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We want our history to be “the simple record of unadulterated facts,” wrote the English idealist philosopher F. H. Bradley in 1874; yet too often we find only a clamor of “jarring witnesses,” none of whom can wholly be trusted to provide us with the truth. Though Bradley’s words supply the title of this timely book, they also have an ironic inflection, turning them into evidence for the prosecution, since in Robert Holton’s view one of the major failings of modern historical narratives has been a marked reluctance to include the voices of those subjects who can testify against the orthodoxies of their age. These lacunae implicate professional historiographers and writers of fiction alike, and, because stories of the past are among the most potent means by which human communities delineate and stabilize themselves, the chronicling of historical events helps to create the myths by which we live.
At the same time, the opening chapter of Jarring Witnesses makes clear the extent to which contemporary historiography continues to be mortgaged to the largely discredited Enlightenment ideal of a universal history, within whose capacious rational frame the multitudinous petites histoires might once have been subsumed. From Bradley through R. G. Collingwood to more recent commentators like Hayden White and Louis O. Mink, “modernist theorists of history” have sought to reconstruct the social and ethical center of the historian’s narrative, [End Page 481] showing how the doxa of common sense has come to occupy the place formerly reserved for objective reason, adjudicating between competing points of view and determining precisely whose versions of events are to carry weight. As Holton notes, this unresolved debate shadows the rise of literary modernism and, insofar as narrative fiction is, in Joseph Conrad’s words, “history, human history, or it is nothing,” the preoccupation with “jarring witnesses” emerges as a “definitive characteristic of modernism” too. Following Bakhtin’s account of the novel’s dialogic possibilities, we might expect the most innovative fiction to succeed where historiography has failed; but Holton’s first three case studies—Conrad’s Nostromo, Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End, and William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!—reveal what is, at best, only a partial or truncated heteroglossia, despite their ostensibly panoptic textual range. In Nostromo, for example, the most dismissive of Conrad’s relentless ironies are reserved for the Monterist rebels whose simianized vulgarity speaks louder than any anti-imperialist rhetoric, reducing them to the degenerate condition of “violent men but little removed from a state of utter savagery,” a veritable “torrent of rubbish.” To find a corrective to such loaded formulations, we need to look beyond the confines of high modernism, towards the “doubly marginalised” counter-tradition of African American women’s writing or to certain strands in postmodern fiction—represented here by Thomas Pynchon’s V.—which radically seek “to decentre” the Westernizing optic of modern historical reason.
Faced with these sharply etched options, there is a danger that many readers of this review will already have taken sides on the likely merits of Holton’s thesis. Yet it would be a pity if responses hardened too quickly or were immediately converted into ammunition for the partisan. However one defines the modernist canon, there is no shortage of potentially fruitful ways in which the notion of “jarring witnesses” might be applied, though they do not always sit comfortably with the general argument of this book. One thinks, perhaps, of the incoherent cries of Septimus Smith in Mrs. Dalloway or of the psychotic delusions of John Helforth in H. D.’s neglected short story “Kora and Ka,” witnesses who not only disturb the complacency of others, but who are also deeply divided against themselves. On the other hand, Holton’s heavy reliance upon the model of legal testimony in his approach to narrative sometimes blinds him to other plausible readings [End Page 482] of his chosen texts. Of course, Parade’s End suffers from numerous sins of omission, ignoring the “voices of working-class agitation that led to many of the social changes...