the death of history: a christmas tale

“History does not exist”. When Johnny came to this unusual conclusion during class, he found it hard to remain enthusiastic. All of those textbook atrocities, and all that wonderful romance, were unrecoverable, ephemeral moments – so distressingly frail that it made Johnny nearly cry.

His thought was, that their literal intangibility defined them not as ‘history’ (which Johnny believed was represented (now misrepresented) as this terribly real thing in all the books, which was absurd, because they were all just memories anyway, and memories aren’t real, you can’t touch a memory), but as rememberings. And everyone remembered everything a little bit differently – like a million little cameras all filming the same scene, with the same actors, but from all different angles. Everything was basically just distorted when the cameras tried to play back their film all coherently with each other.

Johnny found even more problems when these films were relayed to a third party who wasn’t even there, so they end up with a record of an event that took place entirely in their head. To teach that this was something that actually happened was stupid. History wasn’t real; history was the practice of synopsizing one film of one event by either a first or, more usually, a second and, more devastatingly, a third party. Johnny felt it pretty keenly that he should tell this to his teacher. She had been misguidedly teaching them history for nearly twenty-five minutes now, and Johnny didn’t want to waste any more of her time. Unfortunately, he soon found himself outside the headmaster’s office.

Johnny had a pretty hard time convincing his headmaster of the infinite variations of the nonexistence of history. As an example, he spoke of the nativity – the story of a birth, not recorded by any of the witnesses, but written down sometime in the first-century AD, by so-called Luke and so-called Matthew and, to make matters worse, a number of books not considered legitimate even by those who choose to believe in the events they describe. His headmaster tried to explain the difference between faith and history; he thought this was a particularly bad example Johnny had used. Johnny didn’t think so. Johnny thought there was actually very little difference between history and faith, especially because all so-called history is temporally defined by its orbit around a date primarily distinguished for its relation to an unhistorical figure, or at least a figure remembered primarily for his ahistorical accomplishments.  So-called history in the modern West announced itself with the four-point-five-billion year anticipation of a birth.

During this conversation Johnny came to his second conclusion: that history was basically a faith. And Johnny had never had a faith before, and he didn’t feel too strongly inclined to suddenly accept one. Besides, he hated death-bed converts. It was so cheap. It was Johnny’s job to unravel this nonsense, to destroy this idiotic trust, to kill off history.

Johnny established pretty quickly that all these problems originate in books, and more specifically words – where the objective gives way to the subjective, the pages-corporeal to the language-abstract. All so-called history was was the ghosts of people who used to be real, but were now only remembered, whose continued phantomic existence owed itself to our trusting the truth of these rememberings. And Johnny saw this reflected in the word, where the word was only the little ghost of the once-tangible thing it represents. History was all ghosts within ghosts. The word is constantly open to an eternal number of interpretations, and to not even being understood at all in the first place, and to being half-obscured or half-read. The word was basically only a guide, and everybody used it differently. Johnny’s Napoleon probably looked nothing like Emily’s – she had probably read something about Napoleon that Johnny hadn’t, and altered her Napoleon accordingly. Emily was always reading books like that. Like she was desperately trying to cement every dead person she knew about in an hideous, bloated statue. Like an over-enthusiastic taxidermist. By comparison, Johnny’s Napoleon looked like an anorexic sock-puppet. But it was okay, Johnny knew, because his Napoleon was just as valid as Emily’s Napoleon, and neither of them were so-called historical. They were protagonists in neglected war films.

And what if we read something about something that happened so uncertainly ago that it’s just impossible to conclude as to the correct sequence of somethings when in one book this something is decisively and apocalyptically contradicted in another book. Johnny figured that ‘it is likely’ that ‘this is probably the reason’ why so many writers speak with hypothetical Tourettes.

There were, of course, people employed to try and eradicate all the little errors from so-called histories, using their minute academic tweezers to tweak out the fluff of ignorance. They hated ignorant fluff. But anybody who has ever studied this subject will know that, from Herodotus and Thucydides to Edward Said and Ernest Gellner, these guys are just as incapable of figuring it all out as we are.

Perhaps it was best to adopt a slightly new formula to writing books about the rememberings of the past. A bit like this: This person used to be alive, but they aren’t anymore. We think this is probably what they did, but obviously we can’t be sure because we aren’t them, and they are dead. Someone else might think things happened a bit differently, and they could also be right.  And, Johnny thought, there wouldn’t be any more need for blind, relentless trust.

He wondered why it was of any greater consequence that he should believe in the Great Schism, in the Declaration of Arbroath, in the career of Murasaki Shikibu, or the leg wound of Benedict Arnold, over the story of the Deluge, the resurrection of a dead man, or the lecturing of a bush on fire. History at points becomes so informed by faith, and faith so by history, that it all quickly turned into a terrible, sludgey landslide in Johnny’s head. These had not been events in which he was a supporting character, let alone a leading actor. So, no, he was certainly not certain of their veracity.

Everything was so indistinct in Johnny’s mind, that it paved the way for his next, his most important, thought…

It was nearly the end of the school day, and Johnny had just reached his third and final conclusion – well, not a conclusion really, but the total (up-till-now misunderstood) understanding of the cyclical past. Before, when people said things like oh it’s just history, it’s repeating itself, they had no idea what they were talking about. Johnny had the idea now, though. So-called history didn’t repeat itself. Any idiot could tell you that, even Lottie, who everybody knows is thick as anything. What happened was that people thought it was repeating itself because what people were talking about wasn’t history, which we already know doesn’t even exist anyway, they were talking about rememberings. And the important thing about rememberings is – they have to be general. This was a rule worth remembering, thought Johnny. Rememberings have to be general, otherwise only a couple of people would be able to talk about them. But by talking about ‘the War’ or ‘the Depression’ or ‘the Crusades’ or ‘the Abolitionists’  other people knew what you meant. Or knew what they thought you meant.

Basically, Johnny decided, what this meant was that when people said that the endless machinations of war were proof of the inevitable repetitions of history, what they were saying was this is War, and we know about War from before, which is rubbish. All the wars are completely different, and no murder is really anything at all like another murder, even if they happen at about the same time, or because of familiar motives. The same could be said for oppression, or the rise and fall of political institutions, or the occasional malthusian disaster.

Rememberings therefore become indistinct because there is no possible way of unanimously remembering them completely, and so they begin to take on characteristics of other events a bit like them but before in time, and will be benchmarks when people think themselves in similar situations later on in time.

It also tied in neatly with his idea that rememberings written down are open to all kinds of interpretation – finding patterns when there probably weren’t patterns to find at the time. It was just like in this story. Just because something reads like the linear passage of time, it maybe won’t always be so simple like that.

Johnny didn’t really blame anyone too much for believing in history. But really, the human brain simply could not be capable of that kind of perception, no way. After all, some people won’t even remember in the moon-landings, and if some people will flat-out refuse to accept happenings of the past like this, it’ll always be impossible to teach people what is so-called history.

Johnny was sitting thoughtfully in his chair when the teacher asked him what was his opinion of the historical importance of the Aurignacian cave paintings. And Johnny said,

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