Hayden White, Professor Emeritus at the University of California, has been described as "perhaps the premier academic essayist of our times." Compulsory reading for graduate students throughout the humanities, his essays on historical representation and narrative discourse have strongly contributed to a "narrative turn" in the study of historical thought. The author of Metahistory (1973), Tropics of Discourse (1978), The Content of the Form (1987), and Figural Realism (1999), Professor White has also published recent essays on historical fiction, witness literature, and Holocaust representation.
On thursday, May the 29th, White was interviewed in public by Herman Paul, Lecturer in Historical Theory, and Ernst van Alphen, Professor of Literary Studies. They addressed the desire for utopian alternatives, that runs as a leitmotiv through White’s work, and the discursive articulation of this desire in (post)modernist historical writing.Interesting to see was the contrast between White, an old charismatic erudite intellectual, and Paul, a young intelligent sharp scholar. It would not be an overstatement to say Paul was overshadowed by White, especially on a rhetorical level. Where Paul questioned while having critically read White's work, White answered evasively. Obviously Paul understood White's work better than White did himself according to White.
White's position on the historical discipline was an interesting one. He criticized historians for cutting the past off from the present and the future. A genealogy was a way of justifying the present. More poetically, you were born into a conversation and the conversation was not about you. The past was ever present. But this practical past was something different from the historical past [Oakeshott]. Historians had the authoritarian method of constructing a past which overpowered the practical past in what was to be remembered and what not. This Nietzschean-Foucauldian perspective on historical knowledge as power had its linguistic consequences.
White was asked why he did not write history as a poet or novellist. He answered he was brought up with the scientific method and was too old to change. Importantly, however, White stressed the literary character of the historical discipline. There was de facto not a great difference between an historical novel and a historical study, both were narrative expressions. White brought up the concept of the middle voice [verbum modi]. It was both active and passive. In the Greek world this voice still had a place in discourse, but it was lost to the scientific Western world. A verb like to promise myself was both active towards oneself and was passively endured. This dilemma of life was central to historical writing.