Friday, 14 March 2014

Reading between history's lines -- part four

La máquina del tiempo (the time machine)
Museu d'Història de València, Spain
photo: Josep-Manel Vert (public domain)
"I drew a breath, set my teeth, gripped the starting lever with both hands, and went off with a thud. The laboratory got hazy and went dark. Mrs. Watchett came in and walked, apparently without seeing me, towards the garden door. I suppose it took her a minute or so to traverse the place, but to me she seemed to shoot across the room like a rocket. I pressed the lever over to its extreme position. The night came like the turning out of a lamp, and in another moment came to-morrow. The laboratory grew faint and hazy, then fainter and ever fainter. To-morrow night came black, then day again, night again, day again, faster and faster still. An eddying murmur filled my ears, and a strange, dumb confusedness descended on my mind."
H. G. Wells, The Time Machine, 1895
Since H. G. Wells published The Time Machine, what child has not imagined being in possession of such a device? The time machine exhibit at the Museu d'Història de València, in Spain was a brilliant idea. From its "science fiction" console, a child can enter any period of the history of Valencia and see the city as it was. Better than a typical school tour, it allows for self determinism -- the child is in "the driver's seat" and has the free will to go anywhere in the city's history.

We can all see the distant past by looking at the night sky as it takes so long for the light of a distant star to reach us. Some stars that we can see might not even exist anymore. A geologist, too, can travel back in time by looking at successive strata, although what exists now is not the same as it was millenia ago -- what was a spring flood is now a thin layer of sediment, and magma from the earth's interior is transformed into lava by a volcano and then cools to solid rock. While we do not experience the past through geology, we can still be certain of many of its events.

Science fiction has had a lot of fun with time travel since Wells with much of it focusing on the inevitable paradoxes that it could create. In his short story, Pawley's Peepholes (1951), John Wyndham humorously avoids the paradox situation by envisioning a future in which people can travel backwards in time, be seen by people in the past, and yet can have no physical effect on the timeline -- apart from annoying everyone by placing them in the position of being a living museum display and destroying any sense of privacy. In this future, time travellers are tourists and Pawley's Peepholes is the tour company. The matter gets resolved by everyone turning the tables on the tourists and advertising the phenomenon as way to see your descendants -- the tourists become the exhibit and then, apparently, Pawley's Peepholes goes out of business.

History is not some sort of akashic record, which contains everything, but it is always a selective view that is entirely directed by the historian. History is not "what happened", it is written text and its subjectivity is impossible to avoid. A historian can decide to include or omit anything and a history can have a theme that was not even a consideration to the people about whom the history was written.

In this series, I have taken a single event and compared its reporting through the eyes of Livy, Polybius and Trogus (abridged by Justin). If we assume that because an abridgement by one historian of the, now,  lost works of another adds another layer of subjectivity to a history, we might be excused for thinking that the Trogus account might be less accurate. Yet, it would seem it is the most reliable of all. Livy was a popularizer who was certainly going along with Augustus' nationalist plans, and Polybius, who did not engage in such fiction, himself, was more for just omitting details that might shame his patrons. Trogus, however, had no ax to grind and was critical of Livy's rhetoric. His people (the Vocontii) had a friendly treaty with Rome and thus enjoyed considerable autonomy. Those who believe that the Celts had a unified society might say that Trogus gave more credit to the Celts because of that, but the Vocontii were both Celtic and Roman. Multiculturalism takes the edge off nationalism.

History shares a lot with archaeology; Both are incomplete records of the past; Both are human interpretations of the past. The idea of an archaeological record is a fiction -- if it is inferred to represent the reality of the past. Archaeological remains are what is left of what was abandoned -- either by choice or circumstances. Nationalism can drastically distort history -- in a process which Yannis Hamilakis, (The Nation and its Ruins: Antiquity, Archaeology, and National Imagination in Greece) calls "The ritual strategy of purification" the Athenian Acropolis is now just a ghost of its true history, demolished (I would say vandalized) are Byzantine churches and Muslim mosques, shops, house and additions to ancient monuments -- all the physical remains of a true history. What remains is a mere slice from history, something that represents a perceived glorious time to those who ordered that evidence of certain parts of the past should be destroyed. (of course, some of this was also replaced by tourist facilities). What we do not see much is what preceded or followed that time and that is a shame because the past is a continuum and the greatest task of the historian is to, as truthfully as is possible, represent that process of history. while we see the greatness of Athens, we do not see so much of what made it that way, and how that greatness also paved the way for later events. Athens has been populated for nearly 7,000 years by diverse cultures. Perhaps other periods will be emphasized more in the future and then people will lament more about what has been destroyed in order to focus on a very small percentage of that past.

Archaeology can also suffer from modern theory -- things can be strained through Marxist (and many other) theories and while all of this is fairly obvious to the cognoscenti, it is not so obvious to the general public who generally take such accounts at face value. It thus has the real effect of a manipulation of the past. The past is also manipulated by politicians of every stripe, eager to convince everyone that they support a particular sort of society and that this is the only, real, national identity. Although most blatantly expressed under dictatorships, all governments do this to a greater or lesser degree.

So what is history (and archaeology) really about. Why do we engage in these subjects?  Mark Twain said that history does not repeat itself but it rhymes, and we usually only get to see how we have failed to learn from history after the event (some say we never learn from history). I asked "why?" to the numismatist and professor of history David MacDonald, and his reply was, in my opinion, the best reason I have ever heard. He said that the reason was: "To exercise the mind and to delight the senses". Perhaps, if we are true to that goal, then history will become far less subjective in both its subjects and its treatment. This is certainly why I engage in it. This blog is not pro bono publico and I suspect those who make such claims for their work -- it is done for the very reasons that David MacDonald gave me and because I would like to share the joy it brings me.

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