- Editor’s Preface
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The cover photo of Paris street signs taken by John L. Evarts serves as a symptomatic representation of the common interests in this special issue of MFS on narrative and history. The signs ask, or perhaps beg, several questions: is the shift from the rue de Léningrad to the rue de Saint Petersbourg—from the “cold war” to the post cold war, from the dominance to the fall of the Soviet Union, from global binaries and trinaries to new, complex interactions of “global orders”—merely a matter of crossing out Lenin and reinstalling St. Peter? What historical narratives can be spun out of placing Leningrad, under erasure, yet still readable, next to the new sign bearing the old name of the Russian city—a name that collapses the “before” of the Bolshevik Revolution and all that it entailed for modernity into its aftermath? Before us, we have an image that captures the inherent temporality of narrative, yet one that compresses modern history into a single location, a site of contradiction. This image of the two signs shuttles between past and future. History is conflated in the newly-erected sign of an older past reconstituted as the future set alongside the older sign of a recent past—what was, for several generations, the present, constrictive state of affairs—that remains as a specter even when x-ed out. The photograph of these signs compels us to question the relation between the historical experience that lies behind them and the fragile, nominal narratives that serve as haunting ciphers of that experience: how can we, and how will we, tell the stories to which these signs so cryptically refer—the rise and fall of empires, the [End Page 255] battle of economies, the gulags, the wars, the holocausts? And what is history for us now, in what some claim to be the age of the “post-historical,” a claim whose falsity is continually revealed in news from Bosnia or the Middle East where the battles over nation and empire rage on (as they do “at home,” in America, with its internalized cold wars).
The essays in this issue pose versions of these questions through readings of modern histories, narratives, films, and images. While they vary greatly in terms of focus and subject, collectively, they challenge the absolute separation of historical experience and narrativization (even though most historians will readily agree that the writing of history is a narrative activity, many still insist on differentiating the empirical content of history—its facticity—from the rendering of history by means of the strategies of narrative); at the same time, these essays take issue with the assimilation of the historical into narrative, as if the latter could ever fully represent or comprehend the former. The complex relation between history and narrative—which is not one of mirroring or containment—is negotiated in these essays, and it is a negotiation which of necessity must be regional and specific. These, then, can be regarded as local takes on a relation that is at the foundation of historical knowledge, for while we can undergo the experience of history bodily, emotionally, we can only “know” it discursively through narrative. In this regard, for the authors of these essays, the rejection of imperial, totalizing narratives goes hand in hand with the abandonment of a singular, monumental history or historical synthesis.
The complexity of the relation between narrative and history is revealed by the rich variety of approaches to that relation evident in the work gathered here. Ian Baucom discusses the mourning and melancholia evident in the “postimperial” fictions of V.S. Naipaul and others: how does the postcolonial or postimperial, Baucom asks, instantiate a desire for modernist, imperialistic “before” of grand memorials and historically centered identities? As part of her important work in progress on Jean Toomer, Barbara Foley provides a detailed analysis of Toomer’s growing historical class consciousness as exemplified in Cane and other early works, especially as this is informed by Toomer’s engagements with...