- Likely Stories: Essays on Political Philosophy and Contemporary American Literature, and: The Character of Truth: Historical Figures in Contemporary Fiction, and: Designs of Darkness in Contemporary American Fiction
"Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow," moans Macbeth, "Creeps in this petty pace from day to day / To the last syllable of recorded time; / And all our yesterdays have lighted fools / The way to dusty death." Macbeth is succinctly alluding to a set of issues that comprise what we could call the "historical": the unfolding of sequence, the privileging of chronology, the predictable shape of events, the intelligibility of prediction, the attribution of "greatness" to specific names and offices, the presence of events in conflict with the time frame of writing. Writing history requires negotiating these conditions, and Macbeth does so in the manner that, as Hayden White tells us, all histories are constructed, figuratively, equating life to a tale "Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing." Macbeth thus articulates not only his own sense of chaos but also the frustration of trying to make history, in that "making history" is a phrase, as Michel de Certeau points out, that turns two ways, meaning both to shape events and to shape the writing of their story. But knowing the significance of events in such a way as to make possible their shaping is to occupy a privileged position that is prior to their occurrence while retrospective to the story in which they figure.
This is possible, of course, only if we posit a position from which writing precedes the events written about. Macbeth had believed that the witches' predictions put him in that position. When he comes to regard that belief as idiotic, the privileged position shrinks for Macbeth from the macroscopic to the microscopic; the metanarrative that informs his ascent as part of a predictable cosmic order crumbles into uninformed narrative fragments lacking significance or, more precisely, signifying their own incapacity to signify. And history reduces to one historical event only—the event of uttering the impossibility of concurrently acting and writing, the impossibility, in other words, of historicizing one's own historicity.
This dilemma has been central to Western historiography and, more recently, to postmodernism, which has questioned the traditional generic or strategic frames that allowed authorial authority to insulate the "fictive" from the "real." Much literary and historical criticism in the last decade, therefore, has examined the status of the factual, the kinds of truth claims narratives make, and the political implications of these claims. Three more volumes, focusing primarily on post-World War II American fiction, add to this investigation.
Likely Stories, by Ethan Fishman, unfortunately adds very little. With Allan Bloom his acknowledged philosophical mentor, Fishman attempts to demonstrate that specific fiction by Saul Bellow, John Updike, Eudora Welty, and James Baldwin "can serve the political pedagogic role for political inquiry that Socrates intended for mythology in ancient Athens." To this end, Fishman attempts to prove an "especially close connection . . . between [Bellow's] The Dean's December and [Plato's] Republic," and a "dramatic confluence between" Updike's Rabbit triology and de Tocqueville's Democracy in America. In similar fashion, he parallels Welty with Aristotle and Baldwin with Edmund Burke. Fishman has done little [End Page 763] secondary research, despite his wide array of authors and issues, and most of it is fifteen to twenty-five years old. I cannot discern, therefore, the likely audience for Likely Stories. It is certainly not scholars of the respective authors. And would critics interested in the relationship of literature to political philosophy benefit from an author who appears never to have heard—to name just a few—of Foucault, Jameson, or the whole fields of new historicism and cultural criticism? Who will learn from vague conclusions like: "Baldwin contributes to the...