"Of skulls or spirits": the haunting space between fictional(ized) history and historical note.
I interrogate this intratextual relationship--note/ narrative--with recourse to four texts: Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (1985), with its fictional and much-discussed "Historical Notes on The Handmaid's Tale"; Pat Barker's Regeneration (1991), with its "Author's Note"; Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient (1992), with its "Acknowledgements"; and Simon Schama's Dead Certainties (Unwarranted Speculations) (1991), with its "Afterword" and "A Note on Sources." These texts represent a range of approaches to late-twentieth-century concerns regarding the reliability of historical narrative, concerns that have spawned enormous historiographic debate as well as the genre of historiographic metafiction. Schama's text straddles these two categories, as I discuss below; Ondaatje's, Barker's, and Atwood's are historiographically concerned fictions. While The Handmaid's Tale may seem out of place in this mix, given that its narrative unfolds in a future dystopia rather than a 'historical' setting, it is in fact vital to this project for that very reason. The Handmaid's Tale's apparent lack of attention to history and historical fiction is turned on its head by its "Historical Notes"--a vivid example of the importance of narrative, note, and the relationship between them. Interestingly, the two texts that seem most different, Atwood's pure fiction and Schama's quasi-history, turn out to be quite similar in their uses of notes: indeed, while Atwood and Schama aim critique at academic, disciplined history, Ondaatje and Barker use the historiographic questioning produced through their note/narrative relationships to comment on the role and potential of historical fiction.
In their interactions with the narratives, the notes that end these four books problematize the texts' and the present's boundaries even as they bury the past as dead and distanced from living readers and writers. To read these texts, then, we must attend to both "skulls" and "spirits," (3) both the dead-and-gone past and its haunting refusal to close its eyes and leave the living alone. Two terms, Jacques Derrida's "spectrality" and Michel de Certeau's "entombment," help this essay to focalize the significant interaction between two modes of constructing/using history in these texts. De Certeau depicts historiography as an act of entombment by which the writer both commemorates and hides the dead; like my own project, de Certeau's The Writing of History posits this tension as manifest in both content and form, in part through intratextual relationships. Also working with this familiar alignment of history with the dead, Derrida uses the specter as a figure for history and for anachrony; for the absolute other, that which/who is no longer or is not yet; and for an absence that is present. He usefully draws our attention to the interactions within binaries, especially between the dead past and the living present. Such attention is vital to understanding the productive and problematic oppositions--life/death, present/past, fiction/fact, literature/history--set into motion by the interaction between notes that invoke the authority of historical research and narratives that obsess over the unsettled and unsettling past.
After further discussing the relevance of concepts from de Certeau's The Writing of History and Derrida's Specters of Marx, I first turn to The Handmaid's Tale, in which the intratextual relationship is especially accessible because the "Historical Notes" are fictional. I then address the main narratives, notes, and intratextual relationships within Regeneration, The English Patient, and The Handmaid's Tale. Next, I attend to Dead Certainties, which engages the same set of issues and agendas but does so in a different context from the first three texts. Finally, the common ground of these texts opens into a reflection on their ethics of history-telling. In each text, tension and interaction between note and narrative raise concerns about the meaning and uses of history, foregrounding questions of how we ought to imagine, write, and read the past.
One apparently simple but significant factor in the tension produced between the haunting narratives and official-sounding notes of these texts is the order in which we encounter them. A traditional historical text might use a preface to lay out its methodology or to position its authority and]or agenda before proceeding with a narrative of the researched and imagined past, but these four texts markedly diverge from this model. For instance, Dead Certainties mixes historical research and literary imagination in telling stories about General Wolfe and two nineteenth-century Harvard professors, but it does not delineate those elements before mixing them. Rather, the book waits until its "Note on Sources" to inform readers that many of its "passages are purely imagined fiction" (4) and to retrace the steps of research and invention that led to the preceding narratives. As a professional historian, Schama has especially scandalized readers by placing this material at the end rather than the beginning of his book. The other three texts operate more independently of the conventions of professional history-writing, but all four employ belated versions of a positioning or methodological preface-turned-after-word.
Discussing the convention that these texts borrow and revise, de Certeau connects historical texts' methodological prefaces to his understanding that history "takes place along those lines which trace the figure of a current time by dividing it from its other, but which the return of the past is continually modifying or blurring." (5) This tension is manifest in the conventions of history-writing: "For example, the analysis of a brief or long socioeconomic or cultural period is preceded in the works of history by a 'preface' in which the historian speaks of the course of his [or her] research. The book, made of two uneven but symbolic halves, joins to the history of a past the itinerary of a procedure" (38). But rather than inscribing labor and positionality--the present production of history--before moving on to the 'real history,' Dead Certainties performs its historiography and then, as it closes, explicitly addresses methodology and the problems of history-telling. Regeneration and The English Patient wait until their ends to tell readers which characters are 'real' and what 'really' happened to them, and The Handmaid's Tale reveals only in its closing pages that the Tale is a document transcribed and edited from audio tapes by an unreliable authority. These clearly are not traditional histories or, with the possible exception of Dead Certainties, histories at all--they are fictions.
Despite their inversion, though, de Certeau's "uneven but symbolic halves" remain. By including both narrative and documentary modes, these novels invoke history and thus involve themselves in debates over its meaning. They refer to disciplined, professional history even if, having made the connection, they tend to alter the ground of debate; because they selectively mimic historiography, considering these texts' work in the context of the historiographic practices they (mis)quote is especially telling. The books considered here ask us to examine how past and present, narrative and data, and fiction and research oppose and shape each other. To apprehend their posing of these questions, we must not simply ignore the documentary and dissertative as transparent or decorative; instead, we must read narrative and note together, attending to their very different foundations and to how each shades the other's meaning.
Though they are differently rendered relations from those in a history, the relations these texts depict between narrative and note, present and past, and living and dead also enact "lines which trace the figure of a current time by dividing it from its other, but which the return of the past is continually modifying or blurring." For de Certeau, such dual motion is related to the dual meaning of entombment, a figure for historiography, which "speaks of the past only in order to inter it. Writing is a tomb in the double sense of the word in that, in the very same text, it both honors and eliminates" (101). These notes both entomb the preceding (hi)stories and are haunted by their unsettling liveliness. In each text, meaning resides in this point of contact between procedure and imagined past, in the distance between and mutual influence of note and narrative.
Just such contact between apparently separate domains is the focus of Specters of Marx, which (like the four texts analyzed here) brings together responsibility, ethics, and history-telling. Derrida's project in this book is to deconstruct our traditional understandings of both history and responsibility in order to propose a questioning, open stance toward the past, other Others, and ourselves, a stance by which we might consider ourselves simultaneously more fully responsible to others and less able to know (especially in the sense of pinpoint or control) them. Like the novels, Specters of Marx explores history-telling in the space between dead past and living present, in "A spectral moment, a moment ... not docile to time, at least to what we call time" (xx). Thus, while it is not identical to the novels' projects (which are far from identical to each other), Derrida's more fully formulated and explicit exploration of history, ethics, and otherness shares the novels' concerns and can help us examine the significance of their intratexts. The coexistence of and strain between the traditional, researched past-as-buried-and-commemorated and the Derridean spectral allow these texts to convey historical truths that might otherwise go unheard--truths concerned with the vital and often uncomfortable relationship between a past and our present.
Of the primary texts at play in this essay, Atwood's is the only one whose intratext of narrative and note has received extensive critical attention, presumably because the "Historical Notes on The Handmaid's Tale" are explicitly 'fictional' and thus clearly beg to be read as 'part of the novel.' The bulk of the novel follows a woman now known as "Offred," whose body and life have been violently appropriated in a dystopian society called Gilead in the near future to the novel's publication in 1985. The "Historical Notes" also take place in the future, "a partial transcription of the proceedings of the Twelfth Symposium on Gileadean Studies ..., 2195." (6) Barker's "Author's Note" and Ondaatje's "Acknowledgments," in comparison, seem separate from their fictions. However, they are in fact integral parts of the texts and retrospectively impact readers' experiences of those texts' main narratives, which themselves shape our encounters with the notes. Here, a consideration of The Handmaid's Tale's more explicit intratextual relationship will provide an entry point to the interactions between narrative and note in the other texts, and a stage on which to observe the spectral drive of a narrative and the entombing pull of a note.
In The Handmaid's Tale, the "Historical Notes" tie 'present' historical procedures and community to the now emphatically past narrative of the Tale. Significantly, without its note, The Handmaid's Tale would not function as historiographic metafiction at all--it would not engage the procedures and problems of history-telling. In passing, Brian McHale wonders why Hutcheon includes The Handmaid's Tale under the umbrella of her term (7); while I cannot speak for Hutcheon, it seems to me that the "Historical Notes" and their air of history-making, which is to say burial and commemoration, cast the Tale into the maelstrom of historiography. This text is able to perform a haunting (of) history only because of the entombing gesture of its "Notes." Though more clearly dramatized here because the narrative is not inherently 'historical,' such a use of a note to tie a narrative into historical and historiographic critique also appears in the other texts.
The main narrative of The Handmaid's Tale insistently draws readers' attention to what we (and even the narrator) cannot know because it is not present, to failures of memory and history, to spectrality; its "Historical Notes," in contrast, foreground the dead we can label and keep in place. The main narrator's experiences with and reflections on the creation of a historical record become doubly significant when a reader reaches the "Historical Notes" and must reconsider this narrative in a shockingly altered context. For instance, women in Gilead are not permitted to read or write, and the narrator's activities and interactions are severely limited, so she has a great deal of time to think and remember but no way to record her thoughts and memories. She is acutely aware of these limitations and of their impact on her narrative, as when she explains after a scene of uncommon, cherished dialogue with another woman, "I can't remember exactly, because I had no way of writing it down. I've filled it out for her as much as I can: we didn't have much time so she just gave the outlines.... I've tried to make it sound as much like her as I can. It's a way of keeping her alive" (316). Repeatedly, the narrator articulates the problems of reconstructing her histories in the face of this dual challenge: an inability to create documents and limited time for oral testimony. A key function of these passages, though a reader does not yet know it, is to prepare us for the "Historical Notes" by drawing attention to the limitations of the historical record as they are imposed unevenly by political, gendered domination.
The regime's approach to history receives the attention of the narrator, "a refugee from the past" (294) who observes of an old church-turned-museum that "It's only the more recent history that offends them," presumably in its obvious connection to the present (41). Against this official bifurcation of the dead past and the unalterable, inevitable, accepted present, the narrator now clings to the nuances of memory and lives in an unsettled temporality. She tells her story believing that "From the point of view of future history ..., we'll be invisible" (295) and seeing the danger in "liv[ing] in the blank white spaces at the edges of print ... the gaps between the stories" (74). When she prays in an attempt to believe in possibility--a future tense different from the present--she associates herself and her hope with the dead: "In Hope, as they say on the gravestones" (253). She resists Gileadean discipline by subverting its entombment of the past and seeking spectrality, despite her acute awareness of terrible odds and the tongue-in-cheek echo of her earlier graveyard musings: "Was it the corpse hoping, or those still alive?" (135).
Thus, the main narrative is positioned precisely in the "non-contemporaneity of present time with itself" that Derrida finds in "the two directions of absence, at the articulation of what is no longer and what is not yet" (25). The narrator has been toying with the idea of her daughter as a ghost, a fleetingly present absence, and wondering at the difference between ghosts and memory (82-84). But she also wonders whether she herself is a ghost. When she sees a photograph of her daughter, now years older, she experiences this possibility intensely: "I am only a shadow now, far back behind the glib shiny surface of this photograph. A shadow of a shadow, as dead mothers become. You can see it in her eyes: I am not there" (296). Throughout her Tale the narrator is haunted, hopes to be haunted, envisions herself as haunting, and haunts herself. The narrative's thoroughgoing anachrony and the narrator's constant sense of otherness and absence are the stuff of spectrality, and the story is a haunting one. Its end is open: the narrator steps into a van that will take her either to freedom or to violent punishment, "into the darkness within; or else the light" (378).
But that is not, of course, the end. The seventeen-page "Historical Notes" follow, establishing a distance of over 150 years between the two narratives (383) and killing off all the Tale's characters in one stroke simply by placing us so far in its future. This section entombs the narrator and her narrative in a number of ways, most obviously by leaving her unambiguously dead-and-gone. Narrated by a historian whose primary concern is with documentation and source authenticity, the "Notes" reframe the account in historical terms. (8) This lecture makes it possible to refer to the 'period' of the Gileadean government, to rephrase and reimagine the narrator's story as evidence regarding a long-gone era. It produces distance and closure by pushing the story back in time; no longer in the near-future tense to readers' 1985, it is in the dead and obscure past tense to the conference attendees' 2195. It is a past considered in the spirit of antiquarian curiosity rather than any urgent sense of connection with the present. Faced with both the "Notes" and the preceding narrative, however, readers not only feel such an emotional and political urgency but are pointedly aware of keynote speaker and Cambridge professor Pieixoto's failure to feel it.
To this speaker, the destruction of documents and the 'disappearance' of people are hurdles for the historian (see 384-85, 388), not ever-present and vital threats as they are to the previous narrator. As Dominick Grace observes, Pieixoto's "acknowledgement that the tale we have read is an editorial construct ... recalls Offred's own acknowledgements of her reconstruction of events, but whereas for Offred the possibilities opened up by reconstructions and the alternate possibilities they provide play a key role in the narrative, for Pieixoto such contingency is a blemish to be removed." (9) Moreover, while the historian is clearly annoyed with the narrator of the Tale for failing to record enough of the sort of data he deems valuable, he does not seem upset with the government for, as he notes, destroying innumerable records and deleting people and their whole lives from historical access. Even as he bemoans the narrator's omissions, he reminds his fellow historians that "we must be cautious about passing moral judgment upon the Gileadeans.... Our job is not to censure but to understand" (383). While the main narrative speaks the silenced story of the oppressed, (10) the "Notes" align themselves with the government of Gilead and its logical, understandable needs. The former attends obsessively to the unknowable and the absent (the spectral), while Pieixoto's talk values the knowable, the documented, and the controllable (the entombed), and readers are well placed to perceive the tension between their two approaches to the past.
Accordingly, the main narrative moves among tenses with enormous anxiety over their unruliness and significance, as when the narrator revises her past tense statements into the present: "She was still my oldest friend. / Is" (223). The "Notes" place the narrative's material firmly in the past tense, as though labeled and placed behind glass in a museum--or buried and marked with a tombstone. In this regard too, they associate themselves more with the style, authority, and historical imagination of Gilead than with those of the Tale's narrator. While she carefully revises from the past tense to the present, the Commander (who more or less owns her) casually does the opposite: "she's a sociologist. Or was" (309). He and the entire regime strive to make the past entirely past, separating the present from it. She finds her hope in ghosts. The latter approach is undermined by the "Historical Notes"; in the end, the narrator is flung into the past and made into an always inadequate object of study. But although Pieixoto's "Notes" literally have the last word, they do not have a final say on the novel's meaning.
It is obvious that, because the "Historical Notes" come at the end of the book, their effect on the narrative occurs entirely after the fact. Another and a more interesting observation on the part of a number of critics is that the retrospective nature of the "Notes" means that readers are thrown back into the narrative as the book comes to an end, "forc[ing] the reader to remain imprisoned in the ramifications of the story." (11) Unlike a traditional historical preface that lays out an authoritative context before a narrative begins, this preface-turned-afterword abruptly shifts the ground of a narrative we have already experienced and thought we understood, forcing us to question both the authenticity of the narrative and the legitimacy of Pieixoto's and his audience's academic history.
David Hogsette calls the "Notes" "an ending that demands a rereading of [the] novel," (12) arguing that The Handmaid's Tale waits until its end to teach us how to read its narrative. Among other recontextualizations, the "Notes" retrospectively underscore the passages and motifs that can be read as a critique of official modes of history (now that we see the Tale as a document used as evidence in historical inquiry rather than simply as a journal recording personal memories). Furthermore, the influence of the parts works both ways: we reevaluate the narrative as 'history' in view of the "Notes," and we are suspicious of the adequacy and justice of Pieixoto's analysis because of the narrative preceding it. Although "[t]he dynamics of retrospective reading" (271) have largely gone unaddressed in The English Patient, Regeneration, and Dead Certainties, they are also vital to these texts. Indeed, each of Ondaatje's, Barker's, and Schama's notes also compels, if not literally a rereading, at least a rethinking of the preceding text, further forcing and/or troubling issues that are alive in the main narrative--an additional, circular stage of rethinking history-telling. The books allow readers to access both note and narrative, intensely and simultaneously. Given what de Certeau calls "an ideology of 'real' or 'true' historical 'facts' [that] still hovers in the air of our time" (75), and given the particular authority of professional or professional-sounding historical discourse in providing/constructing such truth, this effect of dual intensity may require that the books allow us to experience the stories as (ambiguously historical) fictions before presenting us with competing historical apparatuses.
Pat Barker's Regeneration, Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient, and their notes look, on the surface, radically different from The Handmaid's Tale and its "Historical Notes." Barker's and Ondaatje's notes seem tacked on, separate, truly/merely 'factual' and thus innocuous. They are brief, about two pages each, and non-narrative. They are spoken in the voice of the author-as-researcher, not with The Handmaid's Tale's ethical and temporal distance between its implied author and Pieixoto's highly suspect perspective. They do, however, enact similar notions of entombment and haunting, producing meaning in the gap and/or relationship between the two. As in The Handmaid's Tale, the otherness of narrative-to-note and of note-to-narrative is the site of each text's concern about history-writing.
As such, the narratives and notes of each text are not independent. The note is not, in any of these texts, tacked on as an entertaining aside or polite acknowledgement (even if it also serves those purposes). (13) Very much to the contrary, this pull--between the documented, 'real,' authenticated past-as-buried-and-commemorated and the refusal of the dead to stay in their tombs and be examined--makes room for historical truths that might be unspeakable or inaudible in another form. The texts enact and produce awareness of the simultaneous and related unknowability and power of the past.
When Amy Novak writes that The English Patient "reveals the impossibility of articulating the specter of a traumatic past ... within the space of the knowable," she could very well be discussing Regeneration. (14) The latter tells stories about 'shell-shocked' World War I officers at a mental hospital where they are to be 'cured' and sent back to the front, and in doing so it questions the historical record's ability to capture the experiences of people who themselves cannot understand or express those experiences with any certainty or clear sense of meaning. In an effort to imagine the emotional experience rather than just the 'facts' of the war, this novel performs a filling-in operation with documents, including poems written by suffering soldiers. Like that of The English Patient as well as The Handmaid's Tale, the main narrative of Regeneration emphasizes the role of trauma in blurring lines and collapsing the linear time of progress narratives.
And like "Historical Notes on The Handmaid's Tale," Barker's "Author's Note" kills everyone off through the conventional discourse of history: the haunted/ing poet and protester Sassoon becomes "Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967)," and the troubled and committed psychologist Rivers turns into "Dr W. H. R. Rivers, FRS (1864-1922), the distinguished neurologist and social anthropologist, who then held the rank of captain in the RAMC" (251). Through devices such as these birth-to-death dates and an emphasis on rank (which the main narrative lacks or even subverts), the note treats these people's histories as safely filed away, very much in contrast to the narrative's implications. Its inclusion both falls back on traditional historical documentation and, in its contrast with the narrative, asserts that historical fiction can go beyond documentation into truths unreachable by other modes of historical thinking.
The "Acknowledgements" and main narrative(s) of The English Patient are even more clearly opposed in their treatments of history. The majority of this text works diligently to critique history-telling and the assumptions that tend to accompany it; it also insists upon a distinction between histories and novels. Hana, who takes care of the nameless "English patient" in a bombed and broken villa, muses, "Many books open with an author's assurance of order. One slipped into their waters with a silent paddle." She quotes from a history and continues, "But novels commenced with hesitation or chaos. Readers were never fully in balance" (93). Like the novels Hana has read, The English Patient pays a great deal of attention to human experiences of imbalance, hesitation, and chaos. Thus, ending the text on what looks like an attempt to include or even be factual, documented, ordered history is a fascinating move.
The Patient makes fun of such scholarly and historical records while pointing out the content that they drop, representing academic discourse as inadequate to lived experience. He mimics a colleague and observes, "That is the way Madox spoke to other geographers at Kensington Gore. But you do not find adultery in the minutes of the Geographical Society. Our room never appears in the detailed reports which chartered every knoll and every incident of history" (145). While the authority of each voice in The English Patient is constantly under question, the Patient's argument here is a convincing one. It is further supported by the small-lives-outside-history action of the novel, in which human experience and meaning are explored not through these characters' parts in the historic (World War II) but rather after they have escaped History and are quietly surveying the damages. On the other hand, the inclusion of the note, with its assertion that Ondaatje performed archival and secondary research in producing the main narratives, suggests that the novel posits history as problematic but vitally important--that it revises or grapples with, rather than rejecting, history-telling.
More basically, the note also functions to let us know that these are 'real people' in the first place. As Novak points out, the narrative itself does not alert us with a "replay of great historical moments populated with recognizably historical figures," (15) as do many more traditional historical novels. Furthermore, the "Acknowledgements" both finalize or close off the narrative and further open it out into the world's histories, after a narrative whose extensive intertextuality renders its borders quite permeable. The tensions between these parts' treatments of the past make visible the tensions and interactions between disciplined historical knowledge and the unspeakable and between present and past.
Such tensions are especially evident in the role of Katharine, the Patient's lover and a figure in the novel's epigraph and "Acknowledgements." Throughout The English Patient, the title character is haunted by other times and places, by violent events and the memory of this dead lover, by his own inability to identify himself and other characters' desire to identify him. As he tells stories about his past to the other characters, we are presented with a series of especially uncanny images set in a cave that has become a tomb, a tomb that is now violated--a series that can offer insight into the structural and hauntological workings of all the texts in question here. In this sequence, the Patient recalls himself "among the familiar paintings he had found years earlier.... He walked farther into the coldness, into the Cave of Swimmers, where he had left [Katharine]" (169). He narrates: "I approached her naked as I would have done in our South Cairo room, wanting to undress her, still wanting to love her.... The dusk of graves. With the connotation of intimacy between the dead and the living.
"I lifted her into my arms from the shelf of sleep.... was used to her like this in my arms, she had spun around me in my room like a human reflection of the fan" (170-71).
Later, he carries Katharine's body to a hidden airplane, which he unburies, and places her body in the seat next to him as though she were alive (174-75); when the plane crashes, she seems to die again. Obviously, the play of "the familiar" (paintings, woman, posture) and the radically different, the "intimacy between the dead and the living," and the treatment of a corpse as a living person are unsettling. Katharine's body, too, is literally unsettled, and history (both as death and as Herodotus's Histories, which the Patient had left with the wounded Katharine three years before ) is taken from the tomb into the living and war-torn world. This sequence dramatizes a blurring that all of these texts force us to acknowledge, and which forms their most basic resistance to traditional historical approaches--the uncertain division of and dreadful but pressing relationships between the living and the dead, the present and history.
This blurring is underscored by the eeriness of seeing Katharine dead in the cave before we see her alive there; in the text's larger structure, we know she is dead before we even meet her alive. Indeed, the first lines we read in this novel are in an epigraph "From the minutes of the Geographical Society meeting of November 194-, London": "Most of you, I am sure, remember the tragic circumstances of the death of Geoffrey Clifton at Gilf Kebir, followed later by the disappearance of his wife, Katharine Clifton, which took place during the 1939 desert expedition in search of Zerzura." The speaker quickly turns from the subject, and the epigraph ends, "The lecture this evening ..." Katharine's brief, official-sounding commemoration in the beginning, rather than burying her satisfyingly, cultivates readers' curiosity about this character and about what is 'real' and what is fictional.
Katharine's presentation in the text, not unlike the inverted order of narrative-then-note, involves a temporal disjunction that runs contrary to the traditional impulses of both professional history-writing and the historical novel. Considering the differences between postmodern and traditional historical novels, Novak contends that the latters' depictions of "the past in such a way as to make it familiar, to make it 'homely,"' leaves "unacknowledged ... its radical irreducibility from the present." (16) For her, The English Patient is able to acknowledge this difference and to access historical truth that remains unavailable to works governed by "the desire to make the past 'unstrange' in fiction [or] in historiography," works whose project is "to contain and know the past" (225). In some ways, historiography is itself an uncanny undertaking; according to de Certeau, "founded on the rupture between a past that is its object, and a present that is the place of its practice, history endlessly finds the present in its object and the past in its practice[, i]nhabited by the uncanniness that it seeks" (36). However, and vitally, even if academic history-telling is an unhomely endeavor, that "discipline that deals with death" (47) so often "haunted by what it attempt[s] to foreclose" (Derrida, 39), it does attempt that foreclosure. The texts discussed here differ from traditional fictional and academic uses of history in their open acknowledgement of the tricky ghosts abroad, an awareness expressed in part by their use of notes after narratives rather than traditional historical prefaces.
Regeneration places readers as well as characters "in an uneasy 'no-man's-land' between past and present; although the past cannot be 'regenerated' or brought again into existence, its specters compulsively haunt the present ...," (17) according to Anne Whitehead. This "no-man's-land" between past and present and between articulation and silence is the territory of these novels, marked in each by what Ankhi Mukherjee calls "the interpretable discontinuities in the text that are its truly historical moments and that are livid with an inarticulable desire to know the nonmeaning, or true meaning, of the trauma of war." (18) Similarly, Novak argues that "The act of memory in [The English Patient] does not lay the past to rest, but rather, conjures forth specters of a traumatic history ... that cannot be contained." (19) These effects are accomplished through the inclusion of 'real,' 'true' history (in the cases of Regeneration and The English Patient) that is marked in the notes, and through the conventions of professional historical practice that all three novels' notes perform. To reconfigure our relationship to history and to cause us to experience history-as-haunting, the novels must invoke history and its procedures.
My final text, Dead Certainties (Unwarranted Speculations), has a more immediate relationship with the discipline of history, which its author has taught at Cambridge, Oxford, Harvard, and Columbia Universities. Schama has also written more traditional histories, as well as television series for the BBC. Dead Certainties deals overtly with questions of historiography at much greater length than do the three novels discussed so far, and it need not work to invoke history--history is always already at issue here. Further differences also set this text apart from the others, despite their similar concerns. It has four parts rather than two, and correspondingly multiplied intratextual relationships amongst a set of narratives focused on General James Wolfe, another set concerning John White Webster and the murder of George Parkman, an "Afterword," and "A Note On Sources." Unlike Regeneration, The English Patient, or The Handmaid's Tale, Dead Certainties uses its narratives as extended examples and is not 'about' Wolfe or Parkman or Webster in the sense that the other three books are about their characters and events; instead, it is about history-telling. Although Schama himself refers to the book's narratives as "novellas" (322) and critics have debated whether Dead Certainties is fiction or history, (20) it seems that Schama is writing neither fiction nor history per se but a lively discussion of historiography.
Partly because Schama is a historian, Dead Certainties has been criticized precisely for putting its "Afterword" and "Note on Sources" at the end of the text instead of opening with them. Christopher Lehmann-Haupt concludes that Schama's "Afterword" "makes sense but is just not compelling enough to justify the mystification that precedes it. It would have been preferable had Mr. Schama announced his intentions at the outset, and readers are advised to read the afterword first. Then one can enjoy without unnecessary distraction what turn out to be two highly entertaining but not very extraordinary specimens of historical fiction." (21) But putting it first would defeat what I see as the book's purpose, which is to (get readers to) question the line between history-writing and fiction-writing, the possibility of knowing the past, and the reliability of historical narrators and evidence. Achieving that purpose depends partly on the order of these pieces of the text; the indulgence of Lehmann-Haupt's preference would leave us with mediocre historical fiction while impeding the book's valuable work.
Dead Certainties functions by producing confused--or at least curious, or possibly misled--readers in its main narratives and then causing us to feel both self-conscious and conscious of disciplinary lines and responsibilities in its "Afterword" and "Note on Sources." By this reading, Keith Windschuttle's complaints are significantly off-track. He writes, "Readers who come looking for history and find they are offered 'imaginative reconstructions' will inevitably feel cheated.... When the book's readers arrive at the Afterword, they find that [the opening first-person account] and other passages were merely what Schama admits are composite assemblies from several different documents. However, once some of a book of history is discovered to be fabricated, the reader can never be sure that it is not all made up." (22) The point, though, is not to satisfy and encourage our assumptions about history-telling; it is to unsettle those assumptions and show us that the ground of historiography is shaky. Lehmann-Haupt's desire to avoid "unnecessary distraction" and "mystification" is similarly misguided. Even the book's full title, Dead Certainties (Unwarranted Speculations), enacts dual drives for a history of "dead certainties" and for attention to the filling-in operation of historical narrative, which is to say, attention to the gaps that call for filling. This latter drive is parenthetical but not deleted, and the "Afterword" and "Note on Sources" follow the narratives for a reason.
Furthermore, these two sections are by no means equivalent, and their differences are as loaded and lively as those between all of these texts' main narratives and notes. In Dead Certainties, the Wolfe and Parkman/Webster narratives perform and amplify the complications Schama sees in history-writing. The "Afterword" then opens those complications to an awareness of the unknowable and forgotten, attending to the instability of lines between fact and fiction, research and imagination, past and present--"the teasing gap separating a lived event and its subsequent narration" (320). The "Note on Sources," on the other hand, attempts to chart which parts of the narratives are 'really' factual and which fictional. It delineates the "[t]wo kinds of passages that are purely imagined fiction" and then lists particular sources, disagreements among accounts, and where Schama found what material. This section works to reinstate firm divisions within each of the pairs unsettled by the "Afterword," burying the dead-and/as-gone and taking history as knowable, documented, and clearly categorized. While the "Note on Sources" does backtrack from the more radical implications of the "Afterword," though, it does not undo those implications. Its claims about fact and authority operate under the shadow of the "Afterword" as well as that of the preceding, tricky narratives.
Those narratives stage the problems of evidence, motivation, logic, and truth that plague history-telling. The representation of the Webster trial, for instance, interrogates the use of narratives to determine 'guilt' and questions the reliability of eyewitness testimony. During the trial, one of the prosecuting attorneys reflects on the proceedings and emphasizes that ordinary people want stories and endings, not "uncertainty" (243). Later, as the Parkman/Webster chapters come to a close and we approach the "Afterword," the narrator muses on forgetting and history, picturing the house where Webster and his family had lived, now with "many names and signs reading: THE FOLLOWING ARE NOT HERE." He imagines the building being demolished, haunted by Webster's daughters: "Windows haunted by the white faces of three girls anxiously scanning a catcalling crowd will be smashed to shivers; the entire fabric of its history pulverized to dust and expelled into the air" (316). It is in such acknowledgement of uncertainty, inaccessibility, absence, and inadequacy that we find a historiography open to the spectral.
Although Dead Certainties and The Handmaid's Tale seem the most distant of this essay's four primary texts on a fiction-to-history continuum, they share a pressing concern with the responsibilities of scholars and the ethics of history-telling. (23) These two texts use their notes on sources, in part, to implicate us in habits or desires that their narratives (and the "Afterword" to Dead Certainties) have made deeply troubling. By allowing us to experience multiple narratives, breaking down the barrier between 'fact' and 'fiction,' and then working to recuperate that distinction, Schama leads readers to catch ourselves in uncomfortable acts of trust. Scholars of The Handmaid's Tale are attentive to this function of its "Historical Notes"; Norris, for instance, argues that "Atwood has ... neatly forced us into being shocked at our own failure to condemn ourselves" (24) for our flawed, dehumanizing habits of historical thought. He explains that the difference between Pieixoto and the narrator of the main narrative produces "a kind of slippage in which the boundaries between fiction and history dissolve.... [I]n that we observe the historicizing process violating what we know to be true about Offred's horrifying experience, we also call the process of historicizing into question; and certainly in this case we stop privileging history (Pieixoto's) over her story (Offred's)" (359).
The "Historical Notes," as they interact with the Tale, invite readers to distrust scholars engaged with history; for a certain readership, that means distrusting ourselves. Jennifer Wagner-Lawlor observes, "Atwood underscores her point by her intensely ironic ... portrayal of the tale's reconstruction and reception by Professor Pieixoto and other scholars.... For academics, this extremely satiric epilogue leaves a particularly bad taste in the mouth." The point, for Wagner-Lawlor, is "that 'we intellectuals' especially must strive to be ironists, for that alone will lead not to Truth with a capital T ... but to a true possibility of freedom." (25) Perhaps "we intellectuals" must be especially careful, not because we are so terribly important, but because we tend to seek knowledge at the expense of acknowledging the unknown or unknowable other, the silent or silenced or unspeakable. Regeneration, The English Patient, and Dead Certainties voice and/or perform comparable warnings regarding the treatment and use of history in the production and consumption of texts.
When we read or tell history, we tend to assume a one-way examination: I study the past. In histories, even if we cannot contain the dead in their tombs, it is at least clear who are the specters and who the haunted. But in the worlds represented by Atwood, Ondaatje, Barker, and Schama, alongside two-way relationships between narratives and notes, we encounter complicated and multiple relationships with our ghosts. All four narratives dramatize the uncanny uncertainty of distinguishing ghost and living person. In Regeneration, for instance, Sassoon sees a specter in his room one night, looks in the mirror, and thinks that his face "looked scarcely less ghostly than Orme's. A memory tweaked the edges of his mind. Another glass, on the top landing at home, a dark, oval mirror framing the face of a small, pale child. Himself" (145): he looks at his ghostly figure looking back at him as he remembers his younger self looking back. Such uncanny blurring also affects Rivers as authority figure, psychologist, and scholar when he finds himself impacted by his patients as much as they are by him; Barker's novel suggests that studying an other is neither predictable nor controllable. When we are not sure who we are or what identity means, otherness is a complicated and easily inverted proposition--when, for example, the narrator of The Handmaid's Tale feels that she is absent (from her daughter's life, from recorded history) like a ghost, or when Ondaatje's Patient "could not remember where he was from ... [and] could have been, for all he knew, the enemy he had seen fighting from the air" (6). For his part, Schama not only warns explicitly of the challenges of history-writing in his "Afterword" but also depicts the ambiguity of evidence and narrative--and thus the awesome power of those who wield them--in his account of the Webster trial. As a whole, Dead Certainties asks readers to approach with enormous skepticism the dead certainties we are tempted to posit in history, and to maintain a sense of those undocumentable "white faces of three girls anxiously scanning a catcalling crowd" (316).
But neither Dead Certainties nor any of the other texts suggests we ought not to attend to the past; indeed, they imply that such a course would be both deeply negligent and impossible. Instead, they insist we remember that such study is an ethical and not just an epistemological activity. Although we cannot literally conjure the dead to give them a voice in our struggles over historical meaning, these texts suggest that imagining the past should involve awareness of what we cannot know, what is withheld from us by our imperfect access to the dead-and-gone, along with a genuine engagement with the ethical and political weight and unknowable human reality of the past. Problematically, Derrida acknowledges, "The subject that haunts is not identifiable, one cannot see, ... one cannot decide between hallucination and perception," but in an ethical historical engagement, "one feels oneself looked at by what one cannot see" (136). Like Specters of Marx, these texts ask us to approach the immense suffering and ungraspable complexity of history rather than understanding history as a collection of cleanly documented narratives with singular meanings or as romantic adventures in the dusty archives, of antiquarian interest to scholars and hobbyists.
In keeping with this conflicted project of approaching documented history simultaneously to use and to distrust and critique it, these books include curiosity and evidence (epistemology) as well as unknowability and difference (ethics). They thus tell not only ghost stories but also detective stories. By Whitehead's definitions, in the former, "the specters of the past persistently haunt the present," while the latter is based on "the mastery of the past through a process of interpretation." (26) The tension between the dual drives to contain the past and to haunt and be haunted is never resolved and is vital to the books' production of meaning and historiographic questioning. Despite the genre's postmodern distrust of absolute truth or factuality (and the validity of Novak's claim that it embraces the past's "radical irreducibility from the present" (27)), Martha Tuck Rozett is correct in arguing that "[f]or readers of the new historical fiction something analogous [to the desires produced in detective fiction] occurs. How much is invented and how much is history, we find ourselves wanting to know." (28) That question becomes part of the game in historiographic metafiction, allowing 'history' to act as another and a privileged intertext.
Indeed, a reader of these books "derives pleasure from the sense of mastering the past through interpretation." (29) We experience suspense and curiosity: we want to find proper names for 'the English patient' and 'the Handmaid,' to determine the guilt or innocence of Webster, to discover what happened to Rivers's patient Prior to cause his muteness and amnesia. The narratives and notes cultivate and sometimes fulfill these desires. As Norris observes, for instance, we are "very much interested in" what the main narrator of The Handmaid's Tale does not tell us, "and the historical notes enable Atwood to fill in the background." (30) More explicitly, each "Author's Note" at the end of Regeneration and the other two books of the Regeneration trilogy begins with a sentence acknowledging the utility and desirability of historical data to a reader of these fictions. On the other hand, these texts insist on extending beyond such urges. Just as the novels must conjure and perform elements of historiography in order to critique them as incomplete, the novels must involve these familiar desires and goals in order to unsettle them. Perhaps most pointedly, in witnessing Pieixoto's desire to identify the Tale's teller and to authenticate it as a document, we learn to see our similar curiosities as grossly inadequate to the traumatic, personal history conveyed in the main narrative.
Like these texts, Derrida also voices reservations about 'us scholars' and our modes of knowledge. He ties ethics to our ability to respond (our responsibility) to the unknowable and unspeakable: "Here is--or rather there is, over there, an unnameable or almost unnameable thing: something, between something and someone, anyone or anything, some thing, 'this thing,' but this thing and not any other that looks at us, that concerns us" (6). He invokes Hamlet and Marcellus's request--'"Thou art a Scholler--speake to it, Horatio,' ... as if he were taking part in a colloquium. He appeals to the scholar ... as a spectator who better understands how to establish the necessary distance or how to find the appropriate words for observing, better yet, for apostrophizing the ghost" (12). But that sort of scholar is not "capable, between the opposition between presence and non-presence, actuality and inactuality, life and non-life, of thinking the possibility of the specter, the specter as possibility" (12). Along with these four texts, Derrida asks us, as scholars and as (hi)story-tellers, to learn to think the specter--to cultivate awareness of and openness to others we cannot control, pin down, or 'know' in any traditional sense but whose reality we must not conveniently ignore.
Two of the many specters haunting The English Patient are the bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which explode into the text with all the weight of large-scale history crashing into the made-up or minor historical figures gathered peacefully in the villa. For Kip, the meaning of everything around him changes when he hears the news of the bombings. As Novak notes, Hana's reflection on the events teaches that "to be able to construct a logical and ordered history of this event, would be an act of injustice," because "Justice requires not only the act of rationalizing, of constructing a smooth and logical account ..., but of remembering and maintaining contradictions ... listening for what is silent or unspeakable." (31) Similarly, for Derrida justice is only possible when "This spectral someone other looks at us, we feel ourselves being looked at by it, outside of any synchrony, ... according to an absolutely unmasterable disproportion ... seen by a look which it will always be impossible to cross" (7, emphasis in original). These four texts, in demanding retrospective reading and in embodying and dramatizing tensions within historiography, ask their readers to encounter the past and all those other Others with attention to that irreducible otherness, the difference that shuts down a certain type of knowledge but is productive of others. For these books, "The truth of history resides in this 'in-between' on which a work marks its limits" (de Certeau, 38), in this realm of skulls and/or spirits.
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
(1.) Linda Hutcheon, "'The Pastime of Past Time': Fiction, History, Historiographic Metafiction," in Postmodern Genres, ed. Marjorie Perloff (Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1989), 54-55.
(2.) Martha Tuck Rozett, Constructing a World: Shakespeare's England and the New Historical Fiction (Albany: State U of New York P, 2003), 32. Rozett refers specifically to Patricia Finney's Firedrake's Eye and is not launching a general theory of the author's note; I intend not to contest her reading but to assert this more straightforward relationship's inadequacy to the four texts I discuss below.
(3.) Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International, (New York: Routledge, 1994), 9. All further references to this text will be cited parenthetically.
(4.) Simon Schama, Dead Certainties (Unwarranted Speculations) (New York: Vintage, 1991), 327. All further references to this text will be cited parenthetically.
(5.) Michel de Certeau, The Writing of History, trans. Tom Conley (New York: Columbia UP, 1988), 37-38. All further references to this text will be cited parenthetically.
(6.) Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale (New York: Fawcett Crest, 1985), 379. All further references to this text will be cited parenthetically.
(7.) Brian McHale, "Postmodernism, or the Anxiety of Master Narratives," Diacritics 22.1 (1992): 21, 25, drawing our attention to Linda Hutcheon, A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction (New York, Routledge, 1988), 59, 139.
(8.) The distinction between "frame" and "reframe" is significant in a reading of these texts' 'Notes.' As Dominick Grace observes, "While The Handmaid's Tale is often described as a frame narrative, in fact there is no analogue for the 'Historical Notes' at the beginning.... The 'Historical Notes' force a purely retrospective reevaluation of the text." "The Handmaid's Tale: 'Historical Notes' and Documentary Subversion," Science-Fiction Studies 25 (1998): 483.
(9.) Grace, 487.
(10.) Arranged and presented by Pieixoto and possibly inauthentic, the narrative may not genuinely air an oppressed voice. This problem further underscores the text's concern with the unknowable yet vital aspects of history. Still, a reader's experience of the narrative up to (and quite possibly after) the "Historical Notes" is one of accessing 'history from below.'
(11.) Norris, 360.
(12.) David S. Hogsette, "Margaret Atwood's Rhetorical Epilogue in The Handmaid's Tale: The Reader's Role in Empowering Offred's Speech Act," Critique 38.4 (1997): 263.
(13.) For a useful discussion of these functions of the author's note in "the new historical fiction," see Rozett, 23-24 and 114.
(14.) Amy Novak, "Textual Hauntings: Narrating History, Memory, and Silence in The English Patient," Studies in the Novel 36.2 (2004): 215.
(15.) Novak, 225.
(16.) Novak, 225.
(17.) Anne Whitehead, "Open to Suggestion: Hypnosis and History in Pat Barker's Regeneration," Modern Fiction Studies 44.3 (1998): 692.
(18.) Ankhi Mukherjee, "Stammering to Story: Neurosis and Narration in Pat Barker's Regeneration," Critique 43.1 (2001): 57, emphasis in original.
(19.) Novak, 213.
(20.) Rozett calls the text a "pair of linked historical novellas by ... Schama, whose scholarship has hitherto fallen squarely in the category of nonfiction. Dead Certainties was given a Library of Congress 'F' classification for history rather than a 'PS' for American fiction," 25. See also Cushing Strout, "Border Crossings: History, Fiction, and Dead Certainties," History and Theory 31.2 (1992): 153-62; and Diana Solano, "Historia Nervosa: Diagnosing Historians' Literary Anxieties," Southern Review 28.2 (1995): 226-39.
(21.) Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, "When History Is Just One Puzzle After Another," New York Times, 9 May 1991, late ed., C21. More damningly, Gertrude Himmelfarb criticizes Schama for "introduc[ing] entirely fictional characters and scenes into what might appear to be a conventional work of history ..., identifying them as 'pure inventions' only in an 'Afterword." "Telling It As You Like It: Postmodernist History and the Flight from Fact," Times Literary Supplement, 16 October 1992, 14.
(22.) Keith Windschuttle, The Killing of History: How Literary Critics and Social Theorists are Murdering Our Past (New York: Free P, 1996), 229-30.
(23.) Interestingly, these two texts have been the objects of similar criticism. Grace claims that "the contextualizing exposition occurs in the 'Historical Notes' section, a curious narrative decision given the novel's repeated assertion that context is all, and the cause of numerous complaints that the novel does not provide a believable rationale for the rise of the Gileadeans--it does so only retrospectively, and in the voice of a highly questionable authority," 484. Here, Grace refers to Jamie Dopp and Chinmoy Banerjee.
(24.) Norris, 362. See also Grace, 489-90.
(25.) Jennifer Wagner-Lawlor, "From Irony to Affiliation in Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale," Critique 45.1 (2003): 92.
(26.) Whitehead, 678.
(27.) Novak, 225.
(28.) Rozett, 25.
(29.) Whitehead, 688.
(30.) Norris, 358.
(31.) Novak, 224.
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2006|
|Previous Article:||The Mirror of Narcissus: history, metaphysics, and the limits of Richard Rorty's pragmatism.|
|Next Article:||The Demonic Side of Witchcraft.|