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  • The Distinction of Historiography: Dorrit Cohn and Referential Discourse
  • Philippe Carrard (bio)

Dorrit Cohn’s work has essentially borne on narrative literature. From her examination of Hermann Broch’s trilogy The Sleepwalkers, to Transparent Minds, to The Distinction of Fiction, and to her translation of Jean-Marie Schaeffer Pourquoi la fiction?, she has mostly concerned herself with novels, short stories, and the theories that deal with that type of text. Yet “fiction” can only be “distinct” in relation to something else, and Cohn has also taken up what she calls “historical narrative” (Distinction 110): a label under which she does not mean “historical studies” exclusively, but also such genres as biography, autobiography, and case studies in psychoanalysis. What characterizes those genres, according to Cohn (and trade historians would certainly agree with her), resides of course in the fact that they deal with “real” events and persons, and are thus subject to “judgments of truth and falsity” (Distinction 15). Furthermore, and especially interesting from the perspective of narrative theory, historical discourse for Cohn is also endowed with a certain number of formal features. Specifically, it cannot be described, taking fiction as a benchmark, in terms of what novelists can do and historians cannot; it must also be defined positively, in terms of what historians can do and novelists cannot.

Cohn’s interventions in this area have an obvious polemical dimension. With an old-world civility that does not inhibit decisiveness, Cohn takes on the postmodern or poststructuralist theorists who, starting in the 1970s, have questioned the existence of a borderline between fictional and historical narratives, or have located that borderline at the level of speech acts. Grounding her argument, as she usually [End Page 125] does, in specific quotations from the works she is discussing, she first engages with Hayden White, pointing to the following passages in Tropics of Discourse as particularly problematic: “Readers of histories and novels can hardly fail to be struck by the similarities. There are many histories that could pass for novels, and many novels that could pass for histories, considered in purely formal (or I should say) formalist terms. Viewed simply as verbal artifacts histories and novels are indistinguishable from one another” (quoted in Distinction 113–14). As if eager to give her opponent as many chances as possible, Cohn first engages with White on White’s own turf: deep narrative structures. Since Metahistory, White has argued that most historical studies fall under four major categories, first identified by Northrop Frye in Anatomy of Criticism: romance, tragedy, comedy and satire. To take just one example: the German historian Leopold von Ranke, according to White, organizes his narratives according to the “ternary” model of comedy: they move “from a condition of apparent peace, through the revelation of conflict, to the resolution of the conflict in the establishment of a genuinely peaceful social order” (Metahistory 177).

Cohn does not ask the obvious questions that literary theorists may ask, namely, why did White adopt Frye’s classification when several others were available? But she makes two points pertaining to narrative structures and what she takes to be the specificity of historical narratives. First, she emphasizes that the traditional distinction between “story” and “discourse” only applies to fiction. An accurate description of historical narratives must account for a third level, which Cohn calls “reference”: the “more or less reliably documented evidence of past events out of which the historian fashions his story” (Distinction 112). Such an apparatus is not needed in fiction, although it may be found in such genres as the historical novel or the postmodern novel that playfully adopt the conventions of historical discourse. Referencing sources, on the other hand, is mandatory in historical studies, even though notes and quotations remain sometimes virtual. In this latter case, historians may always be asked how they can state what they are stating, that is, where they have found the information that they offer as accurate.

For Cohn, the presence of the level of “reference” in historical narratives accounts for another major distinctive trademark of these narratives: they are the only ones to be, properly speaking, “emplotted.” In other words, according to Cohn, White is mistaken when he argues that one...


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pp. 125-131
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