History Never Looks Like History

Lascaux cave wall paintings
Lascaux cave wall paintings

Quote of the Day
History never looks like history when you are living through it.
John W. Gardner

But what then, is history? I make history each day I wake, pushing layers of coverlets and cats aside, feet finding the floor as I push myself upwards and out, adding more breath to the lines and subplots of my life. But do I live it? Yes and no. A Buddhist will tell you that unless you live ‘in’ the moment, aware of each little twitch enveloping you, you are lost in fantasy. Yet, a caveman might grunt, ‘it’s all about the hunt,’ while he regales you with stories of what was and what will be.

My history is about my grandparents’ history. I remember them as they sat hour by hour watching the first Americans cavort on the dusty face of the man in the moon. Say cheese, please. They remembered horses and buggies, their first telephone, a party line, if you please, and the dirty trenches of a war to end all wars. This was their history, and now mine, a gift they imparted to me by story, by action, by endless 8mm films, clicking reels whirling through the contraption that cast their images on a roll-down screen. Occasionally the film got stuck and we would watched it melt. The movie was lost, but not the history, the players, my parents and aunts and uncles, who still sat living, breathing beside me in the living room, proof of that.

Grand histories, remote histories. I am a frequent visitor to archaeological sites on the Internet, where scientists struggle to reconstruct the meagre remains of ancient societies such as Catal Hoyuk to build a modern history for these pre-historic and forgotten folk. They seem unreal but yet, the stone and clay walls, the carvings, the faded painted images we can touch if we visit, or watch upon our laptop screens.

History is in the doing and living. It is written by the winners until you read between the lines, witness the hazy ghost images dancing in the spaces where our Buddhist friends will tell us lies the reality of life and death. Did Cleopatra really love Anthony, or was it a political expediency to pursue trade pacts and survival from a dominant world power? Is it hunt or tribute the artist sought to record upon the walls of the Lascaux caves? What do I paint upon the walls of the historical aether when I recall my young brother and I stuffing our faces with a whole box of Chicklets ™ at one chew: is it our story recorded in mental images, or is it an emotional story, or one of the senses? It is my history, and that of my brother, not because he remembers it, or writes about it, but because he was there, he lived it with me.

But history, once it is corralled by a bunch of words strung together in some syntactically correct series of paragraphs and pages and chapters, is by its very nature, distorted. It has ceased to live, it has become permanent, no longer subject to sensual interpretation, to emotional input or re-living, because, you see, the scientists tell us that re-living isn’t actually possible. It is fictional, the stuff of fantasies and other worlds that might invite us to look, to listen, even to ponder meanings, but it is no longer reality. It is only the living, the ‘in-the-moment’ that is history, or hers, or theirs or ours.

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