Modern literature has been much concerned with the question of whether we perceive reality or create it in our minds. It is hardly surprising, then, that history and the nature of historical explanation have been central metaphors of fiction in our century.
Both history and literature make meaning of the past but it is reductive to see one as “science” and the other as “entertainment” especially when it is applied to historical metafiction.
History as a discipline begins with the separation of fact from mythology. The separation is unavoidable and often useful, but it creates at least as many problems as it solves; for history is not the facts but the attempt to understand them, and the historian's approach to understanding inevitably involves inference, speculation, and imagination -- the roots of that mythology which he has tried to ban. The facts and the imagination are both essential, but the mixture is volatile and the possibilities of error are endless. Moreover, since historical hypotheses cannot be verified, the idea of historical "knowledge" is problematic at best.
“THE TRUTH” OF HISTORIANS AND FICTION WRITERS
In his article "The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality," Hayden White, author of various probes into the nature of historiography and the historical imagina-tion, discusses both the advantages and the disadvantages of the narrativization of history. The value of narrative -- and this is true not only for historiography but for all instances of storytelling -- resides in its capacity for communication, for expressing our interpretations of reality to one another. In order to be effective, then, narrative has to obey certain conventions that make understanding possible; in other words, it has to appeal to what we like to call "common sense" -- which, as White points out, is actually common only to a certain society in a specific historical situation. The "truths" that storytellers -- historians as well as fiction writers -- implicitly rely on to make communication and comprehension possible must be considered conventions, evolved within and accepted by the members of a particular group. Since narrative constitutes the most effective and perhaps the only means of expressing and communicating our views of the world -- especially where the past is concerned -- the use of these conventions is not only inevitable but also valuable.
Linda Hutcheon, the ‘god-mother’ of
, distinguished it from unproblematized historical fiction by situating this postmodern genre as a writing of history that foregrounds the constructed-ness of its own enterprise. This kind of novel, she reminds us, “forces us to recall that history and fiction are themselves historical terms and their definitions and interrelations are historically determined and vary with time” (“Pastime”, 286)
So, the intersection of history and literature, that historiographic metafiction implies, problematizes the very construction of historical knowledge. The postmodern historiographic metafiction undermines narrative and historical truth, resists the closed reading which leads to the “objective” historical account and allows the reader to evaluate the implications of the various versions of interpretation.
Historiographic metafiction is paradoxically reliant upon the codes that history and fiction share, such as the unidentifiable voice implied by historical objectivity of the omniscient narrator, the causal linking of otherwise random events generating the plot, the use of textual artifacts in an attempt to mimic as well as question historical verifiability and the use of temporal markers in order to position the speaker. This questioning of the nature and influence of history enables the creation of a fiction which is both a self-reflexive re-examination of historical claims as well as a playful reconstruction of alternative historical versions which the official version has deliberately forgotten.
Postmodern historical fiction is taking on the notion of official history in its choice of topic. The explicit contrasting of the official to the unofficial viewpoint through multiple narrators is supported by the fact that this fiction tends to favor the unofficial. As Hutcheon states, from the decentered perspective, the “marginal”[…] the “ex-centric”(be it in class, race, gender, sexual orientation, or ethnicity) take on a new significance in the light of the implied
recognition that our culture is not really the homogeneous monolith (that is middle-class, male, heterosexual, white, western) we might have assumed. (Poetics, 12) (Hutcheon, A Poetics of Postmodernism)
This fiction highlights precisely what official history suppresses- the marginal, subaltern, personal histories that form part of the history which usually passes unrecorded, outside of written history. Written history is a product of processes of condensation, displacement, symbolization, and qualification. The way that language produces images in the historical novel, then, is equally effective and defective in its attempt to represent history. The novel relies not on the fact as much as on the imagination of the reader to create or invent an image based on its language, that is, some version of history that is more personally accessible to readers as being possible because of its filling in of the historical gaps between facts or so-called certainties.
By participating in the anecdotalization of history by giving readers accounts of sex lives, personal thoughts and reflections, motives, and personalities that official history tends to gloss over on its way to recording accomplishments, facts, and statistics, the historiographic metafictions are able to undermine the ‘realness’ of history. They are acutely aware, and in fact exult in, White’s notion, articulated by Wyile, that "the emplotment of historical developments is necessarily selective and ideological" (130). (Wyile, Herb.—. Speculative Fictions).
Postmodern historical fiction undermines the claims of historical discourse to authority by installing subjectivity, by stressing the ways in which knowledge of the past is limited and uncertain, and by highlighting how principles of selection determine what is considered official history. This fiction exposes as an illusion the “natural and eternal justification” in which the myth of historical discourse wraps itself.
HISTORICAL/FICTIONAL DISCOURSE AS CONSTRUCT
What becomes apparent is the fact that historical discourse has a ‘history’- it is not natural but a construct. Postmodern historical fiction reminds us of this and enacts the ways in which historical discourse attempts to lose the memory that it once was made. To do this, it uses a mixture of techniques that are harnessed to point up the constructedness of historical discourse. The first of these is metafiction, which Patricia Waugh defines as “a term given to fictional writing which self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an artifact in order to pose questions about the relationship between fiction and reality.” (Waugh, Metafiction, 2)
It is a major technique for unequivocally enacting the ways in which historical discourse is a construct and not a direct, unmediated re-presentation of a past reality. As Wesseling states, this fiction goes about “unmasking the fictional construction of the past.” (Wesseling Writing history as a Prophet)
One finds, then, not only narrators whose presence is signaled in the text or who are openly controlling, but also narrators who discuss or display openly their act of construction. This may consist in comments about problems encountered or choices made, or the narrator may take the reader with him while he conducts his research in the archive, museum or field. All these cases show that the constructedness of historical discourse is not implicit but thematized or enacted directly. (Hutcheon, Poetics, 153)
This is closely connected to the notion of ‘seamless’ history. If historical discourse is indeed constructed, this means that there are ‘seams’ where it has been sewn together. The myth of historical discourse works to conceal these seams by hiding the process of construction. ( Colavincenzo Mark, 78-79)
Postmodern historical fiction leaves the seams on open display so that the reader sees the places where the history has been sewn or sutured together. Historical discourse presents itself as a smooth, seamless narrative which moves from start to finish with an apparent logic. This fiction, on the other hand, often presents itself as a quilt, with no attempt to hide the seams between the individual pieces of cloth constituting the whole. The narrative, rather than moving clearly and smoothly from start to finish, is fragmented and broken-it is not homogeneous but openly heterogeneous. And the reader may even see the places where the seam is falling apart or where a piece of the ‘cloth of history’ is missing altogether. This has a curios effect on the truth-value of the literary text. Paradoxically, once literature refuses to hide its fictionality, it is then possible to reverse the traditional prejudice and argue that the literary text ‘lies’ less than history precisely in that it explicitly lays bare its own rhetorical status.
This fiction similarly plays with the notion of historical chronology. The smooth temporal logic of historical discourse is fragmented and confusing in postmodern historical fiction.
In postmodern historical fiction there is a clear questioning of the way in which historiography and histories attempt to impose telos in human events. Amy. J. Elias states that “postmodernist historical novels break up the teleological line of history and present history in different spatial terms.” ( Elias, 111)
The time lines of the histories become non-linear. The narrative may jump back and forth in time or may spool or stagger backwards, starting at the possible end of the (hi)story and moving back through time to its possible beginning, thereby questioning the status of cause and effect.
The reader is forced to consider how one part of the (hi)story leads to the next. Causality is not only shown to be textually constructed but is even foregrounded as constructs formulated by the reader in the act of reading. Here one sees the postmodern questioning of ends and origins.
To quote again from Hutcheon on Derrida:
Historiography […] is always teleological: it imposes a meaning on the past and does so by postulating an end (and/or origin). So too does fiction. The difference in postmodern fiction is in its challenging self-consciousness of that imposition that renders it provisional.
( Hutcheon, Poetics, 79)
According to Dianne Tiefensee, Canadians as a people and western Canadian writers in particular were especially receptive to the paradoxes of postmodernism because they had no real sense of selfhood or identity before 1960. They sort of “invented themselves” in the struggle to create an identity different from the British and even from the Eastern Canada.
RUDY WIEBE’s HISTORIOGRAPHIC METAFICTION CASE STUDY
Wiebe, as a leading contemporary writer considers that literature can contribute to national identity or better said “regional” identity, not through its referential function by recording and transmitting collective experience and historical facts but through the creative process itself. (Pache, 135)
Wiebe’s historical fiction The Temptations of Big Bear keeps his readers constantly alert by calling upon a whole series of storytellers. First person narrators, whose names usually appear in italics above their ‘stories’, alternate with characters whose thoughts and actions are presented in the third person, but all of them ‘speak’ their own kind of language, in their own distinct personal voices.
The ‘efficiency’ and lack of imagination of Morris’s language in the first chapter, for example, are in total contrast to the first words spoken by Sweetgrass: ”My heart rises like a bird to see you once more” (17)
It soon becomes clear that this initial difference between the voices of Morris and Sweetgrass is only the first indication of a much larger issue, namely the opposition between White and Indian discourse which is itself a sign of the confrontation between two totally different ways of interpreting reality.
The contrast between, for instance, a story told by Colonel Irvine and another story told by Wandering Spirit is startlingly suggestive of the underlying differences in perception.
Irvine begins his story as follows:
In 1878, Big Bear, the Cree chief who figured so prominently in the 1885 troubles, had stopped the Government surveyors from carrying on their work. Complaints of this were brought to me. I selected twenty-six men and we proceeded to the scene of the trouble, taking our Winchester rifles with which we had just been equipped. (86)
The dates, the facts, the actions are all very efficiently stated, perfectly understandable to the White reader. Wandering Spirit’s story, on the other hand, is likely to disorient that same reader because of the “unusual” way in which it presents itself as a translation from the Cree: I am very young then,…..and I go with Bare Earth of the West People. It is in the Eagle Moon and I run a lot over the snow, ahead scouting. I am thin and hard from running all the time. (166)
Through Wiebe’s use of such different styles, readers are shown that communication between members of different social groups is extremely difficult, but not impossible as long as the interlocutors are aware of each other’s historical backgrounds; in this case, of course, it is mainly the reader’s awareness which is required. The Temptations of Big Bear, then is above all an effort to come to terms with a clash between two cultures and to remedy the onesidedness of the account of this clash in Canadian historiography.
It is important to stress out that the Indian culture was essentially an oral culture emphasized time and again through the theme of “voice” and Big Bear’s mistrust of written words. The matter is clearly pointed out in the last chapter where the White preference for the written word makes the judge refuse Big Bear’s spoken words as evidence. And, when the lawyer responds by asking “Are we to pretend in this court that Indians habitually communicate by written orders, by letters of intention!” (377), he is essentially ignored. When Big Bear is finally allowed to speak for himself, which is after the verdict has been reached, he concludes by saying: “I ask the court to print my words and scatter them among White people” (400)- thus acknowledging, not necessarily the superiority of the written word, but the White people’s tendency to regard as ‘true’ only what is written, and preferably printed.
The oral character of the Indian culture, combined with the White’s veneration of the written document, means that the history of western Canada is a “White” history; that is, it has been seen through White eyes and told in a White voice. In The Temptations of Big Bear, Wiebe partly makes up for this; in a sense, he has printed Big Bear’s words and scattered them among White people. But he also points out that neither side can tell the whole truth; no single story can tell it all.
Wiebe’s rewriting of history from o minority perspective that has been neglected involves a strong moral and didactic stance and therefore becomes a political statement. Diana Brydon argues that this book is a successful example of “ the cultural dialogue that history never allowed” but which is characteristic for a postcolonial society with its multi-ethnic population.
The novel contains both the White and Indian voices. It seems to say that, since every story is told from a specific viewpoint, each story contains its own, partial and subjective but nonetheless ‘real’ truth. Poundmaker, who was present at the events described above, later says that ”it was sometimes hard to say what the truth was” (404). This statement is diametrically opposed to the Crown Prosecutor’s assertion: “It is not necessary for me to mention any of the circumstances…..because the whole matter….is now almost a matter of history” (357-58); in other words, it is known, defined, and unchangeable. In The Temptations of Big Bear, Wiebe refuses this conception of history as something closed and fully known, even as something that can be fully known.
Wiebe expresses both the inevitability and the danger of facts as a basis for fiction when he says that:
Unless they are very carefully handled, facts are the invariable tyrants of story. They are as inhibiting as fences and railroads, whereas the story teller would prefer, like Big Bear, “to walk where his feet can walk”
( “On the Trail of Big Bear,” A voice in the Land // 134)
This view of facts is echoed in the short preface to the first edition of his book, which perhaps not surprisingly, was not reprinted in the subsequent editions:
No name of any person, place or thing, insofar as names are still discoverable, in this novel has been invented. Despite that and despite the historicity of dates and events, all characters in this meditation upon the past are the products of a particular imagination; their resemblance and relation, therefore, to living or once living persons must be resisted.
(as quoted by W.J. Keith in EpicFiction, 134)
If no names, dates, or events are invented- not by Wiebe, in any case- this leaves only the interpretation of historically accepted evidence, as well as the sketching in of details which is in fact another aspect of interpretation, as the domain of the “particular imagination” that Wiebe refers to. It seems, then, that for Wiebe or perhaps the only domain of the storyteller—more precisely, the teller of historical fiction—is that of ”possibility”. If one compares his biography of Big Bear in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography with the “reality” which Wiebe creates in The Temptations of Big Bear, it becomes clear what this means in practice. Mostly it means making the past more “real” by adding details of daily life and by evoking events which, given the historical evidence, may have happened even if they cannot be documented or otherwise proven.
So although the book respects the facts found by Wiebe, in narrating them he inevitably shows us a “possible” interpre-tation of those facts, an interpretation that is consistent with them.
Wiebe makes his readers themselves experience the cultural gap and the problems of communication which are explored in his book. Thus, readers have to recognize the ‘conventionality’ and the historical conditioning not only of these stories but also of our own discourse and perceptions. Ironically, the one participant in this communication whose voice is not identified and whose historical and cultural back-ground is thus not acknowledged, is the actual, ultimate maker of all the stories told here, namely Wiebe himself.
Whereas the historian’s role is, first and foremost, to explain the past, to make it understandable in terms of today’s norms and values, fiction can create meaningful “realities” that people may never perceive otherwise, and even bring about changes in our conventional attitudes toward the world. The historical fiction of The Temptations of Big Bear not only brings the past to life, but it succeeds in changing our interpretation of it. By telling an “other side” of Canadian history, one that has not found its way into the accepted world view of official historiography, nor, consequently, into that of its readers, Wiebe provokes the reader’s awareness of the omnipresence of historical and cultural conditions and of the need to look beyond the conventionalized perceptions of reality in “metaphorical”, but perhaps more appropriate terms, beyond the apparent objectivity, representativity, and unchangeability of stories.
This fiction is constructed through archival structures which enable the narrative to travel in time and space across multiplying intertextual spaces. They inscribe the characters as subjects escaping definition, through a constant movement and play on positionality. In any case the construction of meaning is always provisional since the text’s endless motion, its attending difference always produces different meanings somewhere else on the text’s margins.
The role of fiction for Wiebe appears to be a general constant renewal of our perceptions, so that they will not be so “conventio-nalized” as to prevent new insights. By stressing the idea that every story told, every interpretation of reality, is inevitably a product of historical and cultural conditions rather than of objective, disinterested observation and knowledge, these authors leave the door open for other stories from other perspectives, and, in doing so explicitly, they even manage to open some of the doors which have already been closed by the acceptance of certain stories as unquestionable true. In other words, by situating his words as well as those of his characters in history, Wiebe tempers the power of all words to appear objective. At the same time, he prevents the readers’ unmediated acceptance of the stories, and teaches them to see not only that what they are reading is a story, not reality itself, but also that their own accepted views of reality rely to a large degree on convention rather than on open-minded perception.
What emerges in such a postmodern historiographic metafiction then is a pattern of retrospective projections. By juxtaposing a multiplicity of incompatible perspectives and by using unreliable narrators the novel discussed suggests that there is not one truth about the past, only a series of versions which are dependent on and constructed by the observer, rather than retrieved from the past.
Despite the overt skepticism, however it is not the factual existence of past events which the thematic and the structure of these novels call into question but only human abilities ever to know the true course of history.
Rudy Wiebe, The Temptations of Big Bear (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1973).
Hayden White, "The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality." Critical Inquiry 7 (1980): 5-28.
Hutcheon Linda “ThePastime of Past Time’: Fiction, History, Historiographic metafiction” Genre 20:3-4,(1987):285-305
Hutcheon, A Poetics of Postmodernism, Toronto: Oxford, 1988
Wyile, Herb.—. Speculative Fictions. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s UP, 2002.
Waugh, Metafiction,Mc.Gill University, 2004
Elias J. Amy “Defining Spatial History in Postmodernist Novels” World Literature Written in English. 31 (1991): 1-18.
Pache, Water “Aspects of Postmodernism in Canada” (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1984) 190.
Colavincenzo Mark “Trading Magic for Fact”, Fact for Magic. Myth and Mythologizing in Postmodern Canadian Historical Fiction, Amsterdam, Ney York: Rodopi, 2oo3, P.78-79
Wesseling John, Writing history as a Prophet Essays on Canadian Writing. 20 (1980-1981): 134-148.
Gallagher, Catherine, and Stephen Greenblatt. Practicing New Historicism. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2001.
W.J. Keith EpicFiction Edmonton: U of Alberta P, 1981
W.J. Keith Ed, “On the Trail of Big Bear,” A voice in the Land Edmonton: NeWest, 1981.