Dmitri Nikulin offers a complex and compelling account of the structure, purpose, and history of historical narrative. Above all, he aims to reject teleological, unidirectional, or theodical depictions of history while avoiding relativism or historicism. While seeking to represent the wide range of Nikulin’s concerns, I will focus on his distinctive views of truth, freedom, and loss in history.
Nikulin begins by arguing that historical narrative presupposes certain invariant features of human existence and ontology. History stems from our “attempt at self-preservation” in the face of possible non-existence (2). While we make other attempts at self-preservation—e.g. through progeny or soteriological hopes—they fail to satisfy the deep need to overcome loss and to persist “for others” (5). Soteriology especially tends to morph into modern theodical history, seeking to justify history’s losses as for a greater “progress” (ix). Even if one thinks “need” is not the sole driver of our historical narration, Nikulin’s main point here is compelling: there are good reasons for histories to exist—e.g. ontological and anthropological explainers—even if there is no “Reason in History” in the modern sense (15-18).
Chapter 1 shifts from history’s prerequisites to its structure. Absent any single, all-encompassing History, all histories nevertheless have an identifiable “constitution” (xi). Each history posits, firstly, a core fabula, i.e. an easy-to-transmit story, e.g. “The French Revolution took place in Paris in 1789” (12). Evidently, this story needs a second element, namely “the historical,” i.e. the more or less complete, usually long list of relevant names, places, and events that really existed (10-11). Nikulin sometimes compares these elements to plot and characters, respectively. Importantly, however, fabulae are open-ended and not just fictional, if one provides historical details (8). If details are absent or invented, however, or if a fabula is inconsistent, then one is left with myth, not history. Ultimately, whether mythical or historical, each person lives within many fabulae (11). As Nikulin’s entire project relies on this two-sided structure, close study of these sections is necessary for grasping many of his other claims.1
Chapter two finds the clue to this structure in early Greek histories, which explicitly segregated “the historical” from the fabula. Once we grasp this separation, historical writings can be seen to have begun with Hecataeus and Hellanicus, before Herodotus or Thucydides (21). Hecataeus both inaugurated writing in prose—i.e. history’s (and philosophy’s) style—and recorded the details through geographical and genealogical lists (21-34). Another tension in histories is also already present in the ancients, indeed one found in the very term histōr (34-37). Referring either to a witness or a judge of others’ witnesses of an event, the term already suggests that direct perception is filtered through the dominant fabulae, and critical “distance” is needed to arrive at truth (36). Thus, so-called “historical facts” are, Nikulin argues, really “made things,” as the etymology of factum suggests: “In order that an event may become a fact” it must be “‘judged’ and ‘sentenced’”; “corroborated by other witnesses”; and “fall under a ‘logically’ consistent reconstruction” (37).
The above claims raise questions about how to conceive of the truth of history. Nikulin’s view is neither naïvely realist nor simply constructivist. For one, there is no single correct way to construe the fabulae accompanying any set of events (38). The details limit what can be said, but narratives still multiply. Furthermore, any basic fabula may bear endless, always slightly different retellings and may contain numerous, disputable sub-fabulae. Thus, histories are never final; they are always “corrigible according to the particulars of the historical” (38). Yet, since these particulars are themselves gathered by people influenced by fabulae, Nikulin takes pains to clarify: “I am not denying that it may be possible to recover what has happened” (38). Instead, he argues we can recover it by “thinking critically through the existing narratives…” (38, my italics). This tension surrounding historical truth impacts the whole work, and Nikulin’s view of historical reality seems, at minimum, committed to a form of “correlationism.”2
Chapters three and four deepen the fiction/reality question by arguing that epic poetry, an important neighbor of history, impacts the fabulae operative in history-making contexts (48). Yet epic differs in that its narrative contains sub-narratives “paratactically” rather than “hypotactically”; its narratives are “incorrigible” by new facts or styles; and they are transmitted without the interpretive freedom of history (51-53). Nikulin hints that this unfree mode of transmission may link up with epic’s content, which is governed by “destiny” (49). History, by contrast, permits persons to attain an identity in a meaningful “inner theater,” i.e. in a “mesh” of inner yet always also somewhat public and alterable meanings (60). Precisely owing to its hypotactic structure, this inner theater renders all minutiae “relevant and meaningful”; even small affairs can cause us to “rethink the whole story” (60). Thus, for Nikulin, freedom in history seems possible, but only as “the freedom to create a new history” (106).
This question of freedom arises non-systematically in other chapters. For example, history allows freedom of “autobiography,” which Nikulin argues is an ancient genre (64; 82; 95). We can share in our own narration, even if we cannot do so absolutely or apart from extant, public narratives (94). Further, while historical fabulae are transmitted by involuntary memory, Nikulin carefully clarifies that even this involuntary transmission is accomplished by our individual and social “productive imagination” (141). This power creatively preserves inherited fabulae always with slight differences, thus making narrative transmission non-mechanistic. Moreover, we can then use our “reproductive imagination” to critically improve inherited history, through either re-narration or technical-institutional practices (mnemotechnics, archives, etc.) that preserve or uncover more details (140). Here, Nikulin makes admirable efforts not to leave us buried unfreely within inherited thinking. While the inherited fabulae are involuntarily received, they are inherently creative; and while the critical-rational power is limited to reshaping, we have a degree of autonomy in this labor.3 In this sense, history’s freedom inverts epic poetry’s: the latter may fill in details fictitiously; but its transmission must involve rigorous repetition of inherited narratives as if unalterable (83).
Furthermore, Nikulin does not place any internal normative constraints on how narratives should be (re)told (except consistency and adherence to historical details). Indeed, he argues narratives should freely change given “new political visions” (173). If we then seek the measure of this politics, Nikulin directs us elsewhere, to “social and political science, which goes beyond the scope of the present work” (7).4 By contrast, the work of “the historical” does, for Nikulin, contain inherent norms: “that a name must be preserved in and for history is itself a historical imperative” (109). Thus, “The historical should be conservative but the narrative of history should be progressive” (173). Indeed, conservation assists the kind of narrative progressivism he promotes, since truthful testimony needs distance from events (174).
Even so, not all historical details will be retained, and chapter five clarifies that even retained details must be grasped in light of the “principle” governing their arrangement. This logos may be as simple as alphabetization, ordering by profession, etc. (99-100). But it may also be more complex and difficult to decipher; and indeed several principles might govern any set of events (even within the same fabula) (104). Furthermore, any text can be seen as such an ordered set of details (107). Thus, the upshot here is that any valid hermeneutics must grasp a text’s logos in order to interpret it. Theories that reduce texts to mere collections of contingent signs or “images” thus artificially reduce them to meaninglessness, and their history is ultimately lost (114-117).5
The question of loss and memory continues in chapter six, which develops a theory of individual and collective memory (in conversation with Koselleck, Nora, Collingwood, Assmann, etc.). Nikulin persuasively argues that collective and individual memories are not merely sources to be tapped by histories but are also constructed by how one preserves historical details (122). Memory and “the historical” are mutually mediating; and thus institutions, monuments, archives, etc.—and their structuring logoi—significantly impact the powers of memory and discursive thinking (130). In this light, Nikulin even interestingly interprets Platonic (and Aristotelian) anamnēsis as seeking to draw (supposedly) ahistorical intelligence into the role of rendering historical being meaningful (127). Here we find a welcome corrective to simplistic, anti-historical interpretations of Plato’s forms.6
Importantly, Nikulin qualifies our preservative imperative by defending, following Hans Jonas, the goodness of certain kinds of losses (142). Indeed, memory’s function requires “a sui generis trauma” (143-5). Losses can even beneficially prepare one “for a new start in a new life”; make room for the higher capacity of “recollection”; and mitigate “excessive,” imprecise remembering (143-4). Here, one might worry that, while Nikulin’s account avoids teleology, it seems to retain the “justificatory” side of historical theodicy. The emphasis on the benefit of loss might be taken to justify intentional destructions (cf. Nikulin’s “art of forgetting”) (145). If, however, humans are always already subject to enough immense destruction—since historical details incessantly and inevitably fall unpreserved into “historical non-being”—then one might argue that such losses are so pervasive, frequent, and inexhaustible that we never, in truth, need to justify making more of them.7
Nikulin’s final chapter distinguishes, among diachronic orderings, ancient genealogy from “pedigree.” The latter inherently justifies power claims by reference to a valued “origin,” while true genealogy is not inherently political or value-oriented but rather gets used politically (159; 163-4). If Nietzsche’s modern genealogy remains beholden to an implicitly normative “origin,” Foucault at least moves toward a “no-origin” understanding of genealogy, closer to what Nikulin seeks (152-4; 168). Ultimately, however, for Nikulin genealogy should simply order the historical details into hypotactic dependency- or causality-sequences regressing from the present (156). This sequence should be kept distinct from normative interpretation (though all genealogies still need interpretations) (156; 172). Thus, genealogy will always be oriented importantly by “present” concerns; it can only begin from, and reshape, “a listener’s history” (169-70). Thus, Nikulin returns in the end to the constructivist worry, but he assures us again that history is truly “about the past,” albeit a past ultimately “for the sake of the present” (174).
In the end, Nikulin offers a wide-ranging and compelling treatment of the philosophy of history. The book’s implications are philosophically significant and will interest a range of readers, even if they are sometimes stated suggestively or paradoxically. This style seems intently designed to encourage further inquiry and dialogue. It appropriates the reader into a critical performance of “reconstruction,” which also just happens to be the very same practice the book persuasively locates at the center of our historical perseverance.
1. E.g., Nikulin later analyzes Western histories into “historiographic,” favoring an overarching fabula, and “antiquarian,” preserving many narratives and details (69-70).
2. See Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency, trans. Ray Brassier, London: Bloomsbury, 2008, p. 5: “By ‘correlation’ we mean the idea according to which we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never to either term considered apart from the other.”
3. Restricting rational control to the re-productive imagination, Nikulin inscribes any social autonomy within a grander social heteronomy. Apparently, he excludes the possibility of an original autonomy of the “instituting” social power, as defended by Cornelius Castoriadis, “Power, Politics, Autonomy,” in Philosophy, Politics, Autonomy, trans. David A. Curtis, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.
4. However, Nikulin later seems to valorize traditions of “rational scrutiny and justification” which employ apparently ahistorical norms, e.g. “freedom, human equality, and universal worth of any human being” (172).
5. Compare this argument to Giorgio Agamben, “Theory of Signatures,” in The Signature of All Things, trans. Luca D’Isanto and Kevin Attell, New York: Zone Books, 2009.
6. However, Nikulin’s constructivism ambiguity arises again here: Plato’s forms are said to be “invented” (not discovered), though they also enfold “chains of reasoning” that seem not merely invented (138).
7. Cf. Emmanuel Levinas, “Useless Suffering” (1982), in Entre Nous: Thinking of the Other, trans. Michael B. Smith and Barbara Harshav, New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.