I’ve spent a fair portion of this morning, ploughing through ‘History’s Worst Decisions and the people who made them’ by Stephen Weir, and found it to be an agreeable way to block out the repetitive strands of chirpy kids’ songs incessantly playing in the background. However, while I’d recommend the book as a glib and humorous read (as you would no doubt anticipate from the title), it has left me with some troubling concerns.
Well, there’s only one troubling concern really. That’s my memory, or rather the lack thereof. It is a disconcerting experience to be reading a summary of some historic event and realise that while you have the vague impression that you used to know a fair bit about it, the knowledge must have rusted away over the years like an old nail, sticking out of a disused dog kennel left out in the rain.
It’s rather like meeting someone that you vaguely recognise and then they start chatting away to you as though you’ve met before, but you can’t remember their name or anything much about them. That’s a depressing thought really. It means that in spite of the time and effort spent at high school, studying for history tests and writing essays, the bulk of historical knowledge that once resided in my brain has evaporated into a hazy cloud of guilt-inducing senility. History is like an acquaintance that I’m scared of ever bumping into because they’ll just make me feel awkward and ashamed that they’re now just a fuzzy collection of features that I know I should recognise.
As if my mental deterioration wasn’t enough cause for alarm, there are also the ominous words of George Santayana to consider: ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’. This is a terrifying prospect for me. Does it mean that because I’ve forgotten a great deal about the French Revolution, I’m therefore doomed to start guillotining my way through the French aristocracy? Will my inability to correctly recall the dates of Second Punic War and Hannibal’s rampaging attacks along the Iberian Peninsula compel me to try to cross the Alps with a bunch of elephants?
Obviously, I’m exaggerating. I lack the experience and means, and perhaps more importantly the requisite ‘get up and go’ type personality, to ever embark on revolutions or plans to invade Rome. Still, I fear there may be some truth in the whole failing to learn from your past mistakes makes you more likely to do something stupid in the future theory.
It is all too easy to let our forgetfulness cause us to repeat the same action. Many a time, I have been in possession of an open packet of chocolate biscuits and my failure to remember whether I had already eaten one or two chocolate biscuits did indeed condemn me to eat another. And another. And then another. In fact, History has, on such occasions, been repeated upon the biscuits with such relentlessness that entire packets have been demolished without me noticing until it was too late. Sadly, this behaviour is often mistaken for greed rather than forgetfulness. It seems that my goldfish memory which so wretchedly fails to recall the number of chocolate biscuits I’ve consumed with any accuracy is not considered a valid defence for guzzling a whole packet of Tim-Tams or Toffee Pops.
However, I suspect the point that Santayana and those like him are trying to impress upon us is not that we should take care to see the wisdom, or lack thereof, from the past, sort of like viewing History as a series of fable-like events that illustrate the danger of humanity’s rather consistent potential to do unpleasant things for not very good reasons. The ‘moral’ of events in which devastating numbers of people died remains with us even after the exact facts and dates fade away. You don’t have to recall exactly how many of Napoleon’s troops died before he reached Vitebsk to know that invading Russia is generally bad idea that never seems to work out as well as power-crazy dictators hope.
I’m not saying that I think the tragic loss of lives and horrific wars are of no more importance to us than Aesop’s ‘The Fox and the Crow’ because obviously they are. The fictional account of a bird losing out on some cheese to a cunning fox doesn’t affect us with the same weight and gravitas as a catastrophic event that actually happened and nor should it. However, I think there is a real connection in that there is a human tendency to look for the narrative meaning whenever we process events whether they’re fictional, historical or occurring in the world around us.
Humans are obsessive seekers of story. We’re always looking for the heroes and villains of any tale we encounter, regardless of whether it’s fiction or not. We forage around, searching for the interesting characters whose traits we can find admirable or repentant or even just relatable. We want to know the intentions and motivations of those involved. We’re fascinated to learn the outcomes of any conflicts - whether people will triumph over adversity or fail as a result of some identifiable weakness or injustice.
I think the reality of many events may seldom be as simple or pleasingly mythic as they can appear. Few wars can really be broken down into a conveniently uncomplicated ‘good versus bad’ scenario with the benefit of hindsight and the absence of propaganda. Still, many historical events have a strong sense of the epic tale to them, and the classic themes of ‘people undone by hubris’ and ‘vaulting ambition hastily followed by a nasty death’ come through again and again throughout the centuries. Are the parts of History that don’t fit our desire for a dramatic and inspiring story simply forgotten over the years, deleted by the officious editor of time for being too dull and not moving the plot forward? Do events get distorted when they’re recorded by historians and moulded into a more entertaining narrative? Or is it in fact that all the classic myths that seem so far-fetched are actually quite good representations of the sorts of stupid things that people keep on doing and that we are as a species lamentably short-sighted, and prone to greed, arrogance, megalomania and ill-judged plans driven by lust and revenge?
Whatever the case, I can at least take some comfort that the larger-than-life tales of history have remained with me even if the details and dates seemed to have wandered off. Hopefully, when I’m an even more senile old lady who annoys her grandchildren by calling them the wrong name, I will still have many stories left in my head to tell them, even if my versions are a bit fuzzy around the edges.