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Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Splattering Guts for Fun & Profit

by Bruce Bethke

I've been thinking a lot about history lately. Not about any piece of history in particular, but as a more metaphysical sort of question: just what exactly is history?

Yes, I know the standard answer: "The story of what happened as written by the winners." There is a significant amount of truth in this cliché, although "as written and read by the survivors" might be more accurate. One of the recurring motifs throughout history is the attempt to control history itself, in part by controlling literacy itself. A king is overthrown; the first thing we do is clarify our claim to his throne by burning his chronicles and killing his scribes. (Or in our mercy, we may choose only to blind them and cut out their tongues.) A city is taken; we burns its library, chisel the names of the previous owners off the stelae, and erect new monuments to our own glory. (Or more likely rename the existing monuments, as it saves time and money and in a generation or two no one will remember the old names anyway.) A troublesome province erupts in revolt again; this time we decide to really settle the issue, and so we level their temple, slaughter those of their population who stand and fight, conduct a διασπορά to scatter the survivors, ban the public use of their language, scratch the name "Judea" off our maps, and rename the entire region "Syria Palestina," in an attempt to erase even the memory of those bothersome people.

This is the pattern, again and again. The wonder of ancient history isn't the amount of sleuthing and scholarship required to reveal it, but that any of it survives at all. In 642, for example, the army of Amr ibn al-Ās conquered Egypt, and Amr installed his ex-wife's second husband(!), Umar, as sultan in Alexandria, where Umar ordered the books in the legendary Library of Alexandria burned to heat his bath water, on the grounds that anything those books contained that was already in the Quran was superfluous and anything that was not was heretical.

Or did he? Later historians say that story was pure libel, concocted to inflame Christian Europe against Islam. Even later historians say the libel was a libel, concocted to inflame Protestants against Catholics, and the original story was true. Delve into European and Middle Eastern history in any detail, and pretty soon you'll realize that the entire thing is just one giant mass of parochial and temporal libels and counter-libels: Christians libeling Moslems, Catholics libeling Eastern Orthodox, Protestants libeling Catholics, French libeling Germans, Venetians libeling Genoans, big-endians libeling little-endians—and everybody libels the Jews. It didn't take the advent of modern atheism for this to happen: most of what most modern college-educated Americans imagine they know of the "bloody history" of the Roman Catholic church is at root based in Lutheran and Anglican libels of the Papists, dating back to the time of the Reformation.

Nor are things any clearer if you leave Europe and look at the rest of the world. In the mountainous regions of Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand, for example, there live a people that generations of modern scholars have called the montagnards—or if they were striving to be correct, the Mèo—apparently never realizing that "montagnards" was the name the French colonists gave to the Hmong and "Mèo" was the even more insulting name the Vietnamese called them. So if even the best-funded and well-intentioned of modern scholars working within the context of living memory can't get such a simple thing right, what hope do we have for understanding what really happened five hundred, or a thousand, or two thousand years ago?

The take-away for writers this morning, then, is this: yes, read history. Read lots of history. To create realistic imaginary worlds, base your fantastic cultures on historical models. But always remember: when you read history, the only time when there is an absolute consensus on a given point is when no other primary source has survived to contest the case.
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