Historical Truth vs. Narrative Truthiness

January 11, 2009

Noah Millman brings up an important point about history:

“History is – unavoidably – narrative, whether we’re talking about national narrative or the narrative of an individual memoir.”

 That history — the telling and examining of the past — is narrative, and narrative is unavoidably constructed, does not mean that we’re living in some sort of afactual postmodernism gone awry; “the past” as a series of events and facts does exist, and exists independently of these narratives in a true form.  The problem is our ability to approach that form.

I’m not saying that truth is so unavoidably elusive that it is (or nearly is) irrelevant; any historical narrative or historical understanding needs to have as a goal to come as close as possible to the truth of past events.  There is, however, a problem of ability: the practice of history, in some ways, is quite similar to me driving while wearing blinders — and no glasses.  (But preferably not in weather like there was today; then history would be suicidal, not merely blurred and difficult.)  It’s often our (innocent?) ignorance of facts which prevents our history from being fully accurate.  It’s certainly the case in the period most of my historical worries are spent over; the sheer temporal distance almost guarantees it.  For example, this article (h/t Will) means we need to alter our history of “Romans in Germany”:

“Archaeologists have found more than 600 relics from a huge battle between a Roman army and Barbarians in the third century, long after historians believed Rome had given up control of northern Germany.”

If by “history” we meant “the past” and all histories were such, this couldn’t happen.  For this fact to demand the revision of a history, that history must be, at least in some important respect, a narrative of our making.  It isn’t the fault of any political/philosophical agenda that the present history was wrong, there were simply missing facts.  Even in the most responsibly written history — without, you know, all sortsa crazy theories interfering with those facts of which we’re already aware — this is inevitable (at least in Classics).  That doesn’t mean we need to disregard all history as constructed, or attack it as such when we don’t agree with it, but to engage it critically with the aim of improving it with respect to the facts of the past.

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3 Responses to “Historical Truth vs. Narrative Truthiness”

  1. Will Says:

    I’d also note that our approach to different eras varies pretty dramatically. Everyone “knows” that the history of Late Antiquity is extremely limited and therefore subject to frequent revision. Rome at its height is something of a closed book in comparison.

  2. JL Wall Says:

    Even then, if we’re looking at late Republican/early Imperial Rome, a lot of our information is from a concentrated enough number of sources that all record of a military expedition being lost for two millenia isn’t entirely out of the question. It does depend a lot on when/where you’re looking at, as well as who in society you’re looking at. It’s a lot easier than Archaic Greece or Rome after the barbarians, say, but even in Rome at its height, there’s something of a different problem to forming an accurate history than with more recent history, where a problem may lie in having too MUCH information — a forest for the trees type problem. (I should point out that with that last statement, I’m well into Wile E. Coyote staring down at no ground beneath him territory; I could be embarrasingly wrong, but it’s an interesting thought.)


  3. […] Agreed Upon Jump to Comments JL Wall has a sharp post up on historical truth vs. historical narrative: That history — the telling and examining of the […]


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