History as an ocean
‘But there is a huge difference between writing a historical novel and writing history. If I may put it like this: history is like a river, and the historian is writing about the ways the river flows and the currents and crosscurrents in the river. But, within this river, there are also fish, and […] I am interested in the fish. The novelist’s approach to the past, through the eyes of characters, is substantially different from the approach of the historian’. This quotation might seem to have been taken from some pre-narrative-turn text whose author appears to profess the conviction that the scientific status of history and the fictional character of literature is what makes these two modes of writing about the past essentially different. In fact, these words come from Amitav Ghosh, a contemporary historian, social anthropologist, historical fiction writer who, more than forty years after the Linguistic Turn, seems to advocate a new version of ‘wie es eigentlich gewesen’ and literature opposition. Starting with Dipesh Chakrabarty’s arguments in favor of ‘regional and global configurations in modern history’, I would like to use them to criticize Ghosh’s idea of history as a river and put forward a thesis that history is like an ocean and if we understand it as such, then the boundary between writing a historical novel and history might be considered conventional and possible to be blurred. In order to justify this thesis I intend to provide a series of arguments supported mainly by Hayden White’s philosophy of history presented in Metahistory and Hans-Georg Gadamer’s theory of understanding from Truth and Method. In conclusion, I point to idiosyncrasies of the ocean-like perspective on history as a construct alternative to this proposed by Amitav Ghosh.
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