Wednesday, January 18, 2012

your history and mine

History is so much more interesting than the overlays of bias and judgment that are brought to bear within its realms. But it is also a conundrum. On the one hand, the closer the study, the more its lack of resolution becomes apparent. On the other hand, the mind demands resolution (and applies bias and judgment) as a means of informing the present.

Last night, I got sucked into watching a TV examination of George Armstrong Custer, an American colonel who was wiped out at Little Big Horn by Indians whose land an expanding America and its government was seeking to control. It was a nice study, one whose commentators did not altogether lie down and spread their legs for the easy judgments of those who look back casually.

As always, the examination boiled down to people -- real individuals with real agendas and a willingness, however tempered, to advance those agendas. Each aspect of personality and agenda, when examined, had a way of having plots within plots, connections within connections, enmities and friendships that relied on other enmities and friendships. "God" and "justice," "hell" and "injustice," "truth" and "lies" were woven into the panorama. And the further the examination went, the more intricate and human it became... and the more judgment and bias seemed irrelevant or perhaps just self-serving.

Because I have a poor memory, I have always admired those who had a good one -- the historians who could bring facts of the past to bear in the present. There was a part of me that was ashamed to be so poorly equipped. I imagined I was full of facile bias -- remembering what was convenient to me and my agendas, but not really capable of sussing out the particulars that could create a more accurate past.

But today it occurs to me that history is a business that cannot help but be inaccurate. No one can grasp the past. History, when its any good, is basically just the least-inaccurate rendition of what happened in what is imagined to be past. It is useful stuff, but it is also biased and incomplete stuff. Why? Because history concerns people and people are chock-a-block with information and emotion and connections from which only a fool would draw fershur conclusions and hence bias.

And if any of this speculation is close to being true, what can it tell anyone about his or her own history, his or her own past? No one can grasp the past and yet their own past can be very compelling. Habits shaped in the past can strangle or inform the present. Sorrows once borne can be sorrows that still whisper. Accomplishments of another time can linger and bring a joy or create a building block for further accomplishment and satisfaction.

But is it all true -- can we really remember what we claim to remember? I am inclined to say no. We remember approximations and treat them as fact. It's not good or bad -- but I do think it is what is. People are too intricate, too wondrously messy, to be nailed down. They are the Jell-O which refuses to be nailed to the wall.

And there is usefulness to be found in such approximations, I think. The usefulness lies in the ability to investigate our least-inaccurate facts. What worked? What didn't work? What either worked or didn't work and yet might have the opposite effect in other circumstances, other people, other flavors of Jell-O? It's an iffy realm, but getting used to the 'iffy,' making friends with it instead of spreading our legs for facile judgment and conclusions, is useful. Such an investigation does not mean dissolving into a puddle of simpering relativism -- if nothing can be grasped then any choice, any grasping, is equally fruitless -- but it does mean getting a perspective that does not rely so much on the unreliable.

Everyone's got a history.

And here it is.

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