Fact and Fiction

A remarkably rich essay by Timothy Garton Ash in the Guardian is full of matter relevant to the concerns of Butterflies and Wheels. His subject is the difficulty and subtlety of distinguishing between fiction and fact, what he calls the border between the two, and the necessity nonetheless of making the distinction, of continuing to patrol that border, and resisting any postmodernist temptation to shrug and say it’s all the same thing. Garton Ash mentions Simon Schama’s Dead Certainties, a fictional account that presented itself as a history until the end. “Schama suggests that history as storytelling, as literature, must reclaim the ground it has lost to history as science, or pseudoscience. I entirely agree; but from this particular literary device it is not a long step to the postmodernist conclusion that any historian’s ‘story’ is as good as any other’s.” I don’t agree with the history as science part. Historians examine, evaluate, and interpret evidence just the way scientists do, after all. History is also literature (but then so can science be), but it has to be accurate, self-correcting, open to criticism, just as science does. Perhaps the border between fact and fiction should be better patrolled whereas the one between history and science should be done away with.

Which is not to say that the job is an easy one. Garton Ash goes on to consider the unreliability of witnesses and of memory, the way the mind generates narrative to make sense of facts and experiences that perhaps don’t make sense in reality, the need for selection among the mass of events and facts in the world, the morality of truth, and the fact that we believe people who warn us not to believe them. In short he examines the paradox we all bump into many times a day, that truth is both elusive and necessary.

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