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History, literature, and the sense of the real

In the past few decades, the fictionality of historical narratives has been fully recognized and even overly emphasized, but literature or mimesis as makebelieve has always been an effort to represent what is perceived to be real, and representation of the real may not be limited to the recording of actuality. History and literature, in other words, are not just contentious, but complementary as well. The realist novel of the nineteenth century—the works of Balzac, Dickens, Tolstoy, and others—created a full sense of the real with literary representation no less, if not more, true to historical reality than historical writings at the time. But a sense of the real does not necessarily depend on exhaustive or fully externalized description and narration, for reading literature is always an experience of contemporaneity, an imaginative recreation of what the linguistic signs merely suggest, and in cultures where conventions of economic literary expressions prevail—such as the biblical or the Chinese—even sketchy descriptions may trigger a powerful sense of the real in the reader’s mental concretization. In Chinese tradition, the works of Tang poet Du Fu (712-770) are often called a “history in verse” and praised for their faithful depiction of the historical reality of his time. In that tradition, the relationship between history and literature is never a rigid dichotomy, and there is full recognition of the literary quality of historical narration as well as the sense of historical reality in literary representations. Traditional Chinese novels are often modeled on historical narratives. At the same time, however, the distinction between the two kinds of discourses is always maintained as a sensible borderline between different domains of human activities with different purposes and different values. This distinction is something we need to revisit and attend to as a remedy to some of the excessive postmodern theorizations of history and literary representation.

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