Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Is Historical Fiction More Truthful Than Historical Fact?


Trying to discover historical facts is a very valid way to study history. For example, asking questions such as 'what did medieval peasants eat?', 'how many people lived in Doncaster in the 1300s?', 'at what speed did plague spread?' are all very useful to historians. It is counter factual history that is often more controversial, and seen as more 'fictional'. For example, 'what would have happened if Constantine hadn't converted Roman Empire to Christianity?' and other questions are often the subject of much dispute.

I recently read an article by Lisa Jardine where she argued that fiction has the power to fill in the imaginative gaps left by history. She spent some time researching the lives of a group of scientists who worked on the development of the atomic bomb during World War Two. Although there are several impeccably researched non-fiction works on the subject and a number of biographies, none of these really conveyed the emotions and convictions that drove their work, and Jardine said she struggled to connect with the personal principles of the scientists who collaborated with such energy to produce the period's ultimate weapon of mass destruction. This led her to turn from fact to fiction in order to understand the motivation of those who joined the race to produce the bomb whose use at Hiroshima and Nagasaki appalled the world.

This same line is followed by many historians; if historical fact cannot fill the gaps in our knowledge, perhaps historians less constrained by documented evidence might do so. Macaulay once remarked that 'the novel is to history what the painted landscape is to a map.' And this is often the case: historical fiction can often breathe life into the lungs of the departed, open one's eyes to new possibilities and explain subtle mysteries.

Jardine says she read Michael Frayn's play, Copenhagen which recreates a famous moment in the history of the race to develop the atomic bomb - a meeting in 1941, in Denmark, between German physicist Werner Heisenberg - best known for his "uncertainty principle", that the more accurately you know the position of a particle, the less accurately you know its velocity, and vice versa - and his former doctoral supervisor and mentor, the Danish quantum theorist Niels Bohr. We know very little about the meeting: just that the two men met and that it was cut short by an angry Bohr. Heisenberg was about to become head of the Nazi atomic bomb project, Bohr was Jewish, an enemy, and under surveillance in an occupied territory. He eventually fled via Sweden and Britain to the United States in 1943, where he played a significant role in the Manhattan Project.

In Frayn's version the two men relive their encounter, struggling unsuccessfully to reach any sort of agreement as to what took place, which would help decide the moral accountability of both men's key role in unleashing nuclear weapons on the world seems somehow to depend on that conversation. As in life, no agreement is reached (after Bohr's death a letter to Heisenberg was found among his papers, vigorously denying Heisenberg's published account of what took place). However Michael Frayn has dramatic licence to invent exchanges and even physical details which focus attention on the issues at stake here. He creates dialogue imaginatively that draws the audience into the debate, prompting it to make its own attempt at assessing the motives and beliefs of the two scientists. Frayn says "The great challenge is to get inside people's heads, to stand where they stood and see the world as they saw it, to make some informed estimate of their motives and intentions. The only way into the protagonists' heads is through the imagination."

Jardine recounts how in 1999 she took her mother, then in her early 80s, to see Frayn's Copenhage. She had met the Bohrs, and they had moved in similar circles after the war. During the interval she explained to Jardine which parts of the dialogue had sounded implausible to her, and where there had been small inaccuracies. As the curtain came down on the final act, and the lights came up, Jardine turned to her mother to ask her how she now felt about the play. She was sitting, hands folded in her lap, tears coursing down her face. Only later did she tell Jardine it was like being there all over again.

Jardine has concluded that often fiction is needed to sharpen our senses, to focus our attention sympathetically, in order to give us emotional access to the past and that the creative imagination of fiction writers can reconnect us with the historical feelings, as well as the facts.

However I do not agree with Jardine's suggestion that fiction is more 'truthful' than fact as fiction is based upon the author's sensibilities and what the target audience is looking for. Jardine argues that some works of historical fiction are "successful attempts at a kind of bridging between fact and fiction that captures the feelings behind the ideas", however this is unconvincing. Heisenberg and Bohr may have thought and felt as Frayn portrays them - or they may not. Fiction involving real people can mislead people into confusing reality with an author's imagination, even if fiction can be a good way of exploring issues surrounding real people and events and is often a great vehicle to learn about major world events. Yet fiction takes great liberties with the truth. For example Frayn falsely represented Werner Heisenberg, making him morally ambiguous for the premise of the play to be possible. Therefore, I do not think that a work of fiction, which never claims to accurately reproduce reality, can give you more insight than the actual thoughts and papers and letters of those who lived through that time and discussed it.

source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-29060077