Can history be non-narrative?
There is a straightforward answer to this: no, it can’t.
Telling a true story about the past is all that I aspire to as a historian. Even better if that narrative is an intervention in debates about the past (historiography). One person’s life, even someone from among the humblest classes, can have implications for how historians understand a whole period. You only need think of Ginzburg’s Menocchio, the miller whose reading habits called into question historians’ understanding of popular and elite cultures in early-modern Europe.
In fact, the importance of narrative seems to be enshrined in the very definition of what history is. Consider the OED entry. History is:
A written narrative constituting a continuous chronological record of important or public events (esp. in a particular place) or of a particular trend, institution, or person’s life.
History is a narrative of what happened. Without narrative, it is just the past.
But is the straightforward answer right?
Let me rule out several possible objections:
I do not mean history can avoid being narrative when the ‘history’ in question (drawing on another definition the OED offers) is history as a discipline, the study of the past. This work of doing and working on history clearly is no more narrative than any other brute reality. It’s just one thing after another.
Nor do I mean – as people sometimes assume – that narratives must have beginnings, middles, and ends.
Some of the most enduring narratives of folklore are actually narrative cycles. Some well-known fiction and theatre begins mid-sentence or mid-scene. (It’s not often I’d put Shakespeare and Brett Easton Ellis in the same sentence).
It is possible to make plot, to connect events and scenes into a narrative, without formal beginning, middle, and end.
But are there histories that really are non-narrative?
To do history is to arrange knowledge about the past in a particular way, whether in writing, speech, or film, for instance.
But if there are films that aspire to be non-narrative, then why not histories? Why couldn’t a historian assemble collages of images and text into patterns that do not tell stories?
Because, you might point out, the story is always there. Why these images, why not that text? Why in this order, why with this beginning and end?
And perhaps you are right.
There’s only one way to prove it, and I don’t even know how I would go about doing it in a way that was still meaningful, or important, a contribution to research.
I can think of some examples of history that shun narrative, or problematise it. I am thinking of several books that we have read for the #storypast virtual reading group, such as Laurent Binet’s HhHH, with its constant attempts to refuse credibility, narrativity, and authority.
Or what about the fascinating Threads by Julia Blackburn, which is the next book we are discussing for #storypast this coming Thursday, 21st February? (Read more here.)
Blackburn’s book is made up of many tiny narratives, or threads, vignettes of her journey to discover John Craske, former fisherman and artist. But is there really a narrative to the book as a whole?
It isn’t that nothing happens. I won’t spoil the book, but it’s safe to say that while things undoubtedly happen, Blackburn isn’t always clear about (or perhaps interested in) why. Is there a building plot to the book? Or is it more like a mosaic?
I believe it is lyric rather than narrative.
Unlike an academic historian, whose purpose is to further knowledge, who must engage with the narratives of other historians and produce their own, new narrative, I think Blackburn makes no argument. She evokes: her encounters and research, a past time and place.
Perhaps this is not non-narrative history, but it comes close?
Or perhaps you know of better examples?
Whatever the case, please do join the discussion of Blackburn’s book on Twitter on Thursday from 17:30-18:30 GMT.