Sunday, July 27, 2008

Historical fiction again

Regarding historical fiction again -- Anne Scott MacLeod, whom I have long known to be awesome, notes in general how children's historical fiction tends toward presentism.
They evade the common realities of the societies they write about. In the case of novels about girls or women, authors want to give their heroines freer choices than their cultures would in fact have offered. To do that, they set aside the social mores of the past as though they were minor afflictions, small obstacles, easy — and painless — for an independent mind to overcome.
The smug presentist science I noted is but one facet of this general tendency, and I think MacLeod gets it right when she brings up the "independent mind." It's this idea that if you're just spunky enough you can Set Yourself Free from your historical context. The desire for a protagonist who is Set Free in this way, as revealed by the way such protagonists appear over and over, is effectively a desire for the opposite of historical fiction. As MacLeod puts it,
Most people are, by definition, not exceptional. Historical fiction writers who want their protagonists to reflect twentieth-century ideologies, however, end by making them exceptions to their cultures, so that in many a historical novel the reader learns nearly nothing — or at least nothing sympathetic — of how the people of a past society saw their world. Characters are divided into right — those who believe as we do — and wrong; that is, those who believe something that we now disavow. Such stories suggest that people of another time either did understand or should have understood the world as we do now, an outlook that quickly devolves into the belief that people are the same everywhere and in every time, draining human history of its nuance and variety.

3 comments:

zunguzungu said...

It's a very thought provoking question. Ad it strikes me that the "idea that if you're just spunky enough you can Set Yourself Free from your historical context" is not only a means of congratulating those who are "free" (us) for having done it on sheer spunkitude, while condemning those who are not (them, historical past, savages) for having lacked the moral character necessary.

Natalia said...

Z: Indeed.

Anonymous said...

Ms. Macleod begins her article with a statement that I think is the central, and problematic, issue with presentism:

"I expect we can all agree that historical fiction should be good fiction and good history."

Yet the many examples raised in which good history is simply absent from otherwise good fiction, the "tendency toward presentism" as you put it, suggests this expectation may not be well grounded. I think you are closer to the truth when you suggest that the frequency with which presentism occurs is "effectively a desire for the opposite of historical fiction."

I would say rather than the opposite of historical fiction, that historical fiction itself need not be "good history" at all. Why shouldn't it be expected, or at least acceptable, to employ a historical context as a foil to contemporary perspectives, as a simple device for comparison and contrast? Of course the point of such an exercise isn't to illuminate the past, but the present. This is perhaps the opposite of history, if not of historical fiction.

Macleod objects to this as an obfuscation of the past:

"Historical fiction writers who want their protagonists to reflect twentieth-century ideologies, however, end by making them exceptions to their cultures, so that in many a historical novel the reader learns nearly nothing — or at least nothing sympathetic — of how the people of a past society saw their world... Such stories suggest that people of another time either did understand or should have understood the world as we do now, an outlook that quickly devolves into the belief that people are the same everywhere and in every time, draining human history of its nuance and variety."

Leaving aside the question of whether anyone can really know how people once truly understood their world, we can also leave aside for a moment the question of historicity entirely. All of the salient points of the article remain true of contemporary fiction as well - that is, fiction which fails to represent its characters with sufficient depth in accordance with their struggles and the themes of the work drains literature of its nuance anc variety.

The problem really is less of history than of character.

I think you have rightly pointed out the colonizing aspect of an anachronistically contemporary idea in a historical context. The sense of cultural superiority described by Veblen is echoed by Macleod's comment that "[a] literature about the past that makes overt rebellion seem nearly painless and nearly always successful indicts all those who didn’t rebel: it implies, subtly but effectively, that they were responsible for their own oppression." Thus the sense of cultural and temporal superiority combine to encourage an apparently painless and easy rebellion against the pre-modern. Anachronistic devices in historical settings are simply a rhetorical technique promoting a kind of modernist ideology.

When Karl Popper began his project illustrating "The Poverty of Historicism," he felt it necessary to first make the historicist's argument in its strongest form. Only this way could he defeat it logically, and ideologically. This is precisely where the kind of cheap and easy rebellion/superiority so often drawn in presentist historical fiction goes off the tracks, for in failing to illustrate why historical people behaved the way they did, that it seemed natural and rational or at least reasonable to them, the lesson the anachronism teaches is also cheapened. But this isn't the same as suggesting the anachronism itself devalues history and fiction.

I'm sorry to have taken so long to say so little! I hope you'll indulge me in one final thought: your comment about presentism being the opposite of historical fiction has really got me thinking, and it occured to me that there is an inversion to presentist historical fiction. There is a recurring theme of the primitive in horror fiction that touches on this - I think particularly of H.P. Lovecraft and the Cthulu mythos he co-created. Those stories were often set in the present day, but were infused with the anachronistic presence of an antediluvian horror which presaged the descent of human kind from the heights of civillization. This is, in a sense, the stick to the presentist carrot in promoting modernism.