Deep Thought: Interrogating Our Interrogation
Why do we find it so difficult to understand the past?
I quote from my recently-completed opus, The Electrical Journey of Izzy Himmelfarb.
Izzy snorted. 'Haven't you been listening to me? There is no simpler time. Things weren't better in the past. They were just different. I've seen men kill each other on land and in the sky. I've seen a man electrocuted at his job – heck, I've been electrocuted. More than once. If your time travellers aren't careful, they're going to end up as part of that Chinese curse: may you live in interesting times.'
Finney laughed. 'I still think the horse-and-buggy days were kind of romantic.'
Izzy rolled his eyes. 'Ask the horse.'
In the novella, Izzy is an involuntary time traveller. The character 'Finney' is, of course, based on Jack Finney, whose time travel fiction should be must-reading for anybody interested in the subject. I love Jack Finney's Time and Again and read it about once a year. But I have a bone to pick with him: he tends to be nostalgic. Nostalgia is not a good look for those who want to learn lessons from the past.
Miniver cursed the commonplace
And eyed a khaki suit with loathing;
He missed the mediæval grace
Of iron clothing.
– Edward Arlington Robinson, 'Miniver Cheevy'
You want to know the punchline? Edward Arlington Robinson, who wrote the poem 'Miniver Cheevy' about a sad nostalgist, was living in the time period that Jack Finney thought was just about perfect. Nobody is ever content. Well, hardly anyone. There's always Archie Bunker.
Those were the days
And you knew who you were then
girls were girls and men were men
Mister we could use a man like Herbert Hoover again…
– Charles Strouse / Lee Adams, 'Those Were the Days'
Actors Carol O'Connor and Jean Stapleton sang this theme song for a show about a discontented World War II vet who raged (humorously) against the turbulent Sixties. There's some sharp observation in that song. The generation that survived the Great Depression and the world war felt that it had got its reward: the glorious 1950s, where new consumer goods came out every day and just about everybody had a job. It was a golden age, wasn't it?
Well, of course, there was the problem of the atom bombs. But if you hid in the shelter when they told you, you'd make it, sure. And Hoover's Boys and the House Un-American Activities Committee would protect us all from those nasty Commies hiding in plain sight. Maybe things weren't quite so rosy for minorities. But hey, didn't Levitt build the Blacks their own Levittown? If people would just stay where they belonged, it was a great world…
I think you get my point. Which was probably the songwriters' point.
Before you go interrogating history, you need to keep yourself, the observer, in mind. You're likely to be messing up your assessment by letting your own desires, interests, and opinions get in the way.
I've mentioned before that back in the 70s, when I was studying medieval languages, there was a lot less interest than there is now. My Beowulf class consisted of four people sitting in Dr David's office translating. That, of course, was before Robert Zemeckis made a movie of it. There would have been less interest in Zemeckis' movie if they'd done it in the original language, Angelina Jolie or no Angelina Jolie.
While we were doing this one day, somebody came in to tell us that Carnegie Museum, which we could see from Dr David's gothic-revival window, was going to have a medieval fair. Oh, goody, we said. Speakers, music, and meat pies.
The guy who recited poetry in translation, by 'Walter vahn derr Fogelweed', had us in stitches. And then we found out about the Society for Creative Anachronism. You know, those folks who dress up and bang each other with wooden sticks while yelling stuff like 'Forsooth!'? You can imagine how well that went over with the academic crowd.
Years later, I interviewed some SCA people for the radio. 'We don't let people talk about religion in our group,' said their local leader. She added, 'Forcing religion on people isn't what we're about.'
'I thought forcing religion on people was exactly what the Middle Ages was about,' I replied. On air. So it was my fault that I now had several awkward seconds of dead air. Don't argue with the fantasy.
This is, of course, the problem. Our projection of a wish-fulfillment past gets in the way of seeing that people are just people, and the past is just people dealing with a different set of circumstances, which we could possibly learn something from if we'd just shut up and listen. We're so busy fantasising that we forget those were real people. Like us. Contradictory as heck.
The fantasy is part of why people unthinkingly re-enact their admiration of things not admirable. Like the 'Gone with the Wind' version of the Confederacy. No, it wasn't real, and you really need a different fantasy, people. But those hoop skirts are a big draw with the Historical Romance crowd. You know what? Those silly, horrible people who built that disgusting slave empire? They read fantasy novels, too. Mostly by Walter Scott. It proved to be their downfall. They convinced themselves they were noble when they were committing crimes against humanity. Let that be a lesson to us. Worry less about video games and more about the Regency bookshelf. Just saying.
When it comes to narrative, our brains tend to oversimplify. It takes skill on the part of a storyteller to help us see where we're oversimplifying. That storyteller could be sharing fact or fiction, but his/her main job is to get us to think through situations and pick up on the nuances. That is particularly important today, because as a generation, we're in serious danger of coming to blows over our interpretation of history. Which sounds counterintuitive, but isn't. Faced with change, our brains can revert to Archie Bunker territory.
May I recommend a brilliant Canadian film called Dreamkeeper? (That link may only work for you if you're on this side of the Atlantic, sorry. But maybe you can find it somewhere.) The frame tale is about a Lakota storyteller and his grandson journeying to Albuquerque for an all-nations powwow. The action is interwoven with folktales from a variety of First Nations people. The cast is wonderful, the effects are marvellous, and you get to see a herd of real buffalo. There are no non-Native stars in the film except for Scott Grimes, who plays Tehan the red-haired Kiowa (a true story). This sort of film is an antidote to the kind of oversimplified thinking I've been talking about. This is a way of looking at the transmission of past narratives that shows us what they're good for: to get us to think.