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Metahistorical to literary criticism

Hayden White, a prominent name in the historiography and philosophy of history of the second half of the 20th century, relying on the use of ‘narrativity’, passed away recently

Metahistorical to literary criticism

Nasir Abbas Nayyar’s article, ‘Fiction as alternate history’, which appeared in these pages on March 11, brilliantly discussed how imagination in literature, and analysis in history portray events differently. One historian and critic who tackled these issues throughout his life died earlier this month. If you are a serious student of history, just retelling events does not satisfy you; a better understanding of history is gained by looking into how it is written. Hayden White who died on March 5, 2018, at the age of almost 90, was an American historian who discussed historiography with a tinge of literary criticism.

With dozens of articles, books, and essays to his credit, White was one of the most prominent names in the historiography and philosophy of history of the second half of the 20th century. He introduced terms such as ‘emplotment’ into history writing and argued that various strategies of explanation mark historical texts. These strategies may include explanations by argument, emplotment, and ideological implication. He detected a heavy influence of literary writing on historiography which, according to White, shared a strong reliance on narrative for meaning.

This idea had an important implication for how history was understood and written, as now the possibility of objectivity or the attempt to create a ‘truly scientific history’ was almost eliminated. For White, the use of ‘narrativity’ made history successful because it is the narrative value that enables history to become meaningful. White was one of those versatile professors and writers who straddle many fields. He retired as professor emeritus at the History of Consciousness Department of the University of California, but prior to that he taught at the Comparative Literature Department of Stanford University.

In addition to his teaching and writing, his claim to fame was also a lawsuit against the Los Angeles Police Department in 1975. He challenged covert intelligence gathering on college campuses by polices officers. White was the sole plaintiff who sued the chief of police alleging covert and illegal intelligence gathering by police officers registered as students. In that landmark decision the Supreme Court with a unanimous decision set limits to police surveillance of political activity declaring that police cannot engage in such surveillance in the absence of reasonable suspicion of a crime.

Perhaps White’s most famous book is Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe. The book was so popular that on its 40th anniversary in 2014, a special edition was brought out. Essentially a work of historiography, the book mostly presents an analysis of the deep structure of the historical imagination of 19th century Europe and provides a new perspective on the debate over the nature and function of historical knowledge. The first 50 pages of the book are a very interesting read, for they consider in detail eight major figures of the 19-century history and philosophy of history.

In Metahistory, White postulates that a coherent story is organised with a chronicle of events selected by the historian. But this is just the beginning; before processing the material into a plot it must be augmented to express an ideology. From here White delves into ‘a verbal structure’ shaping a narrative prose discourse. This model or icon of past structures and processes explains events. To understand what it means, at least four thinkers need to be discussed briefly: the Italian, Giambattista Vico (1668-1744), the Russian, Roman Jakobson (1896-1982), the French, Emile Benveniste (1902-1976), and the Canadian, Northrop Frye (1912-1991).

Drawing from all this, Hayden White’s four basic emplotments are provided by the archetypical genres of romance, comedy, tragedy, and satire.

Giambattista Vico is an almost-neglected genius who held the key to much of Western thought. Some readers consider Vico as a difficult writer; but then Jacobson, Benveniste, Frye, and even White himself are not easy to read and understand. You need an interest not only in history and historiography but also in language, linguistics, literary theory, and literature itself. Vico’s views on the nature of historical knowledge and the relationship between the study of history and self-knowledge are pertinent to our times, especially in Pakistan. Vico was proficient in languages, law, and philosophy, and applied these fields of knowledge to his ideas.

Though Vico had a doctorate in law, he won a chair in rhetoric at the University of Naples. In the early 18th century, his main contribution was his enunciation that wisdom and prudence could only be attained through the study of both arts and sciences. To him, the search for truth and self-knowledge goes through the study of most, if not all, branches of knowledge, past and present. His orations ‘On Humanistic Education and On the Study Methods of our Times’ are masterpieces that must be read by curious educationists, historians, and teachers.

Vico argues that the dominance of mathematics and science had led to the neglect of the wide-ranging education he recommended. He says that if students were educated in various forms of knowledge they would not step rashly into discussions while they are still learning; nor would they refuse to accept other viewpoints. Vico’s ‘constructivist’ view of knowledge provides a lot of clarity to students of history. In his work, The New Science of Vico (1725), he spelled out the pattern of growth and decay.

He thought that many periods of history can be described in three ways: ‘the age of poetry’, ‘the age of heroes’, and the ‘age of humans’. In the ‘age of poetry’, people are irrational but imaginative, and they take myths to be literal truths that explain their world. In the ‘age of heroes’, people’s clashes highlight the need for a political system based on humanity and justice, which is realised in the ‘age of humans’. From heroes to humans, people pass from mythic, non-rational consciousness to rational consciousness. If you apply this to Pakistan, you see the people still living in the age of poetry (myths) and heroes.

Vico believes that a gradual loss of imaginative ability leads to moral corruption; if this trend is not arrested or reversed, a society may slump into a ‘barbarism of reflection’ in which people seek refuge in mythic consciousness.

Roman Jakobson, linguist and literary scholar of Russian origin, spent the last 40 years of his life in America, teaching at Columbia, Harvard, and MIT. He was also a multi-disciplinary genius and argued for work that combined multiple subjects, especially in linguistics and literary research. Jakobson was just 25 when he proposed the notion of ‘literariness’ making it, and not literature itself, the proper focus of research; just like White focused on the language of history rather than history itself.

Jakobson’s work, Two Aspects of Language led to his formulation of the notion of the metaphoric and metonymic poles of linguistic, and were later applied by White to historiography in his Metahistory.

Emile Benveniste was a French linguist who was interested in the play of form and rules not just in linguistics but in the humanities as such. His work focused on the relation between language and the category of the person. Modern literary criticism is indebted to his essays in Problemes or Problems of General Linguistics (1966), which focused on the two notions of discourse and histoire. His articles on discourse provided White the material to ponder the impact of language on the construction of self and of subjectivity that he applied to historiography.

But perhaps, the most important influence on White was Northrop Frye, a Canadian literary critic and theoretician who himself was influenced by Vico. For 50 years he taught at the University of Toronto while lecturing and writing for international publics too. He was mostly concerned with the theory and practice of literary criticism and with the role of the creative imagination in human culture and history. To Frye, literature projects an organised myth of human experience; an idea that White borrowed from him to apply on history.

For Frye in literature and for White in history, human beings encounter the world through their imaginations, shaping and reshaping that world in accord with their desires and anxieties. In both history and literature, people confront the world sometimes dispassionately, at other times with passion; they also fluctuate between objective reality and their own subjectivity and make attempts to describe the world as clearly as possible to the reader. The verbal expression of this whole encounter is the domain of both history and literature — fictional and non-fictional; and the resultant expressions become the target of criticism.

Drawing from all this and much more, White’s four basic emplotments are provided by the archetypical genres of romance, comedy, tragedy, and satire. The modes of argumentation are formist, organist, mechanistic, and contextualist. With all this, White proposes four main types of ideology: anarchy, conservatism, radicalism, and liberalism, and to make it more complicated he also mixes four modes of functioning i.e. representation, reduction, integration, and negation.

In Metahistory, White presents a synoptic table with seven columns and four rows. Column that draws from linguistics uses four tropes: metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and irony. Though all this seems complex and recondite, White’s work has made obsolete the view of language as neutral medium in historiography. With White, philosophy of history underwent its linguistic turn to emerge with a new intellectual backdrop. Some critics consider White a relativist and post-modernist, as he challenged ‘one particular narrative’ approach to history. But White was also a sharp critic of several key figures of post-modernism and post-structuralism such as, Barthes, Derrida, Foucault, and Lyotard.

White called them ‘absurdist critics’; but he honoured Barthes in The Content of the Form. White also engages with Foucault in his essay, ‘Foucault’s discourse: The Historiography of Anti-Humanism’.

According to White, if one narrative prevails, the dirty work is done by ‘rhetoric’, at the cost of evidence and logic. How true it is in Pakistan where ‘one particular narrative’ is imposed, and — no doubt —the dirty work is done by rhetoric. In Urdu, not many have used evidence and logic while writing about history; exceptions are Dr Mubarak Ali, Syed Sibte Hasan, and Ali Abbas Jalalpuri. May there be more like them.

Dr Naazir Mahmood

Naazir Mahmood
The writer has been associated with the education sector since 1990 as teacher, teacher educator, project manager, monitor and evaluator.


  • Adnan Ashraf Warraich

    Very well-written article. There are very few teachers of history and literature who know about the outstanding works of Hayden White but his theory is quite interesting. In fact, literature is deeply connected with the society which is reflected in the history as well. So there are some common approaches followed in both disciplines.

    • Thanks Adnan sb, You are right, there are not many who know about White’s work, I am glad you read and appreciated the article.

  • A brilliant and informative article. Kudos Sir!

    • Thanks very much Ar for your comments

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