Discovering the truth

Written in response to Side View’s weekend theme: http://viewfromtheside.wordpress.com/

My dog only has one direction, and that is forwards.

This is merciful; for when we are passing any of his sworn enemies I only have to shepherd him past them so that there is a clear road ahead, and he’s off. He simply never looks back: simple being the operative word. His rather binary approach to life serves him admirably.

Perhaps that’s why we get on so well, because I, too, tend to look ahead without bothering to archive or document the past. Its a habit which exasperates My Husband The Historian. He has a filing cabinet somewhere in his head which holds dates which stretch back to the day we met. His past is an intricate lacework labrynth of dates and detail. Mine is a blur, an impressionistic daubing with the occasional moment of vivid clarity.

I remember what I consider the important things. The landmark events, of course, but also the small details; what I wore; some boorish character who made me laugh; a chance happening which touched my life momentarily and left a strong impression.

I’m not sure my choice of archive material is objective. It is built on perception: how I was, that day, whenever it was, long ago.

Documenters of the past always have their own way of looking at things. A prism through which history is refracted.

Shakespeare wrote a series of wild propagandist fantasies about our cultural bogeyman, Richard III. He reinvented his appearance as a grotesque hunchback when contemporaries simply noted one shoulder higher than the other; he confirmed Richard a heinous murderer when contemporary accounts tell a very different story.

Yes: the Princes disappeared from the tower on his watch. Dominic Mancini, who left London in mid-July 1483, said the boys “were withdrawn into the inner apartments of the Tower proper and day by day began to be seen more and more rarely behind the bars and windows, till at length they ceased to appear altogether”.

But while they disappeared, no-one knows how or why.

Yet our picture of Richard is fixed: because the greatest English wordsmith was also an astute and politic player under a Tudor Monarch. He wasn’t about to uphold anyone who could pose a problem for the Tudor succession.

So Shakespeare daubed a view of history with the brightest colours, and no-one dared question him during Elizabeth’s reign.

He has fashioned a version of accepted truth.

Which is what, with ribald irreverence, two gentlemen undertook to do within the pages of that hallowed publication, Punch, in the years running up to 1930.

Oxford graduates Walter Sellar and Robert Yeatman wrote an outrageous little work of comic genius called ‘1066 and All That’.

Parodying popular history books of the time, it is a laugh a sentence, a collection of comic pearls of great price. It shows how one can get history wrong with such engaging flamboyance that Middle England – including me – will flock to read it.

I will never be able to look at our ancient barrows in the same way after this:”The Ancient Britons were by no means savages before the Conquest, and had already made great strides in civilization, e.g. they buried each other in long round wheelbarrows (agriculture) and burnt each other alive (religion) under the guidance of even older Britons called Druids or Eisteddfods, who worshipped the Middletoe in the famous Druidical churchyard at Stoke Penge.

“The Roman Conquest, was, however, a Good Thing, since the Britons were only natives at that time.”

We are no nearer the truth with this parody than under the influence of Shakespeare’s expert quill. But by choosing the outrageous its authors gently test our understanding of how our history has been told.

When a writer, who has the ears of a nation, says it is thus: hordes of readers follow without question. This we have already established.

It falls to our friend Mr Orwell to take this to its extreme conclusion.

In George Orwell’s 1984, the state corners the market in writing.

‘Thoughtcrime’ is one of the greatest felonies. The faceless state chooses to assert its philosophy with three slogans: War Is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance Is Strength.

And because it is the only one with a voice, the State creates an obscene new truth. It is so, because everyone complies with this version. It seems it would be simple to brainwash an entire kingdom.

With the right voice – engaging like Shakespeare or strident as Orwell’s state – one can lead people to believe a lot of outrageous things.

Supposition and even falsehood can be enshrined in the layers of time: and all because we are not on our guard.

Orwell warns us how -when we take down our natural guard – truth is falsehood.

And ignorance is strength.

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21 thoughts on “Discovering the truth

  1. Must get myself a copy of 1066 and All That.
    About the only thing I know to be perfectly true is that avocado is no good without salt and pepper.
    Enjoy your Saturday, Kate.

    1. Thanks Cindy. I have never tried avocado with salt and pepper: I think perhaps that might explain why my life has not been going in the required direction. It is nearly lunchtime, and I plan to remedy this shortly. Practical, pithy advice with the added advantage of a guarantee of truth. What could be tastier?

  2. There is no absolute truth; only versions of it. If I have a row with my husband, we are both wrong and both right according to our personal truths.

    Yet another interesting post, Kate.

    1. Ain’t that a creditable version of the truth, Tilly…
      I like Schrodinger, myself. This wise and valiant cat teaches us many things about what is, and simultaneously is not. But Schrodinger fell foul of the whole Cats Can’t Talk thing, and we will never know what it was like to be there and not there at the same time. Someone should have installed a CatCam on his collar. Curses.

  3. Your writing reminds me of the “truths” so many have been led to believe in recent times.

    I love how you bring in Shakespeare and Orwell and such in your writings, Kate, and the things that have me googling and pulling down one of my dictionaries. (I love dictionaries – both new and old).

    1. One day, Penny, we should compare dictionaries. And I feel that Orwell knew precisely what he was talking about. It’s amazing how many outrageous assertions have become accepted fact. It feels like the Emperor’s New Clothes sometimes….

      Beautiful post today at Life On The Cutoff. Really beautiful. You can see, for once, that I am lost for words.

  4. I used to be your Husband the Historian, somewhere in the past decade I became You 😉 – and I must say, I’m much happier this way.

    Speaking of George Orwell and 1984, didn’t George W in recent history create his own obscene new truth that an obscenely large portion of the world fell for? We only have to know and be willing to play on people’s fears to have them falling like flies at our feet. Statesmen seem always to have known this ‘fact’ or ‘truth’ (call it what you will), and I’m beginning to wonder when, if ever, the populace will get it. Of course, sometime between now and that nebulous point in the future, Joe Human would have to stop running and stare his fears down… (ay, there’s the rub)

    1. You’ve hit the nail on the head, Ruth. Daniel Goleman’s Vital Lies, Simple Truth talks about the way humans simply ignore unpalatable truths…we use inattention. Will Joe Human ever be able to conquer this? Some of it is vital for his sanity I suspect: if we admitted the whole truth about our planet it might be a little much to bear…

  5. I hang on to what resonates and let the rest fade away, like so many droplets of water over the dam, as I continue forward on the journey.

    Orwell’s inclusion in this post = perfect! And that’s the truth. 😎

    Thanks, Kate.

    1. A strong picture of a tuning fork came into my head when I read that, Nancy. A surefire way for centuries to find a pure tone of a certain pitch. There are those out there who have perfect pitch: not me. I have good relative pitch. I have other points of reference because I don’t just know: I have to test it.
      If only there were tuning forks for truth. When I am in the middle of humanity’s noise I find it hard to determine.

    2. My first paragraph refers less to the truth finding aspects of this post and more to the first part of your post on storing our histories. I keep memories that resonate and let the rest fade away. I’m not concerned about keeping track of accurate dates, places, names, etc.

      I keep my perception or rendition of “the past”. . . knowing that we all mangle our memories anyway.

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