I am in your hands
[Chirstabel LaMotte’s last words to Ellen Ash]
In chapter 25 of Possession, A.S Byatt recollects the events of Ash’s death through the lens of Ellen Ash’s character. Before his death, Ellen promises Ash that she would “burn what they should not see” (Byatt, 480). Here she is referring to Ash’s private correspondences and keepsakes which had accumulated over time in their household. She records in her journal how Ash “hated the new vulgarity of contemporary biographers”, mentioning the example of Dicken’s desk and how it was ransacked in search of his “most trivial memoranda”.
An interesting parallel to this journal entry can be found in Mortimer Cropper’s lecture in chapter 20. In his lecture Cropper states how
“it was in Ash’s time that the institution of historians became respectable, even an essential object of intellectual attention. The historian is an indissoluble part of his history, as the poet of his poem, as the shadowy biographer is of his subject’s life…” (Byatt, 416)
In my presentation I want to explore this indissolubility of historian as a part of history. I want to look at Ellen Ash as a historian, and through her character I want to discuss the role of power in representation of historical truth. In an attempt to make my argument, I am going to draw on, the most amazing (..drum rolls..) Friederich Nietzche! I also am going to draw on Wilfrid Laurier’s A.S. Byatt and the Heliotropic Imagination and my political science background to lead the readers to the questions this presentation aims to focus on.
I want to begin my argument by focusing on power. In the Webster dictionary power is defined as “the ability to act or produce an effect”. In Political Science this definition is further extended on by stating that power is defined as the ability to influence or impose ones will on others. While power is a concept that has been widely mused over and articulated, my presentation will focus on argument Nietzsche makes in his book regarding power.
In On the Geneology of Morals, Frederich Nietzsche provides an interesting argument regarding the role of power in the making of history. He presents the idea that in linguistic history, “˜good’ has nothing to do with “the goodness that was shown” rather it is tied with the “good people” who felt and set themselves up as good. He argues that the it was the powerful who “first arrogated to themselves the right to create values [and] to stamp out the names for values”. Finally Nietzsche expresses that relationship between the powerful and history can be extended to a point where one can make himself believe that “the origin of language itself as an expression of the power of the rulers: they say “that is such and such”; they seal every object and event with a sound, and in the process, as it were, take possession of it.”
I will use this context to lead my presentation towards the idea that those who are in power are those in possession of history. Readers of Possession will recognize this power in the hands of Ellen Ash. After Ash’s death Ellen has the power over his possessions, she has the power to decide how history would be represented. Laurier argues in A.S. Byatt and the Heliotropic Imagination that it is Ellen’s decisions regarding these possessions that “give her the authority in her own story and authorship in the stories of others”.
I will sum up my presentation by asking if history can be defined as a representation of power. Does the survival of certain records and loss of others represent the intentions of those who had power over them? If so, is our knowledge of history tainted by those who have power and does this deprive us of having historical knowledge that is unbiased and objective?
A.S Byatt, Possession
Wilfrid Laurier’s A.S. Byatt and the Heliotropic Imagination