Herodotus, Hayden White, historical fiction and communicating the past

In 2011, the Institute for Historical Research held a conference titled ‘Novel approaches: from academic history to historical fiction’, addressing the role of historians in writing fiction and the growing subset within the publishing world of historians-turned-novelists. Though now moribund, the resources produced for and by the conference are available here and bear noting for all interested in writing historical fiction or for that matter any fiction which involves an historical subject.

Several questions remain perennial for historians and history enthusiasts when discussing fiction, the novel and popular literature generally. Some constants can be found in the relationship between ‘literary’ history and its professionalised or ‘scientific’ descendant in the modern academic discipline of History and the realm of fiction and entertainment – the enmity felt for sacrifice of truth on the altar of myth being a basic archetype that has roots in antiquity. As Dr. Vasiliki Zali of UCL notes in ‘Agamemnon in Herodotus and Thucydides: Exploring the historical uses of a mythological paradigm:

Thucydides does not favour mythological argument much, especially in his speeches, and when it is deployed it is all too often proved to have little or no meaning at all. Moreover, his pragmatic outlook, his interest in hard facts and the intra-Hellenic nature of the war he describes render the use of myth as political argument hardly relevant and highly questionable.

But it would be a grave, even anti-historical error to summarise the positions of Herodotus, his successor Thucydides and the legacy of historical writing to follow them in the Greco-Roman world and beyond as having drawn resolute distinctions between ‘history’ and ‘myth’ or even between fact and fiction. Katharina Wesselmann provides exposition on the mythological frameworks of the work of Herodotus which provided more than mere underpinning or communicative facility for his Histories:

Especially his treatment of myth has been of great interest to scholars, who have often emphasised his critical distance from a mythical tradition, seemingly explicit in his resolution to focus on human achievements in the prooemium. And indeed, tradition is criticised in the Histories, as can be seen e.g. in Herodotus’ rationalisation of mythical stories, one of the most famous examples being the discussion of Helen’s stay in Troy in the second book (2.120): Helen could not possibly have been in Troy, says Herodotus, because the Trojans would have been crazy not to give her back.
However, it has always been obvious that Herodotus could not simply have been the great rationalist, easily detaching himself from every poetic or religious tradition. Of course he remains indebted to myth; mythical elements permeate his entire narrative.
Nor does Herodotus make a clear distinction between a spatium mythicum and historicum, as has sometimes been claimed.

The postmodernist critiques of history that reached the high-water mark in the later twentieth century, also at a time when the ‘hard’ sciences came under similar or equal attack from postmodernism and cultural studies, provided the most polarising answers to questions of proper relations between history and fiction. The 1960s and 1970s had seen Roland Barthes and his disciples infamously characterised the work of historians as reliant upon the production of a ‘reality effect’ in the same manner as the writing of fiction, and Hayden White’s hugely influential criticisms of traditional historical empiricism and the validity of historical paradigms; White declaring famously that “all stories are fictions”, he identified the ‘narrative’ basis of historical writing as existing in the same form of representation as those of myth and fiction. Summarizing White’s positions from this period is a 1984 article, ‘The Question of Narrtive in Contemporary Historical Theory’ (usefully available as a free HTML download here) in a more accessible distillation than his groundbreaking 1973 work Metahistory. It is here that White makes plainest his assertions on the probing relationship between history and fiction:

“The fact that narrative is the mode of discourse common to both “historical” and “non-historical” cultures and that it predominates in both mythic and fictional discourse makes it suspect as a manner of speaking about ‘real’ events… One can produce an imaginary discourse about real events that may not be less ‘true’ for being ‘imaginary’. It all depends upon how one construes the function of the faculty of imagination in human nature.” (White, ‘The Question of Narrative’, p.33)

Under this paradigm, would it be possible to declare Tudor ecclesiastical history better served by Hillary Mantel than David Starkey and the Late Roman Republic better by Robert Harris than Mary Beard? Other questions of discourse and power would be a relevant follow-up here. If public understanding of history constitutes a discourse in itself, the novelists command far greater influence than even popular historians, at least in Anglosopheric literary cultures at this point in the twenty-first century. The much-maligned (and not without cause) Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown yields a greater by-numbers readership than any combination of books on Early Christianity or European art history – his historically spurious Gnostic-fancying conspiracy thriller remains the bestselling book in UK publishing history according to the statisticians behind Nielsen Bookscan. No Religious Studies professor or biblical scholar could hope to top that, not even popular Christian apologetics masquerading as ‘investigations’ into New Testament Studies such as Lee Strobel’s similarly distorting tract, The Case for Christ.

Is White therefore partly to blame for mass historical ignorance and misunderstanding fostered by Brown and his contemporaries in the commercial fiction world, as the Christian apologetic scholar Scott McKnight claims? McKnight, writing in Jesus and his Death: Historiography, the Historical Jesus and the Atonement Theory (Baylor University Press, 2006), explicitly ties White’s ideas to the problems associated with popular fiction and historical imagination:

“The impact of this theory is at times quixotic… History, the postmodernist says, is the study of ancient texts, not the ancient past… In effect, Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and Jaroslav Peliknan’s Christianity and Classical Culture (to pick an egregious example) are simply different readings of phenomena, but neither is right, neither is wrong. Any search for the “best explanation” is removed from the map.” (McKnight, ‘Jesus and his Death’, p.7)

Hayden White’s critique of the practice of history, it is carefully emphasised in a 2011 text on White’s thought written by Herman Paul, does not advocate the wholesale destruction of the scholarly apparatus integral to the historical profession and learned by the freshest inductees to the study of history (archival research, the use of footnotes, bibliogrphical tables, etc.) Nor is it sympathetic to the egregious distortions of the kind engaged in by Brown and other fiction authors in pursuit of a bestseller. Both caveats are summarised in a review of Paul’s work (one may uncharitably call it ‘apologetics’) on White’s ideas conducted by Adam Timmins:

“Given the charges of relativism that have been levelled at White throughout his career, Paul is at pains to stress that the forcing open of the ironists’ cage does not leave historians free to write whatever they please. Although White frequently challenges the authority that historians bestow on practises such as archival research or source criticism, he does not advocate doing away with them. Nor does he hold that there is no difference between the writing of history and the writing of fiction, or that there are no criteria for distinguishing between good and bad historiography.”

It is a stretch to link the critiques made by White to the pained non-history (not to mention the nightmarish prose) produced by Brown and disseminated in mass-market paperback. McKnight’s position on White and postmodernism in this text is superficial; but what is lacking from White is an effective means of combating or at least nullifying the appeal of bad history and pseudo-scholarly knowledge when it marches under the banner of fiction and popular myth.

One possible solution that this blogger proposes is a broader collaborative effort between academic and university-based historians with the literati of the bestseller pages. Mantel has already proved that readers of popular historical fiction can be respected enough to be treated to historically faithful and plausible exploration of past events in the confines of a gripping yarn. The reading public are not hopelessly ignorant about historical matters despite the disinformation packaged in many glossy paperbacks, and the continued interest in historical novels which fuels their ascendancy of the bestseller lists is more than sufficient evidence of hunger for good history. Historical fiction can spur interest in the subject ‘proper’ among non-historians; my own Damascene conversion to the pursuit of history came whilst enthralled by a copy of Robert Graves’ classic I, Claudius on a train.

If White was indeed ‘correct’ in his interpretation that history cannot be, much less claim to be a scientific discipline and is anchored in the use of narrative to represent and convey information about the past, then historical fiction must undoubtedly play a stronger role. This follows from the recognition that history cannot be made without ‘story’ – so narratives built in the ‘fictional’ camp that seek access to the realm of history can be a useful means of deliverance. In a crude analogy, popular historical fiction may act as a re-purposed neurotransmitter; though this would involve the academe acting as the cerebral cortex and the reading public as the rest of the anatomy – a rather medievalist elite conception of knowledge and receivership that I would rather avoid here.

And Hayden White himself? As anybody introduced to history in the last three decades will known, he is no longer any guerrilla theorist fighting the established regime under the dense canopy of historical theory. As a recent conference held in his honor proudly declared in a vindication narrative of its own:

“To them [historians critical of Metahistory], White’s rapprochement between literary or fictional storytelling and the historical or biographical account amounted to an indictment of history as a factual discipline, scientific in spirit, if not in method. Nevertheless, White’s books and articles are standard reading in history and humanities courses.”

Rebels becoming the establishment. Now there’s a constant mythos that history and popular fiction can find agreement on without much argumentation.

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