“This is purely fiction you may believe every word of it.”





The main reading for next week is Philip Dick’s novel THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE, which is a wonderful novel in its own right, but which also raises some critical questions about the nature of history and of historical writing, and of memory. How do people know – or remember - the history they think they remember? These themes are all the more important because of the contemporary cultural significance of what we can generally call post-modern approaches. Not in any particular order, these are some of the questions that we will be discussing, and which you should bear in mind as we discuss the Dick book, and the readings on memory from Nora and Bodnar. Incidentally, we will also be watching a segment of a film that raises issues very similar to MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE.


I stress that what follows is just meant as a list of suggestive comments, and absolutely not as a commentary on the book or the other materials.




What questions does the book raise for our understanding of World War II? Or of totalitarianism? How good a historian is Dick, apart from his abilities as a novelist?


What comments does the book make about the world that “really” happened, the one we know from our history books? Think about issues like war crimes trials, the space program, great power politics…. What else?


How does the book work as a satire – note how the Japanese are portrayed as stereotypical Ugly Americans?


Is the world of his novel real or not? Is the world of THE GRASSHOPPER LIES HEAVY real? Or both, or neither? How do we know? How do the characters of MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE find out which is the reality? What are the implications for our world? How do understand truth? Is history only n the mind of the beholder?


Why do you think Dick wrote the book? How does it fit into his other writings? Be aware that films based on his works include TOTAL RECALL, BLADE RUNNER, and MINORITY REPORT (Also – sigh – SCREAMERS)


Why do we never see the Nazi world at first hand?


Tell me about the Zippo lighter. Which memories are real?


What kind of quality do “historic” places or objects possess? What are collectors really collecting, and re-enactors re-enacting?


Tell me about the crucial role of fakes and forgeries in the book, of bogus reproductions, and the questions that is meant to make us ask about the nature of history? We’ll talk about contemporary theories of reproduction and simulation, through scholars like Baudrillard – but Dick already raises many of the same issues here


What role does the I-Ching play? What is this all about?




What are the implications of the book for our understanding of history? What is real history and how do we know? Is history more than consensus illusion? If people stop believing in an event, does it become untrue? Is history subjective?


It is possible to make quite radical or even extreme claims for the shifting nature of history, that it is a kind of consensus illusion – maybe Franklin Roosevelt really WAS assassinated in 1933, and we are deluding ourselves when we believe otherwise. At what point, though, does historical revisionism end and what we might call fantastic subjectivism begin? How can we tell?


Who’s paranoid? And why are you asking me a threatening question like that?




MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE represents an increasingly common genre of alternative realities known as counterfactuals. Our good friend Niall Ferguson even edited a major scholarly collection entitled Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals (2000).


Why are such “what might have happened” works so popular? How can they be used to illuminate “real” history?


Do all historians use the counterfactual approach, whether or not they acknowledge it?


Just as a matter of interest, I offer a summary of one of the best-known such counterfactuals, to see the kind of questions they addressed: this was by the way anything but the first of its kind:


Personal Author:         Squire, John Collings, Sir, 1884-1958

Title:   If it had happened otherwise / by Winston Churchill ... [et al.]. ; edited by J. C. Squire ; introd. by Sir John Wheeler-Bennett.

Publication info:          New York : St. Martin's Press, 1974, c1972. 

General Note: Published in 1931 under title: If; or, History rewritten.

Contents:        Guedalla, P. If the Moors in Spain had won -- Chesterton, G. K. If Don John of Austria had married Mary Queen of Scots -- Maurois, A. If Louis XVI had had an atom of firmness -- Belloc, H. If Drouet's cart had stuck -- Fisher, H. A. L. If Napoleon had escaped to America -- Nicolson, H. If Byron had become King of Greece -- Churchill, W. S. If Lee had not won the Battle of Gettysburg -- Waldman, M. If Booth had missed Lincoln -- Ludwig, E. If the Emperor Frederick had not had cancer -- Squire, J. If it had been discovered in 1930 that Bacon really did write Shakespeare -- Knox, R. If the general strike had succeeded -- Petrie, C. If: a Jacobite fantasy -- Trevelyan, G. If Napoleon had won the Battle of Waterloo -- Taylor, A. J. P. If Archduke Ferdinand had not loved his wife.

Subject term:   History, Modern.




How do these themes apply to attempts to reconstruct the “real world”? How, for instance, do they apply to speculative works like the film JFK?


When presenting history, we use the format of narrative. What does historical writing have in common with the writing of fiction? Is the historian a more respectable (and worse paid) kind of novelist? When does historical narrative shade into fiction?


What role do novels and fictional works play in shaping and reshaping views of historical reality? Give me examples. What relationship does historical fiction have to “historical” or scholarly history? How different are they in practice?


What does John Bodnar say about the role of fiction and film in reshaping American views of world war II?


What is myth? How, if at all, does it differ from history?




History changes all the time, especially in the way it is commemorated in PLACES. If we look at the history commemorated in some places, the changes over time make the various realities almost unrecognizable. Why does this happen? Think of some good real world examples. HINT: civil war related sites like Harpers Ferry offer some wonderful examples, but think of some of your own.


George Orwell famously wrote that whoever controls the present controls the past, and whoever controls the past controls the future. Think of some examples of how modern societies have rewritten their histories for various ideological ends. How did they bring certain people and events to the foreground, suppress others? Please note that this kind of thing is painfully easy to do in the context of totalitarian societies, but how does it happen in democratic and advanced communities?


Some examples for consideration and debate: the Holocaust; the Vietnam War; the Western.


By what means do such altered accounts win acceptance and come to be seen as indisputably true?


How, in turn, are they replaced by new narratives as political and social circumstances change? How do these new realities establish themselves? Again – how subjective or malleable is history?


How do we see these issues at work during the ENOLA GAY controversy of the mid-1990s? Who, if anyone, was rewriting history? Was there a solid “real” history to be distorted, or are we simply dealing with competing truth-claims?




Pierre Nora writes that “We are witnessing a world-wide upsurge in memory. Over the last twenty or twenty-five years, every country, every social, ethnic or family group, has undergone a profound change in the relationship it traditionally enjoyed with the past.” What does he mean? Is he right? Is there an upsurge of memory?


To what extent has historical remembering been revolutionized by the triumph of consumerism? Is the consumer the ultimate judge of historical truth?


To what extent is the struggle for memory a struggle for legitimacy?


How do new interest groups stake new claims for particular memories?


Why do so many of the struggles over memory involve the events of war?


Nora and Bodnar both discuss particular events, places of memory and rival interpretations of these. In what sense are these events and places religious in nature? Is the struggle over memory ultimately a contemporary variety of religious devotion?


I stress by the way that the sort of history that Nora and Bodnar do is very influential in terms of historical work these days, in terms of ideas like commemoration, memorialization, heritage, etc.




The dreaded P-word. What is postmodernism and how does it apply to history? A case can be made that “post-modern history” is a contradiction in terms, since the approach and the subject are such violent odds over basic issues. Is this a fair comment?


Remember that postmodernism grows out of artistic movements, which through the early twentieth century were dominated by ideas of subjectivism, impressionism, and the need for multiple viewpoints. Can historical research and writing be reconciled with post-modern ideas such as the infinite malleability of texts, and the denial of authorial intention? If any and all texts find their meaning only in the way they are relieved by an audience, if readers create their own meanings, is any kind of certainty possible? If (as post-structuralists hold) meaning emerges as the interpreter enters into dialogue with the text, can there be any objective historical truth?


Post-modernists declare themselves opposed to the Enlightenment project of science, scientism and rationality. Does not all academic history today arise from the nineteenth century scientific approaches of von Ranke and his German counterparts?


If we deny that texts are or should be privileged, are we not denying the fundamental rule of all hitherto existing historical scholarship?


An example of the kind of problem to discuss. If the vast majority of people believe that the moon landings were faked in a film set in Arizona, does it then become impossible to write a history of the American space program? Always assuming there was an American space program….


We will also look at the critique of logocentrism, the exaltation of Reason and reasoning, which for postmodernists is oppressive in its denial and suppression of alternative viewpoints, the views of the excluded, the weak and marginal, whether social, sexual or racial. It excludes what is uncertain, what does not fit, the Other. Is academic history of its nature not logocentric?


Postmodernism denies the existence of metanarratives. Are not historical facts a kind of metanarrative?


Deconstruction means stripping away layers of constructed meaning – but when the process is complete, does any core remain? Is there a real history to free from levels of interpretation? Is history like an olive (with a core) or an onion, without?




"...thinking begins only when we have come to know that reason, glorified for centuries, is the most stiff-necked adversary of thought."                         Martin Heidegger


"The movement by which, not without effort and uncertainty, dreams and illusion, one detaches oneself from what is accepted as true and seeks other rules -- that is philosophy.  The displacement and transformation of frameworks of thinking, the changing of received values and all the work that has been done to think otherwise, to do something else, to become other than what one is -- that too is philosophy.... It is understandable that some people should weep over the present void and hanker instead, in the world of ideas, after a little monarchy.  But those who for once in their lives have found a new tone, a new way of looking, a new way of doing, those people, I believe, will never feel the need to lament that the world is error, that history is filled with people of no consequence, and that it is time for others to keep quiet so that at last the sound of their disapproval may be heard."             Michel Foucault





In summary, I offer this moment from George Bernard Shaw’s play THE DEVIL’S DISCIPLE:


SWINDON: I can't believe it! What will History say?


BURGOYNE: History, sir, will tell lies, as usual.