History as Narrative

29 09 2007

 

kennoe.jpgHow accurate really is what we write?  Are historians’ minds too orderly?  Do we instinctively tidy up the chaos for the sake of a clear narrative that moves easily from point A to point B?  In so doing, do we not distort the reality of the battle, inserting a ‘sensible pattern’ that never existed?  Does the omniscient narrative voice actually obscure the reality of the battle experience?  If it does, how can we produce a readable account that catches the fear, the confusion, the chance, and the sick smell?  In short, can we ever grasp, much less communicate, the truth of what it was like to be there? – Ken Noe, Jigsaw Puzzles, Mosaics, and Civil War Battle Narratives, Civil War History Vol.53, #3

ellroy.jpgMass market nostalgia gets you hopped up for a past that never existed.  Hagiography sanctifies shuck-and-jive politicians and reinvents their expedient gestures as moments of great moral weight.  Our continuing narrative line is blurred past truth and hindsight.  Only a reckless verisimilitude can set that line straight – James Ellroy, American Tabloid

johnhuston.jpgMaybe this isn’t the way it was, but it’s the way it should have been – John Huston (Director), The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean

I’ve been struggling with this post ever since I read the essays on military history in the most recent issue of Civil War History (see here), but the trouble in my noggin has been brewing for a long time.  In a Carlos Castaneda magic mushroom kind of way, I’ve been having problems with my perception of reality, at least in my reading.  The three quotes above beg the question: is the ordering and analysis of events in a narrative form clarifying history, or simply creating another fiction, a past that never existed as Noe and Ellroy say, the telling of a story the way it should have been as suggested at the beginning of Huston’s movie?  While the problems with the narrative form may be particularly severe in the case of chaotic events like military conflict, they are certainly not exclusive to those events.  The same can be said of gender and race studies, biographies, political analysis – of history in general.

Every narrative needs a narrator.  And therein lies a problem.  The order of events, their significance, their codependencies, are all ultimately determined by the writers.  Those analyses and presentations are the result of some historical methodology, sometimes good, other times not so good.  But regardless of the method, the fact that the result is simply an individual’s intepretation of what happened and of its significance can’t be denied.  We need to put events in an order that connects them in an understandable way – that’s how our brains work.  The process consists of picking and choosing, by evaluating relevance, from piles of facts, events, and opinions.  But it also consists of arranging the chosen bits to produce a story.

I think the process is surely history.  And as history, the narative produced can surely be judged qualitatively.  But, is history what happened?  Do or would participants in historical events recognize these narratives as representative of their personal experiences?  Are these stories the best way, or the only way, to understand these events?  Can web projects, perhaps, be something more than alternatives to traditional print narratives: can they somehow be more illustrative of the fragmented, chaotic nature of events, military or otherwise, and so provide a better understanding of what happened than traditional narrative?

Anyway, these are some of the things that have been bouncing around in my head lately.  I can’t say everything is fully formed.  If you have any thoughts along similar lines, or if you think I’m off my rocker, leave a comment.

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