bulk of past precludes total History. The fundamental manner of operation of History and a historian is the approach of retrieval of the past and no History can lay claims of recording everything, however elaborative and exhaustive it may be.”

Jenkins makes us understand, the whole of the past cannot be recovered even in case of micro levels of understanding. Thus it can be safely concluded that all Histories recover and reconstruct only some of the past and leave more of it unexplored than what they represent. So this makes it clear that Histories merely offer glances of the past and as Jenkins has put it succinctly, “Historians can only recover fragments”. The process of selection of the historical data or content is the sole prerogative of the Historian. It renders the whole process as contingent upon the Historian’s subjectivity and further draws it away from the so-called objective purity. No History has a sense of finality in its signification or interpretation. There is an invariable path of revision that Historians take recourse to and thus bring in the element of divergence and departure in their accounts. Language and ideology also participate in the construction of the narrative of History. For instance, Marxist Historians have categorically established that language is a product of ideology and it doesn‘t exist in a vacuum. And in the language itself, prevalent politics and power structures play a significant role. In this context, eminent postmodern theorist, Michel Foucault, through his discourse analysis, illustrates how various power relationships in the society are expressed through language. This is something that any writer or Historian cannot evade.  History is a narrative which tries to understand past from the subjective disposition of the Historian.

Since they control the power structures, the dominant classes of the society have also used History as an instrument to perpetuate their dominant discourse as in the case of west’s depiction of the ‘orient’. In such cases, Histories attain the form of narratives which abet in perpetuating the relations of domination and power while at the same time marginalizing, silencing and even eradicating the others who are seen as binary objects. In an interview to David Barsamian, Tariq Ali says: “In the West, since the collapse of communism and the fall of the Soviet Union, the one discipline both the official and unofficial cultures have united in casting aside has been history. It is somehow as if history has become too subversive. The past has too much knowledge embedded in it, and therefore it is best to forget it and start anew. But as everyone is discovering, you can’t do this to history; it refuses to go away. If you try to suppress it, it re-emerges in horrific fashion. That’s essentially what’s been going on…” (qtd. in The Progressive 2002).

Much of Feminist, Postmodernist, Subaltern historiography and Postcolonial theories have laid bare this aspect. So every time History is written or documented, it is in fact produced, and hence it becomes a product or even a discourse which has a clear objective and purpose to fulfill. This very character of History sanctions the Historian to enact modifications and recreate History which corroborates his/her own specific moral, ethical and political perspective. As we have already come to know, the very design of History is fragmentary and far from comprehensiveness. So when it gathers its facts, it does not mean that they singularly form History. It is worth mentioning that History is not merely a collection of facts; rather it involves the formulation of a discourse or a narrative through the presentation of these facts and systematic documenting them in sequence of cause and effect. And in this systematic documentation, the historian’s own imagination, intuition, guesses, estimates and perception occupy a vital function. In simpler words, the raw data is acted upon to make a composite whole as the historian has to discover, recover, review and reread the evidences, records, archives, archaeological findings and other such material. The irony lies in the fact that while History is essentially fragmented in terms of its engagement with experience and reality but it does attempt to offer an appearance of unity in its text.

The regularity and linearity of the narrative of History, however, is sustained through the principle of cause and effect. So what we infer from all this is that History is not absolute, rather there are multiple Histories with a multitude of perspectives. And the theoretical reference to this statement can be found in J.F. Lyotard’s path-breaking The Postmodern Condition where he lays bare the unreliability of the “grand narratives” in capturing human reality in its diverse and multitude aspects. In his works, Lyotard frequently advocates for “micro-narratives” instead of “grand narratives” to account for the difference, diversity, and the incompatibility of aspirations, beliefs and desires which is so intrinsic to the human experience.

Basharat Shameem, Assistant Professor, Amar Singh College, Srinagar, J&K

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