chapter  3
25 Pages

Histories

In Michael Ondaatje’s novel The English Patient (first published 1992) modernity falters and slides backwards. Eschewing narratives of accelerated technological modernity reinforced by the emergence of rocket and nuclear warfare (Virilio 1986 and 1994), Ondaatje superimposes feudal strife upon mid-twentieth-century global war:

Ondaatje imagines a European history that is not a narrative of progress but one which turns in circles. Modernity is not as modern as it claims, merely re-enacting pre-modern conflicts and quasi-tribal rivalries. Ondaatje’s narrative documents a moment of temporal crisis, given most acute expression at the end of his

novel by the dropping of the atomic bomb: at that juncture, modernity reveals its ultimate bankruptcy. Ondaatje’s postmodern fiction diagnoses a malaise not only in

modern history but also in modern historiography. For in the midst of this temporal scepticism, the author showcases the slightly disreputable ancient Greek father of history, Herodotus, a purveyor of apocryphal stories. In this Herodotus resembles the eponymous English patient, actually a turncoat Hungarian aristocrat named Almásy, from whom the Allied interrogators can obtain no reliable intelligence. Almásy carries a copy of Herodotus, an unreliable narrative which, however, contains more truth than one might suspect. Almásy’s Herodotus is his

Ondaatje’s iconoclasm here is double. First, he confuses the relationship between truth and untruth.

Herodotus often functions as the ‘other’ of factual historiography (Hamilton 2002: 6-11). In contrast to his successor Thucydides, who claimed that his ‘factual reporting’ was based on events at which ‘either I was present myself [or] … I … heard … from eyewitnesses whose reports I have checked with as much thoroughness as possible’ (1978: 48), Herodotus epitomizes a form of pre-modern historiography still embedded in myth, legend and hearsay. Yet here it transpires in this passage that Herodotus may not have been so unreliable a source after all. This transmutation of values – untruth emerging as truth and

thus destabilizing what was previously taken for truth – is enabled by Ondaatje’s second, more significant iconoclasm, namely an attack on representation in historical writing. Almásy’s usage of Herodotus’ text treats it as a scrapbook, consolidating and enhancing its materiality as signifier rather than its transparency as mediator of

a historical signified: ‘in his commonplace book, his 1890 edition of Herodotus’ Histories, are other fragments – maps, diary entries, writings in many languages, paragraphs cut out of other books’ (Ondaatje 1993: 96). Rather than placing empirically documented events within a linear sequence of causality, Almásy overlays competing versions of the same events, complicating, thickening or obscuring the line of causality. Almásy’s scrapbook-like copy of Herodotus mimics its author’s strategies: ‘“This history of mine,” Herodotus says, “has from the beginning sought out the supplementary to the main argument.” What you find in him are cul-de-sacs within the sweep of history’ (ibid: 118-19). The multiple layers of text mimic these lateral shifts and diversions from the main line of historical causation. Almásy’s text works by collage, montage, bricolage, taking accretion and opacity rather than transparently delineated causality as its guiding principle. Linear causality is destabilized by the lateral accumulation of

multiple textual versions, glued upon each other and upon the page of the text, thereby disrupting the iconic linearity of reading and questioning the historical fact that reading is supposed to apprehend. The isomorphic temporalities of supposedly linear reading and the historical chain that is read are disrupted. The notion of the historical fact cannot be sustained in any simple sense when each link in the historical chain is overlaid by other texts and other renditions of the same event. Thus the materiality of Almásy’s Herodotus, with its wide-reaching implications for the sequential model of temporality underlying historiography, impacts directly upon the very status of the historical fact. The date 1890, the sole chronological anchor in this mess of

textual fragments, is not without significance, because it gestures towards the gradual demise of a nineteenth-century paradigm of scientific historicism that insisted upon the rigorous contextualization of empirical facts in a verifiable chronological sequence. Almásy’s Herodotus emblematizes the resurgence of a long tradition of premodern forms of historiography displaced by historicism in its dominant nineteenth-century form; in turn, that historicism would lose much of its appeal by the early twentieth century. None the less, the linear chronologies historicism elevated to the status of scientific truth continue to hold sway today in popular consciousness:

the ‘history wars’ of the 1990s in Australia, for instance, mobilized a vitriolic press campaign harnessing popular belief in historiography. The history wars drew upon the self-evidence of a version of history understood as a sequence of empirically verifiable facts to vilify those who questioned national myths so as to lay bare a history of genocide (Macintyre and Clark 2003; West-Pavlov and Wawrzinek, eds, 2010). The force of Ondaatje’s iconoclasm, then, is less conceptual

than performative: it triggers ripples in the transparent surface of the historicist mode of representation still dominant today. Ondaatje’s re-visioning of a collage-like history is enabled by the very historicism, and its entanglement in national narratives, that it seeks to disrupt. These hegemonic and contestatory historiographic temporalities exist in an uneasy symbiosis. This chapter explores the temporal logic underlying nineteenth-

century historicism, suggesting that it is very much analogous to the absolute time minted by Newton a century earlier. Rather than regarding that historicism as the teleological culmination of an incremental growth of historical knowledge and methodology, the chapter understands it as the contingent product of a particular configuration of largely imperialist relationships, one which has progressively unravelled during the last half-century. In this chapter, I scrutinize historicism through the lenses of epistemology (Foucault), and phenomenology (Gadamer) so as to demonstrate how the contingent temporal logic of historicity is constructed. The chapter proceeds achronologically, moving backwards from nineteenth-century historicism to its predecessors, early modern and Enlightenment historiographies in their various forms. I lay bare not merely ‘the historically conditioned character of the historical discipline’ (White 1978: 29) but the temporal ‘plot’ of the progressivist, evolutionist version of history which, despite a century of waning credibility and mounting attacks, is still largely the one we inhabit. It is because this version of historicist logic, cemented by popular historiography and the educational establishment, is so deeply entrenched, that it bears detailed scrutiny. And for the same reasons it is necessary to present some instances of competing, alternative historiographical temporalities of which historians today have come to take cognizance: counterfactuals

(fictive alternative histories), non-linear histories, historical reenactments and climate history.