When Ezra Pound said that an epic was a poem that included history, he meant it quite literally: an epic should contain within it a universal history. His own Cantos, with their interminable digressions on Jefferson and Chinese dynasties, gave it a pretty good go. But of course they could never comprehend all of history. A kind of tension is thus established: on the one hand, there is the drive towards a truly total history, complete with an encyclopedic assembly of dates and facts. On the other, there is the pressure to create something simply representative, where individual features and tendencies of the historical landscape are described with precision and then tesselated to fill out the rest of the space. If the former had been achieved, the Cantos would have lacked any conceptual coherence at all; if the latter, the work would have been much shorter, but, naturally, much less inclusive.
Notwithstanding the Preference which may be vulgarly given to the Authority of those Romance-Writers, who intitle their Books, the History of England, the History of France, of Spain, &c. it is most certain, that Truth is only to be found in their Works who celebrate the Lives of Great Men, and are commonly called Biographers, as the others should indeed be termed Topographers or Chorographers: Words which might well mark the Distinction between them; it being the Business of the latter chiefly to describe Countries and Cities, which, with the Assistance of Maps, they do pretty justly, and may be depended upon: But as to the Actions and Characters of Men, their Writings are not quite so authentic, of which there needs no other Proof than those eternal Contradictions, occurring between two Topographers who undertake the History of the same Country: For instance, between my Lord Clarendon and Mr. Whitlock, between Mr. Echard and Rapin, and many others; where Facts being set forth in a different Light, every Reader believes as he pleases, but all agree in the Scene, where it is supposed to have happen'd. Now with us Biographers the Case is different, the Facts we deliver may be relied on, tho' we often mistake the Age and Country wherein they happened: For tho' it may be worth the Examination of Critics, whether the Shepherd Chrysostom, who, as Cervantes informs us, died for Love of the fair Marcella, who hated him; was ever in Spain, will any one doubt but that such a silly Fellow hath really existed. Is there in the World such a Sceptic as to disbelieve the Madness of Cardenio, the Perfidy of Ferdinand, the impertinent Curiosity of Anselmo, the Weakness of Camilla, the irresolute Friendship of Lothario; tho' perhaps as to the Time and Place where those several Persons lived, that good Historian may be deplorably deficient ... The same Mistakes may likewise be observed in Scarron, the Arabian Nights, the History of Marianne and Le Paisan Parvenu, and perhaps some few other Writers of this Class, whom I have not read, or do not at present recollect; for I would by no means be thought to comprehend those great Genius's the Authors of immense Romances, or the modern Novel and Atalantis Writers; who without any Assistance from Nature or History, record Persons who never were, or will be, and Facts which never did nor possibly can happen: Whose Heroes are of their own Creation, and their Brains the Chaos whence all their Materials are collected. Not that such Writers deserve no Honour; so far otherwise, that perhaps they merit the highest: for what can be nobler than to be as an Example of the wonderful Extent of human Genius. One may apply to them what Balzac says of Aristotle, that they are a second Nature; for they have no Communication with the first; by which Authors of an inferiour Class, who can not stand alone, are obliged to support themselves as with Crutches; but these of whom I am now speaking, seem to be possessed of those Stilts, which the excellent Voltaire tells us in his Letters carry the Genius far off, but with an irregular Pace . Indeed far out of the sight of the Reader,Beyond the Realm of Chaos and old Night.
But, to return to the former Class, who are contented to copy Nature, instead of forming Originals from their confused heap of Matter in their own Brains; is not such a Book as that which records the Atchievements of the renowned Don Quixotte, more worthy the Name of a History than even Mariana's; for whereas the latter is confined to a particular Period of Time, and to a particular Nation; the former is the History of the World in general, at least that Part which is polished by Laws, Arts and Sciences; and of that from the time it was first polished to this day; nay and forwards, as long as it shall so remain.
- Henry Fielding, Joseph Andrews
Fielding traces each path to its ultimately absurd destination. The efforts of the "topographers" can be understood to represent nothing more than the fragmented remains of an original project of universal history: not finding it in their power to give a total accounting of the history of the world, they have settled for the history of some nation or other. But the real problem is not that they thus restricted. It is that the assumption of possible completeness, in a sense, traps them. Two topographers can give contrary accounts of the same country because each operates within his own monological domain of facts. Though there may be several ways to understand this or that historical figure, the topographer must commit to choosing one interpretation. This move both enables the writing of the history (by creating a firm "fact" that can be fitted into it) and fatally undermines it (because its completeness is belied by the one-sided presentation topographical history demands). Thus the necessary consequence of the possibility of one, even limited, universal history is the possibility of an infinite number of other mutually exclusive histories.
Biography, though preferable, is equally absurd. In contrast to the encyclopedism of topography, biography understands the world as a realm of purely structural relationships devoid of any significant content. A Spanish shepherd is in love with a girl who spurns him--but he may in fact be French instead of Spanish, or a blacksmith instead of a shepherd. All of which recalls the old Russian joke--
A listener calls in to Radio Armenia and asks:What is especially dangerous for biography is the possibility of creating new human types that have never existed in reality and thus lack any connection to their supposed historical subject matter; like Aristotelianism, biography has the potential to become completely speculative. And of course, this danger forces us to ask whether any firm grounding for biography can ever be found, since the thoroughgoing instability of names, dates, and places gives even the most ahistorical speculation the chance to refer to something.
"Is it true that the chess-player Petrosian has won a thousand rubles in the lottery?"
"Yes, it is true. But, first, it wasn't the chess-player Petrosian, it was the soccer player Akopian; second, it wasn't a thousand, it was ten thousand; third, they weren't rubles, they were dollars; fourth, it wasn't in the lottery, it was in a card game; and fifth, he didn't win, he lost."
Fielding (sarcastically) sniffs at this danger as being merely a defect in craftsmanship. That is because biography offers him something that topography cannot: a sort of epistemic subversion. It is not by accident that he refers to historians as "Romance-Writers": his aim is to show, like a Hayden White avant la lettre, that history and novel-writing are coterminous. The manifest deficiencies of topography leave it with no foundation from which to attack biography as less rigorous. The two simply offer two different kinds of truth--the one, a superficially-plausible construction that always falsely pretends to objectivity, and the other, a pile of generalities that must (like Lewis Carroll's clock) unquestionably be right somewhere, sometime. So it's far from outlandish to believe that The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews should be shelved next to Gibbon and Bede!