Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The myth of history

One of my favourite running jokes in the animated series Futurama is their depiction of history. As Futurama is set around the year 3000, our time is history so we get a representation of how these future people imagine our lives. Much like we try to piece together ancient history from fragments, the future people have no reliable record of our era ("The Stupid Ages") because of alien invasion and various other catastrophes.

The reason I like their history jokes is that they are broad and subtle at the same time. Broad because their guesses at our lives are always absurdly wrong. The have one piece of evidence and from this they extrapolate our entire lives, usually with surreal results. "Primitive" car assembly robots are depicted like Flintstone cavemen, complete with leopard print leotards, clubs and saying "ooga-booga."

When an ancient pizza place is uncovered, it is surmised that the scoop used to get pizzas out of the oven was actually for paddling delivery boys. The main character, Fry (who was a pizza delivery boy in the 20th century), corrects the museum and tells them paddling him was only one of the uses it was put to ("It was also used to move pizzas and crush rats").

The jokes are subtle at the same time because they are pointing out that our understanding of ancient history are probably just as screwy. Very little history is based on "fact" - it's nearly all guesswork. Sometimes there is a lot of supporting evidence but there's no getting around the fact that, educated or not, guesswork is the dominant feature of history.

One of my favourite examples of this is the so-called Venus of Willendorf. This paleolithic sculpture of a well-rounded woman has produced many theories, usually geared to fit in with the political agenda of the theory's proponent. The exaggerated sexual characteristics have led many to believe that it is some sort of fertility object or it is evidence of a strong matriarchy existing in a prehistoric culture. Yeah, either that or it was made by a teenage boy with a thing for big titties.

There's also a storm in a teacup being brewed by certain historians over the new film "300". The film is based on the graphic novel (i.e. comic) by Frank Miller, which in turn is inspired by the famous story of the stand taken by 300 Spartans against an advancing Persian army in the Battle of Thermopylae. It is by all accounts a visual extravaganza and if you happen to like watching large numbers of semi-naked men with impressive abs get disembowelled, then this is the movie for you.

But a number of historians are up in arms over what they perceive as the gross inaccuracies in the movie (what, you mean there weren't really obese guys with swords for arms working as executioners in ancient Persia?) Their self-righteous prattle is completely pointless for two main reasons:

1. It's entertainment you fucking idiots. For god's sake, it's a movie based on a fucking comic. A classical story is being used as a vehicle to explore themes. It has no pretension of being a history text. And it's hardly the film-makers' fault if anyone takes it such.

2. Your precious "history" is bullshit. What are so-called historical records of the Battle of Thermopylae based on? Third hand accounts, self-serving memoirs and poetry for fuck's sake! There is no evidence whatsoever that any historical version of Thermopylae is any more accurate than the imaginings of people from the year 3000 in Futurama. Opinions are not the same as evidence.

For anyone who feels like getting all huffy about the sanctity of history, think about this: how often have you been to some sort of performance (a concert, a play or maybe a movie) that you absolutely loved then later you heard someone else savaging it, saying it was the biggest load of shit ever? And how many times have you witnessed some significant event then heard someone else report it totally differently?

Maybe their physical location was different to yours and so they literally saw it differently. Maybe their personal or political outlook is different to yours and so they saw it differently metaphorically. Or maybe they're a liar. Or maybe they're just a dick. But when you can't trust someone to accurately report on something you witnessed yourself yesterday, how the fuck can you trust accounts of what may or may not have happened thousands of years ago?

In short, if you feel that it's necessary in your professional role to get worked up over a movie (whether your a historian or maybe a politician) you're not a professional. You're a fucking joke.

No comments: