Painting Clio's Portrait: Metaphors on the Postmodern Palette

By Brantly, Susan C. | CLIO, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

Painting Clio's Portrait: Metaphors on the Postmodern Palette


Brantly, Susan C., CLIO


In her book, Sequel to History: Postmodernism and the Crisis of Representational Time (1992), Elizabeth Deeds Ermarth suggests that in postmodern fiction a historical paradigm shift has occurred which she expresses in terms of a shift in regulative metaphors. The historical paradigm that postmodernism seeks to abandon is represented by the train track, a linear structure regulated by mechanical time.(1) Postmodern temporality, argues Ermarth, resembles jazz, "swing time" (51). Although I have not been struck as forcefully as Ermarth by the presence of jazz time in postmodern fiction, Ermarth's study, among others, has inspired me to collect metaphors of history and time in order to discern what they might reveal about shifts in recent historical paradigms. Alexander Demandt is somewhat ahead of me in this with his book Metaphern fur Geschichte. Sprachbilder und Gleichnisse im historisch-politischen Denken (Metaphors of History: Images and Similes in Historical/Political Thought).(2) Demandt's work supplies a rich survey of historical metaphor, but most of his sources date to before the 1950s. It seems worthwhile to take a closer look at some historical metaphors from the past thirty to forty years, if one aspires to detect the emergence of new historical paradigms.

Metaphors help us to organize our knowledge of the world, but metaphorical comparisons are not innocently illustrative, as C. Behan McCullagh seems to think when he maintains that "metaphors reveal connections without making them," a position that Max Black rejects.(3) Hans Kellner writes about "regulative metaphors of history, which generate explanations rather than adorn them."(4) To borrow a word play from Torbjorn Safve, the maker of metaphors is a cosmetician, making up the world, both in the sense of decorating it and creating a sense of cosmos.(5) In the writings of Hayden White and his successors, entire historical narratives have been referred to as metaphorical. My use of the term is somewhat more specific. I have been in search of regulative metaphors that suggest a model, an analogy, or an image of history, and in so doing provide an explanation or a paradigm of history. When such metaphors occur in a text, they reveal many of its implied premises, and further, engage the text in a debate with other texts invoking similar or contradictory metaphors.

In this paper, I will focus on three areas of "metaphoric discussion" which seem to strike at the heart of postmodern sensibilities about history. My sources include not only Swedish historical fiction, but also historiographers, historians, and theorists from the rest of Europe and America. The notions of play and contingency are issues raised again and again in discussions of postmodernism. The first section of this paper adopts a familiar linear approach to the evolution of gaming metaphors of history, although the careful reader will note that these metaphors resist standing in a neat chronological line, despite my efforts. The metaphor of chess highlights the changing perception of the role of human agency in history, and a distinct postmodern sensibility emerges in contrast to previous systems of thought. The second section focuses on temporal metaphors. One of the chief ambitions of this section is to demonstrate how postmodernism has challenged the regulative metaphor of linear time that seems constitutive of the modern era. Further, in an effort to avoid a simple binary opposition, I present four different metaphorical alternatives to linear time and remark upon the inevitable consequences for narrative form. The third section examines metaphors of historical interpretation and the implied possibility of historical truth.

Something unusual has been going on in Sweden since around 1960. Sweden's population of roughly eight and a half million has been producing and consuming historical fiction at an astonishing rate. I have made a careful study of hundreds of Swedish historical novels written since 1960, ranging from trivial literature, to standard historical romance, to Marxist historical sagas, to historiographic metafiction. …

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