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QUINTESSENCE

Eyes of An Observer

Harbor, Malta


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 on the distinctions lately between fiction and history. History is most often defined as a factual narrative, a narrative based on defined action and without speculation. Perhaps as Francis Bacon declared, "history" is a particular reasoning applied to aspects of human life in order that we may define a meaningful past. A greater understanding of event and consequence than the restatement of a simple timeline. The writer Jorge Luis Borges argued in "Other Inquisitions," that Universal history is the history of a few metaphors. Is there a worthy difference then in how we understand ourselves through history versus narratives of fiction, poetry, or creative nonfiction? Do these ways of telling bleed across lines?

Take as an example "narrative nonfiction," sometimes called creative nonfiction, and defined loosely as creative embellishment without factual distortion of the structure of true information. This is how many of us think of classical history. The past relayed to us by the ancients in essay, epic or ballad, in religious texts, song and theatre. And then there is the truly personal narrative. Memoir differs from biography beyond its intimate focus and use of dramatic structure. Memoir is inherently less universal a narrative form than biography, more personal. What may or may not be true is accepted for its subjectivity. We have wandered some distance from pure event and into its interpretation.

Many have argued the metaphor is the doorway into fiction. The fable, the parable, the psalm. But what is fictitious is not necessarily untrue though it may not be fact. The parenthesis of information in any given story may only be that of one perspective, or a subjective retelling. Does an oversight differ from a lie? A misrepresentation from an omission? To look at the question sideways for a moment, if fiction lets us view life through an artful staging of inventions, does that form differ from the craft of a reasoned essay, an interview, or newsprint bulletin "from the front" if the basic premise of truth-in-telling is observed?

Truth in telling. Consider always the filter of the narrator. These events are, what is, what could be, might have been, or surely were once upon a time. The beloved preamble to all narrative, "Once upon a time" pardons the telling. My favorite histories of the world weave fact with interpretation, story with reflection, event with consequence. Day after day we lay speculation across fact and spark an invention of story. We retell mystery, catalog observations of crumbling or evolving culture, make sense of old tragedies and recurring dreams in our use of story.

As a human, I sympathize with Blake. Let us deem for ourselves the meaning of things. Yet Camus hit 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?

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