History & fiction

Anne Curthoys & John Docker

What is History? asked E H Carr in his influential text of that name, first published in 1961, and reprinted endlessly since. The question we address in our book is more limited: is history fiction?

Yet in asking if history is fiction, we are also seeking to explore Carr's question, what is history? Like him, we ask about problems of historical truth, the relationship between the historian and the past, and questions of fact, value, and interpretation.

Yet we differ from Carr in our interest in history's literary aspects - constituted through language, narrative, metaphor, rhetoric, and allegory - and the connections we see between questions of literary form and the desire for historical truth.

The questions we address include the following.

• Can historians tell the truth about the past?

• Should history be written for the present or for its own sake?

• Is it possible to see the past in its own terms?

• Should we make moral judgements about people and actions in the past?

• Are histories shaped by narrative conventions, so that their meaning derives from their form rather than the past itself?

These are hardly new questions; indeed in our book we show how historians have always pondered the problem of historical truth, and have always markedly differed over how to achieve it. Yet the ways in which these debates are conducted varies very considerably over time, as new contexts shape the argument.

Our own book has been shaped by many present contexts. History has become a source of public debate and anxiety in many societies; differences between historians about the past have become the site for major political contestation and debate.

Sometimes these are debates over alleged wartime atrocities, as in Japan (over the Nanjing massacre in China) and the United States (the Enola Gay and the bombing of Hiroshima). In other cases, it is the very foundation of the nation that is in question, as in Australia's 'history wars' over the degree of violence in the course of British settlement.

In these debates, nationalist historians seek to justify and praise the nation through a particular version of its past, while revisionist historians aim to question national historical myths through what they see as an honest coming to terms with its darker aspects.

These revisionists are then themselves challenged, or revised, with conservative historians fiercely critiquing historical narratives that suggest, for example, that European settler societies were founded in violence, dispossession, cruelty and trauma for the indigenous inhabitants.

Public debates in post-colonial societies have been extremely varied, ranging from the examination of the experience of the Apartheid years in the hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa to the question of the relationship between Asian immigrants and past and ongoing Indigenous dispossession in Hawaii.

Yet another context that shaped the way our book emerged was the rise of anti-postmodernism, and its argument that the existence of the Holocaust was proof that poststructuralists and postmodernists were wrong.

The argument was that postmodernists thought that anything goes, any history is as good as any other, and therefore historians who denied the Holocaust were no more incorrect than those who wrote about it.

Part of the book is devoted to this question, and in particular to tracing very closely what it is that postmodernists and poststructuralists actually do say in relation to questions of truth.

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Image: Still Life with a Skull and a Writing Quill, 1628, Pieter Claesz. (Dutch, 1597/98-1660)