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A Critical Introduction to Some Major Theories of History

and Narrative

In Traditional Historiography, the German Historian Ranke Claims that the present
can redescribe “What actually happened in the past”1. Representation of History or of the past
has always entailed “dark areas” (lack of evidence for “what actually” happened). The dark
areas have been “fictionalized”, in the sense that the gaps in history have been filled by the
imaginative narration. For example in the historical novels such as Sivakamiyin Sabadam and
Vengaiyin Maindan, the factual or official events such as the rock cut temples built during the
reign of Mahendravarma Pallava, The GangaiKonda Cholapuram temple built during the
reign of Rajendra Chola are presented to us through the imaginary construction of the
narrative and through the fictional characters (architects) such as Aayanar and Sirpiyar.
Similarly there are certain scenes or events where the real historical characters involved in
imaginary or fictional events such as Mahendravarma Pallava stealing the message roll from
Paranjothi (in Sivakamiyin Sabadam) or Ilango’s lone venture into cave in order to bring back
the Pandya crown from SriLanka (in Vengaiyin Maindan).

The postmodern historiographers, on the other hand, are suspicious of “facts”. They
decipher that the so-called facts of history are mere ideological constructions or fabrications
that in the ‘“struggle for meaning” is a culture or society have won “power” as the “ruling”
version of history’2. Facts are mere interpretations or constructions; therefore postmodernist
historical fiction offensively mixes scandalous imaginary or fictional details with so called
“facts” to subvert “official history”3. Postmodernist historical fiction is subversive, that is,
there is no single or closed past, and there are only many ideological constructions or
versions of the past. The postmodernist historical novel mocks and scorns ‘the’ past. Nothing
is definite including the past.

The philosophy of the past is relative to our location in history. For Example, how
Kalki saw the distant Cholas and Pallavas and how Salmon Rushdie sees the immediate past
of India so scandalously are expressions of totally different views of different epochs such as
Colonial India and Postcolonial India. How idealization is one epoch, similarly mockery of
the past is a subsequent epoch. As the epistemologies change, the ways of seeing time and
history also change and the role of literary forms for a society change. For Example Kalki
had to bring people together for a cause (instilling patriotic pride for independence
movement), while, in his introduction to the novel, Prabanjan states his motive, “My dear
Tamil people should realize their true heritage and come out from the lies that destroys them.
He should struggle to create a new world...” Likewise Indraparthasarathy exposes the reader
to Visalam’s motive, in her introduction to the novel Unmai Olirga Enru Paadavo,
“Humanity as a principle shouldn’t be institutionalized instead that should be preserved to
bring harmony among the people in the world. This is the aim of the novel.”

Thus the Traditional Historiography asserts the finished meaning of the past, “that is
fully formed and out there”4 which could be re-experienced exactly by the present, where as
the Postmodern Historiography, an offshoot of French Structuralism mistrust the ‘Official
record of facts’5. It asserts that “Facts are interpretations”. A “fact” is one of many
ideological versions which are “naturalized” as the truth of what happened. The Postmodern
historical novelists emphasize that there is no truth only versions of truth and so they
highlight the “marginal” figures or characters as an emancipation of the aboriginal in their
novels. They try to portray the “petite historie” – the “little history or history from below”.
For example in Tamil Historical novel, the traditional spotlight on kings and ministers are
overtaken by reclaiming the silent forgotten “little people” on the margins of history or little
narratives. This destabilization of the past makes time groundless.

This contradictory view between Traditional Historiography and Postmodern


historiography is well understood through Realist theory and Poststructuralist theory
respectively. While Realism “upholds a ‘correspondence’ between reality and representation
and knowledge and meaning”6, Post structuralism “discloses the mediating/interventionist
nature and the artifice (‘made’ status) of representation”7.

Hermeneutics emerged as a third phenomenon to balance these two extreme views.


The major philosophical theorists of this category such as Hans-Georg Gadamer and Paul
Ricoeur call attention to the increasing meaning of the past in unfolding nature of time. They
state that though the past cannot be exactly re-experienced by the present, it is not completely
lost. The past incurs different “reception” in different “horizons” in the future, that is, the way
the past is experienced in the present is “relative” to the present. In other words, the present is
not independent of the past it is a “consequence” of the past, What Gadamer calls as
“Effective History”8. In this way, as Ricoeur mentions, we are always “in front of [the past]”9.

We “receive” the past in our time as it has come down to us. This school emphasizes
the unity of time between the past and present. Of course the past alters in the future, and the
‘current’ present will be an added past and it shall be “received” in that horizon. For
Example, the way Kalki experienced the past differs from the way Prabanjan received it.
Similarly Prabanjan’s view shall differ from his successors. These different horizons don’t
mean that Kalki’s view of history is lost, rather Prabanjan’s reception is an added or as a
consequence of Kalki’s View.

The very word “History” reminds us of “Time”. As David Carr puts it in a very
simple sentence, “History is about the past”,10 time is the essence of “temporal experience”,
which has been viewed or interpreted very differently by different historians at different
horizons. It is always there as the essence of both in real temporal experience and in
Narrative. David Carr in his article, “History and Other Times” 11 raises the fundamental
question, “In what ways do ideas of past, present and future enter our lives?” and explains in
detail about the ideas of direct or personal past and the historical past and relates how they
complement each other.

“A preoccupation with the experience of time could lead to the conclusion that time
itself is nothing but a human construction, or that the distinction between past, present, and
future is purely subjective... futurity, presentness, and pastness are not features of the event
themselves, but only indicate their relation to our thoughts or utterances about them... the
‘tenseless” view of temporal feature of being earlier than, simultaneous with, and later than
other events... the term “event” seems to make no sense any more. How can something be an
event except by occurring and passing away? How do events get those relative positions
except by actually happening? Many philosophers have argued that tenseless theory does no
justice to our sense of being immersed in time, and to our conviction that the pastness of past
events is really a fact about them, and not just about their relation to us...Everywhere we
make use of spatial notions of location, movement, distance and proximity to convey our
sense of time...Events in time are not only the objects of our thoughts and statements; they
also provide us with reasons for doing certain things and for feeling certain emotions” (365-
368).

In the second part of the article, he explains “How does the historical past differ from
the rest of the past...the historical is the past that lies beyond the reach of our personal
experience and memory... since historical events are not directly experienced, they must be
reconstructed through the examination of evidence and the interpretation and evaluation of
testimony...even our knowledge of the past...and the present must be seen as a construction
out of those “traces” of a real world conveyed to our minds by our senses...Temporal
experience, like spatial perception, can be seen as a receding field of open horizons, in which
past and future serve as backgrounds from which the present stands out...our concepts of our
time are grounded, not in some abstract concept of givenness, but in ‘ways of living and
forms of concern’...even the past which lies beyond my own experience is manifested in a
very direct way in the present. Much of my present surroundings predates my experience and
even my own birth... this is not something I infer from present “evidence” but is simply part
of their significance for me as I deal with them and talk about them. It is in this way, first and
foremost, that the idea of the past beyond my memory ‘enters my life’... Knowledge of the
historical past can also be viewed as a kind of extended memory belonging not to the
individual but to the community or society. What we sometimes call “collective memory” is
embodied in those narratives of the past which play a crucial role in a society’s conception of
its own identity, and it finds its expression in rituals of commemoration, public monuments,
and declarations of grief or pride... This is what Cockburn means, then, by ‘viewing historical
knowledge in the light of proper understanding of personal memory.’ Memory is not a
“source” of knowledge about the past, a present datum from which I make inferences and
draw conclusions; it is knowledge of the past, and it is like my experience of the present in
being both direct and fallible... Cockburn’s view suggests, as one who provides a check on
the public memory, who brings an attitude of scepticism and scientific rigor to the taken-for-
granted interpretations of the past which are always there beforehand. Part of the historian’s
task may be simply to articulate the collective memory, to raise it from the level of tacit
assumptions, even practices and attitudes, to that of an explicit account... For non-historians
the historical past is continuous with and alive in the things and persons around them and in
the implicit and explicit longer-term narratives in which present individual and social events
have their place... Historians alienate themselves from the living past. They force themselves
not to see what the rest of us see... the refusal to accept anything on authority of the socially
taken-for-granted...on intellectual autonomy... “Scientific” status lies in exactly the opposite
direction. “It is to be found in the fact that history is a communal enterprise” with “public
standards of acceptability”... to what can count as evidence and what constitutes a good
argument...the historians make up a community of their own which takes a great deal for
granted in its own right... Ideas of communal narrative and collective memory make clear
how the past exists for us prior to and independently of critical historical investigation. If we
are to understand historical knowledge, we must recognise that the past not only “exists” but
also has a particular form and content before the historian comes along. ..”

“Carr claims that literary or fictional narratives and non-fictional or historical


narratives are extensions of our ontological narrative endowment and ‘arise out of a real
world already organized in narrative fashion.’”12 Louis Mink and Hayden White approached
History and Narrative in a new light of understanding. Mink, deciphers that “stories are not
lived but told”, and narrative is a “product of individual imagination”13. He claims that
“Narrative imposes on events”14. Thus he gives a contradictory view of narrative on events to
Carr. Even the events he describes are, under a description15 and there is no such ‘the’ event.

“Hayden White in his Metahistory conveys his ideas in series of loaded questions:
‘what wish is enacted, what desire is gratified? Does the world really present itself to
perception in the form of well-made stories? ... Louis Mink summarizes White’s view in
three propositions:
1. That the world is not given to us in the form of well-made stories
2. That we make such stories
3. That we give them referenciality by imagining that in them the world
speaks itself”16
But both of them claim very different reasons for such origin of Narrative. While
White places it on “moral authority”17 basis, Mink insist on the “cognitive motive”18 and
emphasizes on the “individual imagination.” Thus Historical narratives are narratives where
the “facts” are “described in a context of narrative form”19.These two contradictory stages
(from David Carr to Louis Mink) lead the later historians like Hans-Georg Gadamer, and
Paul Ricouer to bring out the practically more applicable view about History and Narrative.

Gadamer claims that the past is neither something a completed closed single entity
that one can have access to it exactly whenever required nor that there is no past at all and
only many versions of past. He claims that “the present is a consequence of the past” 20. The
idea of the past lies in the receiving horizons. In other words, the new meaning of the past
adds to its older versions when the current present becomes a past in future. As the horizon
expands, when the current “present” becomes the past in the future, the interpretation of the
past in the “current” present adds to the meaning of the past in the future interpretation of the
past. “The ‘distance’ of time between the past and the present unavoidably influences the
understanding of the past by the present”21. This kind of ‘reception’ at different horizons is
what Gadamer states as “Effective History”22 .

This is how he contends that the present “belongs”23 to the past. As how time is the
essence of narrative, similarly the ‘tradition’ of texts is the essence of interpretations. “The
experience of meaning in the present is impossible without a tradition inherited from the past
and used for a present purpose... what Gerard Genette calls ‘hypertexuality,’ ... the upper
‘retelling/rewriting or hypertext of the present discloses the underlying retold ‘hypotext’ of
the past in a fascinating aesthetics of superimposition.”24

Paul Ricouer states that the meaning of the text depends on the interpretation of the
reader and affirms the idea of Roland Barthes Which he explains in his essay The Death of
the Author. He explains how we’re always ahead or “In front of” of the past rather than
behind it. Irrespective of the period, author, and the country, a text is accessible to any reader
for interpretation. Thus the events in the text are reduced to meanings and the language
becomes a discourse. This shows the various semantic possibilities of the text. “Narrative
leads us back to life”25 for better understanding about life. This does not mean that narrative
portrays the actual life. “It attaches to the events of the world a form otherwise they do not
have... narrative is out of and an extension of life but not the actual life”26.

NOTES:
1
Class notes (Course: History and Narrative 23/09/2009)
2
Class notes (Course: History and Narrative 23/09/2009)
3
Class notes (Course: History and Narrative 23/09/2009)
4
Prof. A.V. Ashok, Twentieth-Century Literary Theory: Narrative and The crisis of
Representation or Poststructuralist Narrative Theory, 2003.
5
Class notes (Course: History and Narrative 19/11/2009)
6
Prof. A.V. Ashok, Twentieth-Century Literary Theory: Narrative and The crisis of
Representation or Poststructuralist Narrative Theory, 2003.
7
Prof. A.V. Ashok, Twentieth-Century Literary Theory: Narrative and The crisis of
Representation or Poststructuralist Narrative Theory, 2003.
8
Prof. A.V. Ashok, Article on Hermeneutics: Hans-Georg Gadamer and Paul Ricoeur.
9
Prof. A.V. Ashok, Article on Hermeneutics: Hans-Georg Gadamer and Paul Ricoeur.
10
Carr, David History And Other Times, England: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Pp.
365.
11
Carr, David History And Other Times, England: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Pp.
365.
12
Prof. A.V. Ashok, Narrative A Student’s Companion: Understanding Narrative, T.R.
Publications, 1997. Pp. 4
13
Carr, David Time, Narrative, and History, Indiana University Press: 1991.Pp.10
14
Carr, David Time, Narrative, and History, Indiana University Press: 1991.Pp.11
15
Carr, David Time, Narrative, and History, Indiana University Press: 1991.Pp.10
16
Carr, David Time, Narrative, and History, Indiana University Press: 1991.Pp.11-12
17
Carr, David Time, Narrative, and History, Indiana University Press: 1991.Pp.12
18
Carr, David Time, Narrative, and History, Indiana University Press: 1991.Pp.12
19
Carr, David Time, Narrative, and History, Indiana University Press: 1991.Pp.10.
20
Prof. A.V. Ashok, Article on Hermeneutics: Hans-Georg Gadamer and Paul Ricoeur.
21
Prof. A.V. Ashok, Article on Hermeneutics: Hans-Georg Gadamer and Paul Ricoeur.
22
Prof. A.V. Ashok, Article on Hermeneutics: Hans-Georg Gadamer and Paul Ricoeur.
23
Prof. A.V. Ashok, Article on Hermeneutics: Hans-Georg Gadamer and Paul Ricoeur.
24
Prof. A.V. Ashok, Article on Hermeneutics: Hans-Georg Gadamer and Paul Ricoeur.
25
Prof. A.V. Ashok, Article on Hermeneutics: Hans-Georg Gadamer and Paul Ricoeur.
26
Prof. A.V. Ashok, Article on Hermeneutics: Hans-Georg Gadamer and Paul Ricoeur.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Primary References

1. Class notes (Course: History and Narrative 23/09/2009)


2. Class notes (Course: History and Narrative 19/11/2009)
3. Prof. A.V. Ashok, Twentieth-Century Literary Theory: Narrative and The
crisis of Representation or Poststructuralist Narrative Theory, 2003.
4. Prof. A.V. Ashok, Article on Hermeneutics: Hans-Georg Gadamer and Paul
Ricoeur.
5. Carr, David Time, Narrative, and History, Indiana University Press:
1991.Pp.10
6. Carr, David History And Other Times, England: Cambridge University Press,
1997.
7. Prof. A.V. Ashok, Article on Louis Mink, Narrative and Boethius.

Secondary References:

8. Iggers, Georg g. “From Macro- to Micro: The History of Everyday Life” from
Historiography in the Twentieth Century: From Scientific Objectivity to the
Postmodern Challenge, London: Wesleyan University Press, 1997.
9. Berkofer, Robert, “The Challenge of Poetics to (normal) historical practice”
from The Postmodern History Reader, London: Routledge, 1997.
10. Appleby, Joyce and Lynn Hunt Margaret Jacob “Telling the Truth about
History” from The Postmodern History Reader, London: Routledge, 1997.