My department has a new website, with updated faculty photos. If you have known me for awhile, you might notice that my hair is a bit longer, now past my shoulders. By comparing photos of me as a faculty member, or even as a teenager, anyone can demonstrate that my hair is longer now than it has ever been in my life. That is a demonstrable fact about the past.
Of course, the length of my hair is not particularly interesting. As with most narratives (which is what histories present), the more intriguing issue is the explanation why. Why, at this point in my life, have I allowed my hair to grow? A friend who had not seen me for over a year commented on my hair last week, giving me the opportunity to create a narrative about my hair. My explanation was that I have not gotten my hair cut since becoming a full professor this past August. But, my own explanation is not necessarily complete. In fact, any of us tell stories, like our identifications, strategically. Perhaps (to create a narrative about my narrative), my response was a way to emphasize my recent promotion. The length of the hair was just the opportune time to insert that personal tidbit into the conversation, or perhaps that explanation was said in jest.
In fact, I can construct a number of narratives about my lack of a haircut. I could provide an innocuous response that I have not taken time to get a hair cut or that it is a sign of a mid-life crisis. I could correlate my last haircut to the conclusion of last year’s Presidential primaries, so that I have not gotten a haircut since Hillary Clinton (or Donald Trump) received the Democratic (or Republican) Presidential nominations. Of course, that requires a further explanation as to whether it is in protest or celebration of either one.
So the simple, demonstrable fact of my longer hair operates as a catalyst for a range of narratives, useful in different situations, just as anyone can use information from the past to create a whole range of historical narratives for different purposes. That is the distinction that Keith Jenkins (building on Hayden White, among others, in his little book Re-thinking History) makes between things that happen in the past and the narratives that historians and others construct about them. While we can demonstrate particular demonstrable facts about the past, we cannot know the past in total, and we certainly cannot know how all of the particular events of the past (those demonstrable and those that are not as demonstrable as the length of my hair) relate to one another. The construction of narratives and meanings about the past, the work of history, is a creative process. Even when someone explains why they did something, whether in an interview or a personal diary, it is impossible to know how much they are leaving out or employing the narrative for other purposes.