Being temporarily back in Washington has the advantage of being able to do intellectual things, such as attending lectures, at low of no cost. My son I went to two of them this week. We saw Jonah Goldberg launching his new book called the “the Tyranny of Clichés” at AEI and H.W. Brands talking about his new book, “The Heartbreak of Aaron Burr” at Smithsonian. Both were lively speakers.

Goldberg says that people use clichés as ways to shut off debate and delegitimize arguments they cannot win. He gave the example of somebody saying "violence never solved anything." This often ends a debate. If you question the statement, it sort of implies that you support or at least accept violence. In fact, violence has solved many problems, especially violent problems. And non-violence works only against people who are already not very violent. Gandhi, for example, could be non-violent only because was facing an opponent - the British - that believed in the rule of law and was susceptible to persuasion. There may have been Gandhi type people in Hitler's Germany or Stalin's Soviet Union but they disappeared into concentration camps of Gulags with their voices forever silenced. Usually, potential Gandhis were silence before they even said much of anything at all. Nazis and communists were skilled at identifying and liquidating potential threats even before they were manifest.

I enjoyed the Goldberg speech, but it was more along political lines. The H.W. Brands was more intellectually interesting. He is a historian talking about history and seems to have reached some of the same sorts of conclusions I have about historiography. In fact, when I relate what I recall he said, I am a little worried that it more what I think than a real description.

Brands talked about the differences between writing novels and writing history. Novels are more compelling to some people because you can have dialogue and you can know what people are thinking. Historians almost never can do this. The problem is sources. People tend not to write down all their thoughts and even if they did, the letters or papers tend not to be preserved.

This is the big problem for biographers. Brands said that you can write about extraordinary people because people know that they should keep letters or make notes about what they say. You can sometimes write about ordinary people in extraordinary times because they know to write things down. That is why we can write history of common people during the Civil War because so many people wrote their thoughts. I thought Brands took a courageous stand when he explained why he couldn't write biographies of women. Women, he said, tended not to have available sources.

You could write a biography of Abigail Adams from her letters to John Adams, but that would mostly be a biography of John too. In fact, that is what David McCullough did with his biography of John Adams. This brings another interesting permutation. The John & Abigail relationship is so rich for historians because they were so often apart when important things were happening. If they are together, they presumably still talk about these things but they leave no record.

Another disadvantage of history versus a novel has to do with conclusions. A novel can produce a story with clear heroes, villains, beginning and endings. History is never so tidy. Beginnings and endings flow into each other and they rarely are clear. History never ends.

I agreed with Brands' distinction of mysteries from secrets. A secret is something you don't know but in theory could find out. For example, the plan of attack on Pearl Harbor was a secret, but it could have been known by the U.S. A mystery is cannot be known. A mystery has to do with intentions and aspirations. Many times the person himself doesn't really know what he wants to do before conditions become clearer. This is the case with the famous treason of Aaron Burr.

Burr went west and was accused of planning to foment a war or maybe an independent movement in the West. Brands says that there is no way to know what Burr really planned. The circumstances never came together to allow him to make his move. Brands also thinks that Burr probably did not have a firm plan in mind. He didn't know what he was planning to do.

IMO, this is an important thing to remember in history. We all like the good stories, but there are many mysteries in history. They are not known to us now and can never be known. We like to think that all would be well if we could just have been sources, but this is not true. They are not unknown; they are unknowable.

I kept on thinking of the dilemma of history writing. Is there history w/o historians? Obviously, things happen whether or not anybody is there to write them down. But history is more than just a recording of one thing after another. That is why we acknowledge Herodotus as the "father of history." People recorded events long before Herodotus. Herodotus' contribution was to try to look at history through a kind of a system, to make explanations, not just record one damn thing after another. This means, however, that historians write their narrative and that their narrative is history. Brands gave the example of constellations. We recognize the big dipper, Aquarius, Scorpio etc. when we look at the night sky. But the stars that make up these constellations are in no way connected. They are thousands of light years apart. But once somebody points out the big dipper, you can never again look at the random jumble of stars w/o seeing the big dipper. We would hope that a historical narrative is more than a mere artificial imposition on a random and meaningless distribution, but clearly the intelligence of the writer imposes order. The interpretation is necessary to make it understandable, but it is not a metaphysical truth. Historical interpretations can change and they do.

In the end we didn't talk very much about Aaron Burr. Brands joked that we could get that story out of his book. He did explain that he tried to write the book to be interesting like a novel. He was able to do this because there was a good body of letters between Burr and his daughter Theodosia. For details, we need to buy the book.

Brands didn't talk about current politics except to answer a question about the Obama candidacy. Someone asked why Obama was having trouble. after such great expectations. (Burr was also a man of great talent and great expectations.) Brands just pointed out that it was easier to be a candidate than a president. A candidate can say "yes we can" to almost everything. A president mostly needs to say "No you can't." Making decisions and setting priorities is what leaders must do and deciding to do something by necessity says no to the other options.

Posted by Christine & John at May 12, 2012 12:04 AM
Comment #344672

From my perspective, the point of both history and fiction is to communicate meaningful information about a series of events.

That’s rather basic, but it helps us with the higher level stuff. With history the event really happened, so it’s surrounded by a wealth of naturally occuring information. However, time immediately starts wearing away at that information, and some information just isn’t accessible, or is hidden amidst a ton of other distracting information.

The reverse problem applies to fiction. Fiction is a patchwork of information, designed to meaningfully evoke the real stuff. But really, you have to create much of the information that surrounds those events.

Furthermore, fiction, being artificial, is constrained by the breadth and depth of the imagination of the author. This is part of how we tell a person’s lying. There’s always something people miss, but reality, naturally, misses nothing, because it doesn’t have to operate with any kind of awareness of events to lay the events and their consequences down.

Nature, we could say, has a much greater imagination because it has no imagination. It doesn’t think things up, things simply unfold, with as much complexity as can sustain itself. As our bodies, nature, and society tells us, that’s a hell of a lot, and it’s impossible for one person to fully grasp it.

At the same time, not grasping it has consequences. For a person trying to decide policy, not dealing with the complexities of society and nature means resigning oneself to some terrible disasters. We have to make some headway in understanding things if we want a viable civilizaton.

For an author, the stakes are less, but the problem is still interesting. An author can give up on dealing with complexity, but at what cost? At the cost of creating characters who are flat as cardboard. Settings that are a boring joke. Situations that unfold with curiously constrained and convenient logic, if any at all.

People are used to a complex world, used to mining that world for information with their senses and their experience. They find certain interactions plausible, certain others not so much, and their judgment will pick apart fake situations just as they do real ones.

People use the brains they process the real world with to process the narratives in fiction as well. And why not? Fiction functions as narrative daydream. This helps to explain, in part, why people are willing to tolerate departures from reality- who hasn’t had a dream that wasn’t somewhat off from reality?

In fact, a writer or filmmaker may not have a choice but to borrow from the flexibility of dreams, for when is fiction ever perfect, being a product of our limited minds? The best writers aren’t the ones who create the most fantastic or the most realistic, for what is realism in dream but an illusion? In a dream, we are confronted with surreal appearances, but we keep on trying to interpret some truth out of those shells of images and sounds anyways. We interpret what is a semi-random jumble of images as if it were a real situation. That’s why we often don’t realize we’re dreaming.

Okay, okay, but what about documentary or news coverage of reality? Well, that’s where things get dangerous, and perhaps a bit more interesting. We can’t just plop reality in people’s laps. There’s a bit much of it, and not all of it’s important. So, we have to edit things down, carve away what is not relevant and properly interpret what is.

Ah, but the minute we’re doing that, doesn’t everything become subjective?

The question may not be the problem you might think. For one thing, it is the doom of all human beings to have a subjective point of view. However, when we’re talking about real things, there’s a functional difference.

This difference, I would submit, is a matter of mapping. What is being mapped, why, to what end? What fiction writers and filmmakers try to map to are standards by which we judge reality. Those who deal in news and non-fiction have a reality to map to, that they are trying to (hopefully) convey reliably to audience members. Historians might do this job at a remove, but they too are asked to have their information correspond to something real.

Now a fiction writer doing a fictional biography or a biopic is expected to have better correspondence on that front, but it’s generally acknowledged that the correspondence on that count will be more thin, less reliable. Additionally, there are often cases of writers doing horrible research, and making serious compromises to the material’s correspondence to reality, but still managing to create popular, even beloved works, because they got the dramatic and technical work done so well.

The basic problems in all cases are the limits on the human ability to process the world around them, and the additional bandwidth limitation imposed on our methods of communication. The struggle is to know enough on one end to present an accurate map of real world situations to people on the other end, and also to take the accurate map we start out with, when we begin to communicate, and reliably convey those mappings to people.

Or, if you’re a fiction writer or filmmaker, the struggle is to shape a patchwork of fact and experiences that, in it’s dreamlike incompleteness, is nonetheless compelling enough to drive a carefully mapped out experience for an audience.

Posted by: Stephen Daugherty at May 16, 2012 3:21 PM
Comment #344681


Thanks for the comment.

Posted by: C&J at May 16, 2012 9:05 PM
Comment #344740


Posted by: KAP at May 17, 2012 3:30 PM
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