HOW MANY of us have gone through school memorizing names, dates, and places in history books? How many of us sat through those history classes where in just a few minutes we would be looking at our watches wishing that it be over soon? How many of us, students and professors, treated history like it was a law or medicine subject where every fact on every page of a textbook must be remembered?

These were the questions raised by Thomasian historian, Jose Victor Torres, during the 7th Associate Lecture Series last August 21. Torres is a Palanca award-winning playwright and a junior associate of UST Center for Creative Writing and Studies (CCWS). He is also an active historical researcher, being a senior researcher at the |ntramuros Administration.

With the theme “The Literature of Actuality: Imagination and Historical Writing,” Torres emphasized that history is not “just a presentation of facts”, but like fiction, also a story.

Rewriting the past

According to Torres, a historian must take note of its five essential points—research, imagination, interpolation, re-enactment, and recreation in using imagination in history.

Torres said that a historian can recreate history if he has acquired all the needed facts and other necessary details of the historical event. After obtaining all the significant characters, scenes, and key places of the event, then he can apply analysis and imagination in his narrative.

“Imagination here is the one we know—the mental faculty of forming images or concepts of objects or situations not existent or not directly experienced. It is mental creativity. This is the imagination which creates fictional persons, places, and situations in our short stories, novels, plays, and poetry,” he stressed.

Torres also cited the definition of history by a 20th century British philosopher, R.G. Collingwood: history, being a creation of the past, must have life.

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Objectivity vs. subjectivity

“Would the use of imagination remove all the objectivity in historical writing?”

This issue raised by Torres was also discussed by his panel of reactors as well: associate professor Dr. Antonio Hila from the History Department of De La Salle University, Philippine National Historical Society president Dr. Bernardita Reyes-Churchill, and National Artist for Literature and CCWS senior associate Francisco Sionil Jose.

“Historical writing, if properly written, is never objective. The process of interpretation or the application of a logical explanation to historical facts removes objectivity,” Torres said.

He added that the mere fact that a historian describes an event, person, or place, as “the first,” “the last,” “the biggest,” “the bloodiest,” “the bravest,” makes the narrative subjective.

However, Torres distinguished the significance of history’s objectivity from its impartiality.

“There is no such thing as objectivity in historical writing. But impartiality in data-gathering is a necessity,” he said.

He explained American historian Barbara Tuchman’s literature of actuality by stressing the importance of a historian’s impartiality in gathering his data.

Hila commented on the issue of objectivity in history writing. According to him, history is a construction of the historian’s mind.

“Precisely because (of) its nature as a mental construction, history is subjective. And because it is subjective, no historian will have the same viewpoint as another. And one (reader) appreciates a point of view by looking at the framework of the viewpoint of the particular historian,” Hila said.

Hila also said that historians, aside from being rational, must also know how to empathize.

“History is useless if it is just merely confined to the task of merely knowing, which is translated into memorizing dates and events. (Teodoro) Agoncillo conceptualized history as a fusion of science and art,” he said.

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According to Hila, the methodology employed by the historian is the scientific aspect of history writing. While the processing of facts, wherein the abstracted meaning and significance is being given by the artistic temperament of the historian, is the artistic or the humanistic aspect of the job.

“There is no gospel truth that any historian can proclaim. Only a particular point of view,” Hila concluded.

Churchill also shared the same opinion with her fellow panelists, saying that it is impossible to be totally objective in writing history.

“The very fact that you are selecting how you are going to portray a certain historical work is in itself not detaching yourself completely from the (narrative),” Churchill said.

Meanwhile, as to writing present history, Torres said that “if someone writes a present history, it can never really be objective. Either you will be accused of being subjective or the person (historian) himself will realize that what he is writing is going to (favor) one side or the other.”

Historical vs. literary imagination

Torres cited Agoncillo’s caution in using the imagination in historical writing.

“One of the things he (Agoncillo) pointed out as a prime factor in determining the validity or “historicity” of a description is constancy or invariability. Thus, a writer of history who overuses his imagination may not be ending up writing history but a work of fiction with a sprinkling of historical fact,” Torres said.

Hila added that the imagination used in writing history is based on actuality, citing Agoncillo’s warning that any deviation from the proper usage of imagination in history writing would transmute history into imaginative literature.

CCWS director, Ophelia Dimalanta raised an issue about history and fiction.

When Less is More

Dimalanta asked about the use of non-historical figures “moving in the context of the same (historical period),” referring to Jose’s novels like Poon, which involved Apolinario Mabini, a true historical figure.

Jose quickly answered Dimalanta’s question: “You (Dimalanta) must remember that I read a lot of what Mabini wrote. So that when he spoke (in my novel), for instance, about nationalism, those words (I wrote) would have been spoken by him.”

“Yes, I put words into his (Mabini) mouth. Because I learned a lot from what he wrote,” Jose added.

Hila answered Dimalanta’s question by explaining the importance of historical research and truth more than the touch of imagination in writing history.

“It (historical work) must have a historical basis. You cannot just embellish. The imagination is still concerned with historical truths. (Historical) research is the foundation (of a historian’s narrative). You cannot go beyond the facts,” Hila ended.

Historical lecture

“It (Torres’ lecture) is an excellent paper with a very precise definitions as only a Dominican-trained scholar can make,” Jose said.

Aside from this compliment from Jose, the day of the event indeed was worthy to be considered memorable and historical. It was two days before the country commemorated the start of Philippine Revolution.

At the end of his lecture, Torres allowed his audience recreate the picture of the particular part of Philippine history in their minds.

Although the participants did not have the chance to do what Torres was asking of them, which was to write the story, they were left with a challenge from the lecturer.

“A simple historical fact. Make it real… Setting, character, plot. Here are the essentials of a story from history. I leave it to you to imagine and write it.”


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