Academic journal article Tolstoy Studies Journal

The Fiction of Fact and the Fact of Fiction: Hayden White and War and Peace

Academic journal article Tolstoy Studies Journal

The Fiction of Fact and the Fact of Fiction: Hayden White and War and Peace

Article excerpt

"History would be an excellent thing if only it were true."

L. N. Tolstoy ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] 188, cited in Berlin 31) Hayden White has dedicated his career to debunking common assumptions about the nature of historiography and the role and function of historians. Indeed, one scholar writes that we "would have to return to the nineteenth century to find a thinker who has had a greater impact on the way we think about historical representation, the discipline of history, and on how historiography intersects with other domains of inquiry" (Doran 1). Beginning with his seminal work, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (1973) and continuing in his collections Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism (1978), The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation (1987), and Figural Realism: Studies in the Mimesis Effect (1999), White has methodically, at times brilliantly, elaborated a position that calls into question the very concept of historical knowledge by interrogating the discursive basis of historiography, both its epistemological foundations and the deep structure of its linguistic tropes and narrative devices. As White has famously stated, "All stories are fictions" (Figural Realism 9) and history--the biggest story of them all--is no exception. Indeed, in their dependence on narrative forms, tropes and devices, historians are little different from the authors of fictional works: Both tell stories, but only one of them insists that theirs is the truth. This is the crux of the matter for White. "Literary discourse may differ from historical discourse by virtue of its primary referents, conceived as imaginary rather than real events," White writes, "but the two kinds of discourse are more similar than different since both operate language in such a way that any clear distinction between their discursive form and their interpretative content remains impossible" (Figural Realism 6).

Given the kinds of issues that White raises about history as a narrative act and the antihistoricism that attends many of his discoveries, it is not surprising that he would eventually make his way to Tolstoy's novel War and Peace, the anti-historical novel par excellence of world literature. With its probing indictment of the various models of historical narrative known to Tolstoy, the novel offers a skeptical view of historiography that anticipates in blunt form some of White's own cautionary assertions about the relationship of language, narrative and history. Curiously, White's essay on War and Peace, which appeared in Italian in 2003 and in English four years later, (1) does not identify or discuss in any detail Tolstoy's own theory of history or his polemics with the historians of his day. Neither does White relate Tolstoy's critique of historiography to his own. Rather, White limits himself to showing "how Tolstoy both invokes history as a subject and at the same time reconceptualizes it in such a way as to deprive it of all explanatory force" ("Against Historical Realism" 102). And yet, White's insights into the nature of historiography and the relationship between fictional and historical accounts in his own work over the years as well as his comments on the novel in his essay offer intriguing insights into the vexed question of narrative--historical or otherwise--in War and Peace, "a work that questions the validity of all narrative forms and that satirizes the concealed assumptions of all available genres" (Morson 80). White helps us to see Tolstoyan narrative in a new light and gives us a way of approaching that most vexing Tolstoyan narrative of all: the narrative of the Truth.

By and large, Tolstoy and White speak the same language when they speak about the problems of historiography. White contends, for instance, that historians transform a chronicle into a story through an aesthetic process called emplotment ("Metahistory" 5-11). …

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