Histories make men wise; poets witty; the mathematicians subtle; natural philosophy deep; moral grave; logic and rhetoric able to contend.
- Francis Bacon, Essays, "Of Studies"
Acts themselves alone are history... Tell me the act, O historian, and leave me to reason upon them as I please; away with your reasoning and your rubbish! All that is not action is not worth reading.
- William Blake
History, as an entirety, could only exist in the eyes of an observer outside it and outside the world. History, only exists, in the final analysis, for God.
- Albert Camus, "The Rebel"
I have been musing, of late, on the distinctions between fiction and history. Is history the retelling of a factual narrative, for the most part based on action and not speculation, or is it, as Francis Bacon declares, a particular reasoning applied to aspects of human life to accumulate an "history," and not simply a time-line?
The writer Jorge Luis Borges argued quite effectively in Other Inquisitions, that "Universal history is the history of a few metaphors." Which leads me to my question: Is there a worthy difference in how we understand ourselves through history, narratives of fiction, poetry, or creative retellings in nonfiction? Do all these various ways of telling bleed across lines?
Take as an example narrative nonfiction, sometimes called creative nonfiction. Defined loosely here as the embellishment, without factual distortion, of a skeleton of true information. Is this not what we think of as classical history? The past relayed to us by the ancients in essay, epic or ballad, religious texts, or theatre? Does memoir differ from biography beyond its intimate focus and use of filters less universal and more personal? Does an oversight differ from a lie? A misrepresentation from an omission? Or to look at the question sideways for a moment, if fiction lets us see our real selves through an artful staging of an invented series of events, how does that understanding differ from the internal drama of a reasoned essay, interview, or bulletin "from the front," if the basic premise of truth in telling is observed?
Truth in telling: That to the best of one's knowledge these events are what could be, might have been, surely were, once upon a time. The preamble to all narrative, "Once upon a time." My favorite histories of the world weave fact with interpretation, story with reflection, event with consequence. I do this same weaving of factual thread and colorful bits as do most writers. Day after day we build the imaginary, drag fact across speculation to spark the invention of stories. In this way we retell a mystery, or sketch our observations of a crumbling or evolving culture.
As a human, I sympathize with Blake - let us deem for ourselves the meaning of things. Yet Camus hits the nail squarely on the head: Who but some being who is not us will ever know the complete history of mankind and what meaning it may possess?