Fact, fiction, and fabrication: history, narrative, and the postmodern real from woolf to rushdie by



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FACT, FICTION, AND FABRICATION:


HISTORY, NARRATIVE, AND THE POSTMODERN REAL FROM WOOLF TO
RUSHDIE

by
Eric L. Berlatsky

Dissertation submitted to the Faculty of the Graduate School of the

University of Maryland, College Park in partial fulfillment

of the requirements for the degree of

Doctor of Philosophy

2003

Advisory Committee:


Professor Brian Richardson, Chair

Professor Susan Leonardi

Professor Sangeeta Ray

Professor Charles Caramello

Professor James Gilbert


ABSTRACT

Title of Dissertation: FACT, FICTION, AND FABRICATION: HISTORY,
NARRATIVE, AND THE POSTMODERN REAL FROM
WOOLF TO RUSHDIE
Eric L. Berlatsky, Doctor of Philosophy, 2003

Dissertation directed by: Associate Professor Brian Richardson

Department of English

While most accounts of Western attitudes towards history in the nineteenth century suggest that Victorians had a faith in its origin, teleology and meaning, twentieth-century assessments of history more often suggest the opposite. Both poststructural theory and postmodern historiography in the wake of Hayden White’s Metahistory present a relativist view of the possibility of either objectivity or material referentiality in historical discourse, particularly through the medium of narrative. From this perspective, historical narrative is defined as a discursive creation that obscures the material relations of its production and as an instrument of ideology and oppression.

“Fact, Fiction, and Fabrication” investigates what political and ethical repercussions this attitude towards and theorization of history has and how much contemporary fiction typically labeled “postmodern” both initially reflects and ultimately denies this model. This study argues that the assessment of contemporary postmodern fiction as reflecting poststructural models of endless textuality denies an important element of the novels studied: their commitment to the possibility of accessing material reality and the importance of such access both for the construction of an ethics and for political agency. By looking closely at contemporary novels that explicitly theorize history and historiography, it becomes clear that they instead insist on a sense of the “real” at least in part because of these political concerns. These novels, which I label “postmodernist historical fiction,” insist that although an inviolable origin, teleology, and even consistent referentiality cannot be obtained in historical reference, there can be a provisional referentiality and access to the real without a return to the classical history of foundationalism, immanence and teleology that contributes to hegemony. These texts are also tied together by their deployment of nonnarrative methods that counter the deformation of the real that takes place within narrative discourse according to White, among others. The primary texts considered are Art Spiegelman’s Maus, Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts, Graham Swift’s Waterland, and Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children.

©Copyright by


Eric L. Berlatsky
2003

TABLE OF CONTENTS


List of Figures…………………………………………………………………………….iv


Introduction: “Memory as Forgetting”: The Problem of the Postmodern

in Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

and Spiegelman’s Maus…………………………………………...1

Memory and Its Politics in Kundera and Spiegelman…………………………….7

History, Memory, and Collective Memory………………………………………15

Kundera and Postmodern Memory………………………………………………25

Spiegelman and Postmodern Memory…………………………………………...39

Kundera, Spiegelman, and the Problem of Ideology………………………….....62



Postmodernist Historical Fiction and Finding the Real………………………….72

Notes……………………………………………………………………………..99


Chapter I: The Pageantry of the Past and the Reflection of the Present:

History, Reality, and Feminism in Virginia Woolf’s



Between the Acts………………………………………………..112

The Picture and the Portrait…………………………………………………….114

The Woolfian Artist and the Relativist Historian………………………………125

The Pageant, Patriarchy, and Deconstruction…………………………………..130

Irruptions of the Real…………………………………………………………...149

Narrativity as Reality and the Problem with Plot………………………………159

Bergson’s Present and Woolf’s “Moments of Being”………………………….180

The Pageant and the Present……………………………………………………190



The Pageant and the Present (Take 2)…………………………………………..202

The Absence of the Present and its Presence…………………………………...210



Plot’s Return……………………………………………………………………216

Notes……………………………………………………………………………222


Chapter II: “Swamps of Myth…and Empirical Fishing Lines”:

Historiography, Narrativity, and the “Here and Now”

in Graham Swift’s Waterland…………………………………..237

The Progress of the Atkinsons………………………………………………….248

Process and the Cricks………………………………………………………….262

“A Knife Blade Called Now”…………………………………………………..284

Curiosity………………………………………………………………………..305

Reproduction, Representation, and the Reality of the Real…………………….311

Notes……………………………………………………………………………324
Chapter III: “What’s Real and What’s True”: Mahatma Gandhi,

Errata, and the Shadow of the Real in Rushdie’s



Midnight’s Children…………………………………………….332

Midnight’s Children, Postcolonial Historiography, and

Class Politics……………………………………………………………337

Mistakes and Lies………………………………………………………………343

Literal Metaphors and Metaphorical Truth……………………………………..356

The Epistemology of Metaphor and Fictional Worlds…………………………368

“What’s Real and What’s True”………………………………………………..381

Narrative and its Leftovers (Ectomies and Turds)……………………………...399

Gandhi and the Ethics of Inclusion……………………………………………..410

Notes……………………………………………………………………………429
Conclusion: Ethics, Universality and Postmodernist

Historical Fiction……………………………………………….444


Works Cited………………………………….................................................................459

List of Figures


1. Excerpt from Maus II: A Survivor’s Tale/And Here My Troubles Began

by Art Spiegelman, copyright © 1986, 1989, 1990, 1991 by Art Spiegelman 51


2. Excerpt from Maus I: A Survivor’s Tale/My Father Bleeds History by Art Spiegelman, copyright © 1973, 1980, 1981, 1982, 1984, 1984, 1985, 1986

by Art Spiegelman 53

Introduction

Memory as Forgetting: The Problem of the Postmodern in Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting and Spiegelman’s Maus


In one of poststructuralism’s most-quoted statements, Jacques Derrida declares in his Of Grammatology that “there is no outside-the-text” (158). While Derrida is principally interested in revealing the internal contradictions of foundational philosophy based upon binary divisions, his above declaration also suggests the impossibility of finding “truth,” not merely in its transcendental philosophical sense, but also in the possibility of a material and historical referent. This assertion of the textuality of existence and the difficulty/impossibility of accessing a reality outside of representation and signification were not initially applied specifically to “history” as a concept by Derrida, but its implications for history in the postmodern world still resonate, particularly, as we shall see, in the case of traumatic events and historical incidents that serve as sites of communal and individual identification for oppressed peoples. Likewise, one of the most prominent philosophers of the postmodern, Jean-François Lyotard asserts that postmodernism (and modernism itself)1 takes place in the realization that Enlightenment rationalism and scientific positivism are not tied to objective truth and reality, but rather are merely “language games,” like narrative itself, that create “the effects of reality,” that, in a postmodern age, become “the fantasies of realism” (Lyotard 74). In this context, “realistic” fiction, “objective” history, and positivist science become not only misled in their attempts to configure the world as an eminently understandable and coherent system, they also become ideologically charged deceptive practices that posit an immanent and essentialized world where none exists.2

This postmodern/poststructural emphasis on the “real” as inextricable from the constructed and the textual has also found its way into both historiography and historical fiction with potentially troubling social and political repercussions. This is particularly the case because of the ways in which the historical real is a site of political contestation. In the West, for instance, the ontological verifiability of the Holocaust is central to the identity formation of Jews and others. Relativist postmodern historiography that would theoretically insist that accounts of the Holocaust are closer to fiction than to “fact” (in their discursive and linguistic construction), undercut the communal insistence of Jews that the Holocaust be maintained as the “real” in communal history and memory as a bastion against future repetitions of the traumatic event.3 Similarly, a novel like Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children provides a sense of the “real” history of the Amritsar Massacre as opposed to the “official” history perpetuated by the British colonizers. It is this politically necessary real that would seem to be threatened by a radical poststructuralism that denies the referentiality of any discourse, whether hegemonic or oppositional.

Linda Hutcheon has attempted to arrest this problem somewhat by redefining the postmodern as a discourse that is both historical in the traditional sense and deconstructive, both presenting the past as if such representation is easily accessible and transparent and exposing the linguistic, discursive, and ideological barriers to transparent representation. In Hutcheon’s sense, postmodernism is simultaneously complicit with traditional historical accounts and their withering deconstructive critique, allowing the possibility that some degree of referentiality may be maintained. Despite Hutcheon’s important intervention, however, many critics still read contemporary fiction within the context of the theoretical shift towards a poststructuralism that questions, even denies, the possibility of linguistic referentiality and sees the allusion to a material “reality” as at best specious theory and at worst collaboration in totalitarian dominance. This positioning of postmodern fiction within a broader poststructural movement is, at times, valid but, as I will argue throughout this study, it ignores a substantial and politically important branch of postmodern fiction that insists on access to some version of the “real,” despite a continued skepticism towards universalizing discourses. I propose to label this important body of work “postmodernist historical fiction,” throughout this study.4

Over the course of this work, I argue for a (re)evaluation of postmodernist historical fiction as a genre that insists on the presence of a past material reality beyond discourse and on the possibility of accessing that past. This, however, is not merely a hypothetical call for revising our views on a species of fiction, but also has ramifications for social and political praxis. I draw attention to this genre precisely because it insists on the political and ethical necessity of maintaining a sense of that historical real which resists the complete engulfment in text or discourse that poststructuralism suggests. It is my goal in this study to analyze this dimension of postmodernist historical fiction in order to reveal alternative ways to define and theorize the historical real and redeem this important vein of fiction from its common association with an ultimately apolitical relativism. By identifying how various examples of postmodernist historical fiction redefine both the real and historical referentiality itself without abandoning it, I believe we can escape the most troubling repercussions of deconstructive readings of history without sacrificing the theoretical insights of poststructuralism and postmodern theory. That is, postmodernist historical fiction has much to teach us about the nature of reality itself and particularly its representation.

Important to this discussion is the role of narrative form, both the reliance upon it in traditional historiography and the critique of it brought to bear by postmodern historiographers like Hayden White. By considering how particular models of narrativity contribute to the sense of historical narrative as “false,” it becomes possible to reacquire the accurate, verifiable or "real" through models of anti-narrativity, representations of the past that reject or resist traditional narrative form, exhibited by the postmodernist historical fiction discussed in the chapters that follow. I will focus on only a few texts, Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts, Graham Swift’s Waterland, and Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children foremost among them, but will also refer to other texts that may fit under the umbrella I will define more expansively later in this introduction.

First, however, it is important to more clearly delineate the ethical and political problems generated by the deconstruction of traditional historical representation accomplished by (post)modernist historiographic discourse. To do so, I first examine the vanishing divisions between history and memory and the moral and ethical distinctions between them. I undertake this project in this introduction by looking at two works of postmodernist fiction5 that deal explicitly with the politics of memory and what Lyotard has labeled as the “withdrawal of the real” (79). Both Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting and Art Spiegelman’s Maus explore the contested relationships of memory, history, and collective memory and the problems raised by these categories in our postmodern world. The two novels propose and illustrate the traditionally central importance of both individual and collective memory in advancing the political interests of oppressed peoples and particularly in protecting a communality and shared identification from the effacing powers of “official” or institutional history. However, both authors also point to how individual and collective memory are themselves inextricable from textuality and can both be modes of political oppression. In doing so, both authors foreground the difficulty for socially and politically oppressed peoples to participate in their own coherent and stable identity formation and representation through memory in an age identified as postmodern.

Through the investigation of two texts preoccupied both with memory and with a postmodern aesthetic, we can see how they reveal postmodernism as not only productive in its destabilization of power, but also problematic in its difficulties in offering concrete and stable counter discourses that do not themselves participate in oppression. Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting and Art Spiegelman’s Maus stage this problem of the postmodern6 in the theater of memory by foregrounding memory’s necessity in resisting power, while admitting its own tenuous ties to the real and its implication in the abuse of power. The process by which they dissolve the standard binary separation of history and memory complicates and foregrounds the problematic of historical representation by disallowing the primacy and originary authority of memory. These texts do, however, also provide interesting and productive models for historical representation that are more evidently realized in the novels examined in the remaining chapters of this study. I leave the discussion of their inclusion in my proposed category of postmodernist historical fiction for my conclusion, as what is initially important for my argument is the examination of the problems they highlight.
Memory and Its Politics in Kundera and Spiegelman

Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting opens with two scenes that foreground the importance of individual and collective memory as important political tools to fight oppression. The first scene, set in 1948, depicts the frightening ability of the totalitarian Soviet-led regime in Prague to deface, erase and rewrite history to suit its own ideological ends. To illustrate this ability to alter history, Kundera relates the true story of Gottwald and Clementis, both Communist leaders. Gottwald gives a speech outdoors with Clementis by his side. Because it is cold and snowing, Clementis takes off his hat and places it on Gottwald’s head. As Kundera describes, the moment became famous and was reproduced copiously. “On that balcony the history of Communist Bohemia began” (3). Four years later, like Trotsky in Russia, Clementis was charged with treason and was eventually hanged. “The propaganda section immediately made him vanish from history and, of course, from all photographs...Nothing remains of Clementis but the fur hat on Gottwald’s head” (3-4). Kundera here underlines the possibility of, and inherent danger in, the effacing of historical “fact.” Where Clementis once stood as a symbol of the brotherhood and good-feeling of Communism in its optimistic youth, now he is erased, no longer useful for a totalitarian regime.

The novel continues to point out how history is controlled and dictated by those in power, and the devastating effects that historical manipulation can have. Gustav Husak was the seventh president of Czechoslovakia, put into power by the Russians in 1969, and is named by the Kundera-narrator as the “President of Forgetting” (217). Husak earned the name by driving 145 Czech historians from research institutes and universities (218). In response to this, a displaced historian asserts, “You begin to liquidate a people...by taking away its memory. You destroy its books, its culture, its history...Then the people slowly begins to forget what it is and what it was. The world at large forgets it faster” (218). When the Kundera-narrator suggests however that “Nothing remains of Clementis,” he is clearly being ironic and disingenuous. Clementis exists, at the very least, in Kundera’s memory, a fact emphasized in the second scene of the novel.7

In the second scene, set in 1971 during the reign of Husak, Mirek, a resident of Prague, attempts to prevent the erasure of history through the vehicle of his own memory. Mirek says, “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” In doing so, he attempts “to justify what his friends call carelessness,” for what facilitates memory on one hand is the evidence for accusations of subversiveness on the other (4). Mirek’s friends are concerned that his collections of diary, correspondence, and minutes of meetings will be discovered and used as evidence against him. Nevertheless, Mirek is intent on preserving and controlling his memories in the hopes of resisting power.

The notion of memory as an inherent bastion in the battle against political and social oppression is illustrated by, but is by no means limited to, Kundera’s Book. Similar discourses have been foregrounded in virtually all popular discussions of what is known as the Holocaust or the shoah,8 the extermination of millions of Jews by the Nazis during the second World War.9 Within this discourse, the very act of memory becomes a primary constituent of a Jewish identity and is meant to ensure that a similar act of oppression never occurs again. In this context, Jewish writer Cynthia Ozick has emphasized “‘the necessity of memory in a time when memory begins to melt into history and history is discarded’” (qtd. in Brogan 163).10 Indeed the memory of the Holocaust has been seen by some to replace the other communal memories of Judaism. In observing a community seder in Texas, Phillip Lopate saw that “[...]the Shoah was at the heart of their faith; it was what touched them most deeply about being Jewish. The religion itself­­— the prayers, the commentaries, the rituals, the centuries of accumulated wisdom and tradition— had shriveled to a sort of marginally necessary preamble for this negative miracle” (qtd. in Gilman, The Jew’s Body 34).11 Likewise, as Peter Novick observes, “what American Jews do have in common is the knowledge that but for their parents’ or [...] grandparents’ or great-grandparents’ immigration, they would have shared the fate of European Jewry” (Holocaust 7). In this reading, the communal memory has become virtually the only thing that allows for the retention of a broad Jewish community.

It is the widespread allegiance to the memory of the Holocaust that has spawned so many narratives of survival of the death camps, including the formally unorthodox Maus, Art Spiegelman’s comic book depiction of his father’s (Vladek’s) experience in Auschwitz. The desire to remember and to construct a Jewish identity from that memory must have played a role in Spiegelman’s desire to record and represent Vladek’s story. It is also this belief in the centrality of memory that leads Artie (Spiegelman’s autobiographical representation in Maus) to reproach Vladek for destroying the diaries of Anja, Vladek’s wife:

VLADEK. After Anja died I had to make an order with everything...These papers had too many memories. So I burned them...

[...]

ARTIE. Did you ever read any of them? ...Can you remember what she wrote?



VLADEK. No. I looked in. But I don’t remember...Only I know that she said, “I wish my son, when he grows up, he will be interested by this.”

ARTIE. GOD DAMN YOU! YOU— YOU MURDERER! HOW THE HELL COULD YOU DO SUCH A THING!!



VLADEK. Ach. (Maus 159)



Like Kundera’s depiction of the propaganda machine that obliterates Clementis, and in doing so strikes a blow for “power” against man, Vladek has contributed (in Artie’s eyes) to the forces of “forgetting” against the forces of memory. Artie’s hope for a coherent remembered past from which to construct his own identity is denied by his father’s destruction of the diary.

The political importance of memory, foregrounded in these passages, is not merely hypothetical. The prevalence of self-titled “revisionist historians,” labeled instead “Holocaust deniers” by their adversaries, who deny the existence of the Holocaust, the existence of gas chambers, and the plan of the “final solution” itself, represent, for many, the attempt to erase and efface history in an attempt to perpetuate anti-Semitism. Kenneth Stern, of the American Jewish Committee, refers to the memory of the Holocaust as a protective force against prevalent anti-Semitism. “If the Holocaust is denied, relativized, recedes from memory with the passing of generations [...] a braking force against the two-thousand-year world tradition of anti-Semitism will be diminished” (24). Like Kundera’s Mirek, Stern invokes the power of memory as a bulwark against power and hatred. Personal memory and witnessing are, in this case, used as one type of historical evidence, but they are also used as a counterbalance to the manipulable documentary evidence of traditional written history. The number of people who take any stock in holocaust denial is very small , and, indeed, they are described as “fruitcakes,” “screwballs,” and “nuts” in the space of three pages by the eminent historian Peter Novick in his The Holocaust in American Life (270-72). Nevertheless, the threat of the erasure of the past is taken seriously not because of the widespread political influence of these “screwballs,” but because of the large importance attributed to the memory of the event itself, particularly in the Jewish community.
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