In the Great Dismal Swamp: History, Journalism, and Our Classic Literature

The assumption that “contemporary history” is also manifested in “contemporary literature” is one of those notions with a long tradition. It can be traced back in critical discourse to Aristotle’s Poetics, in which he remarked that poetry is superior to history. The metaphysical problem underlying historical writing was already present in Plato’s The Sophist: where it is asked whether “history,” a narrative consisting of words subject to changing opinion, can be regarded stable and therefore “true.” The answer is that neither is possible, because the mental images purveyed in narration lack firm and rational attachment to their eidetic forms. Not until the time of Hegel and the late 18th Century — when the novel appeared as a parodic form of historical narrative — did tacit acceptance of direct mimesis in narration become an unexamined presumption in criticism and the writing of fiction. Since criticism cannot function lacking self-conscious, systematic structures of analytic terms clearly defining the relation of words to things, how much more difficult is the category of things-in-action contained within human events. And literary criticism, as a branch of philosophy, forever wrestles with fundamentally-unresolved questions of word and “reality.” In short, mimetic narrative, historical or fictive, is nothing to be taken for granted as a reliable source of fact, let alone “truth.”

During the last decades of the 20th Century, literary critics in the United States and England — there were probably no more than three professionals who were not academics (Edmund Wilson, Kenneth Burke and Stanley Edgar Hyman) — stumbled or deliberately leapt into the “philosophical” abyss of “Deconstruction” and its derivative branches. Unlike Lewis Carroll’s Alice, who dropped during a summer afternoon’s dream down that famous rabbit hole, they found themselves not in a quasi-surreal Wonderland but wandering amongst phantasmal texts and ratiocinating about “textualities,” to which words on a page had been reduced, and subsumed as well with their margins, the blank space of which was established as their paramount interest. History qua text was subjected to aleatory vagaries, disputable per se, and universities began to award graduate degrees to art historians who seldom, if ever saw, let alone studied images and objects. Yet, Alice awoke and the world has been entranced by her adventure ever since. Alice later returned from further wanderings on the other side of the looking-glass, bringing with her most memorable fancies. Criticism however seems to have produced nothing but noxious mushrooms grown in the dark oubliette of nihilistic skepticism.

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The era of Romanticism that ushered in the 19th Century released a torrent of fantasy, grotesquery, and para-religious literary expression in reaction to scientific positivism, as in the Gothic novel that led most notably to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in 1818 and Bram Stoker’s Dracula in 1897. By the 1890’s, poetry, drama, and fiction exhibited a spectrum of forms that confined mimetic realism and naturalism to but a small part of the literary landscape. The Symbolist movement, the doctrine of Art for Art’s Sake, the period of Decadence, and the early 20th Century disruption of “realist” conventions by Dada and Surrealism, together with assorted after-shocks of “posts” and “neos” — are strong indicators of the uneasiness artists experienced with positivism and materialist utilitarianism. What troubled and also influenced artists even more in our present period has been the increasing domination of Western culture by obscurantist scientism in its vulgar capitalist and Marxist forms. Even were all the extraordinary esthetic movements of the past 150 years regarded, somewhat simplistically, as reactions against mimesis, criticism nevertheless usually explains or interprets them by referring to “history.” Whether social or political or economic, “history” represents for them the narration of reality; just as reality itself is thought of as intrinsic to records of human social action. And this idea of “history” now includes beneath its vast canopy sociology, psychology, biology, and anthropology among an array of perspectives by which culture and society must be viewed. Moreover, current sophistication in laboratories pursues the reduction of what the brain offers as consciousness and the thinking mind to the processes of measurable neuromolecular phenomena.

Parenthetically, today one may also ask if the very idea of history as a narrative of truth — the standard iterated by a major figure of such historical writing in the 19th Century, Leopold von Ranke — can be accepted uncritically. For example, although Ranke asserted that what he wrote was a narration that described “how it actually was” — wie es eigentlich gewesen ist — the phrase, “how it actually was,” was not original with Ranke, but is a quotation from Thucydides. Thucydides, who did not believe the past could be written about, seems seldom to have based his work on documents; moreover he never disclosed his sources of information, except where he suggests he himself was personally involved. Concerning documents, which are the basis of Ranke’s “objective,” “scientific” historical narratives about the way things were, it is odd that even in his most successful work, the 3-volume history of the popes, there is rarely specific citation of the sources he consulted (a catalogue of 185 manuscripts from between 1453 and 1783). It is difficult today to know why or how these sources were cited; in fact, without reading everything Ranke read, there is no way to check his narrative. In other words, no matter how honest we may suppose he was, who can know how well he grasped the essential in each of the many thousands of handwritten documents he consulted in the various archives of Europe, or how accurate were the notes he took? So much for the notion of an “objective” history about the past, at least as exemplified by the sort of narration the 19th Century was so proud of.* As for 20th Century historical prose, history composed after Marx, Darwin, and Max Weber, it takes many forms and uses a variety of “methodologies.” Unfortunately, it is not much read by other than the professional, usually academic, historian, except when popularized. Popular history, however, is much closer to journalism than to history as it has been traditionally written and understood.

Even if historians do try to write about the way things happened, when we turn to what is called “contemporary history,” we are confronted by a serious problem, since the term “contemporary history” seems simply an oxymoron. Not only oxymoronic, but a source of confusion. If history is a narration, not of raw events in themselves, but at best about them, an interpretation — vertical, horizontal, and most importantly, longitudinal — based on the most extensive possible knowledge of public as well as private documents, it follows that a “contemporary” history is fundamentally impossible. The term seems rather to result from an uncritical conflation of the idea of history as a narrative about past events with the pseudo-narrational techniques of journalism and the peculiar phenomena of the recording media — as though “the news of the day” were per se history. Journalism likes to boast that it provides “history in the making,” or “raw” history. But, can what is raw be compared with the long cooking exemplified par excellence by narrative form? How can we even know that the news of the day is history in the making? To assume it is, is to assume that everything is important, and that everything is history because history is the telling of everything that happens. This is the vulgar understanding of history, tantamount to believing that the little video camera lugged about by almost everyone nowadays is recording “history.” And of course the new universe of the Worldwide Web and its webcam blogs, or 24/7 surveillance robots multiplies individual records on a numerical scale that verges on the astronomical.

In short, the naive postulate that honors facticity, that declares “everything is history,” was never the case. Facts do not speak for themselves. Facts and events, all happenings, occurrences and actions must be sorted, arranged, analyzed, and finally interpreted. Yet any interpretation is subject to criticism simply because it takes the form of narrative, and a valid narration must be compared with other narratives about the same facts and events. That is why Aristotle thought poetry superior to history — because it was weighty, philosophical. In other words, every history wishes to be read as a narrative that contains, provides, or at least approaches truth. Not necessarily the truth of whatever was documented; rather, the truth of what the historian considers significant and meaningful. Yet any “truth” the historian finally reaches is only whatever truth inheres in his narration. If, as the term “contemporary history” suggests, only events themselves can be considered as constituting what is “true,” then this simply means for our positivistic world the merely factual. In that case we can have no history, for facts do not, indeed facts cannot, speak for themselves.

It might also be asked, by what confusion of thought do we suppose the recording eye and ear of a camera directed at some chosen point in the objective world will bring us the event itself? Intermediate between the television viewer of, say, a tennis match, stand camera operators and directors who select from multiple points of view what is seen on screen, which an individual sitting in the stadium cannot do. There are obvious advantages to that, yet even more obvious disadvantages, apart from the sterility of one’s location in a remote place on another continent. As is all too-well known from such a notorious example of “documentary” history as Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi epic of grandiosity, Triumph of the Will, what is seen is what happened, staged as it may have been; yet what truly happened is not what is seen, and certainly not seen truly. Tiny cameras may seem ubiquitous today, held out in every person’s hand; nevertheless they do not penetrate the being of individuals. It is in that hidden, invisible interior where much of the action and reaction we call human activity is prepared and consummated. Saul Bellow once remarked in a public lecture that whereas journalism tries to tell us what happens, the novelist tells us “how it is with us.”

Furthermore, beneath that peculiar term, “contemporary history,” there lies a Marxist (pace Hegel) presumption that “the news of the day,” or “history in the making,” is to be understood according to the materialist dialectic that describes (and interprets) daily phenomena in terms of historical “trends.” In other words, according to an abstract, “official” doctrine. This philosophical prejudice is not only unexamined but mistaken; it is scarcely a reliable means for understanding language, culture, or “history,” not to mention literature.**

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Much 20th Century literature exposed the problems inherent in “contemporary history.” Indeed, that which has remained of interest is a-historical, unhistorical, or anti-historical; it is averse to the reductionist thought of dialectical materialism and/or positivist determinism. Whether that reflects the impossibility of writing that embodies “contemporary history” — the ideal of the century’s totalitarian dogma — I do not know. Possibly it was a way to avoid writing in forms suggested by journalism. One excellent example is afforded by the career of James Joyce, whose works proceeded from “naturalism” (Dubliners) through “expressionism” (A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man), to a kind of synthetic syncretism (Ulysses) that recapitulated the history of narrative, compressing it (and its epic prototype, The Odyssey) into the events of a single ordinary day (16 June 1904), to a gigantic and baffling work which dissolved all forms into linguistic play that is at once synchronic and diachronic, “historical” and “a-historical” (Finnegans Wake). It may be recalled that Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses remarks, “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awaken.”

Western European literature after 1900 has by and large been critical of the simplistic assertion that contemporary history will be reflected in the mirror of contemporary literature. The notion devolved into dogma mainly in those countries that fell under the control of Marxist censorship, subject to moral and physical terror wherever the tyranny of “progressive” bureaucracy prevails. During the mid-1920’s and afterwards in the USSR (in forms labeled “Socialist Realism”), it evolved into a peremptory axiom for the arts and critical theory. Today, following the collapse of fossilized Stalinism in the USSR, Cuba and China are the two highly literate societies where this singular art form is still imposed on creators and critics as the modality by which the truth of society is exhibited, which is also of course the same truth its historians are compelled to write. In most other places ordinary Realism — call it social rather than socialist realism — is what mass literature and mass media entertainment display. It is popular, commercial, reactionary, regressive, and as narration more or less an exhausted, hoarse voice of degenerate narration.

That the historicist view of narration as an adequate form by which to describe human events has seldom been the dominant style of thought of the most important literature of the United States is remarkable. It has been variously discussed, and a reasonable explanation was set out in the 1950s when readers were classified as “Lowbrow, Middlebrow, Highbrow.” Publishers preferred to aim at a level of readership certain to sell the most books. The monthly lists of the great book clubs from the 1930s suggest that Middlebrow — escapist and stereotyped romance —prevailed, and their derivatives became mass Lowbrow readers with the advent of paperbacks in the 1950s. Yet also to be considered is the freedom of writers granted by the First Amendment, which established absolute liberty of expression as the norm, whether it succeeded commercially or not, and whether it was honored or not. (Poor Poe; poor Hawthorne; poor Melville; poor Whitman; poor Henry James — and poor Henry Miller as late as the mid-1960s!)

Another explanation might be found in considering American Civilization. Again I refer to Saul Bellow, who in another public lecture in the 1960’s remarked that contemporary American society reminded him of one of those concrete-mixing trucks thundering down the highway, its huge tank churning tons of sand and limestone, gravel and water, headed for yet another construction site where an old building has just been demolished, and pulling up to pour the foundation of a brand new, featureless structure. His simile describes the dynamism of America, built out of a history of meaningless confusion as well as constant change, a quality brilliantly exposed in Melville’s last, unfinished novel, The Confidence Man, written before the Civil War, a surreal charivari if ever there was one. It is only with difficulty that the writer, who is not only a passenger on the concrete-mixer, but somehow also part of its churning contents, is able to discern any pattern but violent change. Moreover, what passed for avant garde, or “experimentalism,” in both poetry and prose, is also being churned to bits constantly in its mechanism.

Perhaps the idea that “contemporary history” is reflected in contemporary literature is just a European notion. Certainly it has been useful in making out the paradigms and patterns of Continental literature. Regarding American literature, however, it seemed a fuzzy ocular. As for Modern American literature, which displayed scarcely any notion of “history,” let alone “contemporary history,” it ought by now to be acknowledged that “history” may not be a significant cultural force in American Civilization. The didactic, historicist model informing the “epical” Cantos of Ezra Pound, for example, is instructive here. Pound put great effort into teaching America what he thought History is, from a Fascist socialist perspective, to be sure, reduced in the end to a primitive anti-Semitism in the guise of anti-capitalist tirade, and written in a collage of Modernist free verse. (Would Aristotle have been taken with the Cantos?) If then our founding “Literature” was not “historical,” contemporary literature in America hardly can be expected to “reflect” contemporary history, which is now taken to be the litany of “current events.”

For example, Faulkner’s greatest work, Absalom! Absalom!, ostensibly a novel about the period of Southern history from 1810 to 1880 and beyond, is driven by a difficult, dreamlike yet ratiocinative narrative. It takes a Poesque form, seeking the solution to a murder. Most curiously, its historical content is not only invented but narrated in bursts by a pair of Harvard College boys of 18 during a single, long night of obsessive, “brainstorming” dialogue. Furthermore, one of them is a Canadian who knows nothing at all about the South. And what these two freshmen discover as they talk at each other is what really happened! Through inspired argument, they arrive at von Ranke’s goal: to know wie es eigentlich gewesen ist. And though it’s a “history,” it’s’ hardly grounded on any documented “reality”. Instead, it seeks — and finds — reality by conjuring up the stuff of legend. Out of myth, memory, legend is woven through the poetry of tragedy and comedy, forms superior in Aristotle’s opinion to history. What perfuses and permeates Faulkner’s writing isn’t history, either traditional or “contemporary.”

As though intending to illustrate this very point concerning Faulkner, a brilliant Black writer, Leon Forrest, published in 1984 an extraordinary novel of 19th and 20th Century Southern history titled Two Wings to Veil My Face. The book tells a similar story; in fact, it parodies the structure and technique Faulkner employed in 1936 in Absalom! Absalom! — but with this difference: events are recalled and revealed from the perspective of Blacks. A slave “history,” all lore and legend, is narrated through a stunning variety of Black dialect. Neither Faulkner’s nor Forrest’s novel is “history”; nor do they “reflect” history; yet taken together they give us more insight into things as they actually were than does a typical historical narrative. Such masterworks suggest that America continues to be “imagined” rather than recorded and analyzed by historians; moreover that American writers continually reinvent America. Is this any “scientific” way to discover wie es eigentlich gewesen ist? I think not.

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Literature can of course contain “news,” which is by no means the same thing as “history.” One might observe parenthetically of major American writers of the 20th Century, that Hemingway, who began in journalism, wrote as if he thought fiction should render its narrative in a style evoking the way things are reported to happen, and thereby eliciting the subjective emotions aroused by actions set down in “telegraphic” detail. He hoped to convey “how it is with us” during the momentary chaos of actions taken as it were like snapshots.

In other words, a description of American history as it has been understood by leading American writers until, say, 1960, will have confused, and have rather confusing, features. Fitzgerald, for instance, Hemingway’s contemporary, began to read Marx and Spengler in mid-life, thinking to orient himself to American society in crisis; he hoped they could inform his writing, a hope that failed him — or which he failed to achieve, dying of a heart attack in West Hollywood in the midst of writing The Last Tycoon. Consideration of landmark pieces of American writing, from Hawthorne to Henry Adams and James and after shows how peculiar American literature is, if one tries to see it by the light of the simplified notion that supposes literature reflects (or imitates) the sort of retelling now called “contemporary history.”

Perhaps that has always been essentially the case with important American work. A writer like Willa Cather, on the other hand, does appear to work closer to the historicist’s model. But there are not many as interesting as Cather in this respect, except for Howells and Wharton, who produced social chronicles in the guise of Realist fiction. From the Romantics and Transcendentalists of the early and mid-1800’s to the experimentalists and avant-gardists of the early 1900’s, most American writers have not been oriented towards historical narration. Melville? Twain’s (perhaps unintentional) parodies of Scott? And during the past 50 years, rather than history, the work of novelists like Ralph Ellison, Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow, William Gaddis, William Burroughs, Flannery O’Connor, and Thomas Pynchon reflect rather states of mind, indeed a culture permeated by paranoia, imbued with a dysfunctionality that Henry Miller long ago described as that of the typically American “schizerino.”

That the presentation of the “historical” in terms of immediate factual narration, the reportage of journalism, was suddenly seen to be problematical is illustrated by the invention of what was termed “The New Journalism,” prominently practiced by ambitious crypto-novelists like Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe, and Gay Talese from the 1960s on. Its hallmark is the practice of imaginative scumbling, which has its corollary in “cross-over” music, which perfectly exemplifies the exhaustion of major traditional forms, and the commercial effort to keep the attention of the unsophisticated mass audiences with notional novelties, as can be heard today, emanating from every longitude of the globe and varied according to local tunes carried on synthesized rhythms taken from local cultures. In the New Journalism, the actual facts of time and place and action were unimportant; what mattered and still does, was the interpolation of the “reporter’s” voice to present the “thoughts and emotions” of characters who just happened to be living persons. By the end of the century, all of that had morphed into stereotyped television entertainments in which “reality” was enacted. Didactic and “natural” dialogues began to be written to script 30-minute to 60-minute “dramas,” concocted to fill time between advertisements and “news,” to represent on a screen what is or was “actual,” whether in a crime-scene, a police station, the courtroom, or alas, the bedroom itself (well-lit, of course). And pretending to offer what happened as it really was. What would von Ranke, immersed in Viennese archives, have considered our contemporary form of “history” to be?

In short, the Idea of America has from our beginnings resisted the Idea of History. That, I find fascinating.

* For a full discussion of this issue of “the documents” and the presumption of “things as they really were,” cf. Sir Moses I. Finley, to whom I am indebted for the provoking insight that underlies my argument. [ANCIENT HISTORY: EVIDENCE AND MODELS. (Chatto & Windus. London: 1985)].

** It is paradoxical that in much of the history written in Marxist-Leninist societies there has been constant suppression, distortion, and outright destruction of the very facts from which history per se is presumed to be com­posed. The literary metaphor for such a practice of history was best put by George Orwell in 1984: “He who controls the past, controls the future. He who controls the fu­ture, controls the present.” Orwell concluded from that formula that the present and future under regimes fostering such history (about the past) would be summed up in the image of a jackboot stamping its hobnails forever into the human face. Lest I be misunderstood, let me add that most histories today con­form to the 19th century mode: both Marxist and non-Marxist histories are usually sociological, political-scientific, or semi-psychological essays of interpreta­tion; when not, they are statistical and cliometric; in short, no more than reversions to 17th and 18th century antiquarianism, albeit in a new bottling.

Jascha Kessler is a Professor of English & Modern Literature at UCLA. He has published seven books of poetry and fiction, as well as six volumes of translations of poetry and fiction from Hungarian, Persian, Serbian and Bulgarian.