Fee, Fie, Fictio, Historum


Fee, fie, fictio, historum . . . to be a story or not to be a story, that might be a question, but only one among many, and then if it were a story, and a story, and a story that creeps in petty paces . . . this too would be neither foul nor fair, but fiction. All fiction is something made. To tell a story or not would be any man’s dilemma, his life in story, the history of his life, the blood of an Englishmun. Fee, fie, fictio, historum, smelling blood and all that goes with storytelling . . . do we bleed for our stories? Narrative is a method of storytelling, in fact, it is storytelling. It is also a way of conveying history–it orders things chronologically or a-chronologically, the latter itself indicating that there is a chronology of facts, themselves productions of memory or recording. Any history itself becomes a story, just by the telling. The French, thus, use the one word for both history and fictional story, l’histoire. I guess every fiction has its history; the novel Tom Jones is a history of Tom Jones, as the novelist Henry Fielding insisted by titling it The History of Tom Jones.

There will always be more in the heaven and earth of one man’s life than could be found or dreamed by any teller of his tale. So, what is it then that we mean when we say story and when we say history? Any story is a kind of history, as we have noted above. Yes, many of the early novel writers in 18th century England attempted to blur these boundaries or avoided making them clearly distinct, those between history and fiction. There is something easier to understand in French than in English when we confuse history and story–although the French really do not suffer the confusion we fear.  Having one word for what we mean by ‘history” and what we mean by ‘story,’ fictional ones, is not more confusing than having two words for two distinct concepts. The Anglo-Saxon speaking peoples of the world separate history from story, as such. Istoria in Greek was an inquiry or knowledge acquired by investigation. This does not by itself allow for categorical distinction between history and fictional story. I imagine that a story like Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” is an investigation into the life of Goodman Brown, some of the life as it is chosen in the presentation, the effect of the narrative being both historical and historicizing, at least in the way that fiction can be a made up history, what we mean by fabricated as what we have  conventionally meant by the term history.

We do separate the two, though, keeping our history apart from our fiction. In a more traditional sense, history is the true story of a people or a person or a place, a country, a city, an empire, whatever have we in the focus of history writing, the product of what was once thought possible, objective historical investigation. In this, we have as mutually exclusive, fictional story and true story–that is, until we confront  that all mythology, apart from our Judaeo-Chritian prejudices, are the true stories of a people in as much as their stories of origins, all cosmogonic myths, are true for the people. Of course, as fore mentioned, the fiction writers of the 18th century tried to blur the lines between the two–what was the novel then anyway? The Preface to Defoe’s Moll Flanders speaks more on this than I could here. The same author presents a shorter set of inferences in his preface to Robison Crusoe, whereby he calls himself “editor” of this “private man’s adventures in the world” and where he then says near his conclusion of the preface that he “believes . . . [Crusoe’s tale] to be a just history of fact.” History here a “story,” yes, as all history is a story, facts as we receive them by history re-enforcing what we understand about the past. The factory of culture makes its history, as Ivan in Russia hired chroniclers to write a history of Russia that favored him and the Romanov family, much for a similar reason the Emperor Augustus favored the poet Virgil. Fiction and History win separate prizes from the Pulitzer committee. But what is it that they share in form–narrative, as we have said; verisimilitude in fiction being parallel to the historical facts able to be corroborated. I imagine, though, that verisimilitude in fiction  is easier to maintain than veracity for facts in history/historiography that countermand a society’s received ideas and dogmas.

Yes, we understand by representative examples over time that history and fiction were not distinct in antiquity or even the 18th century in the way we have subsequently made them–and they do remain more closely linked in cultures that  still use one word for the two, as we have seen in French. They were not yet set as they seem to be today, or as they were some time not so long ago, still in my lifetime, even around the time I started college (yes, university). History as a discipline had come to represent the verity of verities, at least in my time in the university; only residually so today. There was still a belief that objectivity could be maintained or at least pursued, which is the most vital ingredient in the notion of objectivity in historiography, that it can be pursued and that a vigilance in this pursuit could be fruitful in the ways a belief in its possibility make apparent.  This belief is something leftover from an earlier part of the last century where history was the pursuit of truth about the past, the little ‘t’ truths and something of the larger ‘T’ transcendent Truth we must never get rid of, anymore than we would dispose of our compass in a wilderness.  However, the ideal history is one that aligns itself more or most closely with facts as they were, truth as it can best be discerned in its lowercase variant; but it was not something as open to revision in the way it seems to be now, for better or for worse.  There are the times I still hope not to lose sight of what I had pursued for so many years, as a philosophy major under the tutelage of a wry-humored Platonist, when I was a philosophy student in university. Yes, I held the belief that I was pursuing the Truth; and even if that were foolhardy for many of my former friends from among the Catholic proletariat I grew up with, it was still a steadfast creed among those I counted as friends and mentors in the university. It seems just as foolhardy for too many of those who count themselves among the educated class of Americans, any one educated in the university over the last twenty-five to thirty-five years.

This belief of mine notwithstanding the current critiques of Truth or minor ‘t’ truths–for want of a better understanding of today’s critique of knowledge  (the latter which sounds off more in tune with received ideas and new dogmas by the new intellectual hegemony than any sound basis for reforms in thinking) what is has been will be history and more importantly  acceptable historiography is of paramount importance to how we understand our role in the politics and economics of today, fee, fie, fictio, historum.  Those who do not remember history, are condemned to relive it, or so I recall in paraphrase an inscription from George Santayana in Will Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Of course here, history was the objective discourse on the facts of the past as they were verified through a methodology that considered the quality of the sources, the validity of them. Objective was not as laughable as it seems today by those who imagine their critical acumen leaves them able to dispose of critical terms they misunderstand–often, dis-understand. There was a distinction drawn between the kind of history Herodotus had written and the one that Thucydides did afterward. There was something of even greater validity in the subjective (???) history Caesar had written in something like his Civil Wars, the latter falling under the rubric one history professor of mine called memoir, in spite of the diction chosen and rhetoric of objectivity employed. The rhetoric of objectivity not in itself the thing it purports to be.

Fiction comes from the Latin fictio, which means a thing made; so then, in this sense, everything told is fiction, even history. But then facts are themselves made in the sense that they have a context within which they function as facts; we do recall that the Earth is flat was once a fact for a great many people; the Earth was the center of the solar system was a fact for many centuries. I mean, nothing is told that isn’t first made.  Again, the idea that history and story are linked is evident in the one word for both designations in the romance languages and the mother of them, Latin. The francophone world, though, for want of more acute focus, does not confuse what we fear is confusing, so they in turn keep one word for both distinctions, we do not.  Nonetheless, every story is a history of a kind, and every history is certainly a story of what was, at least what purportedly was; this latter distinction bringing us closer to what Herodotus had intended by his Histories and Herodotus brought many disciplines under the rubric of history.  It is not the design of this essay to venture into what they are, not even in passing; but let it suffice to say that Herodotus was a storyteller, and today is more highly valued as an historian than he was in my days in college, just for bringing many stories, thus many voices to the page. What is history, though, is not the same question as what is historiography. Herodotus engaged in what he and the Greeks after him called Istoria. In Herodotus we hear and thus see how others understood the past he speaks of, how they chose to tell the story, how they understood what history was.

We do the same as Herodotus today as well when we say look for anecdotal evidence, when we look for the story of the simple separate person from among the many who lived. This of course fits our dogmas of individualism and exceptionalism, but then this is what marks American historiography from others. The history of art, the history of automotive sales in America, the history of the samurai, the history of science, the history of sailing, et cetera are nothing without the individual’s story, perception, observations, or opinions. When we speak about history in a multidisciplinary way, which to me was always what history was, even when history was supposed to be about revealing some quota of truth, and I do understand the inferences herein from using the word ‘quota,’ as well from referring to truth or Truth, what are we saying? Is history, though, one of the Humanities or is it a Social Science–and in my time, history was in the School of Social Sciences, and this spoke to a methodological distinction from history as a humanity in the School of Humanities. Focuses shift; of course they do. The dominant or most frequently employed methodology will also change, as will persist examples of multi-methodological texts. This essay does not pretend to resolve these issues within the discipline of history or within or between any two of the sub-disciplinary approaches to historiography.

To tell or not to tell, that is the question in every culture, and in cultures that write, what is it that gets committed to paper determines what history gets remembered; we are not an oral culture, no matter how much we believe and fear that literacy is waning, or how much stock we put into the idea that ours is a culture transforming into an oral one.  Every supposed oral forum is determined by literacy, by writing.  But then this is the horror one gets from appraising the current state of literacy in America; we are still a literate culture, not an oral one; very few of us even know what we are referring to let alone what we are trying to say when we speak in platitudes about our culture becoming an oral one.  The differences and/or similarities between orality and literacy is non-existent in the understanding of most university educated anywhere, even in the United States.

Of course, in what we used to call a democratic forum, all ideas, thus in parallel, all stories competing for acceptance must have no censor.  This of course is not exactly adhered to by the most ardently politically correct in our publishing establishment, certainly not in our universities, themselves having succumbed to the demands of the ledger book and the marketplace; the idea that we have multicultural slots to fill in our publishing is merely a way of increasing profits by subdividing the market, a basic tenet of microeconomics, learned by every undergraduate who takes Micro and Macro Economics as either a prerequisite or as an elective. However, even where all ideas competing for acceptance, there must still be competition, which means some form of discerning, which in turn means some form of discrimination, which does not mean blindly to prejudge. Historiography has succumbed to a crisis in epistemology whereby attaining knowledge has become impossible. This leaves historiography opened to a methodology that employs the narratology of the fiction writer, which, in an abrupt turn around, must never be entirely absent from even the most objective of historical inquiries.



To prejudge blindly is not to be discriminating, which is what is so heinous about things like racism and sexism; there is often little to no discriminating involved. I discriminate between fresh and sour milk, very good and cheap wine, well made products and poorly made ones. If the wine is “corked,” or the wine is fine; I discriminate. But what we mean mostly about all ideas must have no censor is that we must not discriminate and thus must accept all ideas as possessing some validity. As children, we want what we think to matter to everyone we speak to independent of whether or not our thoughts are worthy of respect, and yes, respecting a man or a woman enough to listen to them is not the same thing as respecting and the accepting what they say. We must have open forums of disagreement, and opinions must have quality otherwise we are in a situation where they only have quantity which leaves us open to an ethics numerically determined, which in turn only respects the rights of the current majority. This of course is similar to, but not identical with, learned consensus. And yes, there are intellectual elites, at least there used to be in our academies of higher learning. The church and the monastery have just about fallen below the horizon of history in determining the metaphysical energies and driving forces of the university system in the west; universities have become virtually fully bourgeois, and by this have fallen under the auspices of the ledger book. In publishing today, moreover, what gets published is as dogmatically colorful as it used to be white and male only; it seems we only ever flip the coin, which leads me to be cynical in face of others believing that history is progressive. But this also results in having to maintain this dogma. The fore mentioned coin-flip is, of course, a social corrective, yet aren’t laxatives also called correctives?

Social laxatives or laxities notwithstanding, narrative must be made, it is made, it is at the end of a creative process, or so we have come to say without actually knowing what we mean.  There is always present a wrighter in every writer, the same as used to be present in the word, playwright, one who builds a play, one who constructs, who makes . . . the thing made, again.  Humans when they were called Man used to be the tool making animal; chimps chewing leaves to soak up water from knots in branches, or stripping branches and licking them to put into the holes of termite mounds exploded this and turned anthropology on its head . . . humanology has struggled to recover in the last three decades since. The past I have spoken of here was no golden age; it would be contrary to my ideas about adhering to a sense of Truth or the ability to be objective in weighing facts, in presenting the past, which is what history does. It presents the past, what was becomes another form of is. Is all presentation a matter of re-presentation, thus a matter of delivering fiction?

Implications and inferences seem beyond us in our culture of ignorance; things have to be spelled out for us. Thinking is not something we believe can be taught or should be taught or needs to be taught because somewhere we imagine that thinking is what we are capable of by nature. But thinking is not randomly passing images in the mind, or becoming thrilled by our own brilliance because we have divined meaning without verification. Verification itself mistrusted.

Nonetheless, narrative is a thing made, and History is narrative, for the most part, at least traditional histories have employed this method of presentation; and all stories also include some narrative, at least the kind we call fiction. But then we do say narrative fiction as opposed to non-narrative fiction; the kind of short stories that have more in common with prose-poems, or lyric expressions; and there is lyric fiction, a distinction must herein be drawn among lyric, narrative and drama.  They are not mutual. There is of course narrative fiction and narrative non-fiction, and this is where the traditional notion of history resides: narrative non-fiction. Is there lyric history?

Narrative, however, is simply the product of narration; narrating. This act, of course, is the subject of all narratology, whether it is the Odyssey, Moll Flanders, The Great Gatsby, Caesar’s The Civil Wars, or Gibbon’s The Rise and fall of the Roman Empire.  We only have to reflect on our telling to know that narrating anything involves choices, many of them creative, others biased, still others perhaps short-sighted, others yet limited by available documents. Certainly rhetorical choices are involved, thus making the telling of any story not only a reflection of the teller’s style, the teller’s idiolectal variations on his native or non-native sociolect, his speech community’s negotiated and negotiable discourse, but is reflective of his creative ablity, his makerly relationship with his text. It also reveals his politics. All history writing is inevitably political and politicizing. Since all history writers are in effect makers of their texts, and all makers are poets, as is predicated by the Greek poeta, all historiography has its poetics.

Not every one can tell a story well, or even tell what has happened adequately, this we seem to know without having to say it.  Bearing witness without prejudice; but what about the prejudices of memory, the prejudices of our cultures received ideas, its accepted dogmas.  And nations as well as any institution of state,of religion, of finance–your family has its dogmas. Now most people rarely pay attention to the difference between the expository and the narrative, let alone possess the good sense when to use either.  I’m not so certain that everyone needs to be able to do so; however, I am fast realizing that even among many of educated, a distinction between them is absent.  Even a rudimentary understanding of the two as categories of writing would go a long way in helping to manage one’s critique of history, historia, historum, fee, fie, fictio and all that.

Nonetheless, one still makes a text when he or she says anything about some event, some experience, some occurrence.  The competence to tell a story well, of course goes beyond mere grammatical competence, at least how we limit our understanding of the term grammatical.  But there is some truth in the maxim, teaching grammar will not make a person a better writer.  This of course points to a number of seemingly divergent things, but one is essential, and that is that no matter how a story is told, it is creative in the aforementioned ways someone is creative when telling a story, and the story-teller should know the differences between narrative and exposition, although this knowledge in itself will not a story-teller make her, him, them, us . . . fee, fie, fictio, historum.

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