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Thursday, 17 June 2010

Historical imagination and historical consciousness


History is bunk – Henry Ford

Any book that deals with events that happen in the past is delving into history, the past, the dead and gone. It doesn’t matter if I’m writing about the fall of the Berlin Wall or what I had for breakfast yesterday (a hot cross bun and a cup of black coffee if you’re interested); it’s all the same, it’s over and done with. I much prefer fiction because I’m not bound by facts that I can’t change. I’m also not very interested in the Past with a capital p. I’m interested in People with a capital p, some of whom happened to live in what, to me, is the past but what, to them, was very much the present. So I happily read books by Camus or Steinbeck or any of a hundred dead writers writing about times that are long gone. But I find that I’m not especially interested in the events, it’s the people that fascinate me.

Let’s consider an example, Camus’ 1947 novel The Plague. The novel is believed to be based on the cholera epidemic that killed a large percentage of Oran's population in 1849 following French colonisation, but the novel is actually set in the 1940s. This wasn’t the only instance. There were also outbreaks in 1556 and 1678, but cases after European colonisation, in 1921 (185), 1931 (76), and 1944 (95), were very far from the scale of the epidemic described in the novel. Is this important? Not to me. But to a historical novelist, yes, probably, if they want to get their facts straight. Camus isn’t especially interested in the disease but the disease provides a crucible in which he can study existentialism. It’s an historic novel but not particularly historical.

In a recent appearance on The Book Show the historical novelist David Starkey mentioned in passing that Dr. Johnson did not rank historical writing as he believed writers of it had no need to use their imaginations. I think that’s a rather narrow view of historical fiction and indeed a narrow view of historians. The philosopher, Owen Barfield, uses an expression “historical imagination” which he defines as:

[T]he habit of mind which endeavours to approach a past epoch by seeing the world through its eyes instead of seeing it through the eyes of the twentieth century.

I think this is a commendable stance to take but not such an easy one to carry out.

One of the driving forces of writers is to understand. I don’t think any line should be drawn as to what we try to understand. It’s like in Clare Dudman’s 98_reasons_cover novel 98 Reasons for Being which talks about the attitudes of people towards the mentally ill. One of the characters says, “The mad cannot feel the cold.” How preposterous is that? And yet that is how some people thought. Stating it accurately is one thing but when I read it, I read it as a 21st century man not a 19th century man. I can read the words but I can’t grasp the mindset. I have similar problems with attitudes expressed towards African-Americans in the fifties or so-called witches in medieval times. Intellectually I get it . . . but I don’t’ get it.

"In assessing the contribution of [a past] epoch to the history of human consciousness," Barfield counsels in the same text, we must always “refrain from judging it by later standards – especially if the creation of those standards is part of the very contribution to be assessed."

I think that is a very difficult position for any author who is trying to get up into the mindset of the people who lived at the time. A middle ground is often the best one can hope for:

Most people can’t deal with a past that is too alien; instead they enlist it for present causes, domesticating it with legends that ‘project the present back, the past forward.’ The result is a kind of communion with the past that we think of a history, but is actually heritage.

This is not only a problem faced by historical novelists though. Crime writers have the same problem, both those who write factually and those whose work is fictional: how do I get inside the mind of my character? And do I truly want to get inside the mind of a serial killer? Or is it enough to suggest and leave the rest to my readers? And yet it can be done.

I have been a fan of Star Trek since its earliest beginnings. I don’t dress up as a Klingon and wander round saying, Q'apla! or anything but I enjoy watching the thing and I can get quite absorbed while watching. I have years of experience and I can spot a gaff a mile off. Here’s a simple one: Vulcan expressions tend to be deadpan, everyone knows that, and yet when I watched the film Of Gods and Men recently, which was made by the fans for the fans, did I not see some Vulcans smiling? Wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Totally out of character. The poor acting and amateurish effects I could forgive but smiling Vulcans? Never. The same happened when they decided to produce a show set before the original Star Trek, Star Trek: Enterprise. There was nothing wrong in principle with the show other than the fact it rewrote history and that upset a lot of the fans; me, I was more forgiving.

Horse_of_Destruction Of course science fiction writers rewrite history all the time. There was a Doctor Who episode in 1965 which had the Doctor inside the Trojan horse. Sometime later in an episode of The Time Tunnel the leads also ended up in the same Trojan horse. So where was the Doctor? I remember a letter being sent into one of the TV papers asking and, to their credit, they gave a very straight-faced answer about how quantum mechanics works. Fans are interested in details and I’m always impressed when I see the pains that filmmakers take to get it right. Just consider the BBC’s many historical dramas.

Professor Peter Seixas of the University of British Columbia, makes a similar argument to Barfield when it comes to historical writing but it’s his closing sentence that I want to draw your attention to:

[Empathy or historical perspective-taking] is the ability to see and understand the world from a perspective not our own. In that sense, it requires us to imagine ourselves in the position of another. However – and this is crucial – such imagining must be based firmly on historical evidence if it is to have any meaning.

The problem with “historical evidence” is that it is not always accurate. It is not always there. In some cases, as in the last days of Tolstoy, writer Jay Parini had access to diaries by all the major players written at the time plus recollections written by minor characters after, but quite close to, the events. Warwick Collins when he wrote The Sonnets was not so lucky. Once Shakespeare became famous there is more to pick and choose from but the period he decided to write about is one where we only have the sketchiest of reliable information. Do we have to conclude that Collins’s novel has less meaning that Parini’s? Both were well researched and as accurate as they could be as regards the details that could be verified but after that we have to depend on the writer to extrapolate (now there’s a good Star Trek word) from the facts and build a believable scenario, something that realistically could have happened.

The historian R G Collingwood believed that the events historians study have both an 'outside' or observable part, and an 'inside' which can only be "described in terms of thought". By the 'outside' of historical events, Collingwood meant the part of the historical event which could have been perceived using our senses; for example, we could have seen or read reports about the movement of troops during a World War II battle. By the 'inside' of historical events, Collingwood meant the thoughts of the people involved in the event which caused them or motivated them to act as they did before, during and after the event. When I spoke to Clare Dudman about her most recent book,A Place of Meadows and Tall Trees A Place of Meadows and Tall Trees, she mentioned something similar when she referred to “hard facts” and “softer facts”.

Collingwood believed that to fully understand the past a historian needed to imagine it. Remember Collingwood wasn’t an historical novelist, he was an historian and so what he’s saying should be of particular interest to all those who think of the past as dry facts. He believed that researches needed to create an image of the past in their heads – isn’t that what ‘imagine’ means essentially? – and to get inside the heads of the people who created the documents they were referring to. The word he uses is an evocative one: re-enact.

I’ve mentioned Clare Dudman a couple of times. Mainly because she’s the only historical novelist I have any real dealings with. The publisher’s website says this about the amount of research that went into her latest book:

To research A Place of Meadows and Tall Trees Dudman travelled across the Patagonian desert in a bus, and then took ‘The Old Patagonian Express’ in the Andes. Along the way she interviewed the descendants of Welsh settlers who came here in 1865. Other research for this novel included intensive courses in Welsh and shamanism.

This didn’t surprise me because I’ve followed her blog for some time and I’m very well aware that she takes her research very seriously; she’s been off to China recently doing research. And yet when I read the book I was surprised how little evidence there was of research. This is not a criticism. Some buildings, I’ve used this illustration before, have all their workings on show, e.g. the Pompidou Centre in Paris, but most don’t. What I know when Clare describes something as simple as a landscape is that she has experienced that landscape, she has walked where her characters have walked – as literal a re-enactment as possible – and she has tried to feel what they might have felt.

The next stage Collingwood talk about is interpolation.

Because the authors of our sources do not tell us everything we need to know, we must interpolate between one statement and another within a document, or between what the author said explicitly in a statement and what was implied, and sometimes we must interpolate between statements made in different documents. Collingwood referred to this process of interpolation as 'constructing history'. Interpolating, or bridging the gaps in what our sources tell us, is an obvious use of the historical imagination.

This means if our character travelled from Glasgow to Edinburgh in the 1960s and owned a car he would have very likely have driven down the M8 for at least part of the journey. But since the motorway only began being constructed in 1965 I would need to check my facts before I committed them to paper. It’s all conjecture anyway. The car may have been in the shop that weekend and they got the train or the coach. It’s not desperately important how they got there but if an author wants to imagine a conversation on the way then a setting is required. And if he happened to mention the Renfrew Bypass which didn’t open until 1968 who would notice . . . or care that much?

The third thing that Collingwood talks about is interrogating the facts. People lie or, to give them the benefit of the doubt, they can be mistaken. Official documents can contain inaccuracies. Statements must be corroborated and the biases of the author of the document and the historian must be taken into account. Honesty is a difficult thing. We like to think we’re being honest but very often we have agendas we might not have been aware of ourselves until we began writing. There is also the issue of distance. Contemporary historical narratives – I’m thinking about journalism here – don’t have the time for a considered response. They lack the clarity that comes with the passage of time. There is also the danger that by leaving things too long we lose objectivity to nostalgia.

The hardest thing for any historical novelist though has Clare Dudmanto be creating the voices of the characters, whether that be internal voices or dialogue. In the Author’s Note to Clare’s new book she says that she has only used the “bare bones” of the story and she has not attempted to “base ‘the flesh’ on any accounts” of the people themselves. I wondered why:

I wanted the book to be my invention, much more so than any of the other novels I've written. I wanted to take the circumstances of what happened and feel free to invent how my characters would react. There were very few accounts that I could find of the individuals involved in any case.

Historical fiction often comes in for a fair bit of unfair criticism, as Hilary Mantel recently mentioned in an article in The Guardian on the subject:

The accusation is that authors are ducking the tough issues in favour of writing about frocks.

The problem with any event is that it can be presented in different lights. They say that history is written by the victors and although that is often the case the stories of the victims often persist and a writer gets an opportunity to write the histories that never got a chance to be written. An historian is supposed to be impartial and dispassionate but a novelist is not an historian. I wondered if Clare thought that there’s a time for proselytising and novels, written primarily as a source of entertainment, are not it:

I think you can't help but proselytise to some extent in a novel because as a novelist you have to represent a character's point of view. The most interesting ones are likely to be quite strident in their viewpoints – so part of the entertainment must come from portraying this. It may not convert anyone, but it might make a reader think again about something that happened. That's certainly been my experience as a reader.

In the same article Mantel says, “The past is not dead ground, and to traverse it is not a sterile exercise. History is always changing behind us, and the past changes a little every time we retell it.” I’m personally very wary of a statement like that. To my mind the past should be set in stone and there is a danger that the quality of history can be diluted. Let’s take another example from fiction and sherlock-holmes-poster1 pretend it’s fact, the highly entertaining reimagining of Sherlock Holmes which bears little resemblance to the character portrayed by Jeremy Brett in the superlative Granada Television adaptations. To anyone my age who had grown up with them, Jeremy Brett is Sherlock Holmes. Methinks that kids seeing Guy Ritchie’s version may find older adaptations dull at best and the books unreadable. I didn’t feel so strongly about Barry Levinson's Young Sherlock Holmes because he wasn’t reinventing the character merely wondering what might have happened had the two protagonists met earlier. Besides this was a work of fiction and anything’s allowed there.

In her book The Character of Truth: Historical Figures in Contemporary Fiction, author Naomi Jacobs has this to say:

The best of the fiction biographies are simply good novels; their effects do not depend upon the readers’ knowledge of the historical characters. Writers create these historical characters on the page exactly as they would create more purely fictional characters.

Too often historical novels are criticised primarily for the accuracy of their research and secondly for the quality of the writing. I think this is an important thing to keep in mind when reading fiction that is based on real events. Its quality should not be solely dependent on its accuracy. In her latest book Clare uses the word “surreal”, not one of my favourite words, but certainly not one a 19th century Welshman would have used since it hadn’t been invented yet. Does this make it a bad book? Nah, she made a slip.

Why is the past important? For many reasons. It’s the record of how we got here. It’s a record of our successes and perhaps even more importantly our mistakes. But is it enough just to remember the past or should we be looking for ways to assimilate it, to pass it on to our children? In a speech on YouTube, Professor Seixas, who I quoted earlier, had this to say about what he refers to as “historical consciousness”:

When we think about historical consciousness it's how we integrate notions of the past into our own everyday thinking, our everyday life as we live in the present for the future. But that notion of historical consciousness is in fact very challenging, precisely for this reason, because it points to a bridge between our own subjective being, our way of knowing, our thoughts, our subjectivity and the world out there and not only the world out there today but the world in the past, that huge inchoate, virtually infinite experience of humanity...

The past is there to be interpreted and reinterpreted. As time goes on and the bigger picture gets wider and wider it’s only to be expected that things which were major new stories in our pasts get overshadowed. Unfortunately all that leaves us are bullet points. And sometimes we need to stop and refocus. I think this is where historical novels have an important part to play because they are a way to rehydrate those dry facts and make them more palatable. Perhaps not the prettiest of metaphors but you know what I mean.

I think attitude has a lot to do with how much one enjoys historical fiction. If you sit there looking for faults you’ll find them and although there’s a kind of enjoyment to be found in nitpicking I’m not sure that’s why most of us read books. We want to be caught away, to be transported, to believe in what we’re reading. I think if any writer can do that they deserve credit.

On Monday I’m going to be reviewing Clare’s new novel A Place of Meadows and Tall Trees. Let me leave you with two videos in which she talks about her research in the UK and in Patagonia for that book.


chiccoreal said...

Dear Jim: Excellent and insightful critique on the historical novel's dealing with accurate character portrayals.
Being true to the historical format has always made me tend to shy away from novels not made in a particular epoch; it reminds me too much of pulp fiction; romantized away to nothing more than the authors of POV.
After reading your account, and Clare Dudman's video, I am amazed at how much a person can try to assume or assimilate the historic characters in a novel.
Even though historic novels are delving into emotional "guess work" it is most intriguing and imaginative giving the reader both a historical setting and allowing imagination to "put meat on the bones" of historically sketchy characters and personages. What else can historians with writing gifts impart? Yes we all know the perfect archetype; The Brett Sherlock Holmes is pivotal and acted by a man who never lived during those Victorian times but had the ability to evoke those times. When going far back into the past; during ancient times, before tv and newspaper, photography, maybe even before scrolls, historic figures would be archetyped; made into a set image; never should one dare to depart from these set in stone characterizations of said historic figure.
Yes, I was the Green Orion woman from Star Trek one halloween frat party. Did I know that Vulcans NEVER smile? Yes. If they did; I would be irked and not prepared for someone damaging my archetypial image of these personages. Mr. Spock (BTW what is Spock's first name?).
Oh you have made me so much more than interested in reading Clare Dudman's work. Peru and the Welsh; huh; I didnt know that til today! My hubs Welsh background too. Amazing how people make cozy niches and adapt. The stories are so vivid. The Plague, how did you research all that? Those many years had plagues? Oh my. Wonders how we as a collective people ever survived considering what we must overcome. Seems the cards are stacked against us, by all odds, yet we keep popping back up like those dreaded moles in a hole. Fun and games! Love it! Txs for your wisdom today! Got me thinking! Which may be a good thing after all is said and done! :)

Kass said...

As Sexias suggested, all we can really have is a notion of the past.

I love the world that is created in historical novels. If it's not accurate, I usually have no way of telling. You're right, imagination is key in reproducing a semblance of the past.

With all the versions of possibilities inherent in covering past facts, if we were to start writing an historical novel centering around Bill Clinton today, while he is still alive, the most accurate thing you could write about him might be, "He played the saxophone."

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for that comment, chiccoreal. I think the thing that strikes me about Brett’s portrayal of Holmes is its sincerity. I think that goes a long way where there is no “truth” to refer back to. It’s all fine and well reimagining him for the 21st century but what I feel the new version lacks is sincerity. Yes, it has gusto and bravado but that’s not quite enough. It was fun but it wasn’t Holmes in anything other than name.

A good example of sincerity is the TV series from a few years back, Deadwood which got severely criticised for its swearing, both the quantity of it and the nature of it. Purists criticised it because many of the swearwords used weren’t (according to them) in common use but the problem in using the primarily religious swearwords that were in vogue then is that they would feel tame now, unrealistic. So do you trade off accuracy for realism?

BTW all my research is done online. I don’t have time to do more and keep up my schedule.

And, Kass, I think the comment you make about Clinton is spot on. We are living through history right now and yet how will our present be remembered other than through newspaper reports, and articles and TV programmes all of which will present a skewed picture of what actually happened at any given point in time. And the bottom line is that the only person who knows what happened to Bill Clinton is the man himself and he will undoubtedly wish to be remembered a certain way and in any writings he produces he will try to minimise any damage done by his misdemeanours and play up his successes.

Newspaper reporters cry out, “The people deserve the truth.” Ah, if only it was that simple.

Dave King said...

A lot of issues here, Jim. First of all, not everyone would agree that all the past is history. Politicians wouldn't for starters - or some of them wouldn't. When I was teaching the Government defined history in such a way that we could teach about the building of The Berlin Wall, but not its demolition - too recent to be history!
Personally, I do not believe there
can be any objectively true histories. A lot of emphasis was put on verifiable sources by the National Curriculum, but to my min d it begged the question to a large degree. Hilary Mantel's success comes from her ability to find gaps in historiacal "fact" which she can fill with her own script.
A fine post and more than worth another read. I shall return an on.
is are histo

Art Durkee said...

Just as fact and narrative are not the same thing, the past and history are not the same thing. History, and historiography, require interpretation. History is defined as the narrative story of the past that helps interpret the present. Sometimes, if there is lack of verifiable facts that can be used to assemble a narrative, history can become mythology, in the pure sense of Joseph Campbell's definition of myth as "The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves." Historical fiction as a myth-making artform, often owes a great deal more to Campbell than to rigorous historical research.

Which is fine, because who doesn't love a good story, but it's wise not to get these definitions and approaches-to-interpretation confused.

For example, a typical definition of historiography (found via is:

1. the body of literature dealing with historical matters; histories collectively.

2. the body of techniques, theories, and principles of historical research and presentation; methods of historical scholarship.

3. the narrative presentation of history based on a critical examination, evaluation, and selection of material from primary and secondary sources and subject to scholarly criteria.

All of these approaches used to interpret history are necessary to the historical novelist as well as to the historian. That's why historical novels are often judged on their accuracy. The idea being that, unlike in science fiction where anachronisms are no problem (and might even be fun), a big historical gaffe pulls the reader out of the experience of reading the story and shows us the scaffolding. Seeing the scaffolding makes it obvious to the reader that this is a piece of constructed narrative woven into historical situations and/or events. It destroys the illusion of the world built by the storyteller, shows us the man behind the curtain, and kills the willings suspension of disbelief. That's why a big gaffe in a historical novel can kill the reading experience.

In many ways, this makes historical fiction a far more fragile and dangerous high-wire balancing act than "pure" fiction, or even interpolated speculative fiction with historical elements.

For example, no one expects steampunk—the sub-genre of cyberpunk SF set in the 19th C. Victorian era—to be historically accurate. The fun is seeing what the author has done with familiar historical characters and situations woven into the plot. Steampunk is basically alternate history in which modern computing (and the social problems around it) was developed a century early; what fun one can then have with such a premise. But no one expects it to be historically accurate, although it's more fun the closer to history it comes.

Rachel Fenton said...

Regardless of the setting/period a novel is either engaging or not.

Jim Murdoch said...

Dave and Art, you both raise the same point – that history is not the same as the past. Perhaps this is a bit naïve of me but I never really thought about that before. I’ve always regarded history on a par with truth, that they both exist as ideals. I’m very well aware that people have rewritten history for as long as there has been a history to rewrite but at the end of the day what happened happened even if no one remembers it accurately.

I think it’s preposterous as you suggest, Dave, to teach about the building of the Berlin Wall without at least touching on its destruction, if only to provide a date. I suppose the government treat the word ‘history’ like ‘antique’ – how old exactly does something need to be to be regarded as one or the other?

I agree with you, Rachel that a story either works or it doesn’t but Art has a valid point when he says that “a big historical gaffe pulls the reader out of the experience of reading the story”. The one thing the BBC always gets praised for in its costume dramas is its attention to detail and I believe that’s a big thing too with the reader of an historical novel; they want it to be right.

But there we’re talking about purists. There will be others who just want the flavour of the period which is where the latest Sherlock Holmes was such a success. The period setting looked right. I have no idea if it was right but there were gaffs as are highlighted in this made-up response by Robert Downey Jnr. In The Spoof. The bottom line is that the film was historically inaccurate and not faithful to the canon. I never went into it expecting it to be anything else.

That’s where a film like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen works better because it reimagines the past rather than trying to be faithful to anything.

Elisabeth said...

Thanks, Jim, for a marvelous post. I agree with most of what you write wholeheartedly but I wonder about your words: 'To my mind the past should be set in stone and there is a danger that the quality of history can be diluted.'

How can the past be set in stone, given that it no longer exists except as a function of memory imagination and the evidence we have collected going back to cave man drawings, and up to the photography, video and audio recordings from more recent times.

To me the past can't be set in stone because it can't be known, not as it was and even as it was must have been so multiple depending on who experienced it.

Still I agree that a measure of historical accuracy has its place, but to me it can a you suggest only be interpreted through memory and imagination.

Here in Australia we've had these was feuds between one famed historical fiction writer, Kate Grenville and another terrific writer, this time historian, Inga Clendinnen.

In her historical novel The secret River, Grenville imagines back into the past of one of our settlers a distant ancestor of hers. Clendinnen challenged Grenville's writing as taking the place pf history inaccurately.

According to Clendinnen, Grenville could stand on the bow of a boat and smell the salt in the air and feel its sting on her tongue, but it would have been different for her ancestor to stand on the prow of a wooden ship as it would have been then without a motor in the times of the 1800s, and to smell the vomit everywhere from the overcrowded passengers.

To me it became a battle between one person's imagination and another's.

In 1999 while writing her historical novel Year of Wonders, Geraldine Brooks came across a letter Henry James had written ninety eight years earlier to a young woman named Sarah Orne Jewett. Jewett had previously sent James a manuscript of her historical novel for comment. In his letter James condemns the notion of the historical novel: ‘the invention, the representation of the old consciousness, the soul, the sense of horizon, the vision of individuals in whose minds half the things that make ours, that make the modern world,’ are all impossible to translate, he insisted.

Despite Brooks’s initial disquiet at James’s words, she realised later that she had heard similar ideas uttered in different contexts before.

Brooks had worked as a journalist in the Middle East and Africa.
“‘They don’t think like us,’ white Africans would say of their black neighbours, or Israelis of Arabs or upper class Palestinians about their desperately poor refugee-camp brethren…

‘They don’t value life as we do. They don’t care if their kids gets killed – they have so many of them.’”

We have the same issue in Australia, the same prejudices going back and forth between the indigenous and those whose ancestors came from elsewhere, between the residents and the refugees.

But Brooks argues ‘a woman keening for a dead child sounds exactly as raw in an earth-floored hovel as it does in a silk-carpeted drawing room.’

Brooks is concerned with emotional truth, a consciousness of experience.

‘It is human nature to put yourself in another’s shoes,' she writes. 'The past may be another country. But the only passport required is empathy.’

Empathy becomes the best means of understanding history as far as I'm concerned, empathy and a good deal of discipline in ascertaining as many of the facts and sensations from the time as possible, however rough and ready our interpretation might be.

I'm looking forward to your review of Clare's book. These video clips are wonderful, haunting and resonant.

Jim Murdoch said...

All I meant about the past being set in stone, Lis, is that what has happened; it cannot be changed only interpreted. What I had for breakfast this morning is what I had for breakfast. It is not what I’ve had for breakfast every day of my life but it is what I had today and what I’ve had every day this month. Historical novels condense things. Trivial details like what someone had for breakfast aren’t often recorded and yet often these writers have access to private correspondence where exactly that kind of information can be found. If an historical novelist sometime in the future wanted to depict a day in my life and chose to include breakfast, if he had done his research properly then he would have me eating a hot cross bun, cut into eight wedges and sipping a mug of black coffee. It’s the same with Woody Allen. His preferred breakfast is a rice cake and a glass of water. And that would be fine if the writer was intending to present a generic “day in the life off...” but if they wanted to present what I did on June 20th 2010 then the fact set in stone is that I had a hot cross bun and a cup of coffee; atypically I also took two headache pills. You can imagine what you like but that won’t change the facts. Despite the fact that Easter is long gone Tesco is still selling them and for as long as they do I’ll want them for breakfast.

Your comment about Grenville and Clendinnen is well taken. It is easy to romanticise the past and I suspect that that is exactly what many readers seek. As long as things could have happened then why not say that that is how they actually happened? I guess much depends on whether you think the devil’s in the details.

All of which is fine and well because we’re talking about the habits of an individual. In the case of Brooks what we have in an individual becoming the proxy for a whole nation and that leads to caricature. I’ve just reviewed a new novel where the central character is a woman who is having difficulty conceiving and who becomes preoccupied with the child of another woman. I didn’t think that the woman’s behaviour was realistic; she is far too self-aware and objective. I wrote to the author who didn’t really answer my question but, since she has just conceived a child after five years of IVF treatment it’s clear there’s a large autobiographical seam being mined here. I believe that what she has presented as fiction is based on fact and is therefore largely realistic and accurate and that’s where I think it’s weakness lies; it presents one woman’s experience but not a typical woman’s. When Brooks compares the two women who have lost a child she is talking in generalities. The fact is there will be rich women who shrug off the death of a child, who do the stiff upped lipped thing, who are incapable of keening in the manner described.

Empathy is obviously important. I guess that’s why Clare goes to all the trouble of going to places like Patagonia and China so that she has more than an intellectual appreciation of what she’s writing about. One could argue that if she had a better imagination she wouldn’t have to. Dustin Hoffman often took Method acting to incredible extremes. Fact. In order to appear more tired for a scene in Marathon Man, he reportedly stayed awake – for several days. Laurence Olivier (Hoffman's co-star in the film) later offered him a word of advice: "You should try acting, my boy. It's much easier." You can read that quote all over the web and it’s regarded as fact. The fact is that Olivier’s oft-quoted remark came out of concern for Hoffman’s excessive partying while trying to forget his recent divorce and other personal issues. It was not a put-down of his Method acting style. But I bet if someone ever makes a biopic of Hoffman’s life then what’ll go in will be the fiction rather than the fact because that it what people have come to believe as the truth.

Me, I’ll stick with lying – it’s much easier.

Jim Murdoch said...

Hi, everyone, I’ve just read a quote over at Emma Darwin’s site that I wish I’d read before I wrote this post:

In a TLS review of two books on the Dark Ages, the reviewer R I Moore said this:

Historians have to live with Heisenbergian uncertainty: they cannot simultaneously plot position and trajectory, without distortion. The forces that make for change are always more important for the future, and therefore in retrospect, than they seem at the time…

I just thought I’d share that with you.

Art Durkee said...

I'm glad you mentioned Heisenbergian uncertainty, because I was going to, then decided against it. No I've changed my mind again.

Basically, the idea that the past is fixed and immutable, even that events did happen, is fiction. It's what we tell ourselves as myth-making storytellers. It might even be what we want to believe. But in fact, if you travel the timeline in either direction from the present moment, uncertainties abound. Mathematically speaking, the past is completely changeable. The idea of time's arrow moving only forward, and leaving everything fixed in its wake, is unsupportable by either theory or evidence.

The "truth" is, and this is something both the mathematicians and physicists agree on: the past IS as unfixed and malleable as the future. The past doesn't technically exist. All we have is memory, and whatever physical evidence hasn't been eroded away by time. Documentation of the past only occurs in post-literate cultures. Prior to literacy, be it oral or written or a combination thereof, the past is as malleable as myth-making, as fictional as storytelling, as legendary as official tales.

"Gilgamesh" is a story from which we can deduce—emphasis on deduce—what ancient Sumerian life might have been like. Homer was an oral bard; his tales may not even have been written down till generations after he died; he may not even have originated them, as Homer himself may be a construction. What we know about Sappho is primarily what was preserved by being quoted in other sources.

We love to tell ourselves tories about Sappho, though, who she was, and who she loved. I have a great book on Sappho that contains mostly poems and stories inspired by her; it's fascinating to see what people over the centuries have interpreted her to be. Our ideas about her evolve, and constantly change; but no one present-moment interpretation is more valid than any of the others. Just because we live in modern times doesn't mean we're smarter or more insightful.

There was a great book published in the 80s called "The Past is a Foreign Country," by David Lowenthal. I read this book in graduate school, as part of my folklore and anthropology studies. Lowenthal didn't believe that the past was so foreign that we couldn't understand it—humans are capable of empathy, imagination, and more—but that it needs to be recognized that people in the past may not have shared our attitudes, beliefs, or prejudices. Visiting the past is indeed like traveling to a foreign country where you may think you know the rules of society, but you still get tripped up unexpectedly by something you cannot account for.

But the truth is, without the observer involved in the operation, there is no past, no history. History is written afterwards. History is interpretative. Even our ideas about the past are interpretative. By measuring the speed of the electron, you cannot know its position; by measuring the position of the electron, you cannot know its speed.

The idea of an immutable, fixed past is pure fiction. It is just more interpretation among an uncertain number of uncertainties. That's because it's an IDEA about the past.

Jim Murdoch said...

I have to say, Art, that the research I did for this article plus the comments made have made me realise that, as with most words, expressions like ‘past’ and ‘history’ are overly simplistic and our ability to understand things that have happened depend on our ability to bring those events forward into the present. And all modes of recording have their limits. But even, as you say, if what we have is accurate we can still misinterpret the information, everything seen as it is through a glass darkly.

Conda Douglas said...

Interesting review to me, as someone whose family came West on the Oregon Trail and never viewed it as "heroic" only horrid.

Jim Murdoch said...

The most I can say about my ancestors, Conda, is that they hopped on the M6 and drove north.

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