In an essay on the knotty relation between history, narrative and responsibility in Henry James’s The Aspern Papers, J. Hillis Miller asserts that if there is an ‘unbreakable connection’ in our minds and in the Western tradition between narrative and history, then responsibility, his third term, complicates inextricably the perceived assumption, since Aristotle, that narrative serves the regime of truth in the recounting of the past (Miller 1997, 193–4). The complication arises because, while we assume that ‘historical events occurred as a concatenated sequence that can be retold now as a story of some kind’ (Miller 1997, 193), the question of how we tell that story is elided. There is a responsibility in the telling, in the ‘doing’ of the story of history and the past. With that arrives an ethics, an obligation to enter into a performative language that exceeds the merely constative dimension of any allegedly truthful reporting of the facts as they are received and as they issue an ‘imperative demand’ for an ‘ethical response’ in the form of responsible narration seeking to attest, and so bear witness, to the past (Miller 1997, 194). More than this, responsibility resides not simply in the teller but in the reader, who assumes responsibility for reading aright what is being narrated, thereby bearing witness to that which, in principle and in truth, he or she can never be witness to, in that the events and persons are absent, dead, of a past irrecuperable as such. History is always remarked by this difference, and narration only serves to foreground the difference, and with it the unsuturable gap between the temporal experience of reading and the temporal moments about which one reads.
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