19 May 2009

'He's just trying to tell a vision'

This post is about David Peace, and offers a kind of (patchwork) secret history of secret history.

Secret or occult history is how Peace often describes his work. The Red Riding series discloses a sickness at the heart of Yorkshire between 1974–1983, Tokyo Year Zero attempts a pathology of postwar Japan. 'It is time to reveal the true essence of the nation.' . . . The essence, not the contingent, messy, pedantic, historically-verifiable particularity. 'I want to read fictions torn from facts that use those fictions to illuminate the truth,' Peace writes. Setting aside the ethical/epistemological debate for the moment, we have another example of Borges's theory of retroactively created precursors.* In this case, Peace's precursors include Werner Herzog, William Godwin and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
I've always postulated, not just in documentaries but in my feature films as well, that reality is a superficial layer and what we should be looking out for is a deep strata of truth. I've always been after what I call an ecstatic truth.
. . . Werner Herzog in this interview . . . in which the interviewer at one point asks 'Can you think of a moment that is ecstatic truth? Is it like seeing your favourite football team score a goal?' – bathetic, but nicely synchronous for a discussion of David Peace.

The origin of Herzog's 'ecstatic truth' meme can be found in his 'Minnesota Declaration' from 1999:
4. Fact creates norms, and truth illumination.

5. There are deeper strata of truth in cinema, and there is such a thing as poetic, ecstatic truth. It is mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization.
'Ecstacy', with all its connotations of bliss in anglophone usage, may seem out of place applied to Peace's writing, but ecstacy is simply an experience so powerful that you feel out of your head, your body, taken beyond yourself, literally 'ex stasis', out of place. So the kind of delirious horror which Peace achieves is just as much an experience of ecstacy as one of Stephen Daedalus's epiphanies.

An older forebear: William Godwin. In his 'Essay of History and Romance', Godwin argues that history can be studied in two ways: by looking at mankind en masse, or at the lives of individuals. The first is dauntingly abstract, a question of statistical quantification; the second is 'of highest importance.' Godwin then sets up his paradox: the empirical documentary history of facts and dates is 'nearest the truth', but this is 'in reality, no history'. It is lifeless without the vigour imparted by biographical study. The best history uses facts merely as raw material for an inventive tapestry that Godwin chooses to call 'historical romance.' So novels (Godwin's historical romances) in fact are really a branch of history-writing, and not only that, a 'nobler species of composition' than plain history. They are the subset that transcends the set itself, the subgenre that supersedes the master-genre to achieve its apotheosis.

It is deluded after all, he argues, to simply assume that history conveys factual truth. It is a form of fiction. So: 'Dismiss me from the falsehood and impossibility of history, and deliver me over to the reality of romance.' Furthermore: 'The writer of romance then is to be considered as the writer of real history.' Historians are simply romance writers 'without the sublime licence of imagination.'

Godwin wrote the piece in 1797 while his essay collection The Enquirer was going to press, anticipating the possibility of a sequel. But the demand never materialized, and the essay was not published in his lifetime (which suggests a crisis of confidence in the argument on Godwin's part).

One more. The following description of Rousseau from Isaiah Berlin isn't quite a perfect match for the kind of fiction-as-transcendent-history that Peace, Herzog and Godwin advocate, but it's close, and if the procedures are different the effect - or affect - is the same:
In theory Rousseau speaks like any other eighteenth-century philosophe, and says: 'We must employ our reason.' He uses deductive reasoning, sometimes very cogent, very lucid and extremely well-expressed, for reaching his conclusions. But in reality what happens is that this deductive reasoning is like a strait-jacket of logic which he claps upon the inner, burning, almost lunatic vision within the cold, rigorous strait-jacket of a kind of Calvinistic logic which really gives his prose its powerful enchantment and its hypnotic effect. You appear to be reading logical argument which distinguishes between concepts and draws conclusions in a valid manner from premisses, when all the time something very violent is being said to you. A vision is being imposed upon you; somebody is trying to dominate you by means of a very coherent, although often very deranged vision of life, to bind a spell, not to argue, despite the cool and collected way in which he appears to be talking.
in Isaiah Berlin, Freedom and its Betrayal: Six Enemies of Liberty (London: Pimlico, 2003), p. 43.

Like Rousseau, Godwin was raised as a devout Calvinist; makes you wonder what denomination were those 'religious books' belonging to his mother that Peace read growing up.

* Three critiques of Peace's version of historical truth, of history understood as an unmasking of ecstatic horrors, can be read here, here, and here. Another post.

No comments: