Fellow Sufferers: History and Imagination

by Inga Clendinnen

©all rights reserved

A response to this article has been received from Lori Askeland, Cassandra Pybus and Richard Rorty

A few years ago Richard Rorty invited us to a Utopia. After long reflecting on earlier utopias and their unavailing struggles to reconcile the claims of the public with the private good, he believed he had diagnosed the problem: the obstinate insistence that ‘the springs of private fulfilment and of human solidarity are the same.’ (In these post-Thatcherite days, we wonder what took him so long.) Rorty’s Utopia — post-metaphysical, nonetheless liberal — would therefore take human solidarity as its goal, not its assumption. The trick would be to extend ‘natural’ human distaste for the sufferings of known persons to embrace the sufferings of persons unknown; to incite in us ‘the imaginative ability to see strange people as fellow sufferers.’ Once persuaded of the reality of distant sufferings and of our own capacity to inflict unintended cruelties in pursuit of private goals, we would be prepared to temper our quest for autonomy. Thus human solidarity would be extended and consolidated. Who should undertake the central duty of developing and expanding our imaginative capabilities? The task, Rorty said, lay with ‘genres such as ethnography, the journalist’s report, the comic book, the docudrama, and, especially, the novel.’ A couple of sentences later, he added film, acknowledging that ‘the novel, the movie, and the TV. program have, gradually but steadily, replaced the sermon and the treatise as the principal vehicles of moral challenge and progress.’1.

I am not concerned, or not here, with the plausibility of Rorty’s amiable Utopia. It is an implied equivalence, and a casual omission, which interest me. First: Rorty takes fictional representations to be equally if not more effective than representations of actuality for the education and extension of human sympathies. Second: History is omitted from the catalogue of socially useful genres. Ethnography and journalism (us and others now) are in; History (us and others then) is out. Human history being what it is, that is a lot of suffering to drop out of the consultable record, and, given the grandeur of History’s pedagogical past, the exclusion is wounding. However, there it is: Rorty, unarguably a thinker of influence, thinks the discipline of History has nothing to offer when it comes to sharpening the moral vision by way of an exercised imagination.

The realisation that we are being declared culturally redundant has led to experiment. Some historians try a Scheherezade pose: they will beguile the fickle Caliph of the public with stories — but real stories, about real people. I do not think they will last many nights. They cannot compete with the true Scheherezades; they cannot make and fulfil dark prophecies, or double identities, or conjure genies at will. They are bound like Gulliver to the fragmented, frustrating record of ‘what happened,’ as they are bound by local expectations of why events ‘really’ occur. A few have sought to embellish their dried arrangements with the bright flowers of fiction. Consider Simon Schama’s instructive trajectory, from the tight historical tapestry of An Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Culture in the Golden Age (1987) through what he claimed to be the ‘found’ narrative of Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution (1989) to the uneasy fictions of Dead Certainties (unwarranted speculations) (1991)and then back to the loose-textured, beguiling ‘history’ of Landscape and Memory in 1995.

The turn to fiction is, to my mind, a confusion of categories. This is a delicate matter to argue, especially in the brief span of an essay. Let me avoid, for now, any comment on the ‘truth’ of fiction.2 Let me acknowledge that fiction abundantly and gloriously teaches us about other ways of being in the world. Let us agree that we learn more about the vicissitudes of adulterous women by reading Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina than by listening to the neighbours, or even by consulting our own bruised hearts; that Chekhov can tell us delicate things and Thackeray rude things about their respective societies which historians have not told us. But do these writers achieve what they achieve because they are writing fiction? Or because they are great writers?

When I read E. P. Thompson or Peter Brown, both historians, both gifted writers in any company, I read about richly imagined, richly populated and previously unknown worlds with something of the same blissful avidity with which I read my favourite novelists. There is, however, a crucial difference. When I read great historical writings the bliss is tempered (and, in a sense, intensified) by a critical alertness and an undertow of intimate moral implication not present in the limpid realms of fiction. I believe we listen differently to communiqués coming out of the roaring confusion of this world and to the papery whispers of the past from the tales distilled in the shimmering kingdom of words.

When Jane Austen’s invalided Mrs Smith tells Anne Elliott: ‘Call it gossip if you will, but when Nurse Rooke has half an hour’s leisure to bestow upon me, she is sure to have something to relate that is entertaining and profitable, something which makes one know one’s species better,’ we know what she means. Nurse Rooke’s talk entertains and profits because she tells her stories with a professional’s concern for her reputation as an accurate reporter, and as a connoisseur of conduct and motive. She ‘makes us know our species better.’ Gossip? Why not call it History?

The largest difference between History and Fiction is the moral relationships each establishes between writer and subjects, and writer and reader. Had I discovered the nature of Humbert Humbert’s private joys in real life, I would have had him locked up. I may have tried to ‘understand’ him, but only after I had destroyed his happiness. Snug between the covers of the fiction called Lolita I can revel in his eely escapades, his delirious deceptions; weep with him when his child slave escapes; yearn with him for her recapture. Contrast that happy yielding with my response to another Nabokov presentation. Nabokov is a master in the representation of cruelties (he is one of Rorty’s major nominees for the ‘activation of imaginations’ job.) One of his most sustained performances occurs in Bend Sinister, published in 1947, and a dark refraction on contemporary political régimes. He presents a description of the physical destruction of David Krug, aged eight years. We come to know of the child’s death and the manner of it by watching a film, which is also being watched by his father, Adam Krug, who is under interrogation by state officials. Krug has already agreed to confess to everything and anything to save his son, but there has been a small bureaucratic bungle. The hideous death we are watching is in all likelihood a ‘mistake,’ which idiocy adds to the horror.

Because the death is being unfolded on film, the agony of the father, and of the reader, is intensified: we cannot intervene; we know the harm is irreparable as we watch it being inflicted. However, the horror, while intolerably vivid in our minds, is not in fact much more than sketched on the page: ‘as so often with Nabokov, we have to imagine the worst; to use the specifics he gives us to divine the ones he witholds.’3 What Nabokov does here is of particular moment because it erodes our pretension to innocence. We have been forced, briefly, to collude. By the power of our own wincing, flinching imaginings, we are made torturers too.

Yet for me, here (and only here) the master fails, because he is writing fiction, and I am not compelled to heed him. Nabokov the fabricator cuffs us lightly: ‘Attend now.’ In LolitaI attended, for the pleasure of it. But I am under no obligation to attend; I could, should I choose, simply close the book. I have made that choice with Bend Sinister: the pages dealing with the death of David Krug are stapled together in my copy. I do not wish to see them even inadvertently. And despite my collusion (perhaps because of my collusion) I cannot forgive Nabokov for installing those images in my mind, because they are gratuitous images, of his own invention.

With actual people, however long dead, I cannot in conscience seal the pages to preserve myself. Years ago I worked on Spanish Inquisition documents from the late sixteenth century; documents in which every moan, every whimper, every twist and wrench was meticulously recorded. I read, recorded, collated equally meticulously, even though I had to have brandy-and-water beside me, even though I would be quite drunk by noon. I could not turn away. Why? Because I had appointed myself clerk of record, and therefore witness to those five-hundred-year-old sufferings. Reading the records of past actuality, I am not free to refuse painful engagement of emotions and imagination, because I have entered into a moral relationship with the persons enclosed in the documents — which means, of course, not only the victims, but the torturers, too. And had I inserted one false detail, one imputation of motive or sensation not justifiable out of the record (including its exclusions, deformations and silences) I would have falsified an actual human and therefore moral relationship between torturer and tortured, between myself and the people I had chosen to ‘re-present,’ and between myself and my potential readers, who look to me for History: to learn something of how it used to be, back then; ‘to know our species better.’

Why was History excluded so casually, so ignominiously, from Rorty’s list of imagination-training genres. Presumably because we deserved it. When I asked a class of new history graduates which historians they read for pleasure, they laughed. I knew why they laughed. When we come to write some historians behave like Frazer’s priest stalking the bounds of his sacred grove, wholly intent on warding off the daggers of any one of the eight other experts-in-the-field out to depose him. More of us write about those ‘fields’ as if we were ruminant bovines, or, as some prefer to imagine themselves, horny-handed labourers digging in the field of stone-hard, stone-cold facts. Nearly all of us dutifully mime ‘objectivity,’ first by deleting ourselves from the script, then by adopting a weirdly etiolated language carefully bleached of emotion. Not so long ago I was rebuked by a colleague — privately, discreetly — for letting ‘the upright personal pronoun’ sneak into my script. In his view that one slim grenade exploded all pretension to scholarship. And then we fret when we are not read by anyone who has the least choice in the matter.

‘When we come to write.’ Listen to historians talking, and you do not (often) hear paranoid priests or rumbling ruminants but men and women of passion and sense talking about their respective obsessions. Neither moral sensibility nor compassion nor reconstitutive imagination is lacking — until we come to write. It is then that the dragons rear, and block the path. Yet we still talk about ‘writing up’ as if it were a routine activity approximately comparable in challenge to mopping the floor.

What’s to be done? First, historians need to decide which among the accrued conventions of historical writing matter, and which are mere encrustations. We have learnt that God-historians hovering somewhere up and beyond the texts win no knee-bobs nowadays. We are increasingly ready to admit that a human hand pushes the pen or taps the keys of the word processor, that there is a needle ‘I’ between the past and the reader through which everything must pass. We should know by now that flights of indignation or extended exhibitions of sensibility are as crass as they are tedious. What we need is the re-creation of the situations of our subjects, leaving the emotions in, and for that we need particularities.

It is self-deluding, evasive nonsense to say that ‘the sources’ must be left ‘to speak for themselves.’ ‘Sources’ are whatever scratches on paper or parchment or stone or earth we find from some past human engagements from some past world. We will listen a long time before they speak — unless they are made to, by the reconstruction of the particular context, by attentiveness to the range of contemporary vernaculars, by our learning to distinguish breaches or absences in the record from willed, resounding silences. We must keep our footnotes — precise references to located and relocatable material — because they bind us to the remnants of a past actuality. They also sign what is to me the central narrative of any good history: the struggle of the historian intent on recuperation to make the gnomic, refractory remnants of past sensibilities speak. That dramatic and absorbing story should not be banished to the footnotes. The best historians make it their core narrative, gloriously above the line.

We must also admit, to ourselves and to our readers, that much of what we most want to know, like the secret pulses of our subjects’ affective lives, we cannot know. Or probably cannot know. It is my own conviction that we could learn from the best sociologists and anthropologists how to expand our range of what we consider sources, and could refine techniques of ‘close reading’ from the example of the best literary critics.

We also need models: those historians who rouse our imaginations, our critical intelligence (and our helpless envy) by the precision of their inferences, their moral and intellectual poise — and the exactitude and athleticism of their prose. Take the familiar problem of the potential obliteration of human meaning by reduction to numbers. Numbers are essential to establish scale, but we know how easily the actualities of anguish can be masked by a flattened rhetoric (‘collateral damage’) and by rounded figures. Both deny the specificities of human suffering — the ruined orchard, the ruined child, the old woman who weeps as she wanders. They also have a powerfully narcotic effect on the imagination. But when Christopher Browning tells us in the opening sentence of a brief essay that nearly three million Jews were done to death in Poland in eleven short months, we are not only located in scale, place, time and event, but made to shudder at the pure ferocity of the killers; the fury and ruthless ingenuity poured into the slaughter.4 The events of the Holocaust are notoriously difficult to represent, but Browning’s extended analysis of the doings of the ‘ordinary men’ of Hamburg Reserve Police Battalion 101 in Poland is a model of cool enquiry and precise documentation which is also informed by moral passion, and which constantly vivifies imagination and emotion by the precise description of situation, and of sequences of action.5

Historians can find a hundred reasons for avoiding painful material. We may be inhibited by tenderness for the victims, a desire to protect their brutalised dignity, an anxiety not to re-inflict humiliation. We may wish to spare the reader — an act of condescension for which neither they nor our subjects are likely to thank us. We may say we seek to avoid the ‘self-indulgence’ of dwelling on ‘details.’ But when I tell you that the Argentinian military used as a standard method of torture the insertion of a tube into a prisoner’s anus or vagina, the introduction of a hungry rat into that tube, and the sealing of the tube, I am telling you something important about the Argentine military and their understanding of themselves, and of the compatriots whose agony they effected. Such information must not be softened or censored out of some misplaced protectiveness towards some putative reader. Those things were done; they were documented; they are a crucial part of the record of particular human cruelties, particular human sufferings. If I write a history of the American Civil War giving figures for deaths in battle, and fail to tell you what those figures obscure — the typical experience of those left wounded in the field — I am derelict in my duty as a historian at once to you, and to those suffering men. The ‘how’ of the representation is an unshakeable responsibility.

I have not yet written anything out of that Spanish Inquisition material, because I cannot, yet, find a mode in which to do it. The full destructive impact of those documents, and of the particular human experiences they encapsulated, depended on a steady, queasy accumulation, a developing sense of enclosure like a slowly-tightening fist: the slow extinction of human time, of human hope, in a place and a situation constructed precisely to that end. How to get that on the page ? Analysis will not do it. Quoting particular cases, even at length, will not do it. All I can do is to keep experimenting.

We must use visual material where it exists, most obviously photographs, because photographs are linked inexorably to a precise past moment. Of the many unbearable Holocaust photographs those I am least able to bear are not the tumbled corpses of Belsen, where the bodies are dead and the damage done. They are the photographs of men, women and children huddling at railway stations or marshalling themselves at platforms or trudging down roads towards vaguely-glimpsed, tall buildings, because they are, in that moment of passage caught by the camera, perfectly unprepared for what is to happen, and because I know the revelation which awaits them.

There are other photographs, ‘snaps’ illicitly taken and illicitly sent by the murderers to wives and families back home, to show them something of their menfolk’s important secret work. In one an old woman, tiny, barefooted, stripped to her shift, turns a face ugly with fear and incipient tears towards the camera. Big, smiling men in snugly-belted overcoats, their boots dark against the snow, are close around her. Some of them hold switches, negligently. This is Lieutenant Gnade’s ‘Undressing Station,’ where Jews are stripped of clothing and valuables before being herded to the trains, or to the local killing place.6

A crucial part of our task is to ‘realise’ the humanity of the victims, the better to measure the magnitude of the vast, continuing affront of their sufferings, at whatever necessary cost of our own well-being. But we must also (and this is both more difficult, and more repugnant) strive to understand those who inflicted the cruelties, because the killers were human too, and therefore we cannot afford to turn away.

And we must look, again, and again, and again. Why? Because what is done to us by words and photographic images was done to others in actuality, to people more innocent than ourselves because they did not know that such things could be done, by people who had not known they were capable of doing them.

I do not think Rorty’s Utopia can do without historians.
Inga Clendinnen is a prizewinning historian and fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities. She is the author of Ambivalent Conquests: Maya and Spaniard in Yucatan, 1517-1570 and Aztecs: An Interpretation. She has also published fiction and essays.


1. Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, Cambridge University Press, 1989, xiii-xvi.

2. Philip Roth: ‘Are his stories accurate and true? I myself never inquire about their veracity. I think of them instead as fiction that, like so much fiction, provides the storyteller with the lie through which to expose his unspeakable truth.’ Philip Roth, Operation Shylock: a Confession, Jonathon Cape, London, 1993, p. 58.

3. Michael Wood, The Magician’s Doubts: Nabokov and the Risks of Fiction, Chatto and Windus, London, 1994 (and one of the books of the decade), p. 59.

4. Christopher R. Browning, ‘One Day in Jósefów: Initiation to Mass Murder,’ in Lessons and Legacies: The Meaning of the Holocaust in a Changing World ed. Peter Hayes, Northwestern University Press, Evanston, Ill., 1991, pp. 196-209, p.196: ‘In mid-March of 1942, some 75 to 80 percent of all victims of the Holocaust were still alive, while some 20 to 25 percent had already perished. A mere eleven months later, in mid-February 1943… some 75 to 80 percent of all Holocaust victims were already dead, and a mere 25 to 30 percent still clung to a precarious existence.’

5. Christopher R. Browning, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland, Harper Collins, New York, 1992, passim. See also See the remarkable volume edited by Saul Friedlander, Probing the Limits of Representation: Nazism and the ‘Final Solution’, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1992.

6. See Browning,

Ordinary Men.

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