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Archive for August 24th, 2007

History isn’t what it used to be. Or, to put it another way, everything you know about the past could be wrong, or at least subject to revision. And the revision isn’t done by loyal bureaucrats of Big Brother, altering official records to make the Party look good. It’s done by working historians trying to accommodate new facts and perspectives.

It’s a reflection, really, of how long history has been an academic discipline. In many cases, you could write an interesting history of histories about how our views of various eras have evolved.

I first became aware that history was not the fixed medium I imagined when I was still a boy, and Louis Riel changed from a despised madman in Canadian history to a Metis nationalist and folk hero. Part of that change was a reflection of the times, but, even if the change may have exaggerated some traits in the short term, in the long term it gave a more complex, more truthful view of Riel and his actions than the textbooks gave, and provided those of mixed First Nations and European ancestory with some long overdue cultural respect.

As I’ve grown older, this change in history has kept happening. The dinosaurs, I learned as a young adult, were not the dim-witted giants that I had loved as a child, even as I fled screaming from their gaudy statues at roadside attractions along the coastal highway in Oregon and California. Instead, they were suddenly animals with complex social lives, some of whom had survived to the present by becoming birds – an idea that, now that I think, may be responsible for my love of parrots.

Similarly, the Egyptians changed from a death-obsessed, hierarchical culture of stifling dullness to people with a fondness for beer who thought a potbelly a sign of success. Queen Hatsheput, instead of being a schemer who murdered her husband the Pharoah to seize power and feuded with her son and sometime co-ruler became a quieter figure who ruled wisely and peacefully handed over power to the next generation as archaeologists realized the original story was a product of Victorian imagination without evidence to support it.

In English history, the same thing happened. William the Conqueror became, not the founder of a great tradition, but an usurper who, culturally and legally, set back English culture five or six centuries. Richard III was not the murderer of his nephews, and George III, while a rather dull man, was industrious and well-loved for much of his reign. The more I read, the more the changes kept on coming.

And just this week, I’ve regaled myself and anyone who listen with snippets from Charles C. Mann’s 1491: New Revelations of the America Before Columbus.. Some of what he had mentioned I had heard, but hearing them all at once was overwhelming. I mean, pre-Inkan states? The Amazon rain forest not pristine wilderness but artfully managed orchards? The First Nations arriving, not by a break in the glacier, but by skin boards edged carefully down the coast of British Columbia? The Aztecs nursing schools of philosophy and being less bloody-minded in their public executions than the Europeans of their day? The Five Nations being closer to modern democratic ideals than my European ancestors?

The snapping sound you hear is my mind stretching to the breaking point. Yet many, even most of these ideas might very well be true.

Some people, I suppose, might resist such sweeping changes to history, or even deny their possibility. After all, history is not simply the search for objective truth that the best academics see it as. It’s also the source of our cultural myths, the stories we tell ourselves about how we got to the present state of things and how our identities were established. To many people, a challenge to these myths is unsettling, and to be denied even if it means ignoring inconvenient facts.

And I suppose, too, that being well into middle age, I should feel threatened by such changes myself.

Instead, I find myself fascinated. I like to think that I have a scientific mind, because what I’m talking about is how science is supposed to work, with hypotheses formed to fit the evidence, and then thrown out when a better explanation comes along that fits the known facts. But I suppose I could simply be a contrarian, taking an unwholesome delight in seeing what everybody knows over-turned.

Either way, absorbing the changes is simply fun. When I was a boy, I used to worry that I might run out of things to learn in the subjects that interested me, and that I might become stodgy with age. But when I learn that another long-held view of mine is overturned, I know such worries are groundless, and there’s enough to keep me fascinated for several lifetimes.

These discoveries are like a vigorous massage by an expert therapist: mentally, I might groan and ache during the process, but afterwards I’m invigorated and fully of energy. As unsettling as some of the revisions might be, they reaffirm my faith in the complexity of the universe, and my conviction that curiosity has no limits.

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