Saturday, November 15, 2008

Trustworthy History

Moving past any sort of political post it seems.......

Was thinking today about history and memories. How things are told. When someone writes a history of something, or even if they write an autobiography, how trusted can that story be? We tend to gloss things over and only "remember" things that are more than likely better than they really were. So, things are subjectively related. How does that make you feel about your own stories? How does it make you feel about what you'd read in school? Or something you're reading now?

We usually make things more dramatic than they truly were, too. "Fish stories," if you will. What do we really know about things in the past? Do we think we're that much different than those who came before us? Maybe not. We all experience the same minutiae, the same seemingly pointless things that don't "mean" anything grand and profound. Those who grew up in generations past were human, just like we are now. They went through the same things we do now, outside of the historical and chronological differences which are unavoidable.

For some reason, I know I find myself somehow imagining that "those people" were so different from myself. Their style, the look on their faces - just don't seem to fit the modern world I inhabit. But something inside me knows this can't be true. I know I came from the same places they came from. I know they went through some of the same struggles I go through now. I know this because we're both participants in the human condition.

Some of the details could be more advantageous to creating a better story, so I can't always trust if something happened just the way it's related. But - I can trust that in the humdrum of normal affairs, that guy from 200 years ago was trying to figure out life the same way I am today.

1 comment:

Dan said...

Trustworthy history? Psshaw. There's no such thing. Want proof? Here's some quotes:

"History is a lie generally agreed upon." (Napoleon) "God cannot change the past, but historians can." (Can't remember the person's name at this point). "History: a tale, mostly false, of events, mostly unimportant, brought about kings, mostly knaves, and soldiers, mostly fools." (Ambrose Bierce)

Of course, being a history man myself, this doesn't stop me from peering into the morass to see what took place. As a general rule:

1. First-hand accounts are more reliable than memoirs; in the former, you're not trying to impress anyone, just to capture your impressions; in the second, you're trying to sell a book.

2. In any kind of organization, mid-level people's accounts are the most trustworthy, because they're not trying to get somewhere with their accounts. The lower-level people want to better their stations, and the upper-level people of course want to keep theirs, so they both naturally inflate (or deflate) events to either maximize their own importance or minimize their own mistakes.

3. Official records are the truest (assuming you're not a government conspiracy theorist) because government offficials are too dull and unimaginative to fabricate, or even fluff out, any stories. The downside with these, of course, is that they're not particularly enjoyable to read.

4. Take all the above with a grain of salt, read as many accounts as you can...and pick the one that makes the most sense to you (usually it's a hybrid of all sources), knowing that even so, you won't have the full truth, only a part of it.

(NOTE: I would not apply any of the above to the Bible. Some things you just have to take on faith...literally.)