Saturday, October 14, 2006

Historical Novel and the Historical Reality (1st part)

Pekic has delivered this lecture under the title "The Historical Novel and Historical Reality" at the UCL, School of Slavonic and East European Studies, on 14th March 1984. It was published as an essay in Serbian in the 12th volume of Borislav Pekić's Collected Works, Belgrade, by Partizanska knjiga in the same year. English translation © by Bernard Johnson. 

for 2nd part HERE

Ladies and Gentlemen,


I find myself in the awkward position of a craftsman called upon to speak about the theory of his trade, a theory which goes much further then either my own capabilities or my practical requirements. When you are cutting up the cloth for a suit, its a little use to know how scissors were invented. The only thing that matters is whether you can use them properly or not.

But, since I am in this position, I must do the best I can. So having made this reservation, I shall end my excuses here, and proceed with my task.

From different roots some of which may well seem to you round-about, passing through divergent and convergent circles of perception, I should hope to arrive at certain conclusions regarding the nature of relationship between imagination and experience, or between artistic reality in the historical novel and the historical reality of the past. That is my chosen theme.

These conclusions will form the basis of my thesis, which I shall then, within the limits of the time at my disposal, attempt to illustrate from two groups of historical novels: the first I consider to be successful and the second unsuccessful.

The first group is made up of "Joseph and His Brothers" (Josef und seine Brüder) by my spiritual teacher Thomas Mann, "Hadrian's Memoirs" (Les memoirs d'Hadrian) by Marguerite Yourcenar, "A Time of Death" (Vreme smrti) by Dobrica Ćosić and don't be too surprised "1984" by George Orwell. "War and Peace" has been omitted intentionally. The case of Tolstoy is too complex to be attempted in a brief outline.

The second group is comprised of a single book, but it nevertheless provides an excellent illustration of the rationalist and positivist tradition of the historical novel, so dear to writers of the Anglo-Saxon language background. I believe a single piece of evidence sufficient to show inadequacy, whereas rather more are needed to give proof of virtue.

And of course it is much pleasanter to praise then to criticize. Particularly when it’s a question of a writer one values highly, with the sole proviso that he should not take his themes from the Eastern Mediterranean and certainly not venture into the Aegean Sea.

I am speaking, as you may have guessed, of Robert Graves. I could have taken his "Golden Fleece" as my example, but however much a failure it may be in spiritual and philosophical terms, it remains a story written by a witty, cultured and intelligent man. So instead I chose "Count Belisarius".

There is also a third group, about which I can offer no judgment, but of which I can speak. It consists of the historical sections of my own seven volume novel "Zlatno runo" and of my as yet still only projected "Srebrna ruka".
I intend to begin my examination of the problem from a number of different angles:
The first is artistic.
The second is psychological – psychiatric.
The third is biological-paleontological.
The fourth and last is archeological-anthropological (in a wider sense - historiographical).

My artistic example is not from literature. I thought that I should have more then enough literally examples and that it would be of interest to approach the subject from the point of view of a different art form. I have chosen the cinema, not only because I have had a certain amount of personal creative experience with it, but because in my judgment films are incomparably closer to the structure of the novel then the more apparently similar theatrical drama.

L.Walesa My model is Andrzej Wajda's "Danton". Deceived by the press's ridiculous simplification, which saw the film as an allegory of contemporary Poland - Walesa as Danton and Jaruzelski as Robespierre - I went along to the cinema in some fear and trepidation. But my faith in Wajda's talents was well rewarded. The film turned out to be a powerful artistic statement about the French Revolution - and through it about all revolutions – not a propaganda pamphlet dressed up in historical costume.

Wajda told a story of a crucial episode of the French Revolution from its own perspective not from ours, from its own time, not from ours. And if there is nevertheless a certain coincidental similarity with the Polish situation, it does not belong to the artistic method of illusion but to the inherent propensities of history and its habit of continually reproducing the same situations and the same states of affairs.

If Wajda had been artistically weak, and we well know how great a patriot he is, he would have succumb to the temptation to make the similarity between the France of 1780 and the Poland of 1980 immediate and striking. It would have been a chimera Dr. Carol Fairly of the Cambridge Institute of animal physiology, half sheep half goat, but in fact neither sheep nor goat. It would have been the monstrous bastard issue of an illegal and unnatural union between an honest intention and a dishonest historical falsification.

Poland is understood in the sub historical depths where all revolutionary elemental forces are linked together, and this is enough to satisfy Wajda's patriotic conscience and entirely redeeming for his artistic integrity. I shall try to prove this assertion by debunking the Danton-Walesa and Robespierre-Jaruzelski parallels which provide the basis of the parallel between the French Revolution and Poland.

It's usual to use the word revolution, although without hesitation I would say contra-revolution, since I believe that the whole history of so-called socialist Poland since 1945 has been one of a chronic benign contra-revolution with regular acute fazes, rather like malaria, which once you have caught could never be cured.

Walesa was never in power. Danton was not only in power, he was that power itself, the entire power of France, and for longer then Robespierre, even though when we speak of the French Revolution, we think of Robespierre, not of Danton. Walesa was never an executioner. Danton certainly was. The Terror, for which he in the name of the Revolution laid the foundation, cut off his head too in the name of Justice, a divine balance which served to put right the human lack of it.

Danton actually wanted a Revolution without Terror, but Walesa rejects both Revolution and Terror. Danton remained a revolutionary even under the very guillotine itself. If we extract from the concept of contra-revolution the obligatory pejorative meaning with which Marxist historiography has sullied it, Walesa was and has remained a contra-revolutionary.

Even though not in the least paradoxically, Walesa subjective contra-revolutionary nature in relation to the objective contra-revolution of Jaruzelski, appears to be revolutionary. Only two things link Danton and Walesa: the accusations of corruption made against them and their popularity. The former at the very least are premature. Danton's corruption was proved. But evidence for Walesa's has not yet been put forward. The latter is in appearance only.

The mass which followed Danton is certainly not the same as the one Walesa leads. The sources and reasons of Walesa's popularity have not changed. Danton's did. At the beginning of the Revolution Danton was in favour because he wanted Terror, but at the end of the Revolution – it was because he rejected it. By then he no longer spoke only in the name of the weary victims of the Revolution, but in the name of its still weary of protagonists, for the victors and the vanquished equally; whereas once he had only spoken for the victors thirsty for a vengeance.

Walesa however, always spoke, and still speaks now, only in the name of the victims – the Polish people. The comparison of Robespierre with Jaruzelski is still more untenable. It is more offensive to the former and more amoral from the point of view of an attempt to find any kind of sense at all, for their troubled history. I should like to emphasis only two significant differences: even in his most radical mistakes Robespierre defended the Revolution and its idea.

Jaruzelski stands only for the power of the Party and the seat from which it is exercised; a power with which the ideas and the ideals of Revolution have long since ceased have anything in common. Robespierre was a revolutionary who was tragically wrong; Jaruzelski is a contra-revolutionary on a somber but right road.

Robespierre was the sovereign lord of a sovereign country. Jaruzelski is only the instrument of a foreign power in a country whose sovereignty is highly problematic. The only similarity is in the dark glasses affected by them both.

Nevertheless it seems worth wile discussing the film "Danton", because it most strikingly illustrates both the theme of this talk and my eventual answers to question, of what the relationship between historical reality and the historical novel should be.

The second angle from which I wish to view the problem is, so to speak, a professional one. As a student of experimental psychology I often tested subjects with the aid of Rorschach-ink-blot Technique. Its aim is to bring to the surface of conciseness elements of which it would otherwise be unaware and thus reveal the possible causes of certain mental deviations from the normal.

The blots themselves are a series of varied dot-shapes, which are arrived at by dropping ink onto clean paper from a given height. The result in blots are always different in outline and to a lesser or greater extent show a similarity with some objects of human experience, from an open umbrella, through an empty deck chair on a beach, to - let us suppose - a women in labor.

In my experience, and evidently for everyone else also, it never happens that two different individuals undergoing the test see the same thing in one and the same blot. The area of experience with which we writers struggle in our books is a series of such Rorschach-ink-blots, in who's objective and inaccessible reality each one of us sees some different content; a reality which is often fundamentally different from its reality in the eyes of other observers, and in all probability from that "reality in it self" as well.

And so, since we are incapable of reconciling our view points even about something which we experienced mutually, in which we are both witnesses and participants, since so called mutual reality seems quite different to each one of u, as if not belonging to the same dimension, to the same world, how, in God's name, are we to arrive at an objective, rational, unified conception of something which no longer exists, something which long ago disappeared from living memory and documents of the human species, and which only here and there like the remains of primeval monsters has left behind just some half eaten half obliterated bone?
for 2nd part HERE

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