Sunday, October 15, 2006

Historical Novel and Historical Reality (2nd part)

The essay has been published in Serbian in the 12th tom of Borislav Pekić's Collected Works, Belgrade, by Partizanska knjiga in 1984. Pekic has delivered a lecture under the title "The Historical Novel and Historical Reality" at the School of Slavonic Studies of the London University on the 14th March 1984, and they have published it the same year in 1984. English translation © by Bernard Johnson.

for 3rd part HERE

And so we come to the biological-paleontological example in comparison. Go to the Natural History Museum and take a look at the gigantic skeleton of a dinosaurus. All its bones are there, well preserved by the Northern Ice. And we know what the dinosaurus looked like.

K. Malevich-Suprematism-1But let us suppose that we haven't found all the bones. Just one, any one at all. We are still not left entirely helpless, Science tells us. We have at our disposal exact methods, by means of which from just one single bone, we can deduce the appearance of the animal.

The method is, of course, rather more logical, analogical, then exact in a mathematical sense. This can be seen from the diametrically opposed forms, which on the basis of the bones at their disposal, different scientists have proposed, when some other extinct species was in question.

I ask you to keep this in mind, for we shall come up against a model of this kind of pseudoscientific understanding of history again, when we get to our argument with positivistique theory of the historical novel.

But let us be tolerant. Let us allow the scientists to forget this instance, and you to forget they have forgotten about it, and then putting aside the history of their discipline say that something like that has never happened. Let us say that all the scientists, quite independently of each other, from one surviving bone managed with no difficulty at all, to reconstruct the skeleton of the animal, and from that its probable appearance.

But we shan't allow them to make use of worn out tricks of logic. They will have to tell us something of which the skeleton says nothing: was the reconstructive animal in fact a plant eater or a carnivore? For the life of that species, of its environment and the life of other animals, therefore, and species for bio-history, that is a very important piece of information, something which defines the type of animal in its bio-physical milieu.

What we know already, the animal's appearance is a triviality which tells nothing of any importance about the essential truth of life of that time. Our scientists can not tell us that, and I am very much afraid that writers too, for whom so called historical facts are the sole sources of knowledge about the times gone by, can tell us nothing of importance about the past.

Finally we arrive at the last example of the archeological-anthropological type, in pre-history or history. Let us take a look at the scanty remains which have been dug up of the Etruscan civilization together with the Minoan, one of the most mysterious on the territory of Europe. From them we can find out what the Etruscans looked like, how they dressed, how they lived.

We can even find out what kind of toilets they had. I have to admit that is not insignificant. The way in which men fulfils his basic needs says something about his standard of hygiene, and at that about his civilization which corresponds with the intellectual state of the time. But from there on, apart from by means of analogy, which our thinking and feeling predominate, we can find out nothing about of how the Etruscans felt, about what the Etruscans thought.

And it is that real history which is so often the motivation of art. The essential history of a period, at least in as far as it concerns literature, moves along invisible channels of feelings and thoughts and not along those other channels already referred to, which can be seen and along which, for the most part, flows excrement. History is something, which despite our literacy, can not be noted down or materialized, despite our architectural skill.

It is not only what has been written down or transformed into something material, and often it is not that at all. History, I am firmly convinced, is something which dies forever, without leaving behind it any credible traces, which our reason can safely turn to, beguiling us only false signposts, which lead us astray.

Allow me to illustrate this last model of our attitude towards historical reality, by my prose version of one of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's gloomier thoughts, which appears in the introduction to "The Gulag Archipelago":

"Decades will go by, the scars and sores of the past are healing over for good. In the course of this period some of the islands of the Archipelago have shuddered and dissolved and the polar sea of oblivion rolls over them. And some day in the future, this Archipelago, its air, and the bones of its inhabitants, frozen in a lens of ice, will be discovered by our descendants like some improbable salamander …"

But when the decades are past, when the ice has melted around the history of the Gulag, when archeologists of the future discover the bones of a Zek, that amazing subspecies of humanity, a mutant of our monstrous logic, nothing guarantees that that history will be correctly understood, and that Solzhenitsyn's hopes will find their true justification.

Given the possible hypothesis of the destruction of all written records, the elimination of that whole period from the memory of our species, a historical novel written only on the basis of archeological founds of the Gulag, could lead to the kind of grotesque errors, which I describe in a novel which under the title "1999", will come out at the end of this year, and which is dedicated to the memory of George Orwell one of the profoundest of historical novel writers in world literature.

I can give you a brief outline of one of the five episodes which makes a somber response to Solzhenitsyn's hopes.

The hero of the story, an archeologist from the distant future, of the very kind of whom Solzhenitsyn expects so much, expects that understanding and justice, which is not obtained from us, lives in an ultra individualist civilization, in which entirely self-contained people, each one for himself have been living for centuries without any mutual collective organizations, completely separated from each other, deprived of physical and mental contacts, and so decisively isolated that even if such contacts were possible, they would no longer be understood, since each man has developed his own individual language, purely for his own thoughts. These thoughts again are quite different from the thoughts of other people.

Our archeologist therefore lives in the civilization of absolute decadence, which has been solely killed by its worship of solitude, privacy, idleness, plenty and health, of an almost tyrannical happiness. A civilization finally which only a revolutionary idea could turn back from the edge of a biological abyss. And it is this very idea which our archeologist has discovered, buried in the Northern Ice, where Solzhenitsyn thought he had left behind only torment, suffering, misery and death.

This world saving idea is contained in the "civilization of the Gulag", which he in a strictly scientific, and I emphasize contemporary scientific manner, uses to explain the excavations and transforms into a new conception of life: the veneration of work, order, common living, self-sacrifice and a complete rejection of everything material.

All those very things which served to kill off Solzhenitsyn and his fellow sufferers are now to resurrect this new dying world. Every one of his interpretations is erroneous, although based on the facts. Every conclusion is back to front, although it rests on irreproachable logic. The Gulag appears as a new Eden, the Paradise Lost of the species, and the incarnation of long since lost Evangelical truth.

What for some had been literal hell, for others is to become an imagined Paradise. Carried away by his messianic further, the archeologist decides upon a course of action without precedent for centuries past. He sets off to search the world for another human being, in order to tell him the news, and by so doing establishes the basis for the salvation of mankind.

And he finds him. But he doesn't have time to pass on his secret. As soon as they get site of each other, both of them drop dead from the shock. After thousands of years, the site of another human being is an experience which simply can not be survived.

That, Ladies and Gentlemen, is what we can expect from our reason, in any confrontation with the darkness and ice of history!

In this way, by our four different routs we have arrived at one and the same place.

The first route, the artistic one, tells us that every age has only its own exclusive reality and it is in that very exclusiveness that is to be found its real substance which is the sole subject of good literature. It can not be replaced by any other, nor explained or criticized by any other. An attempt to interpret an apple as a pear or vice versa, could only lead to a false understanding of both.

This route tells us also that artistic and even literary criticism of real history is nonsensical, since it presupposes the necessary application of our standards of measurements to conditions which where subject to completely different principles of thought and feeling. The channels can ones again be the same. And by this very token the pedagogical demands made on the historical novel by the socialist realism, positivism, rationalism and the old fashioned type of Marxism, can be seen to be quite disastrous for art.

The second psychological – psychiatric route tells us the same thing, but not about the theme, but about us, the ones who are concerned with it. Every writer as a person sees reality for himself, quite unalike any other living, dead or not jet born. To each one of us that allegedly mutually experienced reality is like Rorschach's-ink-blot, which tells us something different. And each past reality is also like that ink-blot.

But now from where we are still less visible and inaccessible to personal experience. Objectively it doesn't exist. If it does exist, it doesn't concern us, because it has never been accessible to us. It certainly can not be reached through our reason, although perhaps through our intuition, through magic, it may be. Hence every historical novel is a personal interpretation of a general and shapeless Rorschach-ink-blot.

The other two routes, the biological-paleontological and the archeological-anthropological lead us into practical considerations. The writing of an historical novel is a painstaking and uncertain reconstruction of an extinct animal on the basis of what its tail bone looks like. It is a string of logical suppositions of everything and anything that could be thought and done by a man of whom our knowledge it is even more circumstantial then what we know about the universe. In short a task in which unless it is arrogant, pure reason, always feels ill at ease.

That is because reason, helpless with any facts at its disposal, facts which are only the external shell of real human truths, will always work hard to find alibis. That is why reason, speaking of the past, will seize upon the present which it imagines it knows.

That is why it will write historical novels, full of so called facts, which tell us hardly anything of real importance about the age it is dealing with, write historical novels which will aim at unmasking Stalin by describing Genghis Khan, write historical novels through which animated and costumed corpses of the past, will move like ghosts giving voice to out words (as in the recent TV series about the English Civil War, where they talk of kidnapping), manifest feelings which in such a form simply didn't exist, discuss ideas which were still unknown at that time, and will proceed with a bastard kind of logic which is partially our undigested own and partially the pasts wrongly understood.

The heroes of these novels will act in a way, which people of that time never would have done. And the writer in these descriptions say will marvel at the majestic whiteness of the Parthenon, which for him so finely and elegantly fits in with the rugged Greek background, whereas in fact the Parthenon was unbearably gaudily coloured (for us that is, not for the Greeks, for whom the sea was a rosy pink).
for 3rd part HERE

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