Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Ingredients in the “Tonic of Tragedy”

Reading Stanley Wells’ review of Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies in the latest New York Review set me to thinking about Simon Schama again, specifically, his observation that history “delivers the tonic of tragedy, not the bromide of romance.” I realized that he was playing fast and loose with that noun “tragedy’ (such as whether he was using it in the Aristotelian, Marxian, or some other sense). After reading Schama, I chose to rebut him as follows:
I prefer Hayden White’s position that history is best approached as literature, assessed for its quality of writing as well as its consistency with documented evidence.
However, “literature” may also be too general a noun to address how we approach history.

In introducing Mantel’s book, which is a novel, Wells makes an important claim:
History has no plot. It happens randomly, goes beyond human control. People plot, but things go amiss. The desire to capture the past in unquenchable but fruitless. A historian, whether of recent or long-past events, tries to tell it how it was, but the attempt is vain. History books have to have beginnings, middles, and ends. Whether consciously or not, their authors tell stories from particular perspectives; they choose who and what to write about; they select from the multifariousness of human experience, imposing order on randomness, seeing what they choose to see or what their subconscious minds put before them, setting their stories within a frame of their devising, revealing subjectivity even as they seek to convey an impression of objectivity.

Any account of the past requires artistry in the telling, but those storytellers who proclaim their artifice, melding the stuff of history with the forms and conventions of art, are more honest about the illusory nature of their endeavors than those who seek to convey an impression of impartiality.
That “artistry in the telling” is, of course, narrative technique. In other words it is the framework of narrative that facilitates sensemaking: the perception of order in that randomness that is “beyond human control.” From this point of view, White is less interested in the generality of the concept of literature than he is in the specificity of the concept of narrative. To invoke the terminology of Friedrich Hayek, narrative provides the device that facilitates “sensory order” on what is little more than a random array of events. However, it is only through that order that those events can register as memorable, thus establishing history as the literary vehicle of memory.

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