Keeping the ‘story’ in ‘history’

As we march boldly onward into 2015 and the second year of the centenary of World War One, I thought it only fitting to start reading some more books about the topic, starting with Humphrey Cobb’s Paths of Glory, an unflinching polemic about the injustices of military tribunals during the aforementioned conflict. Truth be told, my decision to read Paths of Glory was motivated less by historical considerations and more by the fact that I wanted to see whether the film (which I watched about a month ago) was an accurate adaptation, and call me a heretic but I think the film might have been a bit better. Whilst the film may have strayed slightly from the book plot wise, it stayed true to its grim and downbeat tone; it fleshed out the characters to make them more like actual people and less like plot devices; and any added or altered scenes actually managed to enhance its overall message i.e. military justice is often anything but.

Anyway, whilst as I’m sure you’d all love to hear my opinions on movie adaptations of famous books I’ve gone slightly off-track. Whilst reading Paths of Glory, I began to think about the importance of narrative in the study of history, a topic which seems pretty uncontroversial to a member of the general public, but which can cause huge debate amongst academic historians, some of whom see narrative history as a black mark against their discipline.

That last claim may sound hyperbolic, but it’s true nonetheless. There are historians who would argue narrative history is bad history. Their argument is based on two assumptions: firstly, that historians should be objective, and secondly that all narratives are unreliable, as they are simply one person’s interpretation of what happened. Therefore, for a historian to incorporate narrative into their analysis is to produce a subjective interpretation rather than an objective account of what actually happened, and that as such all historical accounts should solely be an analysis of quantifiable data such as GDP figures or census records.

That is something of a simplification, but you get the drift. Whilst I can see why some historians would argue against narrative history, at the same time I entirely disagree with them. Ignoring the fact that it’s impossible to arrive at anything close to resembling an “objective account of history”, to argue against narrative history is to essentially argue against human nature. After all, narrative is how we make sense of our daily lives. When someone asks us how we’ve been, we don’t just tell them about things which can be considered “objectively true”. Hell, most of the time we don’t even tell it in chronological order. We tell our story it in a way which makes thematic sense.

To use a hypothetical example, imagine you’re talking to someone who’s just got a new job which they’re really excited about. Chances are that they’ll frame the job offer as a logical end point, rather than as a random occurrence: for example, they’ll talk at length about how the job is a reward for their effort at university or in a previous job, but not particularly dwell on the dozens of similar jobs they applied for but which they failed to get. That isn’t a criticism of anyone who’s done that by the way. It’s merely an example of how we all narrativise our lives on a daily basis, in order to demonstrate both the ridiculousness of expecting a historian to stop narrativising the past; and the fact that reading an un-narrativised account of the past would be an experience which would be at the very least dry, if not noticeably jarring.

More than this, however, historians who would see the study of history reduced simply to an analysis of statistics and data ignore the fact that statistics are meaningless without context. On their own, statistics are numbers, and nothing more. They can’t tell us what the past was like in anything but the most basic sense, and as such can never hope to teach us anything meaningful about it. By framing them within a narrative context, however, these numbers are given meaning, both in the sense that they can be used to reinforce whatever point the narrative is trying to make and in the fact that the narrative makes the numbers seem more tangible, as they become part of a story about a real past experienced by real people.

Indeed, the real importance of narrative history is the fact that some of the most important issues in history cannot be measured. How can a statistical study convey the nature of social upheaval caused by the Industrial Revolution? Or the dehumanising barbarity of slavery? How can data ever communicate the fear and paranoia of living in a totalitarian regime? Or the joy when that regime finally falls? The simply answer is that they can’t. These are the elements of history which are impossible to quantify but which are vital to our understanding of the past. Not only do they give statistics context, they create a connection between the audience and the people and events they are reading about, which in turn gives the narrative a level of meaning no amount of data could ever create.

Admittedly, it can be argued that, as we can never truly understand what it was like to live in the past, all historical narratives will be somewhat anachronistic, and that is a fair point. However, as historians we cannot afford to reduce history to statistical analysis. To do so would not only make the study of history incredibly dull, but it would strip our discipline of its ability to educate people in a way which is also emotionally resonant.

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One thought on “Keeping the ‘story’ in ‘history’

  1. […] so much first hand testimony has been produced by Holocaust survivors. As I argued in a post last year, figures can only tell you so much about the horrors of events such as the Holocaust, and no matter […]

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