Tuesday, August 28, 2012
WE SHOULD NOT BELIEVE ONLY WHAT WE FIND PLEASING
(A Buddhist principle)
I have always told my students not to accept everything they read in the history books as definitive. History books are written with a cultural and geographic bias: the same event chronicled in an American history book might be a totally different story from an English, Russian or Japanese historic account; also, the winners of war often get to write and define human history.
I have just finished reading the novel Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. It is a historic fiction taking place in the court of Henry VIII. In a historic fiction the historic accounts are presented factually, based on recorded history, but liberty is taken in the dialog and interaction of the principal players.
The second in the series by Hilary Mantel is Bring Up the Bodies. It is the story of the fall of Thomas Cromwell and events leading up to the execution of Anne Boleyn.
It has always been my contention that all current history is to some degree historic fiction.
The New York Review of Books, for the last few issues, has been running a series of commentaries on Bring Up the Bodies. In the August 16th issue the review was by Stanley Wells, and in his review he makes a case for historic inaccuracies more concisely and definitive than I have ever been able.
The following is an excerpt from In the Court of a Monster - a review by Stanley Wells of Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies”
“History had no plot. It happens randomly, goes beyond human control. People plot, but things go amiss. The desire to capture the past is unquenchable but fruitless. A historian, whether of recent or long-past events, tries to tell it how it was, but the attempt is vain. History books have to have beginnings, middles, and ends. Whether consciously or not, their authors tell stories from particular perspectives; they choose who and what to write about; they select from the multifariousness of human experience, imposing order on randomness, seeing what they choose to see or what their subconscious minds put before them, setting their stories within a frame of their devising, revealing subjectively even as they seek to convey an impression of objectivity.”
In an era where the content of high school history books is the product of the Texas Board of Education we should make it a point to impress on our students to research beyond and always retain a skeptic reserve for any recorded account of human history. We should never believe only what we find pleasing.