Briefly Concerning History

(A preface to a Thalindorian introduction)

Stories are unavoidably made in the image of their maker. Our collective story, ‘history’ certainly is; which is another way of saying that it is equal parts wonderful and terrible, and all parts messy. In fact, many dismiss history as unkempt to the point of meaninglessness, devoid as we are today of all the necessary context (namely, experiencing it first hand) that could give it any truth or bearing on the present. ‘Context’, these hypothetical naysayers say, can only be established subjectively through interpretations of dubious evidence, or by relying on the subjective and fallible records of eyewitnesses. These subjective interpretations and records can be assembled together (at least where they agree) and, together with a selection of surviving artifacts, build a foundation of seeming truth and reality out of which may arise a visage of the past- but upon investigation, we see that that foundation but stands upon another, older one; assumption after assumption all the way down, piled atop one another like crumbling tells. The truth of history, it seems, is based on the truth of history. Is the historian’s problem yet apparent?

This dilemma inherent to the study of history is more pressing than many realize. While we snub the past and chase ‘novelty’ in experience or invention or thought, we turn at times, full of stupefaction, and marvel at how it could be that billions of souls seem caught in the very crux of this ancient, crusted thing of history. Today, numerous contradictory interpretations of history damn one great swathe of humanity or another to a hopelessly dark eternity, while committing select others to ceaseless bliss. In fact, based largely on interpretations of history, I guarantee that to someone somewhere you yourself represent a most grievous evil; and perhaps to another, the highest good; and to many others you are an afterthought with no immediacy, worth less than the device they hold in their hand as they scroll past your social media posts without blinking; worth less, it would seem, than the cat video that gives them pause.

History, story and truth are, after all, siblings. Where sources, information, and vested interests abound (and indeed, they do), the searcher for real truth can sink deep into quagmire. Efforts to escape from it fare even worse. There two (at least) great pitfalls, here; first that despairing of ascertaining truth one might decide that it is an illusion altogether; or second, that despairing of ascertaining truth one might arbitrarily assign it to something, or anything, on a whim or fancy.

Regarding history, however, there is some sort of permanent foothold for the objective rationalist: for there was, of course, exactly one way things *really* happened. That fact cannot itself be proven, yet it is known. Viewed through many perspectives? Of course. Interpret-able in a multiplicity of ways? Indeed. Unknowable, it turns out, in the final calculus? Well, perhaps. Ultimately, however, singular and ruthlessly objective in its reality? Unquestionably. There is really only one narrative, however intricate and lovely it’s countless details, subplots, and characters may be.

Indeed, history is a powerful ally in the hands of the wise- or the ambitious. For the truth-seeker, a promised land of absolutes in the sea of man’s tumultuous subjectivity; for the politician, an infinite faerie realm of manipulative possibility. Beware the past! Nothing can be accepted blindly, even when true, for all story is recounted with an argument; a poniard of perspective. If you cannot see it glinting, held before the tale-teller in his very hands, check behind his back. History is the master teacher, the grand pedagogue; but no less the charismatic dictator. Wielding story, men may lead themselves and other men to greatness- or to deplorable evils; bereft of story, we wander weaponless in a dangerous world.

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