MUP, $29.95 pb, 296 pp
Greg Dening was trained for the Catholic priesthood. He became an outstanding historian of the Pacific, although perhaps better described as an anthropologist-historian, in company with Clifford Geertz, Marshall Sahlins, Nathalie Zemon Davis, and his colleague Rhys Isaac, to whom this book is warmly dedicated. Yet echoes of his initial calling linger in his work, certainly as evidenced in this collection of essays.
Dening is a proselytiser for a history which is recovered through the imagination, rather than a reliance on the surviving, selective texts which almost entirely empty the past of its meaning and are themselves continually transformed by the process of reading and interpretation. He says we cannot describe the past independently of our knowing it, any more than we can the present, and this kind of knowledge is the realm of the imagination. ‘Histories are fictions,’ he boldly asserts, ‘something made of the past – but fictions whose forms are metonymies of the present’. The American philosopher, Richard Rorty, is regularly invoked to illuminate his point. Human solidarity, Rorty writes,
is to be achieved not by inquiry but by imagination, the imaginative ability to see strange people as fellow sufferers … This process of coming to see others as being ‘one of us’ rather than as ‘them’ is a matter of detailed description of what we ourselves are like. This is a task not for theory but for genres such as ethnography …