Narratives and Events
Passmore (John)
Source: History and Theory, Vol.26, No.4, Beiheft 26: The Representation of Historical Events (Dec.,1987), 68-74
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  1. Few of us would claim to be experts on the history of Zanzibar. Picking up M. M. Kaye's historical novel Trade Wind and finding it to be set in that remote island, we might be led to wonder how far it is historically accurate, whether, by reading it, we should make ourselves better acquainted with Zanzibar's past. Since it is a novel, we should, of course, expect it to contain much that no historian would profess to know – the details of long conversations between characters, intimate moments, irruptions of feeling. Were the novel transposed into a film, any but the most unsophisticated would lower accuracy-expectations even further, not immediately concluding that this is what the historical characters looked like, how they walked, sat, ate, talked, loved. The film-maker, even the novelist, has to make decisions at points where the historian can remain silent, write hesitantly, or present alternatives. The size of Richard Ill's hump has to be determinate. Nevertheless, the question still remains whether Kaye has accurately described the general character of particular courses of events, which did in fact form part of the history of Zanzibar.
  2. Kaye has supplied an appendix to satisfy our historical curiosity. There she tells us that all the major events in the novel really happened, and in the order in which she has presented them. But "for the sake of the story," she also tells us, she has compressed them into a single year, whereas in fact they occurred over a period of years. Although some of the characters, she adds, are historical personages, others are not. And some actions are ascribed to certain personages which were in fact performed by others.
  3. The novelist, then, has taken liberties which no historian would take. Such an appendix at the end of a strictly historical work is unimaginable. Kaye not only, and inevitably, presents us with detail for which there is no evidence; she alters courses of events and the ways in which individuals participated in those courses of events. The events themselves, she nevertheless assures us, did occur – and in the order in which she has described them.
  4. In making these admissions, Kaye is assuming that there were actual courses of events. She also assumes that, as a result of her reading of documents and historians, she knows what those actual courses of events were, the courses which interest her in their interplay, and could, in principle, have communicated that knowledge to her readers, in the manner of an historian, had she chosen to do that rather than to deviate from what she knows to have happened in order to write a more interesting novel. None of these assumptions is at all extraordinary; she would have thought of them, indeed, as being commonplaces.
  5. Every human being is born into a world of stories. Unlike most societies, however, the West gradually came to draw distinctions between different kinds of story and to make correspondingly different demands upon different kinds of storyteller. It came to distinguish, and in its educational institutions taught its pupils to distinguish, among myths, legends, anecdotes, chronicles, fictions, histories, and science, to think of the descent of Japanese emperors from the sun-goddess as a myth, William Tell as a legend, a mother's stories about her early years as anecdotes, Gibbon's Decline and Fall as history, the Big Bang as science.
  6. True enough, there have been arguments about whether the New Testament is an historical record, a myth, a collection of legends, or a set of anecdotes, and about whether Marx, Freud, even Darwin, count as scientists. And, particularly since the earlier decades of the present century, it has been emphasized that particular works can be admixtures, that myths can play a part in the thinking of scientists and historians and can obscurely relate historical stories. Nevertheless, until recently, such discussions proceeded on the assumption that real distinctions were involved. They have sought to increase or diminish the intellectual respectability of certain stories, the rationality of relying on them as a source of information about courses of events by showing them to be less, or more, mythological than had been supposed.
  7. Encountering novels, plays, or films to which the adjective "historical" is attached, we have learned to treat them in this spirit, not denying that the adjective is applicable but at the same time treating them with caution. We do not usually get the kind of help Kaye offers her readers, but we often turn, after seeing such an historical film or play, or reading an historical novel, to the writings of a professional historian, as a check. That is in the belief, which Kaye shares, that there are actual courses of events which historians, unlike novelists and filmmakers, regard it as their responsibility to discover and recount.
  8. We live at a time, however, which takes it to be its major intellectual task – this is true, at least, of quite a few influential thinkers – to destroy distinctions, to insist on resemblances rather than on differences. And so we may now find ourselves regarded as naive if we turn away from literature to history in order to discover what actually happened – to take over a notorious phrase. What in such a case we are doing, we may be told, is to appeal from one piece of imaginative literature to another.
  9. In a certain sense, I should not wish to deny this. Indeed, in a number of writings I have insisted on the fact that history, literature, science, and technology all display the workings of the critical imagination. Good historical writings, as distinct from chronicling, are certainly imaginative. And given the vague boundaries of "literature," I shall not demur at calling them literature. The only real point at issue is whether they are fiction, in a broad sense of that word which comprehends novels, plays, and films, whether Kaye's appendix reveals her to be the victim of an illusion. That historians, so far like scientists, have to exercise imagination does nothing to destroy the distinction between history and fiction, if they are also called upon to exercise forms of criticism to which the writer of fiction is not subject and have objectives which the writer of historical fiction only partially shares.
  10. The typical way of arguing in favor of the view that every description of a course of events is a piece of fiction is by reducing to a minimal point what the historian begins from. Some try to persuade us that the historian begins from "scattered events," occurring in sequences but not otherwise linked. If this were so, then in preserving events and the order of events Kaye is doing all that can reasonably be demanded from anyone who sets out to display the facts. One might, to be sure, object when she says that on a certain date X performed in the manner Y when this did not in fact happen, but for the rest she is, it might be argued, simply presenting us with an alternative fiction to the fiction of the historian.
  11. The view that the historian begins from scattered events strikes us, however, as being a very odd one, and this for a number of reasons. The first is that the historian is born – just as, I have said, we all are – into a world of stories. Characteristically, historians begin by criticizing already existing stories, sometimes myths and legends, sometimes the writings of their fellow-historians. They do not begin from events but from an accepted account of courses of events, for example, of the strategies employed in the First World War. Of course, fiction writers also use past stories. But Shakespeare did not write Hamlet in order to correct Saxo Grammaticus; rather, he borrowed and altered, just as suited his literary purposes, without even Kaye's degree of compunction. Historians, in contrast, hope to correct and do not for a moment doubt that it is possible to do so, even when what they set out to correct is an earlier historian rather than a popular legend. In both cases, the starting point is a story, not a set of scattered events.
  12. Very well, it might be replied, but the ultimate starting point, from which the first story begins, must be scattered events. The word "ultimately" and the modal "must be" warn us that we are now confronting a metaphysical theory and its epistemological concomitant. It is a curious feature of much recent theorizing, especially in the sociology of knowledge, that although it professes to be anti-empirical, it relies on the extreme empiricist doctrine that what we are acquainted with are isolated, simple particulars, so that all relations, all connections, are the products of the imagination, are indeed fictions. I should want to join with David Carr in resisting that view.
  13. In any case, if we follow up such a metaphysics, such an epistemology, to its utmost reaches, we find ourselves compelled to think in terms of events which are nothing more than infinitely thin temporal slices or simple sensations. These are very far from being what an historian counts as an event. A statement like "the First World War broke out in August 1914" would usually count as asserting the occurrence of an event. But it is not a metaphysician's "event"; the outbreak of war involves a complex set of interrelationships. So, even more obviously, does the description of a particular event as a "world war" or as the first of such wars. That leads me to my next point.
  14. The contrast "event" - "narrative" is misleading insofar as these are concepts of a different order. "Narrative" belongs to the linguistic mode; "event," as here used, to the ontological mode. Historians, except, and then to a limited degree, in the case of historians of their own times, do not encounter events, scattered or otherwise. They begin from described events, whether in a chronicle or an accounts book. (Of course, they also encounter buildings, geographical features, customs, languages, works of art, of science, and of philosophy, but I shall be concentrating on events.)
  15. Once we take as our contrasting pair "event-descriptions" and "narratives" it will at once be plain how much that is said about narratives to dispute the claim that they can be "correct" also applies to event-descriptions. So just as there is nothing describable as the correct narrative of the French Revolution, so there can be no such thing as the correct description of an event. Just as the particular way in which we construct our narrative can be influenced by our particular interests, our social concerns, the traditions of our society, or of institutions in that society, so, too, this can be true of event-descriptions, whether we say, for example, that Trotsky was killed, murdered, or assassinated.
  16. Nevertheless, and this is the crucial point for my present purposes, some event-descriptions are correct and some are incorrect. My writing this paper is an "event" in what I shall be calling the ontological sense of that word. It can correctly be described as occurring in Canada, incorrectly as occurring in Australia. If I were said to be writing in an analytic style, that description could no doubt be intended to have certain effects, to persuade people to read what I have written or to dissuade them from reading it. Nevertheless, it, too, could be correct or incorrect, fuzzy though such concepts as "analytic" are.
  17. All this, I should want to say, is also true of narratives. The narrative: "Five days ago, I began to write this paper; it has caused me a great deal of difficulty" can be either correct or incorrect – and so it could be if I filled it out into a detailed account of the books I read, the alternative versions I wrote and so on. Furthermore, the course of events I am then narrating is just as much a matter of direct experience as the event-description that "I am now writing this paper."
  18. Just as historians are usually confronted not by events but by event-descriptions so, as we saw, they are usually confronted not by courses of events but by narratives. As they can challenge the descriptions so, too, they can challenge the narratives. They can try to offer a more accurate narrative, just as they can try to supply a more accurate description, or a more illuminating narrative, drawing attention to links which have not previously been observed, suggesting patterns which have never been noticed. (Or of course, they can also mis-describe, mis-tell, forcing rather than finding.) But how do we know they are descriptions of the same thing, narratives of the same course of events? That is not in general any more difficult in the case of history than it is in the law-courts – with, of course, always the risk of error.
  19. Nevertheless, the phrase "narratives of the same course of events" has to be watched. Earlier in my remarks, I deliberately used the plural form "courses of events." I by no means believe that there is something describable as "the total course of events" which an Ideal Historian would unveil before our astonished eyes. Rather, there are many, many, courses of events going on at any time, some of them closely related, some of them only loosely so, some of them important for a great number of people, others important – except in a symbolic or representative way – only for a very few people. Two books bearing the title The First World War can be very different in content, one telling us a great deal about changes in strategy, the other scarcely anything. Different courses of events interest the authors even though, to be sure, they are both writing about the same war. They are confronting different problems, dispelling different myths. They can both be writing reliable narratives, but in relation to a different set of courses of events.
  20. One other fact has to be kept in mind. "Event" is ambiguous. Let me distinguish an ontological from an evaluative sense. (This is not an ambiguity cleared up by the introduction of the expression "event-description.") In the ontological sense nobody lives an uneventful life; every life is a series of events. In the evaluative sense, individuals may do so. Nothing important happens to them which is not part of the common lot of mankind. ("Important," of course, is a relative concept.) Those historians who complain that traditional history concentrates upon events mean that it concentrates on "catastrophes," in its mathematical meaning, the breaking points of a society. But even when writing about long durations historians still have to pick out events in the evaluative sense. That sort of history which we might call "historical anthropology," describing some aspects of a past society as an anthropologist might describe a pre-modern society, will not include statements like "the peasant Jacques walked to the gate yesterday," unless that action has some special significance, as symbolically indicating, let us say, a recovery from illness or depression. An event, in the evaluative sense, comes to be counted as such only because it has a particular place in particular courses of events. Particular courses of events come to be narrated only because they are of interest to somebody.
  21. Of more fundamental importance is the fact that, except for the metaphysician, every event has a duration. We can give a description of it either in a descriptive phrase or in a narrative. Consider the American War of Independence. In the history of Australia, the War is an event, the event that caused the British Government to look elsewhere for a convict colony. That it lasted for some years, that it was a set of courses of events is, in this context, of no interest. Yet, as we all know only too well, the stories of that war can be lengthy narratives. "I am now writing this paper" describes, I said, an event. Yet, of course, to speak of "a paper" is to refer to a task being undertaken, a task with a beginning, a middle, and, I hope, an end. The pressing of each key in the typewriter could, in principle, be separately described as a separate narrative, as a film may consist solely of a person walking down a street. (Some "experimental" films are of this character.) A narrative, one might therefore say, is simply a very detailed description, or mis-description, of an event. An event-description is a summary of a narrative. This applies whether or not the "narrative" is a story, in the classical sense.
  22. I should finally explain that I do not question the commonplaces of narrativism. First, I agree that some historical works have the same general structure as myths or novels, even if others are more like anthropology. (Novel-writers learned from history, often at first describing their works as "histories.") My interest is in differences in the ways in which they are challenged, criticized. At some point, admittedly, a myth might be challenged in the manner of a work of history, as Hume challenged the myths of an original contract and of divine right. Historians have often done this; they have demythologized, as Hans Kellner cites Barthes as saying. But that is when it is still necessary to show that these are myths, not historical narratives. Once its character as a myth is established, the kind of challenge which consists in drawing attention to the fact that the myth has no historical foundations is pointless. The question thereafter is how the myth functions as such, in what, let us say, the lasting appeal of Genesis consists, and what are the social effects of believing in it.
  23. It may sometimes be desirable, similarly, to challenge an historical novel or play or film which purports to be historical if one finds that it is being taken seriously as history. But again challenges such as, say, that Elizabeth never met Mary as she is represented as doing in Schiller's Mary Stuart or to the film La Nuit de Varennes that Casanova was not in Paris on that night, let alone in a coach with Restif de la Bretonne, are irrelevant to the artistic characteristics of these works and do nothing, even, to demonstrate that they fail to enlarge our historical understanding. There are ways of doing this, they rather indicate, which do not consist in writing history. Nevertheless, no historian can take these liberties.
  24. Secondly, I agree that an historian can choose where to begin and where to end, to begin a history of Australia, say, with the aborigines, or with the European navigators, or with the first colony in Sydney and to end it at any of a number of later dates, even if in fact there are some beginnings, some ends, which no historian would choose. But I do not agree that outside narratives there is no such thing as a beginning, a middle, and an end. It may well be that the whole universe has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Certainly every individual living – every plant, let us say – is in that position even if we could find a beginning, middle, and end for its genes only by taking a very long duration as our subject. Historians of geology cannot begin just anywhere; neither can historians of the First World War, even if their choice of a beginning can properly vary with the precise story they want to tell. Events not only exist in courses and are courses. They also run their course.
  25. There is much more to say. I should particularly like to comment on the suggestion that history should take over the methods of modernism in order to improve its position in modern culture. History and modernism, I should suggest, cannot embrace, except in a way that would be fatal to history – "come into my parlour: said the spider to the fly." Modernism detests history as it detests science, because history demands clarity, evidence, as distinct from vatic utterances. As well, history challenges modernism's assumption that there are entirely fresh starts – its emphasis, too, on the individual will. Many brilliant artistic works have been created under the banner of modernism. But clarity about the past is one of history's gifts to the world, not to be abandoned on such spurious grounds as that it is old-fashioned. As if that mattered! And even if it did, what could now be more old-fashioned than modernism? As for the post-modernist emphasis that one can be both serious and entertaining, so much the historian can properly learn, but not if the price of entertainment is inaccuracy and superficiality.


See Passmore: Narratives and Events.

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