The ethics of Mimesis: Postmodernism and the possibility of history
Langford, Larry L.
Morris, Wesley A.
Doctor of Philosophy
Almost every attempt to distinguish literature from history begins in empiricism and ends in ethics. Much depends upon this long-standing distinction and much may potentially be lost if it is compromised or collapses. But as a discipline, historiography today must confront the problem that, as in all polarities and oppositions, historical and fictional discourses adhere to one another in a symbiotic manner that makes the existence and meaning of one impossible without the other. In order to legitimate its claims to truthfulness, history has had to repress a fundamental truth about itself: any attempt to represent the past is actually a literary re-creation that is as much the result of the projection or transference of desire as of objective description and analysis. At stake in the history/fiction contrast is not just a pedagogical separation of truth from falsehood, but rather the more fundamental question of social relationships and the ability of human beings to transcend the so-called state of nature. Although Nietzsche noted with approval that the animal lives unhistorically, just such a prospect often underlies those arguments seeking to protect history from fiction. Modern conceptions of the differences between nature and human society, and of history and fiction as well, can be traced back to the Enlightenment and its attempt to universalize the idea of reason as the standard by which to measure historical progression. But the Enlightenment's success at this project proved to be (in the eyes of many) its great failure. From the eighteenth century through to the modernist movement and beyond to postmodernism, we can trace a series of dissensions, not against the idea reason and history per se, but against an idea that promises emancipation through a process of domination, constraint and control of both the natural world and human nature. Within such a process, the "historical" continually places itself in opposition to the "natural," with historical narrative acting as the main line of defense against the expression of individual desire which fiction makes possible.