History isn’t the past

History is evocative of many things. Sand, slowly cascading from ruins that were long abandoned. Tales, buried in morgues of parchment and paper, that speak of honour, betrayal, defeat and sacrifice. Individuals, who rose above the masses to become messiahs hailed or reviled; sometimes both. Events, whose resonance is still felt today, in the shape of countries and the worldviews they endorse.

But it’s definitely not the past. History is not our past. Well, except maybe the one we delete from our browsers. That’s probably something we would want to forget about immediately.

History is a complex creature, one that can be embellished or dulled at will, to suit a larger, grander narrative. We are forced to take what is stated in its annals, as they are, because we have no other option available. Short of going back in time, we may never know for certain what had actually happened back then.

One aspect of history that needs to be understood is that it’s an artificial construct. We created it, by ourselves. The truth of this statement, however, is often marred by a tendency to overtly-condense and to dismiss. That history is written for the most part, by victors, bears no doubt. But, that alone shouldn’t warrant a complete invalidation of all the sources of information that we’ve managed to collect about the past 3000 years and beyond.

Call it a natural human inclination, but for millennia, the emotional portion of any event has always appealed to us immensely. Historical figures have, on several occasions, been shown in a better light than they really were, with certain traits such as generosity inflated into legendary proportions, like the ‘Good King Wenceslas’. Based on the real-life Saint Wenceslaus, we can never find out if he really was as dedicated to the poor as it has been said. Conversely, someone like Vlad the Impaler, of the Dukedom Wallachia earned himself so much infamy that his legacy crossed over into fiction, as the vampire, drinker of blood.

What would make for an interesting comparison to History is social media. Like social media, personalities and events that leave behind a large footprint, or a deep impression in the mind of observers, find themselves more securely embedded in the records. It’s a natural habit; historians are people too. Like most of us, they too have a greater interest in events, individuals and occurrences that strike them as significant.

Conventionally, we do hold a certain level of scepticism when talking about certain rulers and events from history. After all, there exists the popular narrative of the ‘servile historian’ who exists solely to write pages on pages of praise to whoever signs his paycheques. But that ignores the fact that modern historical researchers have become wise to the writing of certain historians. More than official sources, or hagiographers, modern historians prefer to use information collected from letters of correspondence, diaries of socialites and flaneurs. By examining these clues, modern historians are able to piece together a cohesive narrative.

The question then arises, as to why these people even bother to record history. Indeed, the lack of Netflix and IMAX in the Medieval ages would have made the days feel a bit of a drag. But why would one take the effort to pen down facts and mundane observations of their days, only to lock them away in a cupboard?

I feel that the answer lies somewhere in our own sense of time and the constant reminder that we have very little of it. Every breath, every cough, every time we squint up to see the sky; it could be our last. This was still true at the turn of the 19th century, when modern medicine was in its infancy. We leave footprints in the sand, only to see them vanish by the time we turn. In an effort to stake out a small piece of ourselves, to leave a small bottle with a message that proclaims “we were here” just before we’re washed away by the cosmic timescale, we sit. And we record, in the hope that we will be heard, somewhere down the line, long after we’re gone.

So, history only includes those of immense fame or notoriety, and history is written by people who wish to be remembered as well. The problem with such an arrangement is when other people – casual readers like you or me – find out that they’ve been misled. For instance, here’s a simple one.

Thomas Alva Edison was hailed as one of the most iconic inventors of his age. Despite multiple scientists pointing out later on that he had not – as it was popularly believed – invented the lightbulb, he continues to receive credit for doing so. People also overlook the fact that Edison was very American when it came to making money off his inventions. He took patent battles very seriously when it came to matters involving alleged infringement of his ideas. He founded General Electric, which is still a top-5 business conglomerate today, having branched out to fields as diverse as entertainment, in the form of NBC broadcasting. Edison also wanted to achieve a monopoly over the electricity business, and relentlessly made attempts to sabotage his competitors. It didn’t help that his designs weren’t all that great, suffering from spark-related problems and an inability to supply over long distances.

It took another inventor, Nikola Tesla, to invent the modern electricity supply network and improve existing plans. Yet, Edison was contemptuous of Tesla and attacked him verbally in public. He also repeatedly rejected Tesla’s AC generator design, even though it was so well-built that it is still used in some industries today. History however, chooses to ignore Tesla to a large extent.

Today, there is a sizeable portion of the public that recognizes and appreciates his genius. But for the most of my childhood, Edison has always been portrayed as this genius that one should aspire to become, to emulate. He was extensively quoted for his thoughts on hard work and innovation. I only felt an exacerbated sense of betrayal when I learned of the true extent of his actions. It also made me feel sorry for Tesla. Forgotten, merely because he chose to live forgettably.

In a sense, that plays again into the idea that historians are only human. As a species, our fallacy is that we like to see everything around us in binaries. The old story of forces of ‘good’ uniting to defeat ‘evil’, the underdog overcoming the entire world to succeed. These tales will never grow stale for us. And if the facts point to the contrary, then we subconsciously make an effort to fit them to suit a narrative. A narrative of our own making.

They say that, those who fail to listen to history are doomed to repeat it. Perhaps so. But more than anything, what history needs to be is a solution. It has to give us a sense of solace and comfort, that there were people like us who came from before, and that we are not so alone. History has to be the endless road in the rear-view mirror. An indication that we’re following the path we have set for ourselves, and that no matter what – there’s always a way back.

Maybe history isn’t the past, but a painting of it. Like a painting, we all see the same thing. But what we take away from it, isn’t.

– Abinesh Kumar


The official media house of NIT Trichy.

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