Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Combining Myth and History*

My academic background has shaped my world view, or, more accurately, my world view shaped my academic background. Probably mutually. This helped sharpen my intellectual focus. I hold degrees in English and history; I was going to do the reading for both subjects anyway, so I figured that I might as well get the paper that said I had read it all.

I believe history is a powerful force. Real history is dirty and ugly and through it humanity shines on through. History lays out the worst and best of humanity.

American history, for example, is an exercise in redemptive reflection. We acknowledge our country's moral failings; they inspire us to move closer to that moral perfection that we wish we could achieve: equality and freedom. In the U.S. Holocaust Museum, there is a room that shows how America failed, how we turned away those needing asylum, a gut punch that reminds us we can and will do better. We study the horrors of slavery and the Trail of Tears to remind us that man's inhumanity to man is not an abstract concept. It is a truth that we live with, and that we can grow out of through humanitarian actions, striving for peace and defending what is right. Not all of our history is the caricature of jingoistic American history; we teach and read harsh history, because the truth is a harsh light that focuses us.

History is not just a parade of horribles; we have abolitionists and Jewish sympathizers to pair as heroic figures against the outright villainous and the merely complacent. See, history is more than just factual truth; it tells us of an emotional, human truth. With differing levels of cynicism:
Historical sense and poetic sense should not, in the end, be contradictory, for if poetry is the little myth we make, history is the big myth we live, and in our living, constantly remake.” ~ Robert Penn Warren
History is a great deal closer to poetry than is generally realized: in truth, I think, it is in essence the same.” ~ A. L. Rowse
History is a myth that men agree to believe.” ~ Napoleon
This ties into my other passion: literature. More specifically, myths, fairy tales, legends, epics. Like history, these tales educate the public on issues ranging from morality to politics Why do you think the scops, bards and story tellers of the past were held in places of honor? Because the historian bound generations together. If we forget, we risk more than repeating the past's mistakes – we risk forgetting parts of us.

The greatest conflicts in humanity, like all great stories, have a moral component, though we may not see it at the time, or ignore it until it is too late. As history moves forward, we do more than just record. We enrich it with tradition. It becomes, what I probably incorrectly, refer to as myth history.
"If you happen to read fairy tales, you will observe that one idea runs from one end of them to the other – the idea that peace and happiness can only exist on some condition. This idea, which is the core of ethics, is the core of the nursery-tales." ~ G. K. Chesterton
"Deeper meaning resides in the fairy tales told me in my childhood than in any truth that is taught in life." ~ Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller
Myths allow us to pass on a message that holds part of our culture and history. Early cultures passed down their tales orally; the Brothers Grimm and Gibbon wrote them down. A few decades ago, we mastered the documentary and the movie. Today, we blog and YouTube. Modern America manufactured myths for marketing purposes, but Rudolph and Paul Bunyan do more than hock Pepsi. For some cultures, myth history takes a more religious tone, like the ancient Egyptians or Greeks. For others, like the Romance of Three Kingdoms, the stories were history.

Myths don't just comment on life, they enhance it. Social and economic history plays a bigger part here; not everyone can relate to high priests, kings and generals. Children are often the protagonists in fairy tales because being Hansel and Gretel makes the story more enthralling. The diaries of ordinary people knowing what they ate, the story of their lives – brings history alive. By making history more than just a collection of dominoes falling, historians breathe stories into life.

Like all art, history builds to an emotional release. Historians' building blocks are facts and concepts. When we finish the story, we get it. This makes myths an excellent medium for telling truths, and history often falls into this trap. Take the “Midnight Ride of Paul Revere,” which is, by all accounts, pretty bad history. Yet, it captures the event's aura.
Historians must walk a careful line in translating the truth of the event (the myth) with the facts. That's something I want to explore. This blog will not always be quite such heavy reading. Other times, I may have footnotes. I want to explore both the myths that make our culture a people and the history that bridges us to other people, past and present.

Also, it is a great excuse to visit museums and engage in a conversation. Before I introduce each new theme, I hope to make a post like this, to introduce how I think about things.
"In a utilitarian age, of all other times, it is a matter of grave importance that fairy tales should be respected."
~ Charles Dickens
Come back Monday for our first museum visit! Thank you, and I hope you enjoy this as much as I do!

Below most posts will be side notes. While the blog's main focus is history, it will also take diversions. Follow me on Twitter @mjs69002, and I'll tweet out whenever posts go out.

*Then again, if this is true, there may be no point in alternative historical analysis.

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