History, His story, and stories in Waterland

[Added by George P. Landow, Professor of English and Art History, Brown University]

And then you asked, as all history classes ask, as all history classes should ask, What is the point of history? (80,92)
(first number refers to page in paperback, second to hardcover edition)

1. Fairy stories, "my father had a knack for . . ." (1,1); the setting, "a fairy-tale land, after all" (2, 2).

1.a. examples of false or folk stories, rumor: 78, 90; 90,104; 92, 106; 112-113, 130

1.b. story-telling both resists chaotic parts of living in the present but also weds us to the world, because story-telling is born of curiosity: "Children, be curious. Nothing is worse (I know it) than when curiosity stops. Nothing is more repressive than the repression of curiosity. Curiosity begets love. It weds us to the world" (155, 178). cp. 157, 180b

1.c. story-telling as defence against fear: "It's all a struggle to make things not seem meaningless. It's all a fight against fear. . . . What do you think all my stories are for. . . I don't care what you call it--explaining, evading the facts, making up meanings, taking a larger perspective, dodging the here and now, education, history, fairy-tales--it helps eliminate fear" (182, 208)

2. Reality and the resistance to stories, i.e. to philosophical and theological explanations: Fens (10, 11); Here and now (47, 53); Reality (221, 253); children's prehistory (before the fall into time) (241, 276); the terror that it brings when one feels that it all means nothing (203-204, 233)

3. "Perhaps history is just story-telling" (133); "History itself, the Grand Narrative, the filler of vacuums, the dispeller of fears of the dark (47, 53); Historical legends (from his mother) (46, 53)

3.a. religion (31, 35)

3.b. Hubris theory (54, 62)

3.c. notion of progress (progressive theory of history): 118-119, 137; 121, 140

4. Subjects of history (as opposed to modes of explanation)

4.a. History of political events: romans, etc. (107-108, 124-125); draining the Fens (97, 111); WW I, WW II as fairy tales, emblems, and totems of yesterday--example of Bastille (135, 155)

4.b. History of technology: 102, 118; 253, 290

4.c. natural history, 3, eels--history of the antihistorical because it (a) has no order or (b) is cyclical without individuating markers. "Children, there's something which revolutionaries and prophets of new worlds and even humble champions of Progress (think of those poor Atkinsons . . .) can't abide. Natural history, human nature" (178).

4.d. History of places: Fens

4.e. History of familes: Atkinsons and Cricks (68, 78)

4.f. History of individual people, esp. narrator and Mary (187, 214)

4.g. History of a bottle, a beer bottle (29, 33)

5. Resistance to history, living in the now:

5.a. the young: the narrator and Mary, until the murder dropped them into time; Price: "I want a future . . . And you--you can stuff your past!" (107, 123); Your thesis," says the narrator, "is that history, as such, is a red-herring; the past is irrelevant. The present alone is vital." (124, 143)

Anti-history is also, for Price, anti-explanation, because both evade life in the present (an attitude based on finding the present pleasant, nurturing, and not deadly): "You know what your trouble is, sir? You're hooked on explanation. Explain, explain. Everything's got to have an explanation. . . . Explaining's a way of avoiding facts while you pretend to get near to them" (126, 145).

"What is a history teacher? He's someone who teaches mistakes. While others say, Here's how to do it, he says, And here's what goes wrong" (177, 203).

United Kingdom

Last Modified: 20 March, 2002