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“Upstream”

This chapter is written in an epistolary form - the story is told through letters from an actor filming a historical film (being shot on the river Orinoco in South America) to his girlfriend. Since a tragic death occurs during the filming that very much resembles the events that inspired the film, Barnes reasserts that history repeats itself.

It seems to me that the Indians – our Indians – knew what had happened to Father Firmin and Father Antonio all those years ago. It’s the sort of thing that gets handed down as the women are pounding the manioc root or whatever. Those Jesuits were probably quite big in the Indians’ history. Think of that story getting passed down the generations, each time they handed it on it became more colourful and exaggerated.
In the excerpt Barnes considers different channels through which history is passed on and muses on the nature of oral history, in which the account of events tends to change drastically over longer periods of time. The suggestion is also made that the impact of the first encounter of significantly different cultures usually remains long in people’s memory.

“Parenthesis”

This chapter mostly revolves around the topic of love and has been dealt with earlier. However, it is a chapter in which the author intentionally assumes the role of a narrator and ponders the meaning of love, history and art.

This is difficult territory. We must be precise, and we mustn’t become sentimental. If we are to oppose love to such wily, muscled concepts as power, money, history and death, then we mustn’t retreat into self-celebration or snobby vagueness.
The first example relates history to concepts such as power, money and death, claiming it is wily and muscled. Similar to time, history is a mental construct arising from the need to connect events and make sense of the world. It might be a useful tool for understanding the nature of the world, nevertheless it does not exist on its own - it only exists in the intellectual realm.

(speaking of love) Is it a useful mutation that helps the race survive? I can’t see it. Was love implanted, for instance, so that warriors would fight harder for their lives, bearing deep inside them the candlelit memory of the domestic hearth? Hardly: the history of the world teaches us that it is the new form of arrowhead, the canny general, the full stomach and the prospect of plunder that are the decisive factors in war, rather than sentimental minds drooling about home.


Here history is personified and functions as a teacher. Regardless of the figurative language and the traditionally reversed agent (it is people who may or may not learn from history), this is a very prolific idea. Additionally, the rhetorical question introduces an idea that memory, a feature pertaining to individual subjects, serves as a medium that preserves love.

If we look at the history of the world, it seems surprising that love is included. It’s an excrescence, a monstrosity, some tardy addition to the agenda.


Here the word history is preceded by a definite article, suggesting there is one complete and coherent history of the world. This goes partially against the general idea of the book, which holds that there are many accounts, strongly dependent on perspective, on who is looking at history or who is telling, writing or depicting it. On top of that, there are different ways of reading the same histories. Barnes might be rather referring to history as an abstract compendium of all known human experiences. He is not arguing who has the only correct account of events anymore, but perhaps he is saying: no matter whose account one chooses to use, one will always find examples of love in it.

But I can tell you why to love. Because the history of the world, which only stops at the half-house of love to bulldoze it into rubble, is ridiculous without it. The history of the world becomes brutally self-important without love. Our random mutation is essential because it is unnecessary. Love won’t change the history of the world (that nonsense about Cleopatra’s nose is strictly for sentimentalists), but it will do something much more important: teach us to stand up to history, to ignore its chin-out strut. I don’t accept your terms, love says; sorry, you don’t impress, and by the way what a silly uniform you’re wearing. Of course, we don’t fall in love to help out with the world’s ego problem; yet this is one of love’s surer effects.


Regardless of the arguments Barnes provides in his philosophical defence of love, it is worth noticing how the concept of memory has transformed once again. History here roughly equals life, the sheer human existence that ultimately would not make sense, were it not for love. Since love is depicted as a means of transcendence and put into opposition with history, which, conversely, is tied closely to egotism and arrogance, history itself comes out of the contemplation as a force limiting people’s freedom and binding them by its terms, by its repetitive and standardized dictate.
How you cuddle in the dark governs how you see the history of the world. It’s as simple as that.
Barnes argues that one’s personality and especially temperament and confidence determine one’s love-making. It ranges from shy slow exploration to the act of a fast and brutal conquer. Naturally, one’s personality thus exposed and materialized in the act of love also manifests in one’s attitude toward the world. Depending on one’s personality, people become victims, mere witnesses of events or the initiators, the movers of the world.

We get scared by history; we allow ourselves to be bullied by dates.

In fourteen hundred and ninety-two
Columbus sailed the ocean blue
And then what? Everyone became wiser? People stopped building new ghettoes in which to practise the old persecutions? Stopped making the old mistakes, or new mistakes, or new versions of old mistakes? (And does history repeat itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce? No, that’s too grand, too considered a process. History just burps, and we taste again that raw-onion sandwich it swallowed centuries ago.)
In this example, history is comprised of dates that themselves stand for important past events. However, Barnes suggests people should not be intimidated by dates, perhaps because the importance of many exact dates is illusionary and artificial. Not only does it usually not matter if a certain event happened one day (month, year) before or after the actual date, but it usually takes a long time before the moment arrives and certain changes finally occur. Thus what preceded and what followed might be of much greater importance than the actual date. Also, as Barnes points out, these milestones do not do any work in terms of changing history, nor do they stop bad things from happening – it is up to people to do so. Barnes’ final remark claims the events do not repeat themselves as perfect copies, but are instead processed or recycled, only to resurface after centuries, reminding people of the original.
Dates don’t tell the truth. They bawl at us – left, right, left, right, pick ’em up there you miserable shower. They want to make us think we’re always progressing, always going forward. But what happened after 1492?

In fourteen hundred and ninety-three


He sailed right back across the sea
That’s the sort of date I like. Let’s celebrate 1493, not 1492; the return, not the discovery. What happened in 1493? The predictable glory, of course, the royal flattery, the heraldic promotions on the Columbus scutcheon. But there was also this. Before departure a prize of 10,000 maravedis had been promised to the first man to sight the New World. An ordinary sailor had won this bounty, yet when the expedition returned Columbus claimed it for himself (the dove still elbowing the raven from history). The sailor went off in disappointment to Morocco, where, they say, he became a renegade. It was an interesting year, 1493.
Calendars that simply add more days, months and years to history are merely a product of a simplified understanding of time, which is conceived as linear. The illusion thus created is that since the number is growing, mankind is progressing, evolving. As much as this might be true, Barnes hints that it is not a straightforward but rather cyclic progress, in which the timeline could be seen as a spiral.

The second part presents another case of historical injustice. Unlike the comparison of the woodworm’s account of the Flood to the Biblical one - revealing the truth about the raven being the first to see the land, here Barnes presents a repeated version of history that really happened (Davies, 186). From a marketing point of view, both the dove and Columbus are more presentable, the success suits them better, they conform better to the general image of heroes/victors. As the majority of chronicled events recorded is a result of the process of careful selection, censorship and improvement of the image in favour of the “ordering party”, trusting history is a difficult matter. Ricoeur has addressed the issue by saying:

“It is within the framework of this reflection on the limits stemming from a critical philosophy of history that the confrontation between intending the truth of history and the aim of that veracity or, as I shall put it, the intention of being faithful to memory (part 3, chapter 1) can be brought to a good ending” (Ricoeur 135)
History isn’t what happened. History is just what historians tell us. There was a pattern, apian, a movement, expansion, the march of democracy; it is a tapestry, a flow of events, a complex narrative, connected, explicable. One good story leads to another. First it was kings and archbishops with some offstage divine tinkering, then it was the march of ideas and the movements of masses, then little local events which mean something bigger, but all the time it’s connections, progress, meaning, this led to this, this happened because of this. And we, the readers of history, the sufferers from history, we scan the pattern for hopeful conclusions, for the way ahead. And we cling to history as a series of salon pictures, conversation pieces whose participants we can easily reimagine back into life, when all the time it’s more like a multi-media collage, with paint applied by decorator’s roller rather than camel-hair brush.
Here Barnes adds his observation that since people always look for meaning in everything, they tend to see patterns in past events. He takes readers on a fast-track tour of modern history and concludes with the purpose of history. History should provide guidance, help people orient themselves and find the correct way forward. Interestingly, Barnes argues here that people suffer from history. How do they suffer? What type of history do people suffer from? Do they suffer from history as an abstract total sum of all past events (that nobody knows)? Or from the illusionary imperfect history built on the intentional selection and omission of data that is created by historians? And do people not suffer more from misreading history? Or finally, from history as a series of events that tend to recur throughout time where people are sentenced to re-enacting its episodes? Barnes contrasts the idea of history as a result of historians’ sensitive and precise work with a more realistic depiction in which history lacks precision and frequently covers inaccuracies or missing data by assumptions and speculations.

The history of the world? Just voices echoing in the dark; images that burn for a few centuries and then fade; stories, old stories that sometimes seem to overlap; strange links, impertinent connections. We lie here in our hospital bed of the present (what nice clean sheets we get nowadays) with a bubble of daily news drip-fed into our arm. We think we know who we are, though we don’t quite know why we’re here, or how long we shall be forced to stay. And while we fret and writhe in bandaged uncertainty – are we a voluntary patient? – we fabulate. We make up a story to cover the facts we don’t know or can’t accept; we keep a few true facts and spin a new story round them. Our panic and our pain are only eased by soothing fabulation; we call it history.


The paragraph above presents an interesting shift. The line between readers of history (the sufferers) and those who create history becomes blurred. Barnes moves from the global criticism of historians’ approach and techniques to the observation that the misinterpretation and distortion of history is a general human error, embedded in each individual human being. He further claims that the made-up history – the fabulation, eases people’s pain of not knowing why they are here.

There’s one thing I’ll say for history. It’s very good at finding things. We try to cover them up, but history doesn’t let go. It’s got time on its side, time and science. However ferociously we ink over our first thoughts, history finds a way of reading them. We bury our victims in secrecy (strangled princelings, irradiated reindeer), but history discovers what we did to them. We lost the Titanic, forever it seemed, in the squid-ink depths, but they turned it up. They found the wreck of the Medusa not long ago, off the coast of Mauretania. There wasn’t any hope of treasure, they knew that; and all they salvaged after a hundred and seventy-five years were a few copper nails from the frigate’s hull and a couple of cannon. But they went and found it just the same.


Once again, a personified history does things for people. This time history finds evidence of one’s past deeds, even though one might have wanted to keep certain things buried forever. At this point Barnes presents another pair of contrasting ideas. Previously he ascribed history the quality of distorting the real account of events, whereas here he claims it also functions in the opposite direction, unearthing the unexpected, unhoped for or even undesired evidence of the past. Curiously, in Barnes’ mind history and people are often interchangeable – “history doesn’t let go”, but “they went and found it just the same” (people).

We all know objective truth is not obtainable, that when some event occurs we shall have a multiplicity of subjective truths which we assess and then fabulate into history, into some God-eyed version of what ‘really’ happened. This God-eyed version is a fake – a charming, impossible fake, like those medieval paintings which show all the stages of Christ’s Passion happening simultaneously in different parts of the picture. But while we know this, we must still believe that objective truth is obtainable; or we must believe that it is 99 per cent obtainable; or if we can’t believe this we must believe that 43 per cent objective truth is better than 41 per cent. We must do so, because if we don’t we’re lost, we fall into beguiling relativity, we value one liar’s version as much as another liar’s, we throw up our hands at the puzzle of it all, we admit that the victor has the right not just to the spoils but also to the truth. (Whose truth do we prefer, by the way, the victor’s or the victim’s? Are pride and compassion greater distorters than shame and fear?)


In this excerpt, Barnes relates history to objective truth. He claims that despite looking at events from multiple perspectives, the resulting image of history is still not true, it is a fabulation. Perhaps he is saying that one cannot reconstruct objective truth – history as it really happened – no matter how many fragments of evidence are collected. He also addresses the illusion of simultaneity, as this is a form in which history is often presented. The events are all connected, all in one place and at one time only in historical books, they never actually occur in such a way. Yet Barnes claims one’s only option is to still believe in objective truth and, by the same token, in history, even though it is true only to a certain degree. Not doing so would lead perilously into relativity and a complete confusion. One can easily see in such relativity a parallel to today’s world in which contradictory news reports present themselves with such vehemence and purported credibility that people, flooded with differing information end up not knowing what to believe.

And so it is with love. We must believe in it, or we’re lost. We may not obtain it, or we may obtain it and find it renders us unhappy; we must still believe in it. If we don’t, then we merely surrender to the history of the world and to someone else’s truth.


In his meditation, Barnes claims one should make a similar leap of faith in case of love, despite the fact there are no assurances of fulfilment or happiness. Apparently, belief is a key here to both the objective truth and to love, the force strong enough to stand up to history. History shows its negative face once again, the one that binds us by its repetitive dictate.

It will go wrong, this love; it probably will. That contorted organ, like the lump of ox meat, is devious and enclosed. Our current model for the universe is entropy, which at the daily level translates as: things fuck up. But when love fails us, we must still go on believing in it. Is it encoded in every molecule that things fuck up, that love will fail? Perhaps it is. Still we must believe in love, just as we must believe in free will and objective truth. And when love fails, we should blame the history of the world. If only it had left us alone, we could have been happy, we could have gone on being happy. Our love has gone, and it is the fault of the history of the world.

But that’s still to come. Perhaps it will never come. In the night the world can be defied. Yes, that’s right, it can be done, we can face history down.
In the final extract from the “Parenthesis”, Barnes further posits love, objective truth and free will as forces opposing history (and possibly winning over it), which by implication also pairs history up with determinism, fatalism and even defeatism.
“Project Ararat”

This chapter tells the story of an astronaut who decides to find the Ark after his return from space.

Longest pass in the history of the NFL, four hundred fifty yards into the leaping hands of a volcanic crater.
This sentence from the chapter mentions history, however in this context it is a much more narrowed term and basically stands for the chronicle or perhaps a journal of an American football club.
“The Dream”

The dream is a fantasy and through the words of the main character describes New Heaven, where not everything is as one would expect it to be.

He’d read all my papers, he said. And there they were, at his elbow, the history of my life, everything I’d done and thought and said and felt, the whole bloody caboodle, the good bits and the bad. It made quite a pile, as you’d imagine.
The scene describes a situation at a reception office, where the work that would traditionally be done by Saint Peter, the evaluation of one’s life is carried out by some office staff in New Heaven. The notion “history of my life” could be understood as the sum of events that occurred to an individual from one’s birth until one’s death.



  1. Historiographic Fiction in Arthur & George

    1. Plot Summary

The historical novel Arthur & George is set in Edwardian England and narrates two parallel, yet very different life stories that intersect at a certain point in time. One is of George Edalji, a son of a Parsee Vicar and a Scottish mother, and the other of Arthur Conan Doyle. While George comes from humble origins and has to fight racial prejudice, Arthur’s family is well-situated and he has a bright future ahead of him. The two main heroes are very different in many aspects. While Arthur is a promising athlete and scholar, George is myopic and depicted as having no imagination and no friends. Their lives are observed separately in great detail up to the point when George becomes a solicitor and Arthur a trained doctor, already famous for his detective stories. Then some strange and unfortunate events bring them together. George is accused of having written vicious anonymous letters and later of having committed animal mutilations not far from where he lives. He is imprisoned and his prospects are dim. Luckily for him, Arthur Conan Doyle learns about his case and helps him to dispel the accusations, as he believes George could not have committed those crimes. Arthur tries to solve the case as Sherlock Holmes would. Despite the fact that he might have in the end revealed the real culprit, the evidence is not sufficient for building a case and the local police do not seem to be in favour of looking in the suggested direction. During the years Arthur spent helping George get out of jail and solving the case the two men become friends. Arthur manages to direct public attention to the case through the media and George is eventually released, although without being completely cleared of guilt. Proving their friendship, Arthur even invites George to his wedding. The story also follows Arthur’s later turn towards spiritism and ends with a séance that George attends, during which a crowd tries to communicate with the recently deceased Arthur through a medium.

4.2. Analysis

Arthur & George differs from other Barnes’ novels in many aspects. Primarily, it is the amount of historical evidence used in the book. As Barnes states at the end of the book:

'Apart from Jean's letter to Arthur, all letters quoted, whether signed or anonymous are authentic; as are quotations from newspapers, government reports, proceedings in Parliament, and the writings of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle' (360).


Barnes spent two years researching the historical documentation of the Wyrley case (Edalji case) and the main protagonists (Childs 140) and included a great amount of historical detail in his novel. The book thus turned out to be historical, biographical and fictional, all at the same time. For common readers not specialized in history it is impossible to tell where Barnes sticks to history and where his writing wanders into fictions However, one year after Arthur & George was published, Gordon Weaver published an in-depth study on the Edalji case in the journal International Commentary on Evidence. The study revealed the narrator of Arthur & George is not completely reliable and does not always stick to the known facts (Childs 139). For instance one of the two photographs included in the book in order to support its veracity, showing the wedding invitation from A. C. Doyle to George Edalji, is not a photocopy of the real thing, but most probably a computer-generated replica, differing from the original in significant details (Groes, Childs 133). This might be an intertext from the author, testing the readers’ ability to discern manipulation or simply a message confirming his previously expressed ideas about the questionable nature of history in terms of its accuracy and veracity. Paul Ricoeur said:

If the contrast between history and fiction were to disappear, both would lose their specific mark, namely, the claim to truth on the side of history and the “voluntary suspension of disbelief” on that of fiction. (Ricoeur 242)

It could be argued here, whether Ricoeur’s words proved themselves true in the case of Arthur & George. The reader learns interesting facts from history – a majority of them being true – and in the end, not knowing when to activate or forego disbelief, gets used to the uncertainty presented in the book.

Barnes’ effort was to create the impression of England of the time and the way he did it was by looking at the world through the eyes of the two main characters, both of them historical personalities (Guignery, Conversations with Julian Barnes 135). In line with his intention, Barnes narrates the story in the third-person singular and adjusts the narration to the size and nature of the protagonists’ mental world, thus reflecting their age and their social and intellectual background. Barnes lets the characters think and speak without correcting their prejudice or misperceptions, which adds a realistic feel to the story (Groes, Childs 126). Although there are not as many narrators as in A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters and the story is mostly told by the title characters, Barnes additionally presents secondary characters’ points of view (Guignery 127).

With some exceptions, Arthur & George sticks to chronological narration. For instance, Arthur Conan Doyle was born seventeen years prior to the birth of George Edalji. Thus when reading about their growing up, switching from Arthur to George, readers do not find themselves in the same historical time. This shifted parallel chronology is reconciled when the two characters finally meet. Vanessa Guignery suggests that the alternate narration also emphasizes the dichotomy between truth and fiction, since the small George is supposed to tell the truth, whereas Arthur was much more attracted to legends and fiction than the truth of the Bible (Guignery 128).

To a certain degree, Arthur & George could also be read and understood as a detective story. Not only does it include a crime investigation by the “father” of Sherlock Holmes, but it contains an unresolved mystery, suspense and a seemingly false accusation. In reality as well as in Arthur & George, Arthur Conan Doyle discovered the methods of his detective were not universally applicable, or they did not yield the desired results. For instance, Arthur manages to steal the weapon used in the mutilations from the person he suspects, but by doing so he destroys any chance of using it as evidence in court.

The novel taken as a whole could be understood as an attempt to come to terms with the guilt preserved in the collective memory. Barnes mentions in his interview how he learned about the Edalji case through reading a book on a related case of injustice that happened in France, the Dreyfus case. He wanted to find out more about the Edalji case, but surprisingly, nothing had been written after Doyle’s article in support of George Edalji. This in turn gave him the impetus to write on the topic (Groes, Childs 119). When considering the relation of the duty of memory to the idea of justice, Ricoeur suggested that “among those to whom we are indebted, the moral priority belongs to the victims” (Ricoeur 89). Consequently, if Edalji was a victim of injustice people have a moral obligation to hold the case in memory.

Ricoeur further reminds us of Freud’s theory of suppression, in which people suppress negative and/or traumatic experiences into inaccessible parts of their memory. The traumas may however later manifest in various mental issues. Such patients undergo Durcharbeiten, as Freud called it, In English working through or reworking. The repressed material has to be brought to light and the patient needs to reconcile with his trauma. What Ricoeur suggests is “to transpose the clinical analysis to the level of collective memory” (Ricoeur 70, 71).

Barnes’ writing about a case of injustice in relatively recent English history could be seen as a parallel of the process both on the individual and collective level. By re-exposing the case of injustice with roots in racial prejudice and intolerance, he attempts to revise history, to rework it. Perhaps when a nation does so, its people find reconciliation with their past. In therapy, the desired result is a patient cured of a trauma. On the level of collective memory, the healed nation might gain new knowledge and experience. Analogically to the patient who can then go on living free from the past traumas, the nation might freely forget the actual event.


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