By Christopher Zehnder
Herodotus of Halicarnassus, a very creative historian
“The creative historian” – who will not deny that the phrase implies a contradiction, a lie, a heresy? Even I who conceived it dread to utter it, and not least for fear that some of you may feel compelled to denounce me to the authorities for my impertinence for even making such a connexion between creativity and history. To suggest, too, as I do, that creative imagination plays any part in so seemingly an objective study as history – is that not some spawn of postmodern despair that concludes that all claims to truth are naught but lunges at power? For the creative imagination is a mighty power and, in its own realm, divine in its efficacy. It can take the events and personalities of bygone times and by a deft manipulation arrange them into a tableau that accords with its own preconceptions and pleasures. If anything – far from being an aid to the historian, creative imagination would seem to threaten him with his greatest peril and pitfall.
Moreover, when we consider where the creative imagination has most free play, we will be more than justified to reject any tie between it and the historical discipline. I refer here to what J.R.R. Tolkien called “sub-creation,” the realm of myth and fable. It was Tolkien himself that gave us the best modern example of sub-creation, especially in his magnum opus, the Silmarilien, where he creates nothing less than a mythical history of the early ages of the world. Speaking of the concept of sub-creation, Tolkien wrote:
We have come from God, and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Indeed only by myth-making, only by becoming “sub-creator” and inventing stories, can Man aspire to the state of perfection that he knew before the Fall.
Here it is clear that, for Tolkien, sub-creation does not equate with falsehood. It will contain “error,” but it will shine with the light of truth. Let this be so. Still, who will deny that the truth for which a Tolkien will strive in his sub-creation is not entirely the same truth the historian seeks in his attempts to reconstruct the past?
J.R.R. Tolkien, age 24
If what we say here is true of Tolkien’s sub-creation, it is equally true of those less radical creative departures from the so-called “real world” – those works that go by the name of the roman or novel? Such works, historical in character as they are for the most part (insofar as they generally speak of past events) and set in the “real world,” usually contain their dose of error or even (dare we say it?) lies. For who reads, for instance, Shakespeare’s Henry IV or Richard III and thinks he is getting the straight dope on the events proceeding and following the Wars of the Roses? Shakespeare at times frankly distorts the past for purposes of his own – purposes quite other from those of the historian. And not only Shakespeare is guilty of falsifying the past; one can point to countless other writers who, with their creative imagination, recast past events and personalities for their own arcane intentions and purposes.
If we expect poets and novelists to be liars, we count on historians to tell the truth. “The facts, mam, the facts, and nothing but the facts” – this is what the historian is after. The historian narrates, or at least tries to narrate, what actually occurred at some defined time and place, without addition or subtraction. If the historian is an artist, it is only in how he narrates the facts, not in the facts themselves, or so we think. Indeed, we would describe the historian as “scientific” rather than artistic or “creative.” The novelist may play fast and loose with the events of the past; the historian is tightly constrained within the parameters of a demanding discipline.
Thus, it seems I have confirmed the suspicions of at least many of you – that I am some sort of intellectual heretic for even suggesting that an historian may be creative. Yet, before you sick the hounds of the Inquisition on me, I would beg you to hear my case. For despite my protestations to the contrary, I maintain that the creative imagination has a role, a very central and important role, to play in the exploration of history, and the telling and teaching of it. I pray this august assembly to hear me for my cause, and only then, pass judgment upon me. When I have had done, if need be, you may denounce me to the authorities. Continue reading