Figuring the Past: the Literary and Historical Imagination

3-5 March 2010

The difference between historian and poet is, according to Aristotle, that the one describes the thing that has been, and the other a kind of thing that might be. He sees a clear and evident distinction between a historian, who describes events and a writer, who invents them. This distinction has been the subject of debate over the last few decades with some calling it into question and others looking more closely at the relationship between the two. The debate has moreover taken place in the midst of rapid and radical changes brought on by the forces of globalisation eroding the national frameworks within which literature and history have for so long been viewed. In the field of history this has driven efforts to evolve transnational or global perspectives and to questions about the colonial and imperialist dimensions of much of modern history. In literary studies this has fuelled the revisiting of canonical texts to see how they are embedded in and reflect these dimensions and their impact on the emergence of genres, literary movements, narrative practices. A further aspect of these new ways of seeing is the increasingly interdisciplinary practice of cultural history, the turn to questions of cultural memory, and the focus on popular culture and popular fiction to provide insights into the mentalities and anxieties of past ages.

The contemporary boom of the historical novel, a literary genre that embodies the complex interdependence of history and literature, underscores the relevance of the debate. Initially emerging as a vehicle for popularizing national histories, the historical novel appears today to reflect a very different sense of the world. Its protagonists seem to be increasingly drawn from the margins of society, from the subaltern classes. In place of (his)story, we often have (her)story. And it seems to be less concerned with constructing a singular identity than with questioning this idea. Are these observations generally valid? And why this resort to history in times that exhort us daily to forget the past and focus on the future?

Even as we reflect on the ways in which history and literature figure the past, our concerns are with the present, and with its no less compelling conflicts and crises. We invite papers that explore the interactions of history and literature in the light of these concerns. Papers focusing on other artistic forms, on film or on related debates in other disciplines are also welcome.

[Deadline for submission of abstracts (200-300 words):
15 January 2011]

Contact name: Shaswati Mazumdar