Monday, December 28, 2009

Finding Truth in the Past

Just around Christmas, my friend sent me an article that she had published on the perception of the Normans in English history. What caught my eye in this article, among other things, was the notion of translatio studii, "the art of rewriting". Early histories are not objective reportings of fact, but rather a cobbling together of the literary and the historical to create "a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts". She is referring to Anglo-Norman historiography, but it is also evident in earlier histories. In reading old Greek and Roman histories, we were often cautioned about the author's "tendency to exaggerate" the facts. Even poems like the Iliad and the Odyssey, that are considered largely mythical, are often mined for nuggets of historical fact. Do I also need to mention the Bible here?

Gem points to the old French term estoire, which can mean "history" or "story" (not to mention the modern French word for story, "histoire"). What is fascinating about this to me is the expansion of the idea of historical truth. I couldn't point to a place on a timeline, but I'm thinking that it was sometime post-Enlightenment that we developed the idea of objective fact reporting. There is nothing wrong with this approach, except that our culture has come to expect it from texts that don't have it.

I've seen a lot of examples recently of scientific (i.e., purely fact-based) approaches to mythical subjects. Here are three examples from the last year:

Physicists prove that vampires don't exist

Scientists determine that angels can't fly

Scientists cast doubt on the existence of Santa Claus

I see a lot of this as an absurd extension of the religion/science debate in our culture. Religion is about myth, and religious writings are often a mixture of historical fact, fiction, and guidelines for a community. Anyone who thinks they can read religious scriptures as historical truth in our modern "objective" sense is misguided at best. The scientifically minded who try to take on religious belief on this basis are equally misguided. Certainly there are those who think that they must believe religious scriptures literally or else face punishment from an angry God. I suggest that those individuals read this.

But even beyond this, there is the whole idea that we can objectively come across something known as "truth". I've talked about this before, but this is a particularly interesting spin because it is commonly believed that we can obtain "facts" about things by looking at the past--the whole notion of causality (cause and effect) is based on this idea, and at least part of how we make predictions about future events and behavior. When the past is mostly allegory that points to something rather than stating it directly, then finding "truth" is as much of a scavenger hunt as it is with present uncertainties. The absurdity of human attempts to "know" the past from archaeological documents and historical writings is obviously illustrated in this mock historical documentary on the Beatles from 1,000 years in the future. But even with recent history, where documentation methods are considered to be more sound, there is still room for deception, and there is still the whole problem of subjective spin.

Perhaps, then, truth is not to be found in documented collections of "facts". Facts are meaningless outside of context, and context will be interpreted differently by each person.


Gem said...

Thanks for linking to my article, Brigid - I'm always happy to be cited as part of a counter-argument to overly literal scientific research. ;) I like to store up examples of this kind of thing as ammunition, to be deployed on the (frequent) occasions when scientists berate me for not studying something more 'useful' and 'relevant'.

This modern obsession with objectivity is made even more laughable by the fact that we're plagued with 'Marxist historians', 'right-wing historians' etc. These people are effectively announcing their bias at the outset - but who would claim that modern history writing should be written off as a result? For that reason, I find Antonia Gransden's otherwise excellent survey of historical writing in England to be severely lacking in perspective. She dismisses Wace in a paragraph as a writer of romance who fails to be 'original', thus missing the point of medieval writing by miles.

My favourite writer on this subject is Jean Blacker. Her 'The Faces of Time' is seminal, and comes highly recommended. She advocates a perspective on medieval historiography that allows for its idiosyncrasies. History, for the medieval writer, has a didactic purpose; it is intended to instruct, and, in so doing, builds upon the work of earlier authors. She also expands on an idea that I find fascinating; that of a historical figure as an archetype rather than an individual. Modern commentators often bemoan medieval tendencies to ignore personal character portraits or psychological assessments in favour of what, to us, might appear to be superficial 'good' or 'bad' characteristics.

However, this is all part of the medieval gameplan. Blacker offers Roosevelt as an example to illustrate the difference between their approach and ours. A modern biographer of the president would, undoubtedly, chart his life, discuss his private and public 'sides', and combine the two to provide an assessment of his career and an analysis of what made him tick. The main concern would be his unique qualities; in other words, what made him the man he was, and rendered his contribution to history valuable. A medieval writer, by contrast, would have ignored all this. For him, Roosevelt's significance would have lain in his resemblance to the great leaders of history. The aim would be to isolate those characteristics that made him worthy of a place in the pantheon of rulers, stretching back beyond the American presidency to Arthur and Caesar. The line between 'fact' and myth would have been blurred at every turn.

I sometimes find myself wondering whether it's even possible for medieval writers to tell an outright lie, as we would understand the term. Yeah, there are elements that are certainly exaggerations or falsehoods, and must have been known to be such by the writers. But let's take Blacker's Roosevelt example and run with it. What if someone made a film or wrote a book that featured, say, an alien invasion, and had as the figurehead of human resistance a President of America who bore a rather obvious resemblance to Roosevelt? I think we can safely assume that this 'incident' would not make it into official histories of his career (well, maybe on some of the internet conspiracy blogs...which, it has to be said, would probably have been viewed as fair source material by most medieval writers). Would it have crept into a twelfth-century portrayal of such a figure? Almost certainly. Thing is, I suspect that - if pressed - a medieval historiographer would defend himself like this: the event may never have happened, but, if it had, then surely the Roosevelt of legend would have behaved just as this 'new' literary version did. Obfuscation and dissembling may be the order of the day when it comes to factual material, but medieval writers are always scrupulously 'true' to the characters of their own semi-mythical creations.

Brigid N. Burke said...

Hi, Gem—always pleased to be able to link to the articles of smart, thoughtful people.:) I’m suspicious of any historical method that proposes that history has a goal that it’s working towards in a linear fashion. While historiography may bring out facets of a particular historical period (such as the class structure and its effects), it can quickly become a “not seeing the forest for the trees” kind of exploration.

I think Blacker’s idea about historical figures as archetypes is spot on in many ways. There is a collective psychological phenomenon that occurs when we review past events. There is the perception of the figure at the time, and then there is the perception of that same figure many years later. The perception of that figure will be re-interpreted based on whatever the prevailing culture values are at the time of interpretation. What we take for granted in society is most certainly archetypal—those fundamental ideas upon which everything rests. The archetype remains the same, the perception of it will change based on many factors—economic stability, war and/or peace, and the status of women, just to name a few. Certainly, the farther away in history one gets from the life of a particular figure, the more of an archetype they become themselves. We don’t know the “real” person anymore, if we ever did—we only know their mythical status.

The Roosevelt example is interesting, and a very good illustration. I think it’s further proof of what Joseph Campbell suggested when he said we were a society without myths. There was a lot of concern about this in the Victorian era, (e.g., Matthew Arnold discussing the need to find one’s own myth or risk being subsumed by someone else’s), and in more contemporary history, the rate of social change coupled with disdain for anything that smacks of the “irrational” (which would include the religious and the psychological) has created this sort of archetypal disconnection. Actually, that may not be completely correct—the association is there, but it’s much more unconscious. There was certainly much more awareness of these associations in Medieval times.