Cromohs 2007 - Ahlbäck - The Reader! The Reader! The Mimetic Challenge of Addressivity and Response in Historical Writing

The Reader! The Reader! The Mimetic Challenge of Addressivity and Response in Historical Writing

Pia Maria Ahlbäck
Åbo Akademi University
Åbo/Turku (Finland)
P. M. Ahlbäck, «The Reader! The Reader!
The Mimetic Challenge of Addressivity and Response in Historical Writing»,
, 12 (2007): 1-17
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1. What expectations in readers make history read so widely? What is it readers do when they read history? And what is there about and in the texts of historical writing that makes them attractive to readers for a start?[1] These questions will inform my essay, which aims to introduce the missing link of the reader of the historical text to the discussion of historical writing as literary artefact, and to consider some of the implications involved in this procedure.[2]
One important implication relevant to my subject has been highlighted quite recently by Eelco Runia in his essayistic article ”Presence” which was published by the journal History and Theory in February 2006.[3] Runia’s article generated a lively discussion. He postulates the idea that it is people’s desire for presence, more precisely the presence of the past, which motivates their interest in whichever phenomena we categorize as ’historical’. Suggesting an epistemology of history more in line with a neo-materialist view of culture, and arguing against what he calls the ”representational(ist)” view of history (Runia, 2006, p. 3), Runia introduces the term ”metonymics” as a new and better way of thinking about history as professional and public practice (ibid, p. 28).
I shall position my discussion of the reading of history in the differing contexts of the reader-response theory of Wolfgang Iser on the one hand,[4] and, on the other, in Arne Melberg’s textual analysis of the uses of the concept of mimesis over time,[5] an analysis which has been influenced by deconstructive thinking. After that, I will bring in the ideas of Runia in order to further emphasize the performative power of the reader of history. The starting-point for my discussion, however, is provided by Paul Ricoeur’s understanding of mimesis and his narrativist view of history.[6] Acknowledging the reader within a discussion of historical writing and historical reading in terms of instances of mutual addressivity, and therefore of regulative reciprocity and communicative interaction, accordingly motivates my further discussion of the enabling performance of the reader, which will be concluded by my reading of two works of history.

The reader’s demand for mimesis

2. It is common knowledge that mimesis, narrowly understood in the absolute terms of an exact imitation of real life, cannot occur (effectively).[7] One way of understanding mimesis is accordingly that which Hayden White has suggested in the context of historical writing, thus expanding on Roland Barthes’ idea of ”reality” or ”mimesis effect”.[8] In the following I shall suggest that addressivity in historical writing is constituted through mimetic method (i.e. a literary device producing the effect or illusion of the ”real”) as that invitation through which the reader is approached at the beginning of her[9] interaction with the historical text, and as that continuous, explicit or implicit, compelling address to the reader which makes her stay with the text – or stick to the contract. Moreover, this address is, in fact, a mutual one. How would the historian consequently be addressed by the reader responding at the level of the historian’s “own” text? With a demand for mimesis, I suggest, sounding: Tell me what happened! Tell me what it was like! And why![10] Addressivity could thus be said to be as much about the imagined expectations of imagined readers in the minds of historians; historians who, moreover, become textually materialized as the implied authors and narrators of their histories.[11]
This conception of mimesis might resemble, but does not coincide with, Paul Ricoeur’s narrativist idea of historical writing where the level of mimesis2 “opens the kingdom of the as if” (Ricoeur, 1983, I, p. 64) in a primary imaginative process of figuration. Due to their formal status as narratives, the genres of fictional and historical narrative share the level of mimesis2 (ibid.). Ricoeur accordingly makes an explicit distinction between “fictional narrative” and “historical narrative”, with reference to the truth claims of the latter (ibid.). Thus, in the case of historical narrative, mimesis2 becomes a narrative configuration structuring explicitly historical narration so as to make historical knowledge possible (Ricoeur, 1983, p. 228). Fictional narrative can make no such knowledge claims. Mimesis, as I use the concept here as regards both the writer and the reader of history, [12] would rather be of a kind more in line with White’s recent ideas of modernist literature as historiographically valuable while mimetically effective,[13] and his conclusion that historical writing, tropological by definition, is neither fictional, nor factual, but ”factological” (White, 1999, p. 18).

3. “The kingdom of the as if” of mimesis2, in Ricoeur’s terms, is accordingly allowed to greatly expand its realm in the following discussion; that is, whenever the reader is involved (as she always is). It follows that the Ricoeurian spaces of mimesis2 and mimesis3, or, in the latter case, that of the “intersection of the world of the text and the world of the hearer or reader” (Ricoeur, 1983, p. 71), take on an increasingly more ambivalent relation in my discussion than in Ricoeur’s own. Thus partly merging within this discussion, the two spaces which Ricoeur calls mimesis2 and 3 can here be seen to produce one more space of understanding where the distinction between the “fictional” and the “historical” aspects of mimesis2 is once again unsettled. These two categories can therefore be perceived to intersect within their shared narrative frame as part of the reader’s performance, without, however, making the distinction between “fiction” and “history” obsolete. This additional space of mimesis enables an explanation of the feeling of presence, the experience of meaning, or, simply, of mimesis effect in the reader. What is central to this idea is what I, in a physical metaphor, would like to suggest as the stickiness of the interface between historical narrative and fictional narrative. The metaphor of “sticky” is here used to emphasize the materiality of the space of the imagination, where qualities such as rhythm, sound, colour, smell, and taste are included.[14] This stickiness thus amounts to more than the shared characteristic of sheer narrativity. What I argue, accordingly, is that there is more to the literary qualities of historical writing than narrativity alone and, moreover, that there is more to narrative than action and plot: modern narratology[15] also acknowledges,[16] for instance, characters and settings.[17] However, by relying on the ambivalent concept of mimesis related to the projective (or pro-active) performance of the reader, I also emphasize that no outright presence of the past can be accessed by either writers or readers of history.[18]

Historical writing and the theory of reading

4. Why, then, would the interaction between readers and historical texts be problematic, and for whom could the very aspect of interactivity be a problem? For any historian, I suggest, but above all for the writers of so called mainstream history, of which traditional ”political history” and ”war history” are two of the most persistent, prominent, and dominant varieties.[19]
What happens if the reader is introduced to history, made visible and audible, as the historian’s unacknowledged and ambiguous partner, and if the interaction between the reader of history and the writer of history is understood in terms of a contract which is established in and through the historical text? Guided by the questions above, I will examine two very different cases of historical writing further on with particular attention to the ways addressivity is mimetically fore-grounded in the texts. Before that, however, I shall present the theory of reader-response, particularly its central idea of textual indeterminacy and discuss its relevance to historical writing.
Coined by Roman Ingarden in 1930 by means of the phrasing “textual places of indeterminacy”,[20] the concept of “indeterminacy” first enabled a theory of reading to develop in acknowledgment of the increasingly active performance of the reader (Iser, 1978, p. 170). In Ingarden’s own use of his idea of textual indeterminacy, he invokes an aesthetic idealism where the emotion of the reader is called upon in the “concretization” of the aesthetic object, whereas the reader’s very material activity of reading is not focused (Iser, 1978, pp. 173–4). Criticizing Ingarden’s idea, Iser claims that despite his notion of indeterminacy, Ingarden presents a wholly static picture of the literary object and the reader’s task of concretizing the text. This is so because Ingarden distinguishes between “adequate” and “inadequate” concretizations: thus the outcome of the reading could never be that dynamic and interactive subjective “meaning-making” which Iser’s own theory accommodates (ibid.).

5. Iser’s reader-response theory in particular (1974, 1978, 1989), has shown that the ”act of reading” involves an exciting dialectic where readers are actively looking for chances of losing themselves to the texts they read in the constructive, as well as projective, process of meaning-making (Iser, 1989, pp. 9-10). Iser here makes use of Ingarden’s coinage of “places of indeterminacy” but develops this idea so as to talk about textual ”blanks” (Iser, ibid, 33). Attracted by these blanks, which Iser thrillingly defines as instances of ”suspended connectability” (ibid., p. 37) provided by the literary text and which the reader is to fill in, together with the continuous discovery, gripping, letting go and re-discovery of ever new ”perspective segments” (ibid., p. 36) through the reader’s ”wandering viewpoint” (ibid., p. 39) within the ”time flow of reading” (ibid., p. 40), the reader constitutes her meaning of the text. She does so interactively, nevertheless, in an act of communication with the text and in the need to connect, i.e. to make connections between the textually segmented perspectives of the various characters of the story, as well as to connect or relate to the text as an entity (ibid., p. 34). The text is finally realized by means of the reading.
Both Ingarden’s and Iser’s conceptions of reception and reading have been developed in relation to explicitly aesthetic and fictional texts, making claims, however, as to saying something about reading more generally.[21] Neither theory thus fully fits the category of historical writing which in this context could perhaps best be described as non-fiction; being dependent, however, on the category of the literary for its expression, as well as often accommodating the aesthetic.[22] Iser, moreover, makes claims as to saying something about reading as a practical, dynamic process in its relation to a narrative material. I shall make use of his idea of “blanks” and “suspended connectability” to further emphasize the performance of the reader of historical writing, and the possible addresses or invitations of response which it includes. In my discussion the “blank” is accordingly understood in the main as a theoretical substitution of “places of indeterminacy”. However, I will retain some of the meaning of Ingarden’s original idea of indeterminacy in my acknowledgment of the reader’s response to historical writing as often being emotional.[23] Having discussed the idea of textual indeterminacy and its consequences for historical writing below, I shall connect the result of that discussion to the concept of mimesis and the recent notion of presence in history.

The character-space of ‘the Past’

6. As I have stated above, Iser’s work is on fiction but it makes wider claims as to saying something about reading in general. Historical texts are not fictional but their literary character could be stated to form a prerequisite for their existence. So how, in the case of historical writing, by which devices, is the reader invited to this complex act of reading, to that simultaneous performance and seduction described above? At this point I need to connect back to my discussion of the productive idea of mimesis.
In this context of the reading of historical writing, I have suggested that we think about the use of those literary devices called mimesis in terms of mutual addressivity implying response: by means of mimetic methods the reader is won over for the project of historical narration, and by means of mimetic methods the reader realizes her meaning of the text. Considering Iser’s idea of textual blanks as instances of suspended connectability, what becomes central in this context is what happens when mimesis seems to be missing from historical writing. That is to say, what happens when the reader of historical writing does not break the contract of reading and participating in the situation of (communicative) interaction, whereas the historian seems to break the contract, or, rather, keeps it in illicit ways.
What relevance could Iser’s theory consequently have to the solution of this problem? The key concept here would be that of “indeterminacy”: whereas fictional writing thrives on indeterminacy, historical writing of a traditional kind could be claimed to have an explicitly negative concern with it. This kind of writing anxiously aims at the reduction of indeterminacy, ultimately to the point of discursive over-determination. The contracted linear construction of the past conceived due to the discursive over-determination of the historical text can hence be perceived to contribute to the displacement of the past from the level of narrative, where indeterminacy is presupposed, to the level of gestalt or figure, i.e. to the image of a more spatial, vivid, and unknown ‘Past’ residing ‘somewhere else’. Considering the implication of present-day media-flooded, imaginatively performing readers including the academic ones,[24] this textual over-determination of professional historical writing becomes problematic. What is more, in the case of historical writing – and contrary to fiction – it is precisely due to the fact that the text of the historical narrative is over-, not in-, determined that it continues to effectively produce an un-historicized figure of the past. Due to this over-determination in the shape of discursive contractions of time, space, action, characters, and causality, the past is effectively displaced.

7. Iser’s concept of the textual “blank” becomes important in order to develop the consequences of this process. The narrative voice of the historian, the narrator, in other words (which is often the only character worthy of a name in historical narration, i.e. provided a character is defined by the possession of a perspective), is unknowingly challenged by the ‘other character’ of ‘the Past’. The references to other scholars do not help the historian here. Who wants to listen to the voice of authority, which “speaks”, “refers” and “explains” but basically leaves everything untold? In the reader’s desire for the past, the gestalt of the past as a space of the ultimately unknowable (exactly in terms of presence) consequently spurs imaginative and emotional processes: the past becomes both formidable and unfathomable – whatever it was, it cannot be fully known. The imaginative and emotional figure of the past is thus invoked as an ever-again opening space of the fundamentally unknown/unknowable. In this, the past – as deep, high, wide and ever-lost space – claims an analogical position within historical writing to that of the character in Iser’s theory of response to fiction. The character-space of the past could also be claimed to be attached with a “perspective” for segmentation: the reader’s (and, in spite of himself, the writer’s necessarily imaginative) configuration of the past brings about a projective perspectival segmentation. The reader’s wandering view-point thus oscillates between the ambivalent duplicity in the perspective segments of the controlled authoritative narrator and that of the implied author’s imaginative markers of the past on the one hand,[25] and on the other between her own projective spatial/character configuration of the past and those of the narrator. In other words, there are at least two basic characters at play here: the historian represented by the narrator’s voice and the gestalt of the past which is produced by the reader. The possibility of the gestalt is indicated by the implied author, however. In the reader’s desire for presence and her imaginative performance accompanying it, historical writing of a certain kind is thus swallowed by the vast character-space of (the figure of) ‘the Past’.[26]
At this point it is necessary to connect the discussion of reading and mimesis as mimesis effect to Runia’s idea of ”presence” in and through history.

Whose presence where?

8. As Arne Melberg has shown in his textual analysis of the use of the concept from Plato to Paul de Man, Mimesis: En Repetition (1992),[27] the concept of mimesis has been used in the most diverse and contradictory ways through the ages by those very thinkers on whom many of us ground our present definition of the word. Nevertheless, all uses of the term seem to have the common denominator of referring to the lifelike, to illusions of ”real” life, or to literary methods of producing the lifelike or the feeling of ”real life”. This seems to coincide with Barthes’ and White’s uses of the term.
I have written ”real life” within inverted commas here, not because I think there is no real life but because of the distinction I am making: between the illusion of the story at the level of the text as distinguished from a possible (if, of course, also imagined) real that is, or has been, or maybe even once was, and which it somehow seems to “resemble”. But I also write ”real life” within inverted commas because of the fact that the feeling of real life does not differ from the feeling in real life. And, also, because the feeling of real life is always a feeling, feelings, in real life,[28] whether these feelings are set in motion in the reading of texts belonging to the literary genres of history or fiction, or in the reading of ”life itself”.
In his intriguing essay “Presence”, Eelco Runia starts off by identifying a strongly public concern with history today in the shape of monuments, memorials and other material texts of history. He suggests that what people wish to experience by their active interest in such texts is “not meaning but (...) presence” (Runia, 2006, p. 5). Runia argues that historical writing is actually about making the past “present”, not about representing it. Runia’s argument is two-fold: judging by his examples (ibid., pp. 4, 5, 19), Runia rightly presupposes that the desire for the presence of the past is ultimately founded on people’s desire for presence in general.[29] He also claims that the past “resides” in metonymy, i.e. in the metonymic language of historical writing. Metonymy is central to history, argues Runia, due to the fact that metonymy is the principle of understanding and representing discontinuity:[30] by connecting phenomena from completely different contexts, or places, in Runia’s words, metonymies make possible a “presence in absence” (ibid., p. 6).

This is not to say that metonymy doesn’t give access to historical reality. It does, but the accessibility of the past that goes with metonymy is of a discontinuous kind. It may occur when a metonymical ‘place’ gives way and we fall through all those metonymical connections down to the epiphanic moment in which historical reality stops being absently present in words and phrases and stands before us as Colonel Chabert stands before the people who took his story for granted (ibid., p. 27).

9. Runia’s ultimate aim is thus to argue that historical writing contains the presence of the past in the shape of the metonymic constructions through which historical writing is, paradoxically, undertaken far too often (ibid., p. 23), according to him. This containment of the presence of the past does not, however, happen by means of the historian’s intentional use of narrative or other devices, but in spite of it:

historical reality is incomparably more absent and incomparably more inaccessible than we like to think, though it is also – in metonymy – incomparably more present and accessible. (...) ‘Accessible’ isn’t the right word, though. It suggests that one may enter historical reality at will and/or in accordance with the intention of the author, whereas my thesis is that the presence of the past does not primarily reside in the intended story or the manifest metaphorical content of the text, but in what story and text contain in spite of the intentions of the historian. One might say that historical reality travels with historiography not as a paying passenger but as a stowaway. As a stowaway the past ‘survives’ the text; as a stowaway the past may spring surprises on us (ibid., p. 27).

10. Runia, accordingly, initially loads the concept of presence with different meanings in order to reduce them later on by referring them all to the idea of metonymy as housing the presence of the past. I want to argue that what is thus achieved is still not the presence of the past but the experience, or feeling, of presence. This feeling might have little to do with the past, whereas historical writing can present a means of releasing the feeling itself, quite independently of whatever present is metonymically represented. Thus I find Runia’s idea strongly suggestive but I also think it necessary to adopt a more sceptic view of the past as “resident” in historical writing considering the obvious fact of what Runia himself denotes the “ontological rift” (ibid., p. 26). I understand this “rift” as producing something like a lopsided mise-en-abyme structure in which the gradually sliding ground of textuality constitutes the very near-by, but thus never fully immediate, present, as well as embraces the far past to a multiplying degree. The rift thus becomes enscribed over and over again, the one past always enfolded in the following presents without any chance of ever becoming that “epiphanic moment” when the “past stands before us” (even remotely as such). When the metonymic “places give way” the past, as presence, will always retire somewhere beyond the point where we touch ground. The common argument that the past cannot be fully known because of its very being in the past could accordingly never be entirely adequate as the present can never be fully known despite its presentness. The fact of the “pastness” of the past would not make its ontology immediately knowable were it transported into the present. The rift accordingly starts right in the present as the present cannot be grasped as such. It can thus be claimed that readers, in the act of reading, are indeed looking for presence, i.e. for the feeling or experience of presence. When Runia therefore states that “historical reality stands before us”, I wonder whether it is not the readers’ own “historical realities” which stand before them; a second, eleventh, or umpteenth coming which is brought about by means of a particularly effective interaction between text and reader. This process, of readers desiring the presence of the past and achieving the presence of their past (or the like), does not, however, exclude the possibility of historical knowledge being attached to that feeling – and even more effectively internalized thanks to it. Whether my idea of the character-space of the past produced by the over-determination of the historical text in the reader’s act of reading confirms Runia’s thesis of the past as a ”stowaway” of historical writing which occurs in spite of story, text, and the writers’ intention, or contradicts his thesis, is difficult to say. What is clear, nevertheless, is the reader’s desire of the experience or feeling of presence, and her attempts to achieve it in one way or another.

11. What I argue, consequently, is that the reader establishes some kind of feeling of presence by means of mimesis. If mimesis appears to be absent from the story, she does so by means of her own mimetic activity as reader, i.e. either by establishing the formidable character-like figure of ‘the Past’, and/or by submitting herself to the mimetic address of the authoritarian voice of the historian.[31] In the reader’s quest for the past, the horrors of authoritarian presence must turn out a trap, nevertheless. In this case the past spoken by the narrator, i.e. the past as history, appears more and more unlikely whereas the unspoken ‘Past’ becomes correspondingly more ‘real’: what the reader gets, therefore, is competing instances in terms of presence and reality effect, as well as different kinds of “presences”.
Mimesis could thus be said to be collapsed into alienation effect due to the over-determination of the historical text. The past moves elsewhere, where it lurkingly competes with the voice of the narrator/historian which is the only mimetic device used by the writer. Analogical to a formidable character, the past becomes loaded with sublimity. This, however, is not an intentional effect on the part of the writer. It is not used consciously, as an artistic device. The formidable figure of the past interferes when mimesis is missing from the level of story. The feeling of the presence of the past is thus provided either by means of the story as mimesis effect, or in spite of the story in the absence of mimesis, thus unwillingly producing an alienation effect – out of which ‘the Past’ begins to tower high and spread wide. The historian’s controlled historical discourse thus comes through in the strange alienating light, the shadow really, of ‘the Past’. Ironically put, there is no story quite as unbelievable as the one governed by the historian’s desire for the minutiae of over-determined historical discourse.

Practicing mimesis, achieving presence

12. But how are methods of mimesis used by the writer of history? How are they performed? How are they applied? For a short while I need to go into Melberg’s discussion of mimesis in greater detail.
Building on the classic dispute between the Aristotelian and the Platonic ideas of mimesis, where Plato expels the poets from his ideal world of The State on the grounds that the imaginative – imitation and illusion (i.e. the performance of speaking and seeing as if through someone else’s voice and eyes) – leads away from the world of ideas and clarity,[32] Melberg emphasizes that Plato’s rejection itself happens by means of the clearest case of mimetic method (Melberg, 1992, p. 16). In Plato’s construction of his ideal world, he uses the voice and perspective of Socrates to criticize mimesis. It is as if Socrates came alive and were speaking in The State. As Melberg points out, this is a curious paradox in Plato (ibid.). My suggestion, with relevance to my topic, is that there is no such efficient way of catching and keeping the reader’s attention as mimetic method. However, there is another aspect of mimesis which Melberg highlights by coining the well-found, ironic concept of ”mimetic contagion” (ibid., p. 87). In his discussion of Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Melberg shows how mimesis is constructed in the novel as being out of control. It spreads like a disease producing ever more thrilling, hilarious and uncouth results of the really unreal or the un-really real. Melberg talks about mimetic contagion in terms of fear on the part of the philosopher or historian, identifying this fear as early as in Plato’s rejection of the poets from The State. Through his analysis, however, Melberg reveals the fruitful ambiguity of Plato’s fear by means of the Greek concept of pharmakon. Mimesis turns out to be a pharmakon, i.e. it is both a poison and a cure (ibid., p. 13). As Melberg shows, Plato himself uses mimesis – as cure – to argue against mimesis as poison.

13. Above, I discussed the textual over-determination of a certain kind of historical writing and a consequential displacement of the past from the level of (what should be) effective narrative to the level of formidable figure, the ‘Past’. In my reading of the two historical works which follows below, I shall make more of the reader in order to illustrate the possible consequences of the reduction of indeterminacy and the narrator’s textual position of hypertrophied mimetic energy which accompanies it. With reference to Ingarden and Iser, White, and Melberg, the idea of mimesis becomes central to a discussion of the reading of historical writing. Emphasizing that the activity of reading is indeed one of powerful meaning-making or, in Runia’s terms, an intense desire to achieve the feeling of “presence”, I suggest, with Melberg, that readers are mimetically contagious. By always using the “places of indeterminacy”, textual ”blanks” and instances of ”suspended connectability” readers can construct the as-if-it-were-real, the illusion of the ”real” and, above all and through that, the real experience, i.e. an experience in reality of “presence”, in Runia’s words. However, if the reader is not addressed by means of mimesis at the level of the historical narrative, i.e. at the level of the diegesis or the story, she can be expected to go there and get it, constructing it as she goes along. This implies that if historians are to reach readers with history, i.e. with the history they wish to communicate, they must do so through credible narration which means mimetically effective narration.[33]
But maybe the whole point of addressivity in historical writing is about producing the feeling of force? I shall use the last part of this article to present my own poisonous cure, finding mimesis as well as spreading it – in reading. I signed two contracts. I signed them on the grounds that the two literary works of historical writing, which I shall discuss below, were addressing me in the bookstore through their thrilling covers: image, title, colour, text.[34] These two books were making promises of the past. I kept my part of the contract. One of the historians kept hers whereas, I suggest, the writers of the other book kept theirs illicitly.

What kind of narrative?

14. Christian Gerner’s and Klas-Göran Karlsson’s Nordens Medelhav. Östersjöområdet som historia, myt och projekt (2002)[35] (“The Mediterranean of the North. The Baltic Area as History, Myth and Project”) and Karin Johannisson’s Tecknen. Läkaren och konsten att läsa kroppar (2004)[36] (“The Signs. The Physician and the Art of Reading Bodies”) represent two separate genres of historical writing, i.e. political history and intellectual history. I shall treat them separately in the main but my discussion is underpinned by the implication of contrast. [37]
My first case is a counter-reading resulting from the kind of address written into Gerner’s and Karlsson’s book, an address which hardly ever occurs at the level of story but at the level of narrative voice. I shall pay particular attention to the historian/implied author/narrator and the reader/implied reader/narratee as mutual guarantors of the contract as they become mimetically represented within the text of the historical narrative. Thus I present the cure of poison: in reading the text I interact with that address of authoritarian mimesis effect encountered.
The narrator of Gerner’s and Karlsson’s book is not only omniscient but omnipotent. He never lets anyone else speak, he never gives voice to anyone.[38] The narrator never disappears behind other characters or even partly hides behind them. There is no mimesis effect at the level of the story narrated as far as (other) characters, actions, events, places, or time are concerned. So where is the reader to look for reality effect? In the narrator’s very voice, of course. The mimetic method of the one-voice-only is that of producing the illusion of power, demanding and staging submission, claiming the real by dictating it to the narratee. This is the way it is, it was, it will be, the voice states. This narration, consequently, relies heavily on the Platonic anxious use of mimesis, building on a rejection of imitation of voice, nevertheless making voice as if ultimately powerful and uniquely knowledgeable. This is the way it was. This is what happened. And the paraphernalia of the references, the very mastering of historical discourse, do not moderate this effect but reinforce it similarly to props. In other words, the space of the Baltic past becomes increasingly larger, higher and wider as the over-determination of the narrative voice displaces the past in the eyes of the modern reader, thus (luckily) producing indeterminacy afresh.

15. The writers repeatedly claim to be writing narrative, i.e. of telling a story. A kind of story is to be found in their work, but what kind? What is interesting in this context is the fact that they obviously wish to subscribe to the modern, Aristotelian view of narrative where action and time are represented, without ever succeeding to produce this representation as reality effect. This, in fact, is presupposed by the Aristotelian concept of peripeteia. The writers use the concept to signify a historical change of political power over a city in the 17th century, the duration of which was fifty years (Gerner and Karlsson, 2002, 109). However, this use of the idea of peripeteia actually shows the degree to which the entity of the city, as well as that of the state, have been personified.[39] The result is that these historians talk about narrative as they construct an abstract kind of narrative, but they never effect narrative – or they never narrate effectively. The whole presentation rests heavily on the trope of personification which is always preferred by political historians. Contrary to Ricoeur, who contains this trope within his definitions of historical narrative,[40] I suggest this is the most dubious kind of metaphor in historical writing in that it conceals and negates the suffering of living, human beings by substituting them for administrative and national entities. Subscribing to the idea of peripeteia while cultivating the trope of personification must be considered one of the major cynicisms of historiography. A number of kings, czars, prime ministers and rebel leaders accordingly occur in Gerner and Karlsson’s book, like in so many others of this major historical genre. These “characters” are not persons, however. Instead they form those constituents of the image of states and nations which turn such entities into living agents, always reproducing the paradigm of the abstract in matters ultimately concerning people’s existence. The shores of the Mediterranean of the North, the Baltic area, thus seem to have been devoid of human beings for some thousand years. There have been populations, of course, millions and millions and masses of people, the narrator tells the narratee. But no lives could possibly have been lived there, it seems to the reader, because obviously there was ”life” only at the level where ”life” is written by the historians, i.e. at the level of states and nations.

16. The reader cannot help that she wants to get out of this narrator’s grip. She does not wish to witness the ir/reality of control, where organizing the villains and heroes of the nations is what these historians are up to in their competition with other historians of the mainstream, historians with equally strong reality claims and in whose narratives the narratee dies the death of dictatorship (in the name of the game: for the sake of historical discourse). But she has kept her part of the contract: made meaning of this historical text by consistently looking for that mimesis effect through which she was initially addressed. And with some unknowing help from the writers she found it, partly by spreading it herself. The result is that the mimetic energy which should have been situated in all of the constituents of the story has been displaced by means of the narrator’s voice and thus becomes metonymically localized entirely in the names of the historians. The past of the Mediterranean of the North, however, appears more unknown than before.
Reading Karin Johannisson’s story means being persuaded into taking a bath in the sea of history. It thrives on mimesis effect. The most remarkable aspect about this text is that as an example of intellectual history, which is a brainy genre telling of thinking and talking to the mind, it manages to produce an insight of how the understanding of the human body in medical culture have been changing since the 17th century. The reader ”can feel” how people in history have been formed by history. Here we accordingly find a larger degree of indeterminacy at the level of the story. The past of the documents is performed, i.e. written as fore-grounded, so as to produce the feeling of historical presence. The writer is not afraid of letting a multiplicity of voices be heard at the level of the story (and not only in the references) which is layered, i.e. this historian operates with many diegetic levels. Her work could be categorized as polyphonic. Her presentation of the material is striking as she very often makes skilful use of the form of the short story and the novella to present historical cases. Peripeteia, in its modern meaning of abrupt and surprising ending characteristic of these prose genres, is a skilfully and often operated literary device in this historical writer. Johannisson constructs place and time by means of clusters of deictic markers and by often using the mode of historical present. The narrative occasionally takes on characteristics of the genre of the thriller. What is particularly productive (and important in the context of the discussion of presence) is this historical writer’s use of lyrical devices in language – rhythm, sound – to construct the physical. Alliteration and assonance are never ornamental but always meaningful in Johannisson’s writing: they effectively produce that historical phenomenon which the writer clearly wishes the reader to understand. This historical writer, accordingly, does not let her reader down as addressivity is performed by means of a careful use of mimetic method in much of the narrative. The past not only turns up somewhere else: it “presents” itself through Johannisson’s text.


17. I shall conclude by urging on a negotiation of mainstream history in the direction of the mimetically effective. How can it be the case that in political history and war history there are so few traces of ”lives lived” or “deaths died” to borrow Liz Stanley’s words.[41] These are the historiographical genres whose very material is constituted by the most horrendous events of history. These genres are ultimately dependent on the most concrete events of destruction, disaster and death, the horror of which certainly should be effectively represented historically. I can hear the mainstream objections: ”You are making impossible demands on political history. Social history is an answer to what you are asking for. And cultural history. There is always biography. Or literature.” Enter the always-already present, post-millennial, high-performing readers with their sticky imaginations fostered by the media and, if not before, these clear-cut historiographical categorizations will prove blurred. What I find highly disturbing about these genres – mainstream history - is that they usually leave us with the numbers of the dead, the numbers only, at the same time as they today consciously claim narration. Writing about the death of people in terms of numbers while constructing states and nations in terms of persons implies, at some point, a bizarre compatibility with those ideologies which erase and negate the human. Simultaneously, historians are made the controlling centres of their narrated worlds.
In conclusion, I return to Melberg’s analysis of the concept of mimesis. Melberg claims that the idea and practice of mimesis was connected with horror: the poets were to be expelled from the ideal state because they were fools speaking with someone else’s voice (Melberg, 20). Doing that, they seemed to become someone else. The pharmakon of mimesis thus indicated a necessary loss of self on the part of the user of the poison/cure. Unless the historians do so themselves, therefore, the reader will generously provide both cure and poison when making history real, that is – present.


[1] The starting-point for my discussion here is the realization that whatever else historical writing might be it is at least literary. This means, I suggest, that historical writing cannot avoid being literary. On the other hand, this circumstance does not make historical writing equal the literary genre of fiction. Historical writing is non-fiction, but dependent on the category of the literary for its expression. It seems to me that this definition is compatible with Hayden White’s tropological view of historical writing, even if he uses the concept of “fictional” where I prefer to talk about “literary”. White, Figural Realism: Studies in the Mimesis Effect, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999, pp. 1-26; 8, 9.

[2] This involves the reading of verbal texts of historical writing in the main. However, this discussion could also be of relevance to the reading of such pictorial texts – “illustrations” – which are often part of the historiographical presentation. See also note 34.

[3] Eelco Runia, “Presence”, History and Theory 45, February 2006, pp. 1-29.

[4] Wolfgang Iser, The Implied Reader: Patterns of Communication in Prose Fiction from Bunyan to Beckett, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983. (First published in 1974); The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978; Prospecting: From Reader Response to Literary Anthropology, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989.

[5] Arne Melberg, Mimesis – en repetition, Stockholm: Brutus Östlings Bokförlag Symposion, 1992.

[6] Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative, vol. 1, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1984; vol. 2, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1985.

[7] Ricoeur (1984, p. 14) formulates this circumstance in negative terms in relation to fiction: “(L)iterature, by reduplicating the chaos of reality by that of fiction, returns mimesis to its weakest function – that of replicating what is real by copying it. Fortunately, the paradox remains that in multiplying its artifices fiction seals its capitulation.”

[8] Roland Barthes introduces the idea of mimesis effect in his work The Rustle of Language, Oxford: Blackwell, 1986. Hayden White, ”Auerbach’s Literary History: Figural Causation and Modernist Historicism” in Figural Realism. Studies in the Mimesis Effect, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999, pp. 87-100; “Historical discourse and literary writing”, White’s key-note lecture at the conference “Literature and its Others”, Åbo, Finland, 8-10. 5. 2003.

[9] I have gendered the reader in this essay for a major reason: in accordance with Iser’s view of reading as a process of constructive and interactive meaning-making it would be theoretically impossible for me to exclude myself as a reader from the texts I study in terms of mimesis effect. See also notes 11 and 19.

[10] Ricoeur’s narrativist view of history amounts to a problematic emphasis on the expansive flexibility of narrative, i.e. its capacity, according to him, to include historical scientific explanation without losing its status as narrative. In the section “Following a story” in his discussion of “Defences of narrative”, Ricoeur claims (within his presentation of W.B. Gallie’s work Philosophy and the Historical Understanding) that “(o)ne result of this primacy of the concept of followability is that the explanations, for which historians borrow laws from the sciences to which they link their discipline, have no other effect than to allow us to better follow the story, when our vision of its interconnections is obscured or when our capacity to accept the author’s vision is carried to the breaking point. It would be completely erroneous therefore to see here the weakened forms of a strong covering law model. Explanations simply bring their help to our capacity for following a story” (Ricoeur, 1984, p. 154). I would argue that this is true at the level of the story only as long as these explanations are (mimetically) shown.

[11] Wolfgang Iser’s “ implied reader “ here poses as the writer’s imaginative representation of real readers’ imaginative interaction with historical texts. I thus apply Iser’s ideas of textual “blanks” (in this particular sub-section of the article) invertedly so as to understand the “perspective segments” of the imagined professional and other readers as a bundle of expectations projected into the historical text by the writers themselves. See my further discussion of Iser. Who would these implied readers be? At least a particular community of professional readers of history united by the mimetic voice of authority (over the past/history) demanding – and staging – mastery of the discourse of history. See e.g. Katriina Honkanen on history as material and linguistic practice Historicizing as a Feminist Practice: The Places of History in Judith Butler’s Constructivist Theories, Åbo: The Institute of Women’s Studies, Åbo Akademi University, 2004. At the same time, however, popular readers of history are clearly addressed in the bookstores (and they respond). By acknowledging the imbalance in narrative address and readers’ response in a discipline of such socio-cultural status as history, I accordingly wish to highlight the heterosocial (not only in the sense of gender) aspects of historiography, thus unsettling the homosocial canon of traditional (political) history.

[12] The writer does not occur in Ricoeur’s scheme of mimesis, and cannot be said to be included at his level of mimesis1.

[13] With the emphasis on “effective”, in accordance with Barthes’ coinage. White also acknowledges the legacy of Erich Auerbach’s notion of mimesis in his seminal study Mimesis. The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974. (First published in German in 1946). Here Auerbach develops the concept of mimesis to include the ethereal spheres of the emotional and psychological in his discussion of modernist literary aesthetics, particularly that of Virginia Woolf.

[14] See Hans-Ulrich Gumbrecht, “Presence Achieved in Language”, History and Theory 45, October 2006, pp. 317-327.

[15] The fundamental distinction made in narratology is that between story or narrative, which is also called diegesis on the one hand, and discourse, or narration, on the other. A story can contain many diegetic levels, which means that the same story may encompass many other stories. A crude division places characters as part of the story, whereas the narrator, narratee, implied author, and implied reader are part of the narration. However, the narrator and narratee can also be part of the story. See further Rimmon-Kenan , 2000 (1983) for a classic introduction to narratology; Bal, 1990; Genette, 1972, who was one of the first to found modern structuralist narratology; Lanser, 1992, for a feminist narratology; as well as O’ Neill, 1994 , for a critically deconstructive view of narratology.

[16] The title of Ricoeur’s trilogy Time and Narrative would actually support this argument. Still, the category of time is by all means the overpoweringly strongest aspect of Ricoeur’s understanding of narrative – and of history. Every other constituent of narrative is subordinate to that of time. Ricoeur provides a hostile attitude to narratology in the first chapter “Metamorphoses of the Plot” of the second volume of Time and Narrative. The chapter is introduced in the following way: “The precedence of our narrative understanding in the epistemological order, as it will be defended in the following chapter in light of the rationalizing ambitions of narratology, can only be attested to and maintained if we initially give this narrative understanding a scope such that it may be taken as the original which narratology strives to copy” (Ricoeur, 1985, p. 7).

[17] The argument that action and plot involve and are actually dependent on characters narrows the category of characterization down to the construction of agents. After literary modernism and its development of mimesis it could be said that the narrative category of characters is primarily a spatial, not a temporal one. Thus characters should not be reduced to the level of muthos, or the mimesis of action immediately related to time and constructed through plot. See for instance Auerbach’s discussion of Virginia Woolf and modernist aesthetics in Mimesis. The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Ricoeur, however, makes the concept of narrative ultimately dependent on the occurrence of closure, i.e. there is no narrative unless an ending occurs (Ricoeur, 1985, pp. 20-22).

[18] Runia, of course, explicitly denies the possibility of accessing the past (Runia, 2006, p. 27). See my further discussion of Runia in this article.

[19] The essay particularly highlights a work of political history as an example of a dominant genre of mainstream historiography. As Iser has shown, any narrative text poses an address by means of the textual stance of the “implied reader”. In a Scandinavian context, the dominant kind of political and war history have been exclusively male, high-status, undertakings so far. The explicit discrepancy between the implied reader of mainstream political history with its strong reality claims and, e.g. a female, actual, non-professional reader of history must be considered problematic for a historical genre with such societal, national, influence. However, there is a very recent interest in war history appearing within the field of historically oriented gender studies connecting to the so called new war history, or the cultural history of war. See also note 9.

[20] Roman Ingarden, Det litterära konstverket (Lund : Bo Cavefors förlag, 1976), pp. 322-331. Ingarden’s work was first published in German with the title Das literarische Kunstwerk (Tuebingen: Max Niemeyer, 1930).

[21] Iser, 1989, initially addresses the problem of reading in general. Ingarden discusses the reading of the “scientific work” as part of his aesthetic theory, claiming its similarity to the reading of aesthetic texts (Ingarden, 1976, pp. 423-426).

[22] I suggest that the strongly lyrical, and often outright musical, aspects of much of Fernand Braudel’s masterpiece The Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II can be understood as a way of having enabled the work to begin with, i.e. the fashioning of such a tremendous work of history would not have been possible without the lyrical imagination of which it gives proof. How to move in so much vast space over such long duration - and succeed? More importantly in this context, the phonological and musical aspects of the lyrical can be said to constitute metonymic representations of physical space - the land, the sea, the sand - whereas semantic aspects contribute to the configuration of the time(s) of this space. Ricoeur (1984, pp. 103-107) also pays attention to Braudel’s images, his “marine metaphors” (p. 105), among other things, in his discussion of Braudel’s works “On History” and “History and the Social Sciences: The Longue Durée”. See also Gumbrecht, 2006.

[23] Using a phenomenological terminology, Ingarden defines literary works as intentional objects. Due to this and, paradoxically, due to its explicit concern with the aesthetic category and the fixation of the text in terms of an (in)adequacy which accompanies it, Ingarden’s theory would seem oddly capable of accommodating a discussion of the reading of history in accordance with a traditional norm of historical writing. Provided, of course, that the activity of reading is acknowledged as a problematic activity at all, implying that reading always introduces an ambivalence into the most stable of texts. Ingarden’s idea of indeterminacy (Unbestimmtheitsstellen) effectively spells out this ambivalence. However, due to its aesthetic idealism and corrective ideology, I prefer Iser’s more material and performative view focusing on the activity of reading.

[24] In an obvious analogy with Iser’s discussion of the “implied reader”, it can be stated that the repertoire of present-day socio-cultural, media-tagged reading skills and reading ideals (or the lack of them) cannot possibly not permeate the text of historical writing.

[25] In narratology the implied author is seen either as the “source of the norms embodied in the work” (Rimmon-Kenan, 2000, p. 88) or as a construct based on the text and assembled by the reader from all the components of the text. The former is Iser’s view summarized by Rimmon-Kenan, the latter Rimmon-Kenan’s own.

[26] I suggest the figure of the past can take on aspects of a formidable character informed by space, or, more commonly, appear as space informed by character. See also note 17 on the relationship between character and space in modernism.

[27] The title of Melberg’s work is a fruitful pun: the Swedish word “repetition” means both repetition and rehearsal in English.

[28] For a negotiation of concepts such as experience, emotion, feeling, and affect, see Rei Terada Feeling in Theory: Emotion after the “Death of the Subject”. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001.

[29] “The need for ‘presence’ – and the drive behind all brands of commemoration – is a veritable passion du reel (...) as Alain Badiou has called it” “ (Runia, 2006, p. 5).

[30] Runia defines metonymy as a metaphor for discontinuity (Runia, 2006, p. 6). Thus metonymy itself becomes a kind of representation which, according to him, would be fundamentally different from metonymy as a trope in the “representationalism” of Hayden White.

[31] Jane Tompkins has introduced the idea of “authority effect”. Quoted in Kate Love “The Experience of Art” in Gavin Butt, ed. After Criticism: New Responses to Art and Performance , Oxford: Blackwell, 2005, p. 167.

[32] Compared to the Platonic notion, the Aristotelian idea of mimesis is the relatively more modern variety of the concept and that upon which historians seem to have based their discussion. This produces the conventional understanding of narrative as an imitation of action including time. However, narratology falls back on both the Aristotelian and the Platonic ideas of mimesis. The representation of speech as discussed in narratology has been derived from the Platonic idea of mimesis.

[33] I am suspicious of Ricoeur’s promotion of Louis O. Mink’s idea of historical narrative as having the power of enabling the reader “ ‘(to) see(..) things together’ in a total and synoptic judgment which cannot be replaced by any other technique” (quoted in Ricoeur, 1984, p. 156). Ricoeur does emphasize that this phenomenon would not be possible without the literary concept of plot and accordingly criticizes Mink of not having acknowledged this aspect (Ricoeur, 1984, pp. 155-56). It is true that this particular kind of insight would depend on explicitly literary aspects. However, when Ricoeur emphasizes scientific explanation as easily and self-evidently containable in historical narrative, even as that very criterion which makes the story more followable, I disagree. I find the view of total vision in historical narrative defined by scientific explanation verging on mysticism: the phenomenon of “seeing things together” is hardly possible outside of outright literary texts, maybe it can even occur only in poems or lyrical texts. This is the very topic of some of Borges’ absurdist short stories influenced by Zen Buddhism: the seeing “it all” in one instant. The greater the amount of total vision, the greater also the aspect of the explicitly literary in the presentation, i.e. of what I call mimesis effect in this article. This view seems to be compatible with Runia’s idea of presence, that is if Runia by metonymy can be understood to implicate synechdoche.

[34] In the last phases of the writing of this article, I realized that I had initially misinterpreted the cover image of Gerner and Karlsson’s book. The picture is rather an authorial marker of the displaced past than of anything mimetic at all. The blue sea, white sand, clear sky, sun and grass in combination with the suggestive title carry the Mediterranean intertext in Braudelian lyrical fashion: the past becomes an embracing, material space speaking to the senses. The cover image of Johannisson’s book, however, is outright mimetic.

[35] Kristian Gerner and Klas-Göran Karlsson, Nordens Medelhav. Östersjöområdet som historia, myt och projekt (Stockholm: Natur och Kultur, 2002).

[36] Karin Johannisson, Tecknen. Läkaren och konsten att läsa kroppar (Stockholm: Norstedts, 2004).

[37] Comparing two works from different historical genres might raise questions of validity. The language of professional history is nevertheless shared by the major historical genres. To that extent there is a common ground which it is possible to negotiate in various directions, including that of the reader. I found this common language used with striking variation in the two works discussed here. This motivates my comparison and juxtaposition of them.

[38] Gerner and Karlsson’s book contains one chapter (“Nära Nordstjärnan - Stockholm”, pp. 124-149) which differs positively from its context in terms of skilful narration and, at least occasionally, a more effective use of mimesis. The distance between narrative voice and narratee is far shorter than elsewhere in the book. This means that the narrator does not establish an authoritarian position in relation to the narratee but keeps a low-profile, conversational tone. There are also passages where people and place come alive in action and speech (particularly pp. 130-131). This chapter has been written by Anders Hammarlund, whose name, however, has not been mentioned on the front cover.

[39] In Aristotle (and the classic tragedy following his poetics), the idea of peripeteia is connected to action in the sense that heads of states, for example, must become aware of their sins and the sufferings these have caused their peoples. This idea can, of course, be projected into modern times and the discourse of “nationness” in Benedict Anderson’s words (after which it could be projected back into pre-national times). Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nations, London: Verso, 1990; first published in 1983. There is, accordingly, an analogy here with the “lives” of nations and states and political history as their very genre. However, Aristotelian peripeteia presupposes catharsis and, on the part of the governor, suffering, insight, knowledge, and an awareness of his ultimate motifs. These aspects of peripeteia have little part in the narrative talk of traditional historiography.

[40] Ricoeur, 1984, “Historical Intentionality”, pp. 175-225.

[41] Liz Stanley, ”Mourning becomes...: The work of feminism in the spaces between lives lived and lives written” Women’s Studies International Forum 25, 1, 2002, pp. 1-17; 2. This article was first drafted as a paper for the conference “Nordic Women’s and Gender History”, Åbo, Finland, July, 2005. The paper was commented upon by Liz Stanley. I am indebted to my colleagues Dr. Maria Lassén-Seger and M.A. Mia Franck for valuable information on the concepts of narratology.


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