Tropes for the Past: Hayden White and the History/Literature Debate

Tropes for the Past: Hayden White and the History/Literature Debate

Tropes for the Past: Hayden White and the History/Literature Debate

Tropes for the Past: Hayden White and the History/Literature Debate

Excerpt

In the beginning, there was no history or literature: there were just tales, mythic narratives of the legendary past. It was a storyteller's duty to praise the ancestors, both real and divine, so that the contact between the past and the present was not broken.

Then came writing. Historical time is, by definition, the time of writing, the time of written time and written documents. Writing freezes the moment of enunciation, turns it into a trace, a document. As traces from the past, written documents are both continuous and discontinuous with the past – often they are actual remains of what once was, but since they have been cut away from their original context, we must constantly interpret and reinterpret them as signs that refer to that virtual and constantly changing construction that we call [history.]

With the advent of the calendar, it became possible to date events; by the use of written documents, it became possible to place events into that calendar time. Moreover, it became possible, to some extent, to distinguish between the events that one could verify from those that one could not – between the events that really took place from those that were either invented or were remembered only through some unverifiable oral tradition. Written stories about these events were, then, recognized as belonging to two different categories: those of [history] and those of [poetry.] It is important to note, however, that the mental image of the past was – and still is – formed by both kinds of stories. How people see their place in the continuity of succeeding generations is determined not only by history but also by poetry and fiction.

In Ancient Greece and Rome, history and poetry were both treated as rhetorical arts: they both were written for some (political) purpose and composed according to the rhetorical techniques of divisio, narratio, etc. Their main difference lay, as Aristotle famously put it, in their topics: history dealt with real events, whereas poetry dealt with possible events – that is, real, mythical, or invented events. Already then, however, history and literature were also seen as rivals. It is well known that, for Aristotle, poetry was more philosophical than historiography. Because poetry treated possible events – events that were plausible in their story context – poetry revealed the typical and thus the essential in human fate. Historiography, on the other hand, was tied to real events and thus to the accidental – events that were often more surprising than plausible – so it lacked the inner logic that made poetry so philosophically instructive.

On the proximity of history and poetry in Rome, see, for example, Antoine Foucher, Historia proxima poetis.
L'influence de la poésie épique sur le style des historiens latins de Salluste à Ammien Marcellin
(Bruxelles:
Latomus, 2000).

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