So I said to Jill, Did I ever tell you my philosophy of history? And she said, You can’t have a philosophy of history, it’s either history or it’s not.
It’s a common assumption, and we must explode it if we are to change not only the stories we tell, but also how we tell them.
And why would we want to do that? Because if we stay on the hamster wheel, then we’ll stay on the hamster wheel, and said hamster wheel is falling apart underneath us.
Here’s the philosophy:
History is written. That means it has been written by someone, maybe someone who was there when it happened, maybe someone ancillary to the process, maybe someone hired to write about the event.
We all know that history is generally written by the victors. Which leaves out at least one whole class of people whose experience of an event is likely to be radically different from others’.
Stick with me, here’s where it gets fun: It has been scientifically proven that when one retrieves a memory, any memory, one alters it. So every time a writer puts a “fact” to paper, that fact is somewhat altered.
Then there are editors and proofreaders, publishers and politicians, not to mention point-of-view – Rashomon, anyone? So the idea that history is fact couldn’t be more fallacious. It’s opinion at best – even when statistics have been gathered as in, say, the last American presidential election, how do we know that the gathered data are accurate? someone might have cheated, hacked, stolen, right? Which makes even historical statistics suspect.
So when we’re told “this is how it happened, this is history,” what we’re really being told is, “this is somebody’s partially accurate account of what happened, or might have happened, or might happen.” Not, “this is cast in stone.”
And that’s my philosophy of history.
What’s this article doing in a theater column? In recent years, some of my colleagues are insisting on being documentarily “accurate” in the works they’re putting on stages. They’re insisting on reflecting our culture ad nauseum (to be fair, that’s what educational entities and theaters are asking for because of the perception that it sells better than art) and keeping us on the hamster-wheel instead of moving society forward, which is the gift and responsibility of all artists. So I thought it was time to tweak that sensibility in a more public way than show-don’t-tell. We’re all so inundated with input that reflection and critical thinking are at an all-time low, yet absolutely crucial to this society’s survival.
If you can bend your mind around this philosophy, you might be able to tell your stories differently, in ways that are as historically accurate as possible but also point to the future instead of vomitously rehashing the past and calling the product “truth.”
We must change the world, shift the paradigm. To repair it would be to continue to shore up outdated systems (e.g., “be fruitful and multiply”) which made sense 5000 or 6000 years ago, but no longer. So we the storytellers must change the stories we tell, and how we tell them.
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image by Cecelia White