Friday, May 5, 2023

The past was another country

My introduction to history was historical fiction. After reading my way through the children's section of the college library, I started reading through the adult fiction stacks. I still read such books and enjoy films and series that use historical settings. As I learned more about history I became particularly annoyed when the fictional versions got things unnecessarily wrong. In "Disquiet on the Western Front" Alan Rome considers the most recent film version of All Quiet on the Western Front and finds it lacking. On historical fiction in general:
Historical fiction is a dialogue between past and present that necessarily reveals as much about our own society as it does about the past. This dialogue must be genuine if it is to work, but the genre is increasingly struggling to evoke a plausible past even as it reaches unprecedented heights of popularity. ....

...[H]istorical fiction has a particular responsibility towards the truth, not only because it has a moral obligation to respect the dignity and autonomy of the real people or societies that it explores but also because it claims a truth-like status for itself. It compels us by the thought that something like this could once have happened, that this was an actual way of life. It is this very compulsion that distinguishes it from a genre like fantasy, where the attraction lies more in an escapist imagining of the impossible, whether for wish-fulfilment or nightmare catharsis. ....

[Natalie Zemon] Davis has cautioned that, “Although there is an inevitable dialogue between the past and the present, the historian wants first and foremost to let the past be the past, strange before it is familiar, particular before it is universal.” Or as the novelist Mary Renault put it, “People in the past were not just like us. To pretend so is an evasion and a betrayal, turning our back on them so as to be easy among familiar things.” This is the great failure of much recent historical fiction: the unwillingness or inability to grant legitimacy to past peoples’ voices and alternate ways of life. ....

Historical fiction can, ultimately, be a vehicle for genuine historical thinking and knowledge, so long as we do not expect the same things of it as we do of traditional historiography. The value of historical representations ultimately depends on whether or not they can open up our understanding of the wholeness of life. Historical fiction at its best can be an art that subverts our complacencies, that teaches us that terrible suffering has occurred and will continue to occur, but that truth and beauty and goodness are also available in all times and places. At its rarest heights, it can be an art that makes the familiar strange and the strange familiar in the hope that we may reach beyond ourselves to a fuller intimation of being. (more)
Alan S. Rome, "Disquiet on the Western Front," Quillette, May 4, 2023.

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