On the Tropics of Discourse by Hayden White, From the Discussions of Davood Gozli, John David, and O.G. Rose
Are we visiting a building or exploring a town, and should historians be more like novelists?
I recently had the pleasure of joining Davood Gozli for a conversation on the work of Hayden White, particularly an essay called “The Burden of History.” Davood is a great conversationalist, and Mr. White outlines a useful and productive way to think of discourse, hopefully one I won’t forget.
Hayden White wants us to think of discourses as being like “landscapes” or “towns” that we enter into (he discusses the ‘the tropological theory of discourse’), which can also be thought of as a “story” we can enter (a point that will be useful later).¹ As we can’t visit Lynchburg and just visit “the bank” (because we also have to “visit” all the surrounding buildings, roads, citizens, etc. on the way), so likewise we can’t just discuss “The American Revolution” without also discussing American agriculture, American assumptions about the virtue of freedom, the English language, American literature, and so on. We can’t discuss just “topics,” only “topographies,” per se, but perhaps we like to think we can discuss “isolated topics” because that greatly reduces the complexity and provides us with a sense that it’s possible for us to actually discuss the topic. But we must accept our shortcoming if we’re going to make any real progress as opposed to only feel like we’re making progress.
“The bank” in Lynchburg is built, located, and operated with “the whole city” in mind, and the city likewise runs aware of where the bank is and its hours of operation. Because the majority of people in Lynchburg go to bed at 9PM, the bank doesn’t stay open all night; because the majority of people have a lunch hour between 11AM and noon, the bank brings in an extra worker for “the lunch hour rush”; and so on. And knowing the bank isn’t open all night, citizens of Lynchburg know they need to visit the bank during the day if they’re going to have any money to spend Downtown. In other words, why the bank and city operate and run like they do “feed off” one another: understanding both is needed to understand each.
Discussing a topic is more like visiting a city than it is pulling a single book from off a shelf and focusing on it. It exists in a “network of variables” that inform and shape one another, and if we don’t realize this, our discourse will still be “externally shaped,” but we won’t even realize “the shaping” occurs (making us susceptible to “Deleuzian capture,” bias, etc.). On this note, I think a reason Mr. White wants us to realize that “discourse are cities” is because he wants us to realize the impossibility of objectivity (and danger of thinking it’s possible). If I’m asked to be “objective” about one thing, even knowing how difficult objectivity is, it seems like a much more possible goal. It certainly “feels possible” to be objective about a single topic, and it’s only a small step (and natural) to believe I achieve that possibility and think “objectively.” Once I do that, I give myself authority, which might weaken some of my incentive to “listen closely” to what other people have to say. Seeing myself as “objective” might also position me to see other points of views as competitors and things I need to defeat, for it would seem strange to think there could be more than one objective view. The word “objective” suggests “authoritative,” which also suggests “the one and only”; no, none of this necessarily follows from “objective,” but the word seems to lend itself in this direction.
This isn’t to say there isn’t something to be said for “dispassionate judgment,” but it is to say that we should be weary of thinking of ourselves as “objective”: the brain is just too good a trickster. To cut to the point, the possibility of us being “objective” alone and by ourself is very low. Not all failures are equal, no, but not all successes are equal either. If we want to be “objective,” out best chance is in a dialectical relationship with others. Not just any “others,” but informed others who are invested in the topic of focus: without them, the chances of us getting lost in ourselves without realizing it are high. At the same time, we can do better for ourselves by trying to make an “inner dialectic” as well, and this can be done by reading many books by different authors who hold different views. With an inner dialectic in each person who enters into an external or group dialectic, the better the chance the findings and results will be “like” the truth. No, we can never be “certain” that we know the truth (which actually is a good thing, because it will keep us moving), but if we “confidently” bring dialectics into a dialectic (which could be part of even larger dialectical groups, on and on), then we will have “reason to think” that our findings have something to do with “the truth.”
A discourse is never about a subject outside a network of variables: subjects are always situated in networks, as banks are always located in towns. If we want to understand the discourse, we need to take into account all the variables, but that’s likely impossible for a single person. We need others to help us be dialectical, all while we simultaneously develop an “inner dialectic.”
Wallace Stevens famous titled one of his poems, Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, suggesting that a “full picture of a blackbird” requires taking into account thirteen different perspectives. When we think about subjects, we need to have a similar mindset: we need “thirteen ways of looking” at justice, freedom, taxes, markets, and — as White will explore — historic events, but not because “there is no such thing as truth,” but because our best chance of approaching truth with confidence is through (networks of) dialectics. Additionally, where there is a lack of dialectics, there also tends to be a lack of trust (consider how hard it is to take anything seriously from a talk program that only invites on Conservative guests or from a book that only consists of Liberal sources): it’s precisely the absence of dialectics that contributes to everything feeling manipulative and suspect. If history were to be more dialectical, not only would it (probably) be truer, but there would also be a higher likelihood that we would trust in that truth (it seems we’ve removed dialectics from our lives to decrease the role of interpretation and increase certainly, which has precisely given us less). There cannot be dialectics though where there isn’t interpretation, so if we are going to make history something people can believe in, we will have to accept “the role of interpretation” that we fear acknowledging could destroy history, when in fact dialectics/interpretation could make history more “antifragile.” What we fear is what comes unto us.
‘In the past” Hayden White writes, ‘I have been accused of radical skepticism, even pessimism, regarding the possibility of the achievement of real knowledge in the human sciences.’² He believes Tropics of Discourse will ‘relieve [him] of [such] charges, at least in part’ but I fear it might not if we don’t understand how “literature works.”³ And it is literature and art which are critical for White’s historic approach; he writes:
‘But I have tried to show that, even if we cannot achieve a properly scientific knowledge of human nature, we can achieve another kind of knowledge about it, the kind of knowledge which literature and art in general give us in easily recognizable examples. Only a willful, tyrannical intelligence could believe that the only kind of knowledge we can aspire to is that represented by the physical sciences.’⁴
How does “literature work?” Well, let’s start by asking: can dialogues and discourses be about anything? Often, when we hear that “we need to have a conversation” about this or that, it can sound wishy-washing, like we’re interested in how people feel more than what’s true. And that’s certainly a risk, but just because discourses can theoretically be about anything, it does not follow that “anything goes.” I can visit anywhere I want in Lynchburg, but it doesn’t follow I can visit the beach while staying in the town: no ocean is part of Central Virginia.
Discussing fiction for a moment, it may seem like the novelist can do “anything she wants,” but the great novelist knows better if the novel is to be any good. The work is fiction and seemingly unbound, but if a story is going to be any good, there are certain rules that must be followed: the story must entail stakes; the ending must be satisfying; there should be rich emotions; and so on. In a sense the work of fiction is “unbound,” but the desire of the novelist to “be good” binds her.
If Hayden White is suggesting that intellectual discourses are needed to advance the study of history, this may sound like he wants history to “merely be a conversation,” which runs the risk of being relativistic and unproductive, but this is not so. The same risk exists however where the novelist “writes fiction,” but the novelist committed to “a good story” is much more bound than it seems. Similarly, the historian and group of historians “committed to historical truth” cannot hold a discussion where “anything goes” even if they could theoretically discuss anything they wanted. The commitment to truth bind the dialectic, as the commitment to a good story binds the fiction writer. Nothing holds up the writer from underneath, but the writer is held up by a rope that, if she doesn’t release, will pull her up. Perhaps the writer is underwater, sinking, but if she paddles, she can rise.
White wants us to case searching for a “ground” to discourse, for that leads us in the direction of an impossible objectivity that he believes hinders intellectual development. “The Burden of History” is full of examples of artists critiquing historians, from Middlemarch by Eliot to Gide’s Immoralist, and though I won’t repeat the arguments here, basically White’s point is that historians approach history in a way that hurts the human spirit and fails to contribute to “the life of the present moment.” Not only is it impossible to achieve ‘a properly scientific knowledge of human nature’ or history, it also deadens us.⁵ It is critical to understand that not only is White claiming his approach isn’t relativistic, but he is also claiming that his approach is the only way to keep intellectual inquiry alive. Where there is a search for objectivity, the intellectual quest dies, not only because objectivity is impossible, but because objectivity takes all the “subjectivity” out of things that makes life worth living.
Žižek describes ideology as like Wile E Coyote chasing the Roadrunner off a cliff and running across empty air until he looks down, at which point the Coyote falls. White seems to be suggesting something similar, but critically White is also saying we don’t need to look down. Not only is there no point, all the act can do is make us fall. White wants us to keep our eyes up on one another, in a dialectical relationship with other thinkers. Then, we can all “stay in the air” and ascend forward.
Historians cannot approach a “single subject”: like the rest of us, they can only enter “towns” versus “isolated banks.” The novelist is in the same boat: she cannot just create characters; she has to also create a setting, plot, themes, and so on. The novelist accepts the necessity of “writing a whole world” and the ways the work will likely fall short — countless writers from Faulkner to Eliot discuss how their works were ultimately failures — but, seeking objectivity, historians in White’s eyes are not ready to “fall short” at all. And then, in the name of truth and objectivity, they indeed really fall short — they don’t “reach us”; they don’t help our hearts beat.
‘[T]he beginning of all understanding is classification,’ White claims, so if we classify history as a “science” versus an “art,” the course of our understanding will be charted and organized accordingly, possibly leading to a “dead end” (“deadened”).⁶ There is a “double action” which White hopes to carry out: he wants to free history from “objectivity” (and corresponding “determinism”) while simultaneously keeping it “bound” so that it doesn’t become relativistic and chaotic. White sees in the work of novelists a model for how this can be accomplished, but why is there such imperative to get it right? White quotes Paul Valery:
‘History is the most dangerous product evolved from the chemistry of the intellect…History will justify anything. It teaches precisely nothing, for it contains everything and furnishes examples of everything…’⁷
There is no subject, topic, or case to which “historical studies” couldn’t be applied, and if historical knowledge “deadens,” this means everything is at risk of being “deadened.” But it is also not an option to erase history entirely, as it isn’t an option for David Hume to entirely erase philosophy (as discussed in “Deconstructing Common Life” by O.G. Rose). Here the idea of using “fiction writing” as a model for “historical studies” could prove useful, or at least that is White’s argument, in hopes of establishing ‘patterns of integration.’⁸
For the sake of a dialectic, many historical accounts are needed, and each historical account could be viewed as “a work of literature” (or art) which ‘[could] be judged solely in terms of the richness of the metaphors which govern its sequence of articulation.’⁹ ‘Thus envisaged, the governing metaphor of a historical account could be treated as a heuristic rule which self-consciously eliminates certain kinds of data from consideration as evidence.’¹⁰ Metaphors for White are “organizing principles” of thought, so when we discusses “metaphor” in “The Burden of History,” he seems to be describing a “center of gravity,” per se. Is this a legitimate view? In support, consider these sections from the paper “Meaningful and Metaphoric Tendencies” by O.G. Rose:
Metaphor shapes thought more than thought shapes metaphor. ‘Language creates a worldview’ more than a worldview creates language.¹¹ This isn’t to say worldviews don’t have any effect on language, but that language has an incredibly powerful impact on how we think about and see the world. To use an exercise of I.A. Richard’s, as highlighted by Neil Postman in his book The End of Education, I. A. Richards would divide his class into three groups and ask each to write about language, but provided each group with an opening sentence: either ‘language is like a tree,’ ‘language is like a river,’ or ‘language is like a building.’¹² ‘The paragraphs were strikingly different, with one group writing of roots and branches and organic growth; another of tributaries, streams, and even floods, another of foundations, rooms, and sturdy structures.’¹³ As the exercise made clear, metaphor influences what we say, and to some extent, ‘what we say controls what we see.’¹⁴
‘A metaphor is not an ornament. It is an organ of perception.’¹⁵ All too often today, metaphor is taught in school as nothing more than a poetic device, a tendency Neil Postman laments. He notes how entire philosophies were shaped around metaphors, highlighting the educational philosophy of Rousseau, who claimed ‘plants are improved by cultivation, and man by education,’ and noted that Rousseau’s ‘entire philosophy rests upon th[e] comparison of plants and children.’¹⁶ Postman also points out the relationship between how we describe sickness and how we think about who is responsible for it: if we think of sickness as something people “do” versus “have,” then we can think of people as responsible for being “sick” versus a victim of circumstance.¹⁷
White views metaphors like I.A. Richards, as entities which “structure” thinking and creative works. Since historians are like artists (thought hey don’t often realize it), they too will be “structured” by metaphors. Now, if “metaphor” doesn’t seem to be the right word to describe this “historical heuristic tool,” perhaps think of the word “thesis” whenever you see “metaphor,” and White’s thinking may start to become clearer.
As every artist is guided by a mission like beauty, poetry, or truth, as every philosopher is guided by a topic like being, freedom, or justice, so every historian is guided by a case. If a historian wasn’t, this historian would have no way to organize her thinking and “eliminate some data versus other data,” and her program would inevitably collapse under its size and scale. A historian cannot study trade routes, the marine life of the sea routes, and the history of relevant languages equally, which automatically means the historian is locked out of “the whole truth.” But it might be possible for one historian to focus on trade routes, another to focus on marine life, and a third to consider the relevant languages, and if all three of them came together into a “dialectical relationship” (while each member absorbs “the dialectic” and debate of their special focus), the group might have a shot at “getting at how things were actually like.”
Every historian approaches history with certain “theses” in mind about “what might have happened” or “what the x event caused” — it’s impossible for any of us to be a “blank slate” — and White’s point is that the “thesis” of a historian will function as glasses that impact what the historian sees. In this way, White wants us to think of the historian as an artist, and White notes:
‘The historian operating under such a conception could thus be viewed as one who, like the modern artist and scientist, seeks to exploit a certain perspective on the world that does not pretend to exhaust description or analysis of all of the data in the entire phenomenal field but rather offers itself as one way among many of disclosing certain aspects of the field.’¹⁸
No one reads a novel about the American Revolution and assumes that it’s the only novel that will ever be needed about the American Revolution, nor does anyone think a novel “exhausts” the topic. A novel simply “presents itself” as “one of many works” part of the discussion that is needed to make the discussion possible, perhaps one focusing on the life of George Washington while another focuses on the life of a slave freed by the British (and each novel is open ‘for anyone who is capable of understanding the system of notation used,’ which in this case means “for anyone who can follow the plot”).¹⁹ White asks us to do something with works of history that we already do with books: he wants us to ‘to recognize that there is no such thing as a single correct view of any object under study but that there are many correct views, each requiring its own style of representation.’²⁰ And this is no more relativistic than believing there should be “many novels about the American Revolution so that we can better understand it”; in fact, a call for “more novels about the American Revolution” can be interpreted as a sign of care about the American Revolution, not a desire to relativize the topic into irrelevance. And unless we think “there is no truth in novels,” then thinking about history this way will not mean we think of history as “all fiction.” If we do think “history as art” means “history as falsity,” perhaps our understanding of art needs a reeducation (which might suggest the fate of art is also the fate of history).²¹
Do we think we have a better chance of understanding the American Revolution if there exists only one novel about it, or if there exist many novels about it? Obviously, more is better in this case (assuming the authors are committed to accuracy, which we might need to check), so if White is correct and “works of history” are indeed like “works of art,” then more is better, not because “history is relative,” but because “history always exceeds our capacities to discuss it.” If we think about it, it’s doubtful that anyone has ever fully explored their own hometown (seen every spot, talked to every person, studied the lightening across a flower for each hour of a day), but if we brought everyone in the town together, we might have a shot at a “full picture.” Why should history be any different than daily life?
Historians are at their best when they write “historical novels,” following White’s logic, which I cannot think without also considering the ancient tradition of presenting history through stories. The Bible, Homer, The Upanishads, Folklore — perhaps the ancients understood a wisdom that we lost? The past is full of myths, and is a myth merely false? No, it’s a strange and powerful mixture of historical facts, philosophical and theological truths, characters, and stories. Yes, miraculous and impossible things often happen in myths, but it would be ridiculous to assume that therefore there is no truth to be found in them, as it would be ridiculous to assume a person’s story is entirely false just because he embellishes some of the details or exaggerates. Myths occupy a strange “space between” history and non-history which blends together seamlessly in the fiction. White is certainly not encouraging us to return to the practice of “myth-telling,” but White also wants us to regain some of the classical knowledge. At the very least, we should recognize the importance of “family stories” again.
If history is best in fact when it tries to take into account a “network of variables,” to say “history should be like a novel” makes sense. Likewise, if we cannot visit “a bank” without also visiting “Lynchburg,” then it is not hard to stomach the idea that discussing a “historical fact” requires sketching out an entire “story of history.” If each historian thinks like a novelist, then when historians work together, the “story” which emerges will be all the better (as already described), as it is the case that when novelists bounce ideas off of one another, their work can improve (take the Bloomsburg Group). Novelists may feel jealously and compete, but they don’t compete by claiming the novels of others are “false” (they may say instead the novels are not well-developed, imaginative, etc.); historians though, confused about the nature of their craft, are much more prone to discredit other historical works as not being valid. As I hope is clear, historians have much to gain by thinking of their work like literature.
White takes a moment in his essay to focus on three individuals who he felt understood the correct way history needed to be recorded: Hegel, Balzac, and Tocqueville. ‘All three,’ according to White, ‘saw history as informed by a tragic sense of the absurdity of individual human aspiration and, at the same time, a sense of the necessity of such aspiration if the human residuum were to be saved from the potentially destructive awareness of the movement of time.’²² It’s easy to hear in how White speaks of these three men the voice of Harold Bloom discussing writers like Tolstoy or Tennyson, but what exactly is it that these three historical writers accomplish that White so admires? Well, it might be that they can make us encounter “Historical Moments” instead of just “Historical Facts,” which means we suffer existentially when we encounter their work. We feel the situations they describe, and it is that existential freedom that could help us increase our freedom — not that we will be eager to pay the price.
Shelby Foote also strikes me as an author who understood the need for the historian to be a great novelist (as discussed in the paper “Feeling History”), and Erik Larson is frankly incredible. But they are the rare exceptions: most historians still seem to be making the mistakes White diagnosed years ago. This is not to say there’s no “good collections of historical facts” to be found out there, but it is to say that we need more works that help us enter into “historical moments.” What do I mean by that? Without repeating “Feeling History,” I’ll try to lay out a sketch.
Fifty years from now, when historians are asking, “What happened in 2020?” will it prove adequate to present a list of facts about the name of the city from where Covid oriented, the name of the head of the NIAID, or details on the rate of infection? Does that to you, dear reader of 2021, strike you as enough to “capture” 2020? Could you say these “facts” defined your experience of 2020? Will future generations who learn these “facts” learn about your experience? Or does that strike you as insane, so far from the truth that it’s nearly obscene? Would you say the future might as well be ignorant if those facts were all the future would know? In fact, ignorance might be better: at least that way the future won’t be self-deceived regarding its actual level of understanding. Ignorance seems better than overconfidence.
Will someone really know what happened in 2020 who possesses a list of facts? Or will the person hardly know anything at all? For a person to really know 2020, the person would need to feel what it was like to decide about taking vaccines which friends believed were deadly, to decide if the wedding venue should follow Covid guidelines and risk bankruptcy, to visit friends or stay isolated — in other words, would a person really “know 2020” if the person didn’t feel the existential anxiety and uncertainty of it? Personally, I would say absolutely not. But wait, if future generations must “feel” 2020 to really “get it” (and, more specifically, it must feel existential), then is it possible for the future to ever “get” 2020? How can historians ever make people “feel history?” Well, that’s the dilemma the novelist faces every day, suggesting why White is right that historians could benefit from seeing themselves as artists. Tolstoy went so far as to basically say the whole point of art was to successfully transfer an emotion from one person to the next, which might seem mundane, but it’s perhaps the hardest thing in the world to do exactly, especially the “heightened emotions” that often inspire art. To quote Tolstoy:
‘Art is a human activity consisting in this, that one man consciously, by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that other people are infected by these feelings and also experience them.’²³
This is an incredible difficult task, but Tolstoy believed that the artist who failed in fact failed. It did not matter if the novelist successfully communicated all “the facts” of the novel to reader — the descriptions of the kitchen, the settings, the plot, etc. — if the reader ultimately didn’t “feel” what the novelist “felt” in writing the work. If we think of historians as novelists, we can make a distinction then between “Historical Facts” and “Historical Moments.”
A novelist who communicates only “Story Facts” is a terrible novelist: if the art is to “work,” then the facts must be put together in a certain way (like a garden must be properly arranged). And facts alone won’t do: there must be characters, stakes, upsets — the “Story Facts” are merely a necessary stage for what ultimately matters. But if the stage is used well, then it’s possible for a novelist to create a “Story.” So it goes with historians: “Historical Facts” make a stage that make possible an emotional experience, but the stage alone is not enough for a “Historic Moment.” And if there is no “Historic Moment,” there is little hope we will “feel history,” and so little hope we will learn from it.
The historian must weave history together into something we care about and that meets us: the historian must draw out “moments” from history that encounter us fully — “Historical Moments.” Moments are charged with emotion, and unless we “feel history,” we will not learn from it. We “feel” the present moment, and if when we read history we feel nothing, then the presence of emotion (“presently”) could be evidence to us that history isn’t repeating. History will strike us as always changing; we will see no patterns to learn.
But how can the historian actually employ the suggestions of Tolstoy, for the historian does not live through the historical events like the artist lives through what inspires her? A very good question, but technically the novelist doesn’t “live through” the story she writes either: the emotion is found in the inspiration and vision of the story. But this alone won’t be enough if the characters created by the novels don’t entail rich emotional lives to draw the readers in. Similarly, the emotion which inspired the historian to focus on a given part of history could be conveyed, but that alone won’t be enough: the historian needs to convey the emotions felt by the people alive during the age of the historian’s focus. It will not satisfy if all a novelist expresses to the reader are the emotions which inspired the story: the novelist also needs readers to feel what it’s like to be the characters, to feel what they are going through, to suffer and feel joy with them. The novelist must transfer emotion from her to readers on multiple levels; likewise, the historian must convey the emotion of why the particular subject of history the historian focuses on is exciting and interesting, and also convey the feelings of people who lived during that historical period. It’s a tall order, and there’s little if any chance the historian will succeed if all she thinks she needs to do is convey “Historical Facts.”
If a historian focuses on the Black Plague, the historian needs to make us feel both that the Black Plague was a significant event and the internal lives of people alive during the Black Plague (from peasants trying to survive to kings making decisions). But now focusing on the historian, a key point I want to make is that both of these missions might be two-sides of the same coin: making a moment of history feel significant is achieved in the act of making the lives of that moment’s people felt. In other words, if I can see myself in the life of a soldier fighting in WWI, then WWI will be significant to me. How significant is another question, but the emotional connection creates some sense of significance that the historian can then work with, like a seed. Emotional connection alone isn’t enough to make the seed grow, as that alone isn’t enough to make a good novel, though it’s a necessary precondition. To take it to the next level, the historian must help us see that people in the past felt like we feel presently while at the same time helping us see similarities between the situations they faced and the ones besieging us.²⁴ Then, we’ll see history as a source of guidance precisely because we’ll feel history’s relevance and connection.
Historians shouldn’t simply tell us that “history is a guide”; rather, they should show us. The novelist who tells us what a house looks like will create a barrier that make the story hard to enter for the reader; for us to suddenly and mysteriously “be in” the story, the writer must show us the house, using all the techniques and methods taught by everyone from Virginia Woolfe to Robert Olen Butler. To “tell” us about history is to share “Historical Facts”; to “show” us history is to “pull us in” to a “Historic Moment.”
Please note that though I have spent this paper discussing the need for historians to be novelists, the same logic might just as easily apply to philosophers, theologians, sociologists, economists — I’m nearly convinced that every field of knowledge should try to present itself more as “a story” than “a collection of facts.” We may intellectually understand the Trolly Problem, for example, but the movie Eye in the Sky makes it an emotional, political, and “full body experience.” Likewise, we may understand the sociological data about discrimination, but, for millions of Americans, Roots made it personal.
A section more directly sketching out similarities and differences between “historians” and “novelists” may prove useful. Though White convincingly argues that historians need to view themselves “in the business of literature,” it seems erroneous to claim War and Peace is identical to The Guns of August. What are the differences and similarities then? Hopefully, the following list helps (even if it’s not exhaustive).
1. Sources of Material
Writer: The imagination, which can be infused with and inspired by real experiences. The writer is primarily a visionary and an investigator or researcher secondarily.
Historian: Real experiences, which can be infused with and inspired by the imagination. The historian is primarily an investigator or researcher primarily and visionary secondarily.
The writer’s main source of material is her own imagination, ideas, and the like, and in this way we could say “the writer’s vision” comes first. The historian, on the other hand, tries to make his main source of material the archives, eye-witness accounts, and the like, and in this way, we could say “the historian’s investigation” comes first.
Now, if a writer’s vision has “nothing to do” with the real world, the artistic work will likely fail, because readers won’t be able to relate to or understand the work at all; therefore, the writer must investigate to figure out say how long it takes water to boil (so that the writer can convincingly craft a character who likes drinking tea); how long a wood porch can last before the wood goes bad; and so on. The writer who ignores the details of life will not create a “convincing” world, and so the writer must research “the details of life,” but sometimes it seems like the writer doesn’t have to research anything; after all, isn’t it all just fiction at the end of the day? The strong writer knows better.
The historian can’t make history “out of thin air”; we all know the historian must investigate and research. The historian who never visits an archive is like a novelist who never thinks creatively — lame. But the historian who thinks that all he needs to do is “gather facts” is as mistaken as the writer who thinks all that is needed is a creative plot (details aside): the historian must “arrange” and “fit” the facts into a compelling framework that convinces that reader “this matters and is worth reading.” In this way, the historian will ultimately need a “vision” according to which to arrange the facts, as the writers will ultimately need “details” to convince readers that her fictional account is “relatable.”
Hence, writers and historians differ in the order by which they prioritize the sources of vision and research, but both use vision and research. In this way, they are similar yet different.
2. Standard of Optimization
Writer: Something that only exists inside the writer, which means the writer can’t be readily accused of “missing the facts.”
Historian: Something that exists outside the historian, which means the historian can be accused of “missing the facts.”
When Tolstoy went to write War and Peace, there was no War and Peace in the world according to which Tolstoy could compare his work and determine if he was “getting it right” or not. Artists are in the business of trying to optimize something against a thing that doesn’t exist, which suggests why art can be so existentially challenging. How do we know when our plot “works?” How do we know when our characters are compelling? The writer gropes in the dark.
Historians are trying to collect facts into a compelling framework, and the external world exists against which the historian can identify if x is “a fact” or “not a fact.” Though Tolstoy could not readily look outside of himself to determine if a certain line of dialogue should be kept or trashed, the historian can look to the archives to help him figure out if x should be kept or not. If the historian can find evidence in the archive that x actually happened, then x can be kept; if there is no record, x must be scrapped — in this way, the “vetting process” of the historian can be much less existential.
That said, though Tolstoy must make existential and un-outsourced choices “all throughout” War and Peace, the historian must still decide how a set of justified facts should be arranged in order to make the world “truer,” more compelling, and so on. In this way, the historian can suffer existentially, because the historian can always be accused of “sacrificing history and truth” for the sake of narration, ideology, and the like, an accusation the fiction writer need not worry so much about (though of course the writer can be “preachy,” which the strong writer is careful to avoid).
Hence, writers and historians differ in the order by which they suffer existentially and how they can err, but both suffer anxiety and accusations. In this way, they are similar yet different.
3. Working Parts
Writer: Must create characters, plot, action, and stakes, which means the writer can more readily “fix” boring parts, confusing sections, etc.
Historian: Must discover characters, plot, action, and stakes, which means the historically cannot readily “fix” boring parts, confusing sections, etc.
Writers and historians are both in the business of telling stories, because humans both live and create stories. They both deal with the same “elements of craft” (settings, characters, dialogues, etc.), but the fiction writer is much “freer” than the historian in choose and creating these elements. Yes, this means the writer may suffer more existentially (as already addressed), but it also means that if the writer encounters “a boring episode,” it’s much easier for the writer to fix this problem, but the historian is in a much tricker situation.
If the historian comes upon a “boring stretch” in the historic record, should the historian keep it? If he does, the book could become less compelling, but if he doesn’t, the historian could be accused of “leaving out truth.” Likewise, when the historian discovers characters doing things that don’t make sense, that don’t add to the narrative, etc., the historian can’t just “make the characters do something else” — that would be changing the historic record. The best the historian can do is “omit” boring sections or details, perhaps to the point where it’s “practically creating,” but it’s technically distinct. But even in this act, the historian must be careful: it is possible to “change what happened” by leaving out certain details or arranging them in a certain order.
To find the characters and actions for his narrative, the historian simply has to investigate: the material is all there, waiting to be discovered, and perhaps in this way it’s easier for the historian to “come up” with his story. The writer, however, must “think up” everything — sure, there can be inspiration from real life events, but generally the writer is starting with “a blank page.” Generally, the writer can’t look anywhere but within for material: the material must be created, which comes with the advantage of the writer having more liberty and ways to “make the story compelling” (without risk of being accused of “deceiving,” etc.), but it comes with the disadvantage of having “to think up so much.” This can be exciting, but it can also be burdensome.
Hence, writers and historians differ in the ways they can construct narrative (“pure creation” versus “arranging, omitting, and including”), but both construct narrative. In this way, they are similar yet different.
4. Creative License and Stakes.
Writer: The story is changeable, which means the writer can create.
Historian: The story is not changeable, which means the historian can only arrange, include, and omit.
Similar to the last point, writers and historians use different tools to construct their narratives, though both are in the business of making narratives. While the writer can change what happens, the historian cannot, only include, arrange, and omit (generally speaking). Both must convince readers that their work is “compelling” (which requires establishing that there are real stakes, for example), but while the writer is “freer” to figure out how to achieve this goal, the historian is more constrained.
That said, if a historic episode happened, then arguably it inherently matters, because it is part of why we have ended up the way we are today. It’s perhaps also not hard to convince readers that a history book “should be read,” because, by virtue of purchasing the book, readers have generally accented to the idea that the episode is important, whereas if a fiction book doesn’t “grab me” on the first page, I tend to let it go. Perhaps the writer must cross “a higher bar” of entertainment value, whereas the historian can perhaps get away with being boring here and there. After all, the historian can always claim “the boring stuff” isn’t his fault — that’s just how it happened. In this way, perhaps the historian has more ways to escape existential anxiety than the fiction writer (freedom has a price).
Hence, writers and historians differ in the ways they can convince readers their books matter, but both must construct something compelling. In this way, they are similar yet different.
Writer: To compel and change readers, while also proving entertaining and informative (with perhaps more emphasis on the first than the latter).
Historian: To compel and change readers, while also proving entertaining and informative (with perhaps more emphasis on the latter than the first).
Great writers don’t just want to entertain; they also want to impact and influence. Great historians don’t just want to inform; they also want to change us. Both must use entertainment and narrative to keep us engaged, but neither want to merely entertain; otherwise, we don’t think much of them. Maybe for a summer read on the beach, but that’s about it.
This is a short list, and no doubt there are more sections that could be included. Here, I only wanted to help bring out the case for why writers and historians are both so incredibly similar and yet distinct, and why therefore it’s not crazy for White to suggest history is in a business similar to literature. No, “fiction” and “history” are not similes, but they are comparable, and White believes acknowledging this will help history, not deconstruct it (it may even lead to a “Historic Renaissance,” as discussed elsewhere). “Fiction” and “history” deal with different subjects (“the didn’t happen” versus “the did happen”), are similar in construction (both tell stories but according to different “rules”), and are identical in their forms and goals (both tell stories with characters). To summarize:
Writers and Historians
Of course, the most obvious point can be stated too: both writers and historians generate books. They operate in the same medium, and for that reason we should not be surprised by overlap. But White wants us to go further in the ways we see the two related; if we don’t, White is concerned history will suffer for it.
To draw this paper to a close, let us start with an extensive quote from White on Hegel, Balzac, and Tocqueville:
‘In short, all three interpreted the burden of the historian as a moral charge to free men from the burden of history. They did not see the historian as prescribing a specific ethical system valid for all times and places, but they did see him as charged with the special task of inducing in men as awareness that their present condition was always in part a product of specifically human choices, which could therefore be changed or altered by further human action in precisely that degree. History thus sensitized men to the dynamic elements in every achieved present, taught inevitability of change, and thereby contributed to the release of that present to the past without ire or resentment.’²⁵
The part that stands out to me is the idea that these three historians saw themselves ‘as charged with the special task of inducing in men as awareness that their present condition was always in part a product of specifically human choices’ — far from deterministic, these historians saw history as critical for unleashing human agency.²⁶ Novelists often speak of themselves as carrying out a similar function in that they open up new worlds, helps us explore the lives of different people, and so on — the similarities between historians and novelists are clear.
It is only when “Historical Facts” emerge into “Historical Moment” that ‘history can serve to humanize experience,’ because that is the only way history can ‘remain sensitive to the more general world of thought and action from which it proceeds and to which it returns.’²⁷ As our lives are not readily changed by novels that we don’t see ourselves in or emotionally connect with, so history cannot move us without doing the same. Alright, but what exactly is it that great historians make us feel in the act of “showing” us history that increases our “present” freedom? It’s already been mentioned, but I think the most critical feeling is existential anxiety. The Existentialists of the 20th century taught that freedom is achieved through anxiety, and this applies to the study of history: it is precisely through the feeling “of not knowing what to do” that we can connect to past generations (and recognize their “terrifying freedom” and, by extension, our own).
Learning about how Chamberlin handled Hitler and pursued peace treaties and knowing how badly it all worked out, it’s easy to feel like everyone knew Chamberlin was in the wrong and that Chamberlin himself knew he was a coward. But are we so sure that if the choice was between risking millions of British lives and peace that we wouldn’t follow the same path as Chamberlin? It’s easy to critique him when we don’t have “skin in the game,” but I think Nassim Taleb is correct that “skin in the game” is basically necessary for coherent and reliable thought. But it seems impossible for us to have “skin in the game” for historic events — they already happened — unless that is we see historic events as possibly informing our present moment (which we are “invested” in). Again, this suggests the need for historians to be novelists.
Perhaps the great disadvantage the historian has to the novelist is that it’s extremely difficult for readers of history to not know how “the story turns out,” which creates a feeling of certainty in the reader from the start. The reader generally knows which choices are good choices and which are bad, and this makes feeling the existentialism of those choices all the harder. Then, it becomes difficult for us to see ourselves in the people of the past, for while we feel the existentialism of our choices, we don’t feel existentialism in theirs. An emotional barrier is thus erected, one that if we don’t break down, we cannot “feel history” to learn from it.²⁸
Because we know the outcomes ahead of time, it’s easy for history to “feel” determined, while novels, works of fiction, “feel” more like “anything is possible.” If history felt more like literature, history would feel more open-ended, which could make history feel more relevant and us feel more anxious and free. Because we don’t know how a novel is going to end up, it’s easier for us to be “pulled in,” and I think we’ve all had the experience where a show or novel is “spoiled” for us, resulting in us not enjoying the piece nearly as much as we would have had we gone into the work ignorant.²⁹ Basically, the stories of history are always “spoiled,” and this makes the task of the historian all the harder. Even a talented novelist would struggle to make a novel “connect” with readers when the ending was known from the start, let alone a historian who doesn’t even realize that she needs to write a “history novel” (distinct from a “historical novel,” perhaps). This suggests the historian must develop the skills of someone like Tolstoy, who told readers at the start of The Death of Ivan Ilyich that Ivan would die, and very few writers if any have ever risen to Tolstoy’s level. The challenge is extraordinary, and yet rising to the occasion is necessary if we are to feel/learn from history (generally, I wonder if any of us ultimately learn what we don’t feel).³⁰
What should the historian do? What techniques and strategies could be employed to overcome this handicap? That’s an extensive discussion, but upsetting “traditional understandings” of a historic event would be a good start. Since most people feel like Chamberlin’s decision to meet with Hitler was “obviously foolish,” perhaps we should write a history that makes readers feel like the decision wasn’t clear at all; since most Americans don’t question the right of the Colonies to break off from the British, perhaps we should write a history that makes The Colonialists out to be insane; and so on. Upsetting expectations, complexifying nuances — these are strategies for even making an ending known ahead of time feel new. It can also make the history feel tragic and like “the historic record” is hiding the truth from us, which could feel like the start of a mystery novel.
Historians do not live through the historical events they record, but they nevertheless know the feeling of uncertainty and doubt from their own lives, and so they are equipped with the resources needed to make readers feel the existential anxiety that defined the most difficult choices in history. “Big choices” might also be a useful subject for historians to focus on, with a special focus on “the experience of the choice itself” versus the outcome — that’s something all of us can relate to, and a focus on “big choices” in history would also help us see history as “open-ended” and “not deterministic,” as is necessary if the study of history is to increase our sense of agency. Historians can then work to make “Historic Facts” emerge into “Historic Moments,” possible through “the art of showing” versus “the exposition of telling.”³¹
It is better to know history than not know it, but while those who “feel history” also know it, those who know it don’t necessarily feel it (a problem which could contribute to overconfidence). History is best learned through “something like novels,” and thus historians need to be literary. No, that doesn’t mean all novels must be “history novels,” but it does mean that all accounts of history are best expressed in “novel form.” In our thinking, “The History Book” needs to be replaced with “The History Novel”: it’s the best way for its horizon to meet ours.³²
¹White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse. “Introduction.” Baltimore and London. The John Hopkins University Press, 1978: 21.
²White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse. “Introduction.” Baltimore and London. The John Hopkins University Press, 1978: 23.
³White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse. “Introduction.” Baltimore and London. The John Hopkins University Press, 1978: 23.
⁴White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse. “Introduction.” Baltimore and London. The John Hopkins University Press, 1978: 23.
⁵White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse. “Introduction.” Baltimore and London. The John Hopkins University Press, 1978: 23.
⁶White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse. “Introduction.” Baltimore and London. The John Hopkins University Press, 1978: 22.
⁷Allusion to Paul Valery, as found in Tropics of Discourse by Hayden White. “The Burden of History.” Baltimore and London. The John Hopkins University Press, 1978: 36.
⁸White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse. “Introduction.” Baltimore and London. The John Hopkins University Press, 1978: 6.
⁹White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse. “The Burden of History.” Baltimore and London. The John Hopkins University Press, 1978: 46.
¹⁰White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse. “The Burden of History.” Baltimore and London. The John Hopkins University Press, 1978: 46.
¹¹Postman, Neil. The End of Education. New York: First Vintage Books Edition, 1996: 177.
¹²Postman, Neil. The End of Education. New York: First Vintage Books Edition, 1996: 185–186.
¹³Postman, Neil. The End of Education. New York: First Vintage Books Edition, 1996: 186.
¹⁴Postman, Neil. The End of Education. New York: First Vintage Books Edition, 1996: 186.
¹⁵Postman, Neil. The End of Education. New York: First Vintage Books Edition, 1996: 174.
¹⁶Postman, Neil. The End of Education. New York: First Vintage Books Edition, 1996: 174.
¹⁷Postman, Neil. The End of Education. New York: First Vintage Books Edition, 1996: 176.
¹⁸White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse. “The Burden of History.” Baltimore and London. The John Hopkins University Press, 1978: 46.
¹⁹White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse. “The Burden of History.” Baltimore and London. The John Hopkins University Press, 1978: 47.
²⁰White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse. “The Burden of History.” Baltimore and London. The John Hopkins University Press, 1978: 47.
²¹Truth and Method by Hans-Georg Gadamer also presents an argument for why “the horizon of history” is uniquely encountered in works of art.
²²White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse. “The Burden of History.” Baltimore and London. The John Hopkins University Press, 1978: 49.
²³Allusion to What Is Art? by Leo Tolstoy.
²⁴As Davood and I discussed, do note that it will be notably difficult to make people feel a historical moment was “significant” if determinism is believed in, because that would mean I cannot learn from history or connect it to my present moment. History will do what history will do.
²⁵White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse. “The Burden of History.” Baltimore and London. The John Hopkins University Press, 1978: 49–50.
²⁶White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse. “The Burden of History.” Baltimore and London. The John Hopkins University Press, 1978: 49.
²⁷White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse. “The Burden of History.” Baltimore and London. The John Hopkins University Press, 1978: 50.
²⁸Is it really that important for us to “feel history” in order to learn from it? No doubt it feels like it isn’t necessary, but investors will tell us that “knowing we should do x” is radically different from “doing x.” They seem the same before the choice arises, but then the difference is undeniable. Arguably, investment is more about emotions than ideas, as I suspect it is the case with history.
²⁹I don’t think it’s by chance that many of the most successful history books of the last decade have been about small episodes and people that most history books overlooked. It’s more likely that we don’t know what happened, and so it’s easier for the story to “pull us in.”
³⁰To be more positive, an advantage history might have is that we already ascent to “the stakes” of the episode: if the episode is considered history, then we know it matters, whereas a novel has to convince us there are stakes. Stakes aren’t easy to establish in fiction.
³¹Please note that saying “people were sad” doesn’t count as a “Historical Emotion”: that is a “Historical Fact” about an emotion. Great writers know telling people a character is sad isn’t the same as drawing a reader in to feel sad with the character.
³²The next topic that could be elaborated on is how history is best when it “pulls us in” like a good story, for that is when we can “feel history,” and it is only by “feeling history” that I think we have any chance of learning from it. But this is a topic I will leave for the paper “Feeling History”; for now, I will end by thanking Davood again for such a wonderful time.
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