Wednesday, April 15, 2015

How Narrative History Rescues the Past

Battle between Alexander and Darius, Pompeii, House of the Faun, via Wiki Commons
by Russell Lawson
Author of The Sea Mark: Captain John Smith's Voyage to New England

“Narrative History Rescues the Past.” You're not likely to see this headlining the latest news feed, though subtle truth rarely makes the news.

Moreover, narrative history is rarely sensational, rarely fantastic, and is (unfortunately) not imaginary, rather based on real people and real places; reality rarely captivates the way fantasy and the unreal do. Yet fiction is not likely to rescue the past.

Doubtless I appear to be writing nonsense: how can people living in the present, anticipating the future, rescue something that has disappeared, gone, never to be relived? The past can be remembered, recollected, but rescued? Hardly.

Stubbornly, perhaps, I maintain that the past can be rescued, and that narrative history wrought by narrative historians is precisely the means to do it; a good narrative historian is a rescuer of the past.

Take my latest book, The Sea Mark: Captain John Smith's Voyage to New England. There have been many books written on John Smith, of course, and movies made, and poems written, and caricatures drawn, and monuments dedicated to—and more. Why would he need to be rescued, if by that obscure, if pithy, word rescue I mean to bring to awareness, to make known, in the present?

No, that's not what I mean by rescue. But I am getting ahead of myself. Let me define terms. First, what is meant by narrative history?

Narrative history is an account of sequence of events over time restricted to actual sources or implied events; it uses the historical imagination to re-create a particular episode (if consistent with sources); it uses quotes from writings as a replacement for dialogue; it does not manufacture or imagine a plot, rather the plot occurs as a matter of course based on what really happened; it re-creates scenes based on actual experiences; events and sources guide the imagination and storytelling (not vice-versa); and it relies on honesty: honest use of sources, honest presentation of past, honest evocation of human experience.

A narrative historian must write about a person or topic which they wish to re-live, re-create, re-experience. Sources must exist to allow for this mental exercise, as well as the penchant to understand human nature, which is gained by reflection into self. Added to this is a good imagination: to imagine the past, imagine what happened, imagine the people, then conform the imagination to the sources, to what really happened. Empathy unites, organizes, creates the whole portrait of the past: as the historian researches and imagines, visits places, he/she must feel, must sense the past, must empathize with those who once lived.

Empathy is the means by which the past can, as it were, be rescued. Empathy with another, even another long dead, requires a vicarious dialogue to be created in one's head. This dialogue with the past was perfected by a highly imaginative philosopher of the 14th century: Francesco Petrarca, who conversed by means of his pen and paper with past people, Cicero and Augustine: he asked them questions, and heard, in his mind, a response.

A dialogue with the past: this is how the historian rescues the past. This dialogue is a mixture of the subjective (feeling based on imagination) with the objective (reason based on sources); it is getting to know the past person: their habits, feelings, thoughts, interests, aims, emotions, accomplishments; it is dealing honestly with the past: the honest appraisal of person by not imposing one's own point of view, one's own preconceived notions, on the past, which is anachronistic.

To empathize with the past one must feel the past as well as feel the present. To understand the life of a past person, one must understand his/her own life. The historian's own life helps to write the story of the past: the historian's own feelings helps to understand past feelings; the historian's thoughts helps to understand past thoughts; the historian's experiences helps to understand past experiences.

In short, narrative history/biography is the story of two lives, one life explicitly told (the past person) and one life implicitly told (the historian or biographer). In studying these two lives, the life of the past person is rescued, comes alive in the present, to live again in the historian's mind and in the words put on paper.

Indeed, rescuing the past might be the means of rescuing the present.

3 comments:

  1. I completely agree with you Russell, even if narrative history is out of favour in academic circles. By re-imagining the past you get an insight into the present and possibly into the possible future.

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    1. Steven, thanks for your comment. Why do you suppose narrative history is out of favor in academic circles?

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