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.
Categorised as: stuff and nonsense