The Moon or the Mirror of the Moon? –Reflections on History, Story and Narrative (Part 1)

This year’s Asia Conference on Arts and Humanities (ACAH 2017) at Kobe is particularly enchanting, with most of scholarly presentations focusing on the historical, fictional and narrative discourse, the theory of which I have been struggling with in my thesis, before demonstrating the inextricable connection between literature and history. The lecture given by Brian Victoria, for instance, was an attempt to evaluate the research methodology of historical scholars, using D. T. Suzuki (1870 -1966), both a Japanese Zen master and a Buddhist scholar, as an example. Through close analyses of few Suzuki’s essays, Brian argued how nation’s ideologies, chiefly imperialism and totalitarianism, had formulated and reformulated his religious thoughts. He ended his speech by suggesting to all researchers “five golden rules”, one of which is, Brian advised, that prejudices might result because of self-interest. Here he did pinpoint a universal phenomenon, for a researcher only concentrates on whatever interests him, keeps on digging evidence to substantiate his argument favorable to him, and refutes whatever obstructs the development of his thesis. A historian may endeavor, at best, to seek an objective perspective to interpret a primary text, but the historian’s biography, cultural background and scholastic training did impose subjectivity upon himself. This is perhaps what has been discussed for more than one millennium – epistemology, as well as concerning how men acquire knowledge.

If we agree that knowledge can be developed both through reason (Vernunft) and experience (Erleben), then does each of our distinctive experience form a possibly different knowledge? And if our knowledge is different, will then what we think is true a mere belief? This question has already been discussed in Plato’s Republic, where he supports the unseekability and the intangibility of truth using his famous example of “bed”[1]. Suppose truth cannot be sought, what we think is true would then be “perceived truth” – phenomenon –, and our understanding of history is not as stable as we thought it to be. In this respect, it is essential to deconstruct the past historical narrative, and construct a “new” one based upon our different understanding, or I should better call it ideology. Probably because of such a difference, Fredric Jameson chanted a slogan “always historicize”[2], Myles Chilton described in his presentation, which implies a shift of synchronic approach to diachronic approach. I do not agree, for sure, that how we comprehend history is entirely different from how our antecedent did, yet the way of their narrating – telling the history – may be constrained by the formerly cultural condition. Had Erich Auerbach (1892-1957) not fled to Turkey during the Nazi time, and had he not been annoyed with the limited research source he had at hand, he would not have been able to complete his book of mimesis. Viewed in this light, whatever has been written may be a conditioned truth, or “a stylized past” shaped by the writer’s background and cultural environment. Myles continued to cite Marshall Brown’s saying elsewhere that “history is not a mode of being, but a mode of experiencing being”, the double progressive words “experiencing” and “being” of which give me a sense of the forever changing and changeable.

Suppose the telling of history changes with times, then the changing times alter the form and style of story/fiction too. It is interesting to hear that one student tried to argue Chinese ghost story as a sort of “para-history” by comparing them to Gothics – a mode of unofficial history[3], although I would have been more convinced if she could have explained how the Chinese tradition changed as Confucius “did not discuss anomalies, strengths, disorders, or the supernatural”[4], as well as how “fictions of the grotesque” (志怪小說) developed and how they were connected with the “unofficial [Chinese] history”. Regardless, if any fiction does serve a mimetic function of the perceived truth in the eyes of a writer, then ‘historical fiction’ certainly falls under such a category, too. Before her close reading of Enchi Fumiko (1905-1986)’s fictions, one presenter quoted Diana Wallace’s discourse on “historical moment” usually found in a “fictional setting”[5], and Paul Ricoeur’s “historical intentionality”, the term of which is used to reestablish the link between narrative and historical understanding[6]. If the incorporation of fictive elements into historical discourse is a way to help us to understand history, then fiction should likewise be treated as a supplementary tool for the construction, as not only does its content, but also its form reflect to a certain extent the historical events, as John Bowen said in his survey on Victorian literature[7].

[To be continued]

[Photo taken on 31st Mar 2017; credit goes to IAFOR]

[1] Plato “Theory of Art”, in Republic, trans. Desonde Lee. London: Penguin Classic, pp. 335-353.

[2] Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1982, ix.

[3] David Punter, The Literature of Terror: A History of Gothic Fictions from 1765 to the Present Day. Volume 1: The Gothic Tradition. London & New York: Longman, 1996.

[4] See Analects 7.21 (怪力亂神 guai-li-luan-shen)

[5] Diana Wallace, The Woman’s Historical Novel: British Women Writers, 1900-2000, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005, p. 187, p. 190.

[6] Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative, trans. Kathleen McLaughlin and David Pellauer, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1984.

[7] John Bowen, “Comic and Satirical” in The Cambridge history of Victorian literature, ed. Kate Flint, Cambridge: Cambridge Press, 2012, pp.265-287.


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