Archive for July, 2014

They flutter behind you, your possible pasts

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History is a strange discipline. Is it the study of the narrative of humanity or is it the study of the motivation of the individual and how said individual collides with the colossal events that press against him or her? In ways it is both (and at another level it is neither, since the past no longer exists it means history is conducted in an ever occurring present, a present in which we impose our standards and mores onto the past in an attempt to make sense of our present, but then I digress). Some people believe that history is the study of facts. Facts such as Napoleon had a height complex, Marie Antoinette said ‘ let them eat cake’ and the Duke of Wellington, embarrassed about his Irishness, claimed ‘Being born in a barn does not make one a horse’. Incontrovertible facts! Of course the three facts I have mentioned are absolute rubbish as Napoleon was of average height for a European male at the time, Marie (known affectionately by her subjects as The Austrian Whore) never said anything of the sort and it was Daniel O’ Connell that made the whole barn and horse claim. As Mr Gradgrind explained in Hard Times ‘You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them’.

Ah the Victorians, they looked for certitude in a world and universe where they felt displaced and history became about facts and facts and more facts. They were wrong mind you and the reason is simple: human beings have feelings and each and every one of us experiences this world differently. Even if two people watch the same event they do so from a different angle both in a physical and emotional sense. We can establish the fact that an event occurred on a certain date etc these things are not up for debate (or are they? Of course they are! We are forgetful creatures) but emotions and feelings get in the way. Thank God they do. What are we without them? We are a glorious mess of all we have learned. Flawed and beautiful, biased and blessed. In many ways history is a giant gossip session about the way people, as groups and individuals, behave. If we remove human agency what are we? There can be no certainty. We cannot discern the future from the past and we cannot remove our emotions from that past. Everything we have done right, everything we have done wrong remains part of us. The trick, I suppose, is not to be bound by it and not to be controlled by our story/stories. When we read about an event in history we should, I would argue, remember the very real people behind the event. There is a great moment in Oliver Stone’s biopic of Richard Nixon and it occurs just after Nixon decides he will have to stand down as president of the United States. Nixon looks up at a portrait of JFK and he says: ‘When they look at you they see what they want to be. When they look at me they see what they are.’ It isn’t a fact but when I watched that film and heard that line I was never able to look at Richard Nixon the same way again. It encapsulates history for me: humanity is one big flawed mess looking to better itself even if we often fall short of that aim. The history book on the shelf isn’t always repeating itself but we are.

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