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  • Figural Realism: Studies in the Mimesis Effect
  • Cameron Golden
Hayden White. Figural Realism: Studies in the Mimesis Effect. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1999. xii + 205 pp.

For readers familiar with Hayden White’s previous work on tropology and theories of history, Figural Realism will serve as a vivid reminder of precisely why White has become such a prominent figure among those who seek to conceptualize history. This book consists of eight essays, all of which have been previously published, but which have been revised and reworked for their inclusion here. They are concerned with the complex and tension-filled relationship between literary and historical discourse. As he states in the introduction, White himself found no way to synthesize these works into one text and has instead opted to let them stand individually. While they all do stand alone as serious meditations on the potential benefits in binding literary theories to historical theory in order to elucidate a myriad of subjects, what unites them is the vital sense that this [End Page 227] theoretical approach can and should be used to investigate any and all discourses, even those that we might classify, and thereby abandon, as seemingly unrepresentational (narratives of the Holcaust, for instance).

In his opening chapter, “Literary Theory and Historical Writing,” White establishes the theoretical framework for much of his work here. Thus, he raises questions about the essential function of narrativity and the nature of interpretation while affirming that “modern literary theory must of necessity be a theory of history, historical consciousness, historical discourse, and historical writing” (26). In chapter 2, “Historical Emplotment and the Problem of Truth in Historical Representation,” White applies his theories to the subject of whether or not the Holocaust can ever be represented—or will it remain forever “unrepresentational”—and ultimately concludes that the answer is yes. However, to adequately represent this historical event requires that historical discourse and literary theory be conjoined with the stylistic tenets of modernism. For to do justice to this event calls for “the kind of style, the modernist style, that was developed in order to represent the kind of experiences which social modernism made possible” (42). The modernist style, which White invokes here, is given an extensive treatment in chapter 4, “The Modernist Event.” Here White joins together pop culture and literary theory in a discussion of contemporary historical metafiction (exemplified by the film JFK). This is a mode of representing history made possible only by the “antinarrative nonstories offered by modernism” (81) along with the modernist freedom from realistic representations of events.

The flexibility of White’s approach to the study of figurative language is amply demonstrated in two essays that find ways of elucidating the surprising tropologies found in the disparate categories of both dreams and music. In chapter 6, “Freud’s Tropology of Dreaming,” White finds a connection between the four basic categories of figures of speech and the four operations outlined by Freud, which effect the transformation of the impulses that motivate dreams into the dreams’ specific content. This tropological take on dream analysis was suggested to White by Freud’s own assertion that “it was the form of the dream that mattered most to him” (123). In much the same manner, White utilizes a historical-figural approach to answer the question, “how might music mean?” (147) in chapter 8, “Form, Reference, and Ideology in Musical Discourse.” Here, he notes that music is a form of discourse which can also be illuminated through the application of literary theory. And just as in his study of Proust, Freud, and literary modernism, White is able to apply his theories of history to another form of discourse, drawing connections, providing illumination without sacrificing or betraying the complexity of either discipline.

Striking in their ability to probe both high and low culture, and in their depth of understanding and breadth of focus (from Proust to Lionel Richie, Virginia Woolf to Oliver Stone), the essays in Figural Realism validate White’s faith in the possibilities of theoretical thinking while providing ample evidence of his own mastery of it.

Cameron Golden
University of North Carolina at Greensboro

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pp. 227-228
Launched on MUSE
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