Sunday, June 10, 2012

On Creative Historiography

There has been seemingly increased discussions of what unites the humanities and the sciences.  One area that seems to unite different branches of knowledge is creativity, as well as a sense of wonder.  In a more limited scope, the ancient historian Robin Lane Fox reflects on the limits and potentials of creativity in historiography versus fiction.  In his Travelling Heroes, he begins with what looks like the basic assumptions of those writing fiction versus those writing history:
Novelists, surely, need to imagine, whereas earthbound historians have only to collect as mundane information as survives. (p. 4)
 Yet he begins to break down this dichotomy of data gathering versus creative imagination, showing the constraints in fiction and the role of the imagination in history-writing:
Yet novelists become constrained by their own creations and by the need for them to be coherent as they develop.  Historians must amass and collect but they then have freedoms too.  It is for them to assess the credentials of what survives, to pose questions which some of it helps to answer, and to check that there is not other evidence which tells against their answer and which cannot be explained. (ibid.)
While the role of assessing evidence may seem tedious, the art of asking questions does, in fact, involve a great deal of imagination, seeking to ask the questions that will make the most sense of the evidence, but also make the back-and-forth of question-and-answer engaging for the contemporary reader.  The question is the catalyst, however, that unleashes much greater creative energy:
As they reconstruct a life, a practice or a social group, their sources control their image of it, but they also need to imagine what lies beyond their surface, the significant absences and latent forces.  When they imagine these absentees they need to think how life would have been beyond their own particular lives.  "I wish I was here, or I wish I was there...":  these thoughts also flash in minds which have travelled far among evidence for other times and places. (ibid.)
This definitely an important observation coming from an eminent ancient historian because of the nature of ancient evidence.  Reading absences is tricky, yet a persistent necessity.  We see peaks of icebergs and know that the major evidence remains submerged, latent.  We work with scraps and pieces, nothing even close to a coherent picture arises from the evidence alone.  That picture derives from historians peeking under the surface into the abyss of the unknown, seeking to imagine ancient life from its surviving detritus (often quite literally) of literary and archaeological remains.  Whether novelists, historians, or members of other branches of knowledge, we all balance our limiting constraints (coherence, evidence) with free imagination to pose questions to our world and seek answers.

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