- The End of the End of History:Graham Swift's Waterland
This is a reading of Waterland as an allegorical exploration of postmodern theories of the end of history, treating those theories as the novel's intertexts, or subtexts.1 As the study progresses I shall be interested in developing the broad politico-theological implications of my reading.
The most obvious lesson of Waterland is that the "Grand Narrative" of history ends more than once, or rather is always already ended. It first ends with the French Revolution which, as Tom Crick informs his pupils, in rejecting the past and tradition thereby rejected history itself. Tom, then, is already relating the end of history when, in a chapter entitled "About the End of History," he suddenly departs from the grand and objective narrative of the Revolution to narrate the small and subjective narratives of his own life. In short, the 1789 end of history does itself come to an end. Indeed, no sooner has Tom's own posthistorical narrative begun than it in turn is interrupted by the pupil Price who declares that "'the only important thing about history . . . is that it's . . . probably about to end'"(6). As Tom himself remarks, Price has contrived to "disrupt disruption" (51), to end the end of the end of history.
The significance of all this, needless to say, is that it brings into question the very idea of the end of history. And it is, of course, a confessedly ironic formulation; Baudrillard, for instance, even when using [End Page 911] the phrase, "distances himself," writes Douglas Kellner, "from the very concept of 'the end of,' which he claims is embedded in a linear view of history" (173). Like postmodernism, Waterland may not allow us even the consolation of an end to the "Grand Narrative" of history since, it is implied, there never was such a narrative. The reader of Waterland must think herself, like Tom when being told stories by his mother, "in the middle of nowhere" (2) rather than at the end of somewhere. "There are no compasses for journeying in time," remarks Tom (117); or, as Michel Foucault puts it, "the true historical sense confirms our existence among countless lost events, without a landmark or a point of reference" (89).
According to Waterland, what makes the end of history landmark—for that is what it is—so particularly problematic is that insofar as it entails any kind of nostalgia it is implicated in what Tom identifies as the founding mechanism of some of the grandest narratives of history:
history . . . creates this insidious longing to go backwards. It begets this bastard . . . child, Nostalgia . . . . How we pine for Paradise. For Mother's milk . . . [for] the Golden Age . . . [Even] revolution contains within it . . . the idea of a return.(118-119)
Should, then, it entail the slightest nostalgia, the postmodern end of history has only returned—suggests Swift—to the very source, or beginning of history. As Gianni Vattimo observes, "the dissolution of metarécits is itself a kind of metarecit" (133). Alan Sinfield touches upon this problem when remarking of American deconstruction that "it is often in danger of slipping into a nostalgia for the very metaphysics it claims to displace" (74).2 What Waterland reminds us is that nostalgia is itself a metaphysic—indeed a grounding metaphysic—of traditional, teleological history.
The point is made by not only Tom but also the embodiment of this "bastard . . . child, Nostalgia" : namely, the bastard child Dick whose actions are informed, according to Tom, by both a desire for his dead mother and a pre-evolutionary fascination with water. Through Dick, or rather the Dick inscribed in Tom's posthistoncal digression, the novel suggests that the "Nostalgia" written into the very notion of the end of history will perpetuate not just logocentrism—Dick is born, it is said, to be the "saviour of the world" (198)—but also phallogocentrism. Dick by name, he is also Dick by nature, endowed as he is with a large and much envied penis. Indeed, when it comes to attempting sex with Mary he proves, as the chapter title puts it, "Too Big" for what Tom and the...