Cambridge University Press, $49.95 pb, 237pp
Nothing divides people as much as the idea that history is a text and, in many cases, a fiction. It’s the sort of notion – more or less accepted by academics in the Humanities – that really annoys ‘among the barbarians’ public intellectuals. Point out that history is written by the victors, that much of what we think of as gospel was written decades after the event from secondary sources (the Gospels, for example), and that the bulk of tradition, from Scots tartan to Christmas, is a nineteenth-century confection, and their anger becomes tinged with panic. It’s vertigo, but one of time rather than space – the sudden realisation that you are standing on nothing but the present, with the texts and living witnesses (whose memories are texts) inhering in the present.
While the nineteenth century invented the past, the late twentieth turned to inventing its present. Consider fakes and forgeries, for example. Where once the signature of the great – of Shakespeare, of Vermeer, say – could make a sham text Meaningful, the highest cachet is now attached to the hitherto anonymous and marginal – the black, the terminally ill, the Ukrainian gentile – whose authorship makes a text ‘authentic’, a hitherto unknown voice speaking from the et cetera. Suddenly it seemed that literary fakery, hitherto assumed to be a marginal practice, had moved centre-stage.