ENGL Fall 2006: Some Theoretical Extracts

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"La perfezione è delle vicende che si raccontano, non di quelle che si vivono." -- Primo Levi, Il sistema periodico [1975] (Torino: Einaudi, 2001): 219.

"[Life] has no beginnings, middles, or ends; there are meetings, but the start of an affair belongs to the story we tell ourselves later, and there are partings, but final partings only in the story. There are hopes, plans, battles, and ideas, but only in retrospective stories are hopes unfulfilled, plans miscarried, battles decisive, and ideas seminal. ... We do not dream or remember in narrative ... but tell stories which weave together the separate images of recollection." -- Louis O. Mink (qtd. in Geoffrey Roberts, ed. The History and Narrative Reader (London: Routledge, 2001): 10.

"The common sense of an age, we recognize when we compare that age to others, may well be for different times or places beyond the limits of comprehension or even of fantasy. A primary reason for this is that common sense of whatever age has presuppositions which derive not from universal human experience but from a shared conceptual framework, which determines what shall count as experience for its communicants." -- Louis O. Mink, from "Narrative Form as a Cognitive Instrument" [1978] (in Roberts 2001): 212.

"Historical narratives should aggregate; insofar as they make truth-claims about a selected segment of past actuality, they must be compatible with and complement other narratives which overlap or are continuous with them. Even if there are different ways of emplotting the same chronicle of events, it remains true that historical narratives are capable of displacing each other. ... But narrative fictions, though they may be more or less coherent, do not displace each other; each, so to speak, creates the unique space which it alone occupies rather than competing with others for the same space as historical narratives may." -- Louis O. Mink, from "Narrative Form as a Cognitive Instrument" [1978] (in Roberts 2001): 216.

"The same event, under the same description or different descriptions, may belong to different stories, and its particular significance will vary with its place in these different -- often very different -- narratives. But just as 'evidence' does not dictate which story is to be constructed, so it does not bear on the preference of one story to another." -- Louis O. Mink, from "Narrative Form as a Cognitive Instrument" [1978] (in Roberts 2001): 218.

"The older distinction between fiction and history, in which fiction is conceived as the representation of the imaginable and history as the representation of the actual, must give place to the recognition that we can only know the actual by contrasting it with or likening it to the imaginable. As thus conceived, historical narratives are complex structures in which a world of experience is imagined to exist under at least two modes, one of which is encoded as "real," the other of which is "revealed" to have been illusory in the course of the narrative." -- Hayden White, from "Historical Text as Literary Artifact" (in Roberts 2001): 234.

"The historian's retrospective stance permits her to view the self-description and practical narratives behind historical actions in light of their actual outcomes. The ironic disparity between the envisioned or intended and the actual consequences of an action is practically the historian's stock-in-trade. ... The historian is not only capable of but usually cannot avoid viewing past events in light of their actual consequences. The interest and value in historical accounts often lies precisely in retrieving a perspective on events which has been lost to us because of our hindsightful wisdom. ... Many historians, especially today, see their activity as one of redressing certain imbalances, of rediscovering or retrieving what has been lost, forgotten or covered over. The lives of those excluded from the stories of the past or relegated to their margins ... are to be reinstated in our historical consciousness." -- David Carr, from "Getting the Story Straight" [1994] (in Roberts 2001): 201.

"In each historical narrative we can find elements of reasoning and arguing; they have to make the stories credible. Historical studies are nothing but an elaboration and institutionalization of this reasoning and arguing, which most historians identify in their discipline as the methodical rationality of empirical research.
"But this self-understanding of historians as scholars lacks insight into the fundamental practical function of historical narration. ... This is the function of formulating human identity by mobilizing the forces of historical memory; or, to put it briefly, orienting human life in the course of time. If professional historians recognized this function as a function of their own work, maybe their work would have a little bit more relevance to practical life." -- Jörn Rüsen, from History (New York: Berghahn, 2005): 18.

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