historiographic metafiction - linda hutcheon

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  • Historiographic Metafiction Parody and the Intertextuality of History LINDA HUTCHEON Il y a plus affaire interpreter les interpretations qu'a interpreter les choses, et plus de livres sur les livres que sur autre sujet: nous ne faisons que nous entregloser. -Montaigne The frontiers of a book are never clear-cut: beyond the title, the first lines, and the last full-stop, beyond its internal configuration and its autonomous form, it is caught up in a system of references to other books, other texts, other sentences: it is a node within a network. -Foucault What we tend to call postmodernism in literature today is usually characterized by intense self-reflexivity and overtly parodic intertextuality. In fiction this means that it is usually metafiction that is equated with the postmodern. Given the scarcity of precise definitions of this problematic period designation, such an equation is often accepted without question. What I would like to argue is that, in the interests of precision and consistency, we must add something else to this definition: an equally self-conscious dimension of history. My model here is postmodern architecture, that resolutely parodic recalling of the history of architectural forms and functions. The theme of the 1980 Venice Biennale, which introduced postmodernism to the architectural world, was "The Presence of the Past." The term postmodernism, when used in fiction, should, by analogy, best be reserved to describe fiction that is at once metafictional and historical in its echoes of the texts and contexts of the past. In order to distinguish this paradoxical beast from traditional historical fiction, I would like to label it "historiographic metafiction." The category of novel I am thinking of includes One Hundred Years of Solitude, Ragtime, The French Lieutenant's Woman, and The Name of the Rose. All of these are popular and familiar novels whose metafictional self-reflexivity (and intertextuality) renders their implicit claims to historical veracity somewhat problematic, to say the least. 3
  • LINDA HUTCHEON In the wake of recent assaults by literary and philosophical theory on modernist formalist closure, postmodern American fiction, in particular, has sought to open itself up to history, to what Edward Said (The World) calls the "world." But it seems to have found that it can no longer do so in any innocent way: the certainty of direct reference of the historical novel or even the nonfictional novel is gone. So is the certainty of self-reference implied in the Borgesian claim that both literature and the world are equally fictive realities. The postmodern relationship between fiction and history is an even more complex one of interaction and mutual implication. Historiographic metafiction works to situate itself within historical discourse without surrendering its autonomy as fiction. And it is a kind of seriously ironic parody that effects both aims: the intertexts of history and fiction take on parallel (though not equal) status in the parodic reworking of the textual past of both the "world" and literature. The textual incorporation of these intertextual past(s) as a constitutive structural element of postmodernist fiction functions as a formal marking of historicity-both literary and "worldly." At first glance it would appear that it is only its constant ironic signaling of difference at the very heart of similarity that distinguishes postmodern parody from medieval and Renaissance imitation (see Greene 17). For Dante, as for E. L. Doctorow, the texts of literature and those of history are equally fair game. Nevertheless, a distinction should be made: "Traditionally, stories were stolen, as Chaucer stole his; or they were felt to be the common property of a culture or community ... These notable happenings, imagined or real, lay outside language the way history itself is supposed to, in a condition of pure occurrence" (Gass 147). Today, there is a return to the idea of a common discursive "property" in the embedding of both literary and historical texts in fiction, but it is a return made problematic by overtly metafictional assertions of both history and literature as human constructs, indeed, as human illusions-necessary, but none the less illusory for all that. The intertextual parody of historiographic metafiction enacts, in a way, the views of certain contemporary historiographers (see Canary and Kozicki): it offers a sense of the presence of the past, but this is a past that can only be known from its texts, its traces-be they literary or historical. Clearly, then, what I want to call postmodernism is a paradoxical cultural phenomenon, and it is also one that operates across many traditional disciplines. In contemporary theoretical discourse, for instance, we find puzzling contradictions: those masterful denials of mastery, totalizing negations of totalization, continuous attest4
  • HISTORIOGRAPHIC METAFICTION ings of discontinuity. In the postmodern novel the conventions of both fiction and historiography are simultaneously used and abused, installed and subverted, asserted and denied. And the double (literary/historical) nature of this intertextual parody is one of the major means by which this paradoxical (and defining) nature of postmodernism is textually inscribed. Perhaps one of the reasons why there has been such heated debate on the definition of postmodernism recently is that the implications of the doubleness of this parodic process have not been fully examined. Novels like The Book of Daniel or The Public Burning-whatever their complex intertextual layering-can certainly not be said to eschew history, any more than they can be said to ignore either their moorings in social reality (see Graff 209) or a clear political intent (see Eagleton 61). Historiographic metafiction manages to satisfy such a desire for "worldly" grounding while at the same time querying the very basis of the authority of that grounding. As David Lodge has put it, postmodernism short-circuits the gap between text and world (239-4 0 ) . Discussions of postmodernism seem more prone than most to confusing self-contradictions, again perhaps because of the paradoxical nature of the subject itself. Charles Newman, for instance, in his provocative book The Post-Modern Aura, begins by defining postmodern art as a "commentary on the aesthetic history of whatever genre it adopts" (44). This would, then, be art which sees history only in aesthetic terms (57). However, when postulating an American version of postmodernism, he abandons this metafictional intertextual definition to call American literature a "literature without primary influences," "a literature which lacks a known parenthood," suffering from the "anxiety of non-influence" (87). As we shall see, an examination of the novels of Toni Morrison, E. L. Doctorow, John Barth, Ishmael Reed, Thomas Pynchon, and others casts a reasonable doubt on such pronouncements. On the one hand, Newman wants to argue that postmodernism at large is resolutely parodic; on the other, he asserts that the American postmodern deliberately puts "distance between itself and its literary antecedents, an obligatory if occasionally conscience-stricken break with the past" (172). Newman is not alone in his viewing of postmodern parody as a form of ironic rupture with the past (see Thiher 214), but, as in postmodernist architecture, there is always a paradox at the heart of that "post": irony does indeed mark the difference from the past, but the intertextual echoing simultaneously works to affirm-textually and hermeneutically-the connection with the past. When that past is the literary period we now seem to label as 5
  • LINDA HUTCHEON modernism, then what is both instated and then subverted is the notion of the work of art as a closed, self-sufficient, autonomous object deriving its unity from the formal interrelations of its parts. In its characteristic attempt to retain aesthetic autonomy while still returning the text to the "world," postmodernism both asserts and then undercuts this formalistic view. But this does not necessitate a return to the world of "ordinary reality," as some have argued (Kern 216); the "world" in which the text situates itself is the "world" of discourse, the "world" of texts and intertexts. This "world" has direct links to the world of empirical reality, but it is not itself that empirical reality. It is a contemporary critical truism that realism is really a set of conventions, that the representation of the real is not the same as the real itself. What historiographic metafiction challenges is both any naive realist concept of representation and any equally naive textualist or formalist assertions of the total separation of art from the world. The postmodern is selfconsciously art "within the archive" (Foucault 92), and that archive is both historical and literary. In the light of the work of writers such as Carlos Fuentes, Salman Rushdie, D. M. Thomas,John Fowles, Umberto Eco, as well as Robert Coover, E. L. Doctorow, John Barth, Joseph Heller, Ishmael Reed, and other American novelists, it is hard to see why critics such as Allen Thiher, for instance, "can think of no such intertextual foundations today" as those of Dante in Virgil (189)' Are we really in the midst of a crisis of faith in the "possibility of historical culture" (189)? Have we ever not been in such a crisis? To parody is not to destroy the past; in fact, to parody is both to enshrine the past and to question it. And this is the postmodern paradox. The theoretical exploration of the "vast dialogue" (Calinescu, 169) between and among literatures and histories that configure postmodernism has, in part, been made possible by Julia Kristeva's ea


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