Monday, March 20, 2017

History and Anachronism

Behold, above, "a chronological misplacing of persons, events, objects, or customs in regard to each other"; in other words (or more properly word) an anachronism.  In the case of this altered photograph Abraham Lincoln appears to be holding a boom box.  The image is amusing, as such things can be, because we all know that Lincoln could hold no such thing.  The thought of him carrying one blaring around the White House is funny, though, or at least is to me.
History, according to Napoleon, is a fable agreed upon.  I've read that he made other comments about it as well that were not quite as dismissive.  For example: "History is the version of past events that people have decided to agree upon."  "Past events" sounds somewhat more respectable than "a fable."  Another quote attributed to him is this one:  "Skepticism is a virtue in history as well as philosophy."
Skepticism certainly can be appropriate in history, I think, provided it is a healthy skepticism.    Doubt is appropriate when there is reason to doubt.  It happens that with respect to past events, particularly events long past, we can have reason to doubt, sometimes many reasons.  The extent to which we have reason to doubt depends on the circumstances, the sources available--the evidence.  That at least seems to me a sensible way to approach history.
I've noted before in some past post that it seems these days that authors of works of history take the time in lengthy "Forwards" to apologize for what they've done.  They acknowledge that they've dared to write about, and perhaps even draw conclusions regarding, another time, another place, people who lived then and events which seemingly transpired.  This, they confess, is not really possible, because we can't "really" know what happened nor can we "really" opine about it because we weren't there, we live in a different society/culture, etc., nearly ad infinitum.
I'm not as inclined as others are to maintain that we can't make reasonable inferences about other people, places, times and events.  But I think it's fair to say that those who make claims regarding history--people who lived, events which took place--have a responsibility to be as certain as possible, given the evidence, that what they claim is correct, or appropriately qualified.
Anachronism may be employed deliberately in order to be amusing, or by artists, composers and authors, creatively in pursuit of some entertaining or artistic purpose.  The most prominent current example I can think of is the musical Hamilton, which (I haven't seen it) apparently depicts the Founding Fathers of our Glorious Republic rapping, and uses in some cases black actors to play historical figures we know to have been white.  Of course nobody (yet?) believes that George Washington, for example, was black, and incongruous as it is to watch him rap it would also be incongruous to watch him sing at all.  But this use of anachronism in itself does no disservice  because it's safe to assume that it will be recognized as such; nobody will think that Washington and it seems all the Founding Fathers were rappers, or that the slave-owner Washington was himself black.  Anachronism can be harmful, though, when it is confused with history or purports to be historical.
Unfortunately, we see this now and then.  Oliver Stone's movie JFK comes to mind.  Stone may have been trying to make some point regarding the implications of sealing records, but in doing so he actively depicted as true conspiracy theories which have no significant basis.  Regrettably, people believe such theories and films and other works of art can demean history, reasonable efforts at relating history in a responsible manner, and contribute to the perversion of history.
We seem to be especially vulnerable to the misuse of history and even the description of current events now that everyone can purport to be not only a historian but a journalist, even an expert, simply by being able to type and download or upload information on  a computer.  If we take liberties with history, we change our perception of the past, which is to say that we don't know it and so can't learn from it.  
As George Orwell wrote:  "Who controls the past controls the future.  Who controls the present controls the past."  We live in a time where the ability to shape perception of the present and the past is omnipresent, and where there is a widespread belief in the malleability and of facts and their significance; not just absolute, objective facts, but even of the reasonably probable.  The more we treat history carelessly, the more we'll be careless in the here and now.

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