Hayden White, “The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality”

1980

“So natural is the impulse to narrate, so inevitable is the form of narrative for any report of the way things really happened, that narrativity could appear problematical only in a culture in which it was absent – absent or, as in some domains of contemporary Western intellectual and artistic culture, programmatically refused” 5.

Narrative is how we “translate knowing into telling, the problem of fashioning human experience into a form assimilable to structures of meaning that are generally human rather than culture-specific” 5 [fashioning, faceting]. Narrative is, as Barthes says, “translatabel without fundamental damage” 6. It is not a code among many, but a metacode. Is a refusal of narrative the absence of meaning itself?

We either openly  narrate or we covertly narrativize 7. In the latter, “events seem to tell themselves” 8. This is artificial, since we demand a difference between real and imaginary now. History is the space where the imaginary is tied to the factual. For White, what is true reads as real “only insofar as it can be shown to posses the character of narrativity,” potentially a psychological issue 10.

He gives the example of “liminal” or “extreme” events recorded by monks in Gaul in the 8th century. It is emptied out of causality, agency, and relative temporality. The list of years goes on after the data runs out, and there are many gaps. Crucially, every narrative, no matter how full, leaves things out that might have been included. Therefore “we must conclude that [the list] is a product of an image of reality in which the social system, which alone could provide the diacritical markers for ranking the importance of events, is only minimally present to the consciousness of the writer, or, rather, is present as a factor in the composition of the discourse only by virtue of its absence” 14. It is a very lack of agency that the liminal events suggest to this culture – they are at the mercy of the events, so the historian’s agency is likewise effaced.

Hegel claimed that happy years were “blank pages” in history [think about this with the nostalgia film!] and that “a genuinely historical account had to display not only a certain form, that is, the narrative, but also a certain content, namely, a political-social order” 15. The reality of narration is “the conflict between desire, on the one side, and the law, on the other” 16.

If narrative is not mere sequence, doesn’t it always seek to moralize? The Gaul annalist does not organize by time but theme, imaginatively organized by “the Lord.” The chronicle, on the other hand, at least appears to unfold a plot – it is “a self-conscious fashioning activity” that presents itself as some kind of authority or force 21.

“Common opinion has it that the plot of a narrative imposes a meaning on the events that comprise its story level by revealing at the end a structure that was immanent in the events all along” 23. But for White, all things remembered and set in a sequence seem similarly immanent. Historical discourse “makes the real desirable” through narrative. It can shuffle the events if they are “history.” “The embarrassment of plot to historical narrative is reflected in the all but universal disdain with which modern historians regard the ‘philosophy of history,’ of which Hegel provides the modern paradigm” 24. “The demand for closure in the historical story is a demand… for moral meaning” 24.

The value of narrativity is that of moralizing judgment. But the division of historical discourse into chronicles, annals, and history is already a division of narrativities. We want “real events [to] display the coherence, integrity, fullness, and closure of an image of life that is and can only be imaginary” 27. He ends, “Could we ever narrativize without moralizing?” 27

 

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