Monday, February 3, 2014

Story and history

German uses the same word, die Geschichte, to mean both story and history. Such a blurring of lines is especially interesting given how little we know about what actually happened in history - we have plenty of records, but none can be called completely objective. Some historical facts aren't under question - the Nile did really flood every year, for example. But many parts of history are not nearly as easy to figure, especially when it comes to politics, war, and the why questions.

(Even some so-called facts are up for debate. A friend's favorite story to illustrate this point is the Greek historian Herodotus, whose credentials as a believable source could not be better. He is very careful to note how he came by his information, if it was first-hand, second-hand, third-hand, and so forth. He discusses the credibility of his sources. He tells you if he believes something to be true or not. He's willing to write things that reflect badly on his own people. At a time when many sources reported everything that came to them as fact without distinguishing the reasonable from the absurd, his careful charting of sources and credibility is a wonder. And then he tells you about seeing the flying snakes when he was visiting Saudi Arabia. What should we do with that?)

History matters, in a whole number of ways. One very concrete way is in modern-day territorial disputes, as found in Israel/Palestine or Zimbabwe (or most of the Middle East, Africa, Russia/Eastern Europe and much of Asia. Also Quebec. Occasionally Texas). North America and Western Europe are largely free from having their geography questioned, in large part because they were the ones who drew the geographical lines for everyone else. I digress.

In territorial disputes, history is appealed to as a source of truth and ultimate judge. Both sides in such a dispute declare that their claim to this land or that resource is the first, and therefore must be respected. This looks very pleasant, until you getting clashing views of history. At some point, history (what really happened) and story (what may have happened) get very very confused. That point often comes up very quickly.

Now some might disagree with my definitions of history and story in this context. That's fine. I think the delineation is a helpful one, though, and makes the study of history all the more interesting. Essentially, the more I study history, the more I realize that most of what we know isn't history at all, but story. There's truth in there, but it doesn't look like tidy scientific laws or elementary school textbooks. The truth of stories is always under question, as it should be. Some stories contain truth because they recount something that veritably occurred. Many stories contain truth because they speak to something beyond a recounting of facts: emotions, experiences, reactions, deeply-held opinions. That's mostly how we interact with the world, messy as it is, and one of the reasons I love literature so much.

For all the German's lack of distinguishing between story and history looks like a failure for precision of language, it may actually communicate something more. Story contains truth and history isn't all truth. I think that's really cool.

1 comment:

  1. Jessica, I enjoyed reading your ruminations regarding the concept of Geschichte and found that they resonated with thoughts I've had concerning this incisive word. As you've expressed, I think it's vital to transcend notions of objectivity claimed, at times, of certain disciplines (or one could at least allude to an aura of objectivity, say, surrounding a stereotypical form of scientific inquiry) and, instead of this, to dive into the messy stories that are necessarily told (and don't exist before they're told. I find it useful to use the concept of Historie as a backdrop against which Geschichte is cast into relief, insofar as Historie (the way that I understand it) accounts for everything that has been and Geschichte is Historie filtered through an Erzähler.) Definitely a relevant point of discussion for the book we're reading for Dr. Kim's class! Thanks for the thought-provoking read!