Since Plato the notion of ‘the oar in water’ - the way the oar seems to bend/break in water - has reminded us that, when considering issues of objectivity, truth and relativism, the circumstances of seeing affect our perception. This suggests rethinking the connections between explanation and meaning in history. The realist will say that an object will not necessarily be perceived identically at all times, but this does not affect the reality of its true nature. So, while the past must be cast in a ‘historical’ narrative that does not alter the shape of the past. The anti-representationalist response is that if the object can only be understood in a medium that refracts its reality (the past can only ever be represented through narratives about it - see the hermeneutic circle) then knowledge is always relative in the case of history to the process of narrative making. With the nineteenth century, however, came the ‘age of positivism’ (the victory of science in terms of objective and method) which broadened the gap between literature and history even though in both the greatest ‘authority’ remained the writer and their style.1 But so powerful was the cultural force of science and scientific explanation even in literature that by the end of the nineteenth century, literature itself had succumbed to the power of the real through the literary movements of ‘realism’ and ‘naturalism’. In effect, the banality of (primarily middleclass) reality and existence edged out what, since Aristotle, had been assumed to be the ‘revelatory nature’ of literature.
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