Southgate on Voices
On Bryn Hammond’s historian
Bryn Hammond provides a specific study that explicitly raises questions of wider historiographical interest. Her primary concern is to excite more people about what might seem (to a Eurocentric historian) quite an esoteric subject: epic records from the steppes of the Mongol empire. I am certainly not competent to comment on that subject-matter; but the author indicates throughout how her material impinges on the more general question of history’s relationship with fiction – and that is something I discussed in my History Meets Fiction (2009), and is a subject that continues to interest me. My main argument here is that Hammond over-estimates the difference between the two genres.
As an historical novelist, she approves of the approach to history adopted by the authors of her main text, the Secret History of the Mongols. As with other ‘secret histories’ (such as date back at least to Procopius in the sixth century), this records aspects of the past that some might have preferred forgotten. It incorporates inscriptions and oral traditions that embrace personal memories, and it is variously written in both prose and verse. These characteristics, Hammond insists, mark it out – distinguish it – from conventional histories, and show it as more akin to her own compositions as a novelist. For historians in her view are far more constrained within the limits and limitations of their empirical evidence; they don’t indulge in speculation or ‘conjecture’, since their ultimate concern is to present a coherent narrative of ‘what actually happened’. Such constrained histories, she accuses, amount to little more than ‘an impoverished string of facts’ (50-1); and one might be reminded here of Dickens’ Thomas Gradgrind in Hard Times, and his obsession with ‘facts’ at the expense of imagination or any sense of ‘wonder’. That image of the ‘dryasdust’ historian seems still to live on.
But surely this is a caricature of what historians actually do and aim to do? No less than novelists, their job is not just to collect ‘facts’ – or remnants of the past that constitute evidence – but to make sense of those building-blocks, by incorporating them into a narrative, a story that for them rings ‘true’. That story will not be found in their materials, but must be imposed upon them. For there is no inherent ‘meaning’ in the past, or in what survives from it: it is either historians or novelists – or anyone else – who are needed to give it any meaning. In other words, since ‘the past’ is irretrievably gone, and beyond anyone’s ability to access directly, it makes no sense to talk of any ‘true’ representations of it; there is just no way of testing ‘the truth’ of any claims made, either by historians or by novelists. Both are engaged in imaginatively constructing an edifice that stands for the moment, but may need modification in the light of new materials or changed perspectives.
So it really makes no sense to claim, as Bryn Hammond does, that novelists are in some sense more free to make of the past what they will – not, that is, if they claim to be ‘historical’ novelists who base their work on what actually happened in the past. And Hammond certainly seems concerned to retrieve something of that past – claiming indeed that novelists can do that more effectively than historians, inasmuch as they can take their time to understand texts in their own terms. Having no axe to grind, novelists can take an interest, not only in what actually happened, but in what might have happened and what nearly happened (108). They can, she writes, follow ‘the sense behind the scenes’ (21), examining leads that might not have been taken up in real life; they can read between the lines, and make psychologically based inferences that would lie beyond the scope of conventional histories. (These include the exploration of such abstractions as Mongols’ self-imaginings and self-understanding (50-1), the accommodation of ‘irrational behaviour’, ‘thoughts and feelings’, and ‘people’s inner lives’ (69-70).) And importantly novelists become able in this way to open up sight of possible alternatives – which makes them better able to avoid the appearance of ‘inevitability’, and ‘restore indeterminacy, contingency, accident’ (31).
Now, I have to say that, as Bryn Hammond describes what she endeavours to do as a novelist, it all sounds rather familiar – as being just what contemporary historians are doing. Indeed, I have recently been reading Lytton Strachey’s (early twentieth-century) account of the psychological complexities and personal inconsistencies in the characters of Victorians whose lives he was writing; historians, he writes, should aim at such ‘imaginative comprehension’ of people in the past as would enable us to ‘move with ease among their familiar essential feelings’. So attempts by historians to understand ‘inner lives’ is nothing new. (And surely, even Thucydides in the fifth century BC had to try to understand his subjects’ psychology in order to assess their motivations and put authentic-sounding words into their mouths?)
All in all, then, Bryn Hammond seems unaware of more recent historiographical developments, in terms of which ‘history’ is perceived, no longer as a ‘science’, but as an ‘artform’. That implies recognition that historians are required to use their imaginations to create their various stories about the past. Those stories, like those of novelists, will be based on evidence from the past, but must inevitably go beyond the empirical; they will be subjective attempts to impose meaning from a particular standpoint – so they will be admittedly contingent and provisional, with due recognition of the possibility of alternatives; and they will be replaceable (and no doubt replaced) in due course. And they will, further – in defiance of Hammond’s characterisation – take due account of discontinuities: there has been much criticism lately of those smooth, supposedly all-embracing narratives that contrive to ‘normalise’ and comfort readers rather than unsettle them. (See e.g. Primo Levi, Claude Lanzmann, and Saul Friedländer on the Holocaust, and more generally Hayden White and other theorists.)
As introduced by Bryn Hammond, then, the Secret History of the Mongols can be taken as an example of what ‘history’ should be: written in both prose and poetry, it portrays not only external acts, but also internal ‘mental and emotional states’; it is concerned with conveying psychological insights as much as describing physical events with empirically based evidence. It is small wonder that three of its earlier commentators, approved by Hammond herself, are historians whose methodology, as she admits, exactly parallels her own (109).
To conclude: both author and publisher are to be congratulated on bringing this subject, with its attendant historiographical issues, to a much wider readership in an easily accessible form; and I hope that what they have provided will form a convenient platform for further discussion.
Header image credit: Bernd Thaller, ‘Rainbow in Mongolia’. Creative Commons license.