History is a subset of creative writing
An article that appeared in Slate a few weeks ago, argues that the label of creative writers should be applied to all writers who write, journalists and academics for example, and not refer to fictional writers, novelists and poets alone. This resounds particularly true in the discipline of history, since the crafty historian has to create and recreate history from a scarce amount of documents, has to interpret them from multiple angles, imagine realities that no longer exist, and finally print the ideas on paper in a coherent way.
History is fiction; time is an illusion, as the present moment ceases to exist the moment it is realized. A historian will investigate on a topic that is not anymore, and that she most likely never even witnessed first hand, and try to resolve it through the subjective perspectives of those who could collect and record any information from it.
History is fiction; though historians seek the truth of the past, many times they have failed and wound up creating myths. Myths that have been accepted as true and inserted false memories in the collective conscious. That’s why the historian has such a responsibility towards the present and towards the future, being the record keepers of time. Inevitably though, historians continue to create memories that once entrenched are nearly impossible to eliminate.
The historian does the work of an anthropologist, but not only through space but trough time. She has to undo from his preconceptions of modern morality and try to imagine the systems, interactions, aesthetics and conceptions of success that regimented such societies. There are many methods, from the distorting lens of the archive to the black mirror of the descendants of the historical subjects.
Herodotus’s Histories marked an inflexion point in the discipline of historical writing. Human accounts of themselves and events had been narrated in the context of the interactions of humans, gods and nature. In the stories before there was as much human agency as a component of luck, emotions, and contingency. (Today again it becomes clear that the individual has no complete autonomy over their fate, nevertheless before it used to be unquantifiable). So he decided that to write a real inquiry into the happenings of mankind, he should either experience them first hand or recur to someone that had, a novel idea at the time.
Though some of Herodotus ideas may seem naïve from the modern perspective, his project was ambitious and generous with humans, who he thought were able to objectively describe the world from their point of view, and have the free will to control their own destiny. This was certainly a leap of faith, reasoned as it may had been, which correspondingly writers of fiction frequently use to justify and explain their works, creating worlds from their mind and the interaction of reason and senses.
As time passed by the archive grew, burnt, drowned, translated and recreated; the strategies to approach it varied and turned more complex. There was a main ‘Western’ narrative (whatever that means) that argued that history, and therefore time, was linear, true, and evolved towards an objective. One key aspect of this narrative was that the individual had control over his destiny, and that therefore humanity as a whole did as well. Authors in the XX century decided to challenge the established history conceiving it as fluid, without a single absolute truth, but experiences from individuals from different groups engaged in systems of power dynamics.
From within Europe and Canada reactions sprouted.
Both Natalie Zemon Davis and Carlo Ginzburg sought to give voices to the margins of the pages. Those who before had been considered mere decorations of the History of great men, in their view had a central role in their own history. To write the history of Women at the Margins, the Canadian author recurred to documents such as diaries, that before had been considered ordinary, estrogen-induced sentimental pieces. When writing the histories of women from minority ethnic groups, that is, margins of the margins, she found a way to paint a more complete picture of seventeenth century Europe, and North and South America.
Ginzburg took another step, and from the trial documents of a peasant during the times of the inquisition he developed his theory of the worldview of Italian peasants at the time. For such an exceptional enterprise, he found an exceptional character. Menocchio was a peasant who knew how to read. He had an eclectic collection of books, including the Bible, the Quran, Bocaccio´s Decameron and Mandeville’s Travels. From these books and his daily experiences he developed his own theory of how God was able to create the world. His view was admittedly more mundane and less cryptic than the one preached in church. He argued that the Earth was a lifeless cheese, and that as it decomposed angels came out of it, the same way as mold and worms appears from decayed cheese. His ideas eventually got him burnt at the stake, but through his ideas and interactions he provided a window to look into such obscure narratives.
History naturally deals with humans and is present with variations all around the world. Outside Europe different authors exercised and tried to affirm their independence of thought through new narratives and methods.
Jean Michel Trouillot challenges our senses by studying not the history of the documents, but the history of silences whose muffled voices yell to be rediscovered. In his history of silences he recalls the rivalry of Sans Souci and Henri Cristophe, two former slaves that in the struggles of Haitian independence became mortal enemies. The physical and symbolic violence with which Cristophe eliminated Sans Souci from the earth, history and memory still resound nowadays.
History is written by the winners. Usually this means the white colonial powers that imposed their systems of government, economic systems and highly individualized social organization. But what if the colonies once won? For example the Haitian slaves before any other American nation, in a full blown slave revolt without the guide of any leader influenced by the enlightenment? Ah yes, the aforementioned example. Alejo Carpentier goes down this line of thought and writes about the independence process from the viewpoint of the slaves. This narrative includes magical potions, voodoo and shape shifters that the blacks believed where true. And if they believed them, and won, who is to say that they are not true?
The idea of history winds up challenging the idea of non-fictionality, and reality as a whole. With the intersection between history and memory, and recognizing how both of them can be constructed, the idea of a unique, true history becomes destroyed. History belongs to the different groups, outlined by lines of ethnicity, geography, gender, religion, ideology and others demarcations that have flexible boundaries and are not mutually exclusive. Going to the basic unit of the individual and his historical counterpart, the biography, it is evident that any point of view is controversial. This lack of clearness is where the interpretative action comes, and as interpretation transforms into recreation of reality, then history adopts a creative nature in it’s topic of choice, the framing, the selection and interpretation of the archive, the point of view of the historical subject, his relation to the material world, the audience to which is directed, and encompassing it wholly, to the objective and enjoyment of the Historical discipline and imagination.