Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, May 17, 2013

The Ethics of Historical Fiction

If you asked someone to describe the personalities and lives of Mozart and Salieri, you'd probably get an answer that had a lot more to do with the movie Amadeus, based on Peter Shaffer's play, than with history.



Obviously, Salieri is long past being hurt by anyone's opinion of him, but though I like the movie very much I can't help feeling a bit odd about the ethics of producing such a work. On the one hand, the movie simply wouldn't work with made-up composers. It works precisely because it's about a real person who is synonymous with youthful brilliance, and because it's full of Mozart's music. And yet, I can't help feeling as if there's some sort of ethical issue with an author intentionally giving his readers a false vision of real people or events.

Of course, any fiction is "not true" in some sense, definitionally. And an author who is writing about real historical characters or events will necessarily fictionalize: Combine people, arrange meetings that didn't take place, make up details that aren't known. None of these bother me in the least.

I think what it is that bothers me is when an author takes a historical person or event and intentionally represents it differently than it was in order to write some other story or convey some other point -- using the established cultural meaning of a real person or event to lend color to his fiction.

Amadeus makes a pretty good example in that some of the changes to history are pretty blatant. For instance, in the movie, the motivation for Salieri's hatred of Mozart is that he as a youth made a vow to God that he would commit to a lifetime of celibacy if God would give him musical genius in return. He thinks he's got a fairly good return on his bargain until Mozart shows up: He's a popular composer and he has a beautiful young opera singer as a student who he covets but doesn't touch. Then Mozart arrives and is clearly more brilliant than Salieri, and sleeps with the opera singer to boot. Except that, in history Salieri was married and had a number of children, plus that opera singer was rumored to be his mistress. Nor is this change in Salieri's character peripheral to the plot of the movie -- it provides the key motivation for Salieri's plan to destroy Mozart, and for Salieri's own apparent loss of faith and descent into madness. The made up personal history for Salieri fuels a made up rivalry: There's very little evidence that Salieri disliked Mozart, much less that he was seeking to destroy him.

Even as I express this, I imagine the reader replying: So what? Everyone knows it's fiction. What's wrong with making things up?

In cases where we're talking about obvious fiction (say, Agamemnon and Napoleon in Time Bandits or Abraham Lincoln in Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter) this strikes me as true. But in a lot of cases, fiction isn't "just" fiction. Rightly or wrongly, Amadeus represents a lot of what many people know of Mozart's life. Gone With the Wind formed a lot of people's impressions of the old South and the Civil War. Downton Abbey, even though everyone knows its a high class soap opera, still informs people's ideas of what the English class system was like.

Historical fiction has a fair amount of power. We often remember characters from books and movies better than we do anything we read in a history book. As such, it strikes me a problematic when historical events are treated as cultural short hand for some big idea rather than being portrayed in human terms.

I was also reminded of this recently when I came across a review/interview with Mark Helprin about his novel, A Soldier of the Great War:
Mark Helprin does not let too much of the outside world into his fiction -- certainly not impersonal facts. "Research kills a book. It makes a book like a historical romance," he said in a telephone interview from his home in Seattle. "An Italian who fought in the First World War or was a historian of the period" who reads his novel, "A Soldier of the Great War," "would probably become apoplectic," Mr. Helprin said.

I had a highly mixed reaction to A Soldier of the Great War when I originally read it some years back, and as time has passed my negative impressions have persisted more than my positive ones, and I think most of the reason had to do with what struck me as the basic historical dishonesty of the story. Helprin wanted to write a novel about various moral and aesthetic ideas, and he used a highly impressionistic (and thus simplistic and inaccurate) version of the Great War as a background for it. This example, perhaps, especially bothers me because it seems to me that with the Great War in particular the legend has in many ways consumed the reality. It's become such a cultural short hand that a work which portrays it accurately would run the risk of being laughed off the stage for being "inaccurate".

And that, I the end, strikes me as the danger with knowingly inaccurate historical fiction, it runs the risk of obscuring from us the real human events and dramas that people experienced in the past. And when we don't know what really happened in the past, in a certain sense, we no longer know who we are or how we got here.

19 comments:

bearing said...

I am kind of worried, after having read Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle, that I will forever get mixed up about the fictional and real lives of the many historical characters therein. The portraits are so finely drawn and memorable.

Jenny said...

Two words: Oliver Stone.

He has made a career of turning historical events into cultural shorthand. I know many people who believe the movies, not the truth.

Literacy-chic said...

What about the ethics of READING historical fiction? I think the reader has a responsibility to read critically. Always. But readers are lazy. I am astounded by the numbers of people who tell me that they read in order NOT to think. Students and casual readers alike. And yet English teachers are devalued because anyone can read a book--it's all about what the reader thinks, and no one can tell them otherwise. Saddling the writer or director or scriptwriter with this as an ethical issue strikes me as misguided. Reading should not be a passive act.

bearing said...

You know, sometimes it's okay just to read for fun. I don't think reading "should" be any kind of act.

Sometimes I just need something to relax my brain so I can go to sleep. I don't think that's immoral, or that it devalues English teachers. And I'm comfortable saying that it's good that "anyone" can read a book.

Literacy-chic said...

Yes--anyone can read a book, but I'm talking about having that presented as an argument against needing to take literature courses in school, or why English Ph.D.s don't actually deserve to have jobs (local paper--true commentary). However, the value I see here (in the vocation of teaching literary analysis--which is what came to mind with this post) is to have people learn to ask questions of fiction and avoid being drawn into untruths, if you will.

I read to relax, too. But it doesn't mean that my mind isn't also engaged with what I read, or that I relinquish my responsibility to exercise judgment of true and false, moral and immoral, or whatever standards are meaningful to me.

Literacy-chic said...

The thinking part of reading can happen after the book has been read, after all.

bearing said...

As a sid note, I would really be interested in seeing a link to the piece that seriously argues that persons holding doctorates in English don't deserve to hold jobs. We have been collecting samples of outrageous rhetoric for our junior-high kids to analyze.

Darwin said...

I would agree that there's a duty of the reader to be critical -- I just think there's also a duty of the author to present truth. At least, truth of a certain sort. And that's where it gets tricky.

At the most basic level, I think its the duty of an author to express truth about what he or she believes the world means and how it works. This may be done through indirect means. For instance, we may see the world through the eyes of a character who disagrees with the author's views. But I think the author has to at least intend for the work to convey truth, not falsehood, about the world, humanity, whatever the book deals with.

Historical truth (or scientific truth) becomes a trickier issue. Sometimes an author implicitly conveys to the read "I'm using the names of real people and places here, but this isn't much like reality". A lot of time genre novels which deal with real historical characters kind of implicitly do this -- especially when they're introducing really zany elements (time travel, vampires, etc.)

However, I think in many fictional works the author implicitly tells the reader "this is why people really did this" or "this is how things really were", and when the author does this I think there's a certain duty to be truthful. After all, the author often has the advantage of having done a lot more research on the period and people than the average reader. And there's also an advantage the author has in that the authors knows how it all goes together while the reader has the illusion of looking at a fully constituted world "the way it was" that seems to continue on "off screen" to meld with the rest of history.

As the person who creates the image, I think the author has a duty not to intentionally mislead. And not to simply and in ignorance, using real people and events as tropes.

Darwin said...

I suppose Oliver Stone is yet another variant on this theme. From what I can tell, he thinks the things he shows in his movies are true. I think they're false, and as a result I dislike the movies.

BurgoFitzgerald said...

As a college professor, my pancreas hurts whenever people exclaim "So what? It's just a movie/book. What's wrong with making things up?" The reason my organs hurt is that I cannot even count how many of my students continually use movies and fiction as their support for statements and judgements on historical persons and events. CANNOT discuss Marcus Aurelius without having students bring the film Gladiator into the discussion. Ben Affleck's film Argo caused me to pull out the hair behind my left ear because being a Canadian teaching at a college in Canada, I cannot tell you how many times I hear "American history is better than Canadian history because it is just so much more exciting!" Their basis? The MOVIES they watch. And don't get me started on movies/books like the Da Vinci Code! I had a student who was a part of Opus Dei. When it was discovered by my class that he was, the other students didn't even want to sit near him! I have even had students tell me that Mozart is "a'right" because he was a "hardcore rock star"! Why? The movie! They use Salieri from the film to back up that "religious freaks wanna destroy all things beautiful and creative and different." THAT was an actual quote from class. The reality that I am faced with everyday, every semester is that many many people ONLY learn their history from cable television, the movies, and pulp fiction.

BurgoFitzgerald said...

Oliver Stone! Thank you SOOOOOO much for making it next to impossible to discuss Alexander of Macedon now! *rubbing the area where my pancreas resides*

Dixi said...

Chesterton said people *always* say what they mean. Perhaps authors also always write what they mean, i.e., the intention of the author can be detected in what they write. (A friend said he could tell what some books were like just by picking up the volume.) If one detects something false in the writing, probably there was something false in the author. The novel has to deal with the human moral dimension. So historical fiction can be truthful if it treats properly this question in a historical context. To be "historical", the details of history have to in some way inform the handling of the moral issue. Even writing about one's own time can be historical. Dostoevski, some of Tolstoy (e.g., Haji Murad), Austen, Solzhenitsyn, Pirandello seem to be examples of writers who have achieved this. Even something like a spy story can do this - e.g. most of Eric Ambler's stories.

Still, I'd like to see Oliver Stone's treatment of Mozart and Salieri ...

Darwin said...

Salieri orchestrated Mozart's death so that he could invade Vietnam.

Brandon said...

The Helprin quote rankles me somewhat, and I think it's because it just seems like an immediate recipe for a bad novel. If you look at novels where the authors clearly wanted to write a novel about an idea, and chose a historical setting for it, the good ones (George Eliot's Romola, Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose) are always ones that clearly were researched heavily, because they always can manage the subtle touches, even if they're taking poetic licenses. It's not a matter of getting everything right, even deliberately, but, as you say, it's a more honest approach. I think a lot of it is that the kind of truth fiction gets at is the true-enough-to-be-plausible; writing a historical novel and not at least making an effort to get the touches in the neighborhood of right shows one doesn't actually care about the story.

TheOFloinn said...

If fiction were a commercial product, there would be truth-in-advertising and misrepresentation suits. Hmmm.

Blackadder said...

Richard III raises the same sort of issues (at least if you buy the arguments that the actual historical Richard III wasn't the monster he is depicted as being in the play).

Dixi said...

There seems to be a certain amount of scholarship (in the last decade or so, and back in 1920-30's, at least) that suggests Shakespeare was a Catholic, and that the figures in his plays are actually Catholic observations of the events and figures from Henry VIII and Elizabeth's England.

Amber said...

And this is why I try so hard to find some reviews about historical fiction books or movies before watching them... especially if it is something I'm going to read to or let my kids read! It can be quite hard to do though, especially for children's historical fiction.

It is hard to read or watch something that has quite a bit of inaccuracy to it and keep that in mind, especially when the creator(s) are trying to make it look real. It requires such vigilance on the part of the viewer/reader, and even still it may stick far more than you want it too - or even realize! It seems like it is far better to avoid works that take such great liberties and stick with either works that are obviously false (like the vampire examples) or works that do have reasonable scholarship behind them. I'm not really sure what the point is of letting works into your brain that have dubious pedigrees. Entertainment, I suppose, but I can think of a lot better ways to be entertained which do not include brainwashing myself to believe things that are patently untrue!

Banshee said...

In the old days, there was enough historical fiction and even historical fiction movies to give people all sorts of different impressions of a period. The problem now is that most people don't get this effect.

Anyway, even The Name of the Rose isn't totally blameless. Eco hated my poor Beatus, and there are some cheap academic shots. But at least most of it was posed fictionally and given different names, so that mostly only the concerned people who already had opinions would understand the cheap shots.