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also distorting them in the sense at play in the preceding paragraph.
Narrative coherence, then, is an imposition28 on the historical past. Moreover,
the patterns of narrative coherence thus imposed upon (or constructed out of) a
collection of historical events are conventional (rather than, say, realistically
motivated).29 This inventing, distorting, constructing, imposing, constituting,
meaning-making (signifying), and convention-applying activity are all acts of the
imagination (in contrast, one supposes, to some more literal information assimilat-
ing process). Moreover, this imaginative activity on the part of narrative historians
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is not different in kind from the activity of the literary fabulist and should be
treated as telling us about the world in the same way.
White runs his various foils to actual sequences of events (and perfect replicas
thereof) together rather indiscriminately.That is, imagining, constructing, distorting,
signifying, constituting, and so on are never scrupulously and differentially defined,
and they are all used to serve roughly the same purpose: to underpin the animating
distinction between living (the succession of real events) and telling (narrating). One
would think that signifying, imagining, distorting, conventionalizing, and so on “
not to mention selecting “ (though potentially interrelated in interesting ways)
should not be lumped together so cavalierly. However, in White™s brief they serve as
“intuition pumps”30 directed at consolidating the reigning slogan that distinguishes
between living (history as process) and telling (history as narrative artifact). Each con-
trast, that is, is meant to convince us of a disjunction between a sequence of real
events or a perfect replica thereof (whatever that might be) and a narrative structure
that introduces fictional elements into the flow of events.
White expands upon and concretizes his slogans and intuition pumps by
exploiting analyses of narrative by literary theorists “ both those of the recent
structuralist/poststructuralist dispensation, and that of Northrop Frye.
From continental literary theory,White derives the idea of what he calls “nar-
rativizing discourse.”31 This is putatively discourse that gives the impression that
there is no narrator. It is the discourse that in contemporary literary circles is often
called “transparent,” that is, writing that presents itself to the reader as unmediated
and full “ a transcription of reality without gaps: “the whole unvarnished truth
and nothing but,” so to speak. Such discourse, ostensibly appearing without a nar-
rator, presents itself as if “the events seem to tell themselves.”32 The property of
“events telling themselves” is called narrativity, and discourse that imbues the
events it recounts with this property is narrativizing.
The transparency or narrativizing effect is the hallmark of what many literary
theorists call the realist text, such as is supposedly found in the form of the nine-
teenth-century novel. In adopting the narrating strategies of the realist text, the
historian, likewise, presents events as if they were “telling themselves.” For White,
this implies that naive, narrative historians really have a deep, though unacknowl-
edged and even disavowed, affinity with substantive philosophers of history, like
Marx and Hegel, who see the historical process as a single unfolding story “ his-
tory speaking through the acts of humankind.Thus, if substantive philosophers of
history are open to criticism, then less grandiose but nevertheless still narrativizing
historians should be vulnerable to the same kind of criticisms.
So, both ordinary narrativizing historians and philosophers of history can be
charged with distortion and with masking their highly selective procedures with
an imaginary aura of coherence, integrity, and fullness that exploits our desires (for
coherence, etc.), but misrepresents reality.33 White writes, “Does the world really
present itself to perception in the form of well-made stories, with central subjects,
proper beginnings, middles and ends, and a coherence that permits us to see ˜the
end™ in every beginning?”34 Any form of narrativity “ which is the presupposition
INTERPRETATION, HISTORY, NARRATIVE 139
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that narrative structure literally corresponds to something in the historical past “
amounts to the belief that “events tell themselves.” But “real events should not
speak, should not tell themselves. Real events should simply be.”35 Or, to return to
White™s earlier slogan: stories can™t be found because real stories aren™t out there in
the world of the past to be found.
Though White uses the conceptual frameworks of continental literary theo-
rists to augment his account of narrative history, the literary theorist on whom his
argument most relies is Northrop Frye. As we have seen,White believes that nar-
rative historians impose preexisting plot configurations on event series, thereby
rendering them intelligible. But this raises the question of identifying some of the
plot configurations that historians are supposedly employing.And it is in this con-
text that White is able to use Frye in order to cash in his more philosophically
motivated conceptions of historical narration.
According to Frye, there are certain master genres into which literary narra-
tives fall.36 These include Romance, Tragedy, Comedy, and Satire/Irony. On the
basis of the analyses of nineteenth-century historical writing in Metahistory and of
more recent figures, such as A.J.P.Taylor,37 White advances the hypothesis that the
kinds of narrative configurations identified by Frye in literary fictions are also
operative in historical narratives. This empirical claim, if it is sustainable, gives
White™s more philosophical speculations real bite. For surely narrative configura-
tions of the order of tragedy do have a content as well as generic conditions of
coherence such that we would be prone to suspect a historian who selected events
from the historical flow under their aegis of imposition in the epistemically dubi-
ous or distorting sense. Tragedies, comedies, romances, and satires do seem
invented rather than found, at least for the most part. So, if historical narratives
tend to have these structures with significant regularity, we might very well admit
that the practice of historical writing is of a piece with fiction. For these patterns
are, first and foremost, fictional genres.
One reason White advances in favor of the idea that historical narratives are
impositions is that events can be emplotted in different stories. This, of course,
becomes particularly convincing when we think of the stories in terms of generic
forms like tragedy and comedy. For certainly the same events or cluster of events
can figure in tragedies or comedies “ for example, in Hamlet or Rosencrantz and
Guildenstern Are Dead.
Moreover, if it is the case that historical narrative is as thoroughly dependent
on generic structures at the level Frye describes them, then the idea that they illu-
minate metaphorically becomes more perspicuous.Actual series of events may not
literally be satiric, but by emplotting them in a satiric structure the narrative his-
torian may be seen to be exhibiting certain aspects of those events in a revelatory
way. By likening a sequence of actual events to satire, an apparently desultory
group of events takes on a familiar and understandable shape. Furthermore, the
notion that these generic structures function as metaphors accommodates White™s
worries about the selectivity of narrative, for metaphors function cognitively by
drawing selected, though ideally revealing, analogies.
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Whether White is committed to the existence of only four generic plots is
unclear. On the one hand, there are indications in his writings that there might be
more, such as the epic;38 on the other hand, Frye™s recurring fourfold division is the
most frequently invoked characterization of generic narrative configurations. How-
ever this issue is resolved,White does appear to believe that the number of narrative
configurations culturally available to the historian is limited and the repertoire is at
the level of generality found in Frye™s typology. At the same time, White does not
think that each historical narrative will be subsumable under one and only one of
Frye™s types, because some historical works will mix configurational options. Never-
theless, whether pure or mixed, all historical narratives will employ generic configu-
rations and, therefore, possess an inexpungable fictional dimension.
Connected to White™s theory of emplotment is his theory of tropology “ the
tropics of discourse. Not only are the events in historical narratives arranged or
emplotted in accordance with a finite number of culturally available story forms
(myths), but the events are described by means of tropes, notably metaphor,
metonymy, synecdoche, and irony, and the tropes a historian favors influence or
prefigure the choice of plot structure of the historian™s narrative as a whole.
On White™s view, since the historian, unlike the scientist, works, for the most
part, in the medium of ordinary, rather than technical, language, his tendency will
be toward the employment of tropes. A given historian will customarily gravitate
toward the use of one trope over others.The use of a particular trope is likely to
predispose her toward, or to correspond to, one form of culturally available
emplotment over others.Thus, from the ground up, so to say, the work of the nar-
rative historian begins to converge on that of the writer of literary fiction at the
level of descriptive tropes that, in turn, portend the use of certain kinds of plots
that are mythic in nature.
White writes:
the four general types of tropes identified by neo-classical rhetorical the-
ory appear to be basic: metaphor (based on the principle of similitude),
metonymy (based on that of continguity), synecdoche (based on the iden-
tification of parts of a thing belonging to a whole), and irony (based on
opposition). Considered as the basic structures of figuration, these four
tropes provide us with categories for identifying the modes of linking an
order of words to an order of thoughts ¦ on the paradigmatic axis of an
utterance and of one phase of a discourse with preceding and succeeding
phrases ¦ on the syntagmatic axis.The dominance of one mode of associ-
ating words and thoughts with one another across an entire discourse
allows us to characterize the structure of the discourse as a whole in tropo-
logical terms. The tropological structures of metaphor, metonymy, synec-
doche, and irony (and what I take “ following Northrop Frye “ to be their
corresponding plot types: Romance,Tragedy, Comedy and Satire) provide
us with a much more refined classification of the kinds of historical dis-
courses than that based on the conventional distinction between “linear”
INTERPRETATION, HISTORY, NARRATIVE 141
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and “cyclical” representations of historical processes.They also allow us to
see more clearly the ways in which historical discourse resembles and
indeed converges with fictional narrative, both in the strategies it uses to
endow events with meanings and in the kinds of truth in which it deals.39
White, then, fills out and supports his claims about the invented or imposed nature
of historical narration by means of three substantive, empirical claims: (1) histori-
ans structure their descriptions tropologically; (2) historians narrate through
generic story forms; (3) the tropes a historian uses prefigure or, in some other way,
correspond to her generic story forms. Crucial here is the assertion of the opera-
tion of generic story forms that can be supported either inductively through a
sample of historical writing or (roughly) deductively as following from (1) and
(3). Moreover, if (2) is defensible, then the claims that historical narratives are
imposed and that they are fictional gain plausibility insofar as a series of past events
would not (or, at least, would almost never) appear to be intrinsically comic or
tragic. Consequently, if narrative truth is a matter of configurations at the level of
such (fictional or mythic) plot structures, then it will not be assessable in terms of
the truth of the conjunction of its constituent, atomic sentences.That is, if narra-
tive truth is truthful, it must be evaluated on another model, which, logically speak-
ing, opens the possibility that it is a subspecies of metaphorical truth.

3. R E S I S T I N G W H I T E ™ S C O N S T RU C T I V I S M

Though the full force of White™s position is best realized when his various intu-
ition pumps are backed up by his empirical claims about the genre-derived nature
of historical narratives and his tropology, it seems to me that his intuition pumps
rely upon certain philosophical presuppositions that he believes will carry his
assertion concerning the fictional nature of historical narrative independently of
his general findings about generic emplotment and tropology.Thus, in dissecting
his position, it is important to challenge those philosophical presuppositions
before turning to his broad empirical claims about the kinds of generic structures
found in historical narratives.
According to White, lives are lived and stories are told. The putative conse-
quence of this is that insofar as historical narratives represent the lives of the past
in story form, they do not correspond to what existed in the past and are, there-
fore, fictional.This is not compelling comprehensively. For it is often the case that
we plan “ if not our entire lives, at least important episodes therein “ by means of
telling or visualizing stories to ourselves, and, then, we go about enacting them.
That is, lives can be storied; indeed there is a branch of psychology that uses this
idea as a research hypothesis.40 Consequently, with certain life episodes “ and, in
some cases, perhaps with some monomaniacal lives “ there are stories, hatched by
historical agents, that had causal efficacy in the past and could be discovered and
written up by historians. Thus, to the extent that the contrast between lives and
stories is not thoroughly exclusive, the conclusion that any historical narrative
142 ART, HISTORY, NARRATIVE
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must be fictional is not without exception; there could be historical narratives of
storied lives, or, at least, of storied episodes in the lives of historical agents.
Of course, this is not the real issue that the lives/stories dichotomy is meant to
broach. For historians are not merely biographers in search of life stories.The con-
trast between lives and stories is meant to call to mind colorfully the idea that his-
torical narratives are not found or discovered in the past, but are constructions or
inventions.The notion of invention here is a bit tricky and open to equivocation.
In one sense, historical narratives are inventions, namely, in the sense that they are
made by historians; but it is not clear that it follows from this that they are made-
up (and are, therefore, fictional).
Narratives are a form of representation, and it is true that historians do not go
about finding their representations as one might find a lost picture, a lost photo, or a
lost piece of film footage. Photos and filmstrips are made (invented) and they are not
found. We could say that lives are lived, and home movies are invented. But this
doesn™t entail that a stretch of film footage cannot record the past or yield accurate
information about it. Similarly, narratives are a form of representation, and, in that
sense, they are invented, but that does not preclude their capacity to provide accu-
rate information. Narratives can provide accurate knowledge about the past in terms
of the kinds of features they track, namely, the ingredients of courses of events,41 which
include: background conditions, causes and effects, as well as social context, the logic
of situations, practical deliberations, and ensuing actions.
For example, on July 3, 1989, the U.S. Supreme Court announced a decision
that delegated responsibility for regulating the availability of abortions to the dis-
cretion of individual states.This decision was the result, in significant respects, of
the success of the Reagan regime in appointing a series of like-minded, conserv-
ative judges to the Supreme Court. The appointment of those judges, including
O™Connor and Scalia, in the context of a background project of contesting the
perceived past liberalism of the Supreme Court, was part of a real historical
process, a course of events, that culminated on July 3, 1989.
This is not to say that there will not be further consequences to the court™s deci-
sion nor that this is the final culmination of Reagan™s successful efforts to reorient
the court. But the fact that there is more to come does not vitiate the fact that the
Reagan administration™s decisions and appointments were significant ingredients in
a real historical process that had as one result “ one, for there will be more “ the
decision on July 3, 1989. The historian who tracks these decisions and appoint-
ments, situating them in their social contexts, will make something “ something that
may take imagination to accomplish “ namely, a historical representation. But there
is no reason to suppose that such historical representations are necessarily made-up or
invented unless, for some as yet undemonstrated reason, courses of events must be
excluded from our ontology. Moreover, if courses of events are admissable ontolog-
ically, then they are there to be discovered and represented.
That my counterexamples so far often rely on the idea of deliberations and
decisions implemented in ensuing actions may appear open to the objection that
they presuppose a commitment on the part of historians to recreating the internal
INTERPRETATION, HISTORY, NARRATIVE 143
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perspective of historical agents. This, in turn, would be criticized as problematic
for two related reasons. First, that historians are not simply concerned with nar-
rating events in terms of how the agents saw them and that, even if historians were
so disposed, they should not be so exclusively preoccupied since it is often (most
often?) the unintended consequences of people™s deliberations and decisions
about which we most care.
These objections, however, require two remarks. First, if there are courses of
events that did issue as planned from the agent™s perhaps storied deliberation, this
would be enough to show that there is a sense in which the thesis that stories are
never found fails to be fully comprehensive. But a second and more important
point is that in speaking of courses of events, we are not committed to rendering
them solely in terms of the original intentions of the agents involved in them. A
course of events may involve failed attempts, like Reagan™s nomination of Bork to
the Supreme Court, which will result in more deliberative activity that may have
further unintended consequences. Or, the agent™s deliberative activity may involve
miscalculations that call for the historian to illuminate the prevailing conditions
that made the attempt misfire.That practical reasoning and its implementation in
action provide some of the ingredients that make a course of events adhere in no
way implies that the representation of a course of events will be a string of suc-
cessful practical syllogisms. That practical, deliberative activity will supply some

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