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New Literary History 33.1 (2002) 39-60
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The Moral of the Historical Story:
Textual Differences in Fact and Fiction
To support their other arguments, narrative theorists of history like Hayden White and F. R. Ankersmit tend to argue that historical narratives are identical to fictional ones in form. Now, while on the face of it this seems indeed to be so, one would common-sensically be tempted to think that because of the differing intentions behind the process of writing we could find textual differences in the finished products themselves. Yet if we follow what can loosely be termed poststructuralist arguments, we are expected to adopt the textualist approach at face-value, distinguishing between narratives only on the basis of their social significance. This because, as Richard Rorty puts it, "[t]he vocabulary of self-creation is necessarily private, unshared, unsuited to argument. The vocabulary of justice is necessarily public and shared, a medium for argumentative exchange." 1 As we can readily discern by looking at different kinds of literature--comparing for instance Nabokov to Orwell as Rorty does--or at different styles of historical writing, this is decidedly not a question of distinguishing the "fictional" from the "factual" but of drawing a line based on the public utility of texts.
It fits well within this general view of things to see historiography as a process of fictionalizing the facts. 2 And, quite legitimately, the narrative theorists of history argue that the facts presented in the form of a narrative no longer have truth-value in the same sense as perhaps individual statements would have. 3 With the attention directed on the effects of representations this does not, of course, amount to saying that narratives would then no longer have political significance or require responsibility in their construction. The more specific point that I wish to pursue in this essay is, however, the question of whether fictionalization is in itself enough to produce what we customarily call a literary work--or, if you will, "a work of art."
To be more accurate: Hayden White's argument is often--and to me quite correctly--summarized by saying something like "stories are invented, not found, and their invention by historians is structurally continuous with the efforts of authors of fiction." Continuing this [End Page 39] summation provided by Noël Carroll, we come however, to what I see as a problem. "Thus," for White, "historical narratives are on a par with fictional narratives in this respect, and their cognitive value, qua narration, is of a piece with things like novels" (INT 137). Carroll is certainly right to emphasize that White is dealing here primarily with cognitive value. And it is easy enough to agree with White's claim. Indeed we can say, rather obviously, that when evaluating either historical narratives or literary works, we draw on criteria other than their imaginary nature with regard to the world around us and that taking White's argument as concentrating on questions of referentiality would be to grossly underestimate it. Yet to argue that the cognitive value of these different forms of narrative is--even in White's thinking--equal, can be misleading.
It is clear that White, like Ankersmit, sees historical narratives as metaphors that provide us not with factual information but, to continue using Carroll's terms, with "metaphorical insight." 4 In terms of metaphorical insight, the knowledge that historical narratives impart is therefore on a par with the "knowledge" that we receive from literature. Whether we call it knowledge for understanding others, knowledge--as White for one says--of a "specifically human" kind, or even narrative truth, it presents us with proposals for understanding the world we live in. That is, since both kinds of narratives provide us with "models of interpretative thought" they can both be seen as partaking in the production of knowledge. 5
To claim that because stories are constructed rather than rediscovered in historiography as in literary fiction, both forms of discourse provide comparable cognitive value or metaphorical insight is to me...