Wednesday, February 19, 2014

A Possible Misconception of History as Narrative

Recently, I have been trying to revive my interest in narratology and the role of narrative in the writing of history (which the academic seem to wish to call "historiography," as if authority was a matter of establishing "lexical turf"). I finally found an opposing statement (to the effect that writing history is not about writing narrative), formulated by Maurice Mandelbaum in a paper he wrote in 1967. After reading his objections, I realized that his view of narratology was relatively narrow, perhaps to the extent that he had not read very much on the subject. (This was a time when narrative theory may have been drawing more attention in Europe than in the United States.)

As I see it, the fundamental flaw in his reasoning was that narrative is always a linear chain on antecedents leading to consequents, while history involves a more complex network of relationships. I certainly agree with his view of history. However, it seems to me that he is assume that, just because the act of narrating must, of necessity be linear (the narrator cannot break free of the immediate flow of time) and just because the story he is relating can also be laid out as a linear sequence of events on its own time-live, there is no reason to assume that the discourse structure of the narrative itself must also be linear. Indeed, there are any number of ways in which the telling of a story will take advantage of devices such as "flashbacks" and even "flash-fowards;" and it seeemed as if Mandelbaum was not interest in the role that such discourse devices play in narrative.

Mandelbaum then goes on to say that history is all about part-whole relationships, rather than those concerned with antecedent-consequent. This, again, strikes me as off the mark. Narrative is as much about establishing context as it is accounting for the events that take place within that context. One might almost say that the entire scope of Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past is all about the part-whole relationships in the context, rather than the sequence of actions that take place in the course of his epic narrative. Indeed, one might even take the extreme position that Proust-the-novelist may provide one of the more useful models to be considered by any would-be historiographer!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Perhaps you're familiar with Foucault, and his distinction between "archaeology" and "genealogy"