Joel Klebanoff: Stuff & Nonsense

To worry is to be. To be is to worry.

A Certain History?

A riddle recently raced across my mind, pausing in its journey through the dust it found there only long enough for me to jot it down. I found the riddle interesting. You, on the other hand, may find it boring, nonsensical and/or irrelevant and curse me for once again wasting your time by babbling childish drivel. (Once again, that is, if you’ve been here before; for the first time if not.)

Solving this riddle will not cure any dread diseases, end poverty or bring peace to the Middle East, or anywhere else for that matter. Nevertheless, for the benefit of simply satisfying my curiosity, I would appreciate an answer if anyone has one.

Here’s the riddle: Can we ever be truly sure that what we think we know for certain about historical events is indeed the truth?

When I say “historical events,” I’m not talking about recent history. At least, not recent on human timescales, although it would be on par with a blink of an eye on, say, a geological timescale. I’m talking about, for instance, 500 years ago; maybe during the Renaissance.

To get an idea of what I’m getting at, cast your mind not to the past, but rather to a hypothetical future 500 years from now.

Let’s say that over the next 300 years people gradually stop writing and reading fiction. They still write and read factual accounts of current events and reports on observed scientific findings, but no new literature is composed or published.

Then, sometime during the 200 years following that, all of the works of fiction of our day are lost because no one bothers to convert them into the new media that people are then using to store and convey written material. “Why bother?” everyone asks. “No one is going to give a flying fluke about it.” (Because it had become so horribly overused by then, everyone 300 years from now will stop using the word fuck and refer to flying Atlantic flounders in place of flying sex acts.)

Finally, 500 years from today, an historian uncovers a trove of written fiction from our day. Through tremendous scholarly work and technical genius she manages to convert the literature into a then readable format and translates it into the highly evolved language of her day. (“Yo, bro. Was’up? How r u? LOL”)

Not having any context or experience with fictional works, she assumes that they are history texts. The characters in the romance novels she found—although she doesn’t realize they are romance novels, nor does she have any concept of what a novel is—must have been real people, she thinks.

She becomes convinced that men must really have been that macho and muscular and women that lustful in our day. And the characters must have been important people, else why would their lives have been chronicled?

And what if she found epic fantasy books such as George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series, the first book of which was A Game of Thrones. The books in that series glorify a bunch of gods, violence, and, sometimes, violence committed in the names of those gods. Maybe that future historian will think that the series represents The Books of the Bible of some late twentieth and early twenty-first century religion that, by her time, had died off.

(Or maybe, over the course of the intervening 500 years, a large segment of the population will have made a religion out of it, preserving the Song of Ice and Fire books as their Bible. Stranger things have happened. Google “cargo cults.”)

My point is, when we uncover archival material about actual events that occurred long ago, how can we be certain that it is indeed archival material and not someone’s attempt at fictional realism that was accidentally (or maybe intentionally by a prankster) misfiled in the archives?

Are there any historians reading this who can answer that riddle for me? Enquiring minds want to know. Or, if not enquiring minds, at least my muddled brain.

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8 Comments

  1. I suppose we can’t really be sure about the accuracy of written history, the reasons behind the events that occurred. Historians are storytellers, and storytellers are known for their flair for embellishment.

    • Historians as storytellers? Some historians write their tales so boringly and pedantically that one assumes that they must be true. Then again, on that basis, many people would assume that my fiction must be fact.

  2. Janene says:

    I’m totally with you. I’ve often wondered how much fact is really fiction!

    • Just to be clear, I do think the study of history is important. It’s just that I think that it should be viewed through questioning eyes, with a healthy (meaning neither too much, nor too little) dose of skepticism.

  3. The answer is “NO” and it’s definitive. Even if we sidestep your example (which reminds me of my own youth when, after years of having nothing to read but “Little House on the Prairie,” my grandmother gave me the Narnia series and I became convinced it really happened and even turned it into a religion, converting two cousins. And I had no idea of the purported parallels intended to Christ, by the way. My mother burned the books but I SERIOUSLY digressed), we don’t really know what really happened in history, *not even* recent history.

    Because shit, if you’ll pardon the expression, we hear happening now aren’t FACTS, they are someone’s interpretation of the facts with usually a bit of their own spin along the way. To US troops, people who leave bombs in the road that destroy them and their bodies are terrorists. To the natives there, their PATRIOTS, part of the resistance. Ironically, if we were playing the same story out on US soil, we’d be just as adamant they were patriots, too, while the invaders would have a convenient story on how they were justified in coming. Nonsense is constantly trotted out as reality and, if a number of people swallow it, it gets very difficult for even discerning individuals to separate the chaff from the wheat and that’s true TODAY.

    Vaccination, for instance, which has wiped out entirely a number of childhood diseases, can be maligned and marginalized with one unfounded accusation made by someone with a strong self-interest in slamming vaccines (which has been clearly revealed and the accusation debunked – and people still don’t vaccinate their children from fear).

    Part of that is that the experience of polio and smallpox and a decimater and destroyer of lives is detached from people today. They don’t remember anyone who had it or who had siblings disabled or killed by childhood maladies that are all but unknown today. That’s one of the dangers of not clearly bringing out history and making it real.

    But you’ve also touched on one of the risks of history – often the history has been passed down from only a couple of sources, people who had a dog in the fight, had a position to support, had a vested interest in one side of the story. Or, they were repeating things from a point of view that was limited in understanding or perspective. History, old or new, is fascinating to me, but I always take it with a grain of salt and a measure of skepticism. I evaluate every new bit of data against other available sources (contemporary if I can get them), compare them to human nature as I understand it, what else I know of the times and culture and make sure to note what biases or agendas the sources may have had.

    I do the same things with “news” now.

    • So, that would be a “no,” I take it.

      Thanks for your addition to the conversation.

      Yes, one group’s terrorists are another group’s freedom fighters.

      And here’s another example of filter bias. After the American Revolution, the victorious revolutionaries confiscated the legal property of the United Empire Loyalists and that was considered (by the Americans) just. After the Cuban Revolution the victorious revolutionaries confiscated the property of Americans (and others) and that was considered (by Americans) an egregious evil that is, to this day, still worthy of punishment by strict sanctions.

      Don’t get me wrong. I’m a firm believer in democracy, civil rights and human rights. As such, I believe the Cuban government is worthy of strong condemnation. I’m just saying that the same actions are colored differently depending on which filter we look through.

      Then there are the small-minded, conspiracy theory, superstitious idiots—the anti-vaccine people you mentioned—who spread horrendous misinformation and are the only thing standing in the way oft the total eradication of, for example, polio. Idiots. Dangerous idiots.

  4. Yun Yi says:

    No, I don’t think we could unreservedly trust any historical texts, even the most authoritative ones. The way we know about what actually happened through history (I believe) is not by gathering knowledge, or gathering information, but by our objective deductive thinking methods, include out intuition, to “digest” information or knowledge, then to generate relatively reasonable “ideas” about what happened centuries, or millenniums ago.

    • If i understand you, you’re saying that trying to deduce new knowledge from our research and intuition about history—even if that history is wrong—is more important than getting the history right.

      Mightn’t that lead to wrong conclusions? If the “history” that we use as input to our deductive reasoning is wrong then the conclusions that we draw from our deductive reasoning would likely also be wrong. Saying that, “under conditions x, y is likely to occur because that was was happened in the past” can have validity only if those were indeed the conditions and results of the past. (And because conditions are never exactly the same, it’s questionable how valid it is even then.)

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