Friday, 28 November 2014

The Handmaid's Tale, The Penelopiad, and Historical Text as Literary Artefact Part 1

I'm gonna be completely honest with you guys right now, I'm kind of cheating with this post. What I'm about to do is essentially just rework an essay I wrote into a blog post. But that's only because I think it's a genuinely interesting topic! 

First of all, let's get critical! (Sung to the tune of Let's Get Physical, and preferably with some form of wavey arm dancing involved. Let it never be said that this blog is not fun, even when dealing with theory.) So, once upon a time, this bloke called Hayden White wrote an essay called "The Historical Text as Literary Artefact" which has some really interesting ideas in it but, as is so often the way with theory, is also quite long and confusing. So rather than demand that you all go away and try to wrap your heads around it, I'm just gonna summarise a bit of key information from it. Essentially, the idea that we're working with today is that historical narratives are, at their very core, verbal fictions. To quote from White himself: "the contents of which are as much invented as found and the forms of which have more in common with their counterparts in literature than they have with those in the sciences". (I don't have a page reference for this quote because Past Sophie didn't deem to jot that info down. Plus I mean, this ain't no formal essay. This is pure casual geeking out over literature just because we can-ness. Page references be damned!) Key point to be taken from this quote - we place way too much belief in the idea of history as authority.

I don't think it's too much of a generalisation to say that as a whole, we tend to view history as this big, set, unbiased thing based on authority and fact. It makes sense. We like to create a narrative out of history, make it bite sized and digestible, with a clear progression that you can trace and follow. It's a lot more confusing to acknowledge what history really is; a whole bunch of separate narratives that overlap and deviate from each other. It's a compilation of different view points and experiences and our response to them changes as time goes on. Trying to create a cohesive narrative out of history is like making a patchwork quilt out of loads of different scraps of material that are all different sizes and colours and shapes. You chop them down to size until they fit the pattern that you're trying to create and you walk away with a finished product that you can show to people as a cohesive whole. 

When you examine the idea of history, all of the biases that influence the construction of it become apparent. I know I'm quoting something when I say that history is written by the victors, but for the life of me I have no idea what that is. ("Why don't you google it Sophie" you ask. Because fuck proper referencing that's why. I laugh in the face of academic practise and cackle as I live my glorious post-university life of unemployment and job hunting.) It just so happens that these victors that happen to have access to writing materials along with the ability to actually write usually turn out to be privileged, straight, white guys, thereby creating an automatic bias in our perception of history. Now I am of course generalising here, and I am by no means saying that people who don't fit this description never created historical documents and stuff. They did. There are whole movements dedicated to focusing on these narratives and bringing them back into society's field of vision etc etc. That's not what this post is about. (A valid question right now would be, what is this post about? An accurate answer at this point would be: fucked if I know. You're just gonna have to stick with me and see where we end up.) I'm just trying to bring attention to the fact that history is not unbiased.

Taking this idea one step further, I introduce you to yourself, the reader! You as reader will differ from me as reader. We could sit next to each other and read the same book at the same time and we would still come away from it with different thoughts and opinions because we have different life experiences going into it. We're getting all postmodern up in here, but texts are defined by their readers. Each person approaches a text with differing life experiences, associations, and viewpoints, so their response to that text is going to be completely individual to them. When you read a book it's like entering into conversation with it; yes the words are eternally there on the page but it requires your engagement to bring them to life and, as such, it becomes a process rather than something passive. So the same thing happens when you try to create that idea of "history". You end up projecting your modern views and biases onto it and that influences the type of story you choose to present. For example, when you know the outcome of events it becomes possible to endow those events with a meaning that they did not have when they were playing out. 

Historians look back and they read patterns into things and come away with a cohesive result that they portray as reality, when it is actually more like a translation. Based on the person doing the translation you will have different biases which lead to different omissions. Throughout time it has been powerful white men that have been able to construct this idea of history which means that the stories that belong to people of different races, genders, sexualities etc are often omitted. This is why it's so important to go back and rediscover those alternate narratives that would be otherwise buried. Both The Handmaid's Tale and The Penelopiad have female narrators that are writing back against ideas of official history. These narratives self consciously negotiate their relationship with history and myth and touch on a whole bunch of other interesting issues such as the silencing of women and ideas of justice and loads more. It's super interesting and I'm going to explore all of that in part 2!

I get really confused whenever I write about theory because I always end up feeling like I'm really just stating the obvious, and I don't know whether that's  good because it means I've actually understood the theory or whether it just means that I'm being really basic. Have I just gone round in circles? Have I even made a point? Who knows! But this hasn't all just been me rambling into nothingness (well, it kind of has, but y'know) this is all going to be relevant!

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