Monday, August 27, 2018

Pitfalls of history - III

The very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world. Lies will pass into history. - George Orwell

History often documents the activities of those in power and ignores the day to day lives of ordinary people. This led Gandhi to write in Hind Swaraj,  ‘History, as we know it, is a record of the wars of the world...How kings played, how they became enemies of one another, how they murdered one another, is found accurately recorded in history and if this were all that had happened in the world, it would have been ended long ago.' He says that ‘history is really a record of every interruption‘ of the normal  tenor of life.

Many written works will be hagiographies of those in power. They will be works of propaganda to consolidate the position of a ruler by portraying their struggles to gain power as being inevitable, glorious, and popular. Such a manipulation of the facts is a feature of all authoritarian states. As George Orwell observed, ‘He who controls the past, controls the future, he who controls the present, controls the past.’ This phenomenon isn’t only a characteristic of one-party states. School textbooks in democratic states are often selective in their use of evidence reflecting the ideological leaning of whoever is in power. Francis Bacon said, ‘Knowledge is power.’ But often, especially in fields of history, sociology and anthropology, it is more correct to say ‘power is knowledge’. (I saw an instance of this in this article.) In this post, there is an observation by the philosopher Hannah Arendt on the role of falsehood in the craftsmanship of what we call history:
Men who act, to the extent that they feel themselves to be the masters of their own futures, will forever be tempted to make themselves masters of the past, too. Insofar as they have the appetite for action and are also in love with theories, they will hardly have the natural scientist’s patience to wait until theories and hypothetical explanations are verified or denied by facts. Instead, they will be tempted to fit their reality — which, after all, was man-made to begin with and thus could have been otherwise — into their theory, thereby mentally getting rid of its disconcerting contingency.
Important events in the history of a nation take on a life of their own and are related differently by different groups. Shahid Amin writes in Event, Metaphor, Memory of the different versions and emphases of nationalists, the nation-state of India and the local population of the violence at Chauri Chaura in 1922. As he says, ‘When historical significance is attached to an occurrence independent of the event, the facts of the case cease to matter. And where all subsequent accounts are parasitic on a prior memory, documentation seems almost unnecessary.’

History written today is a narrative of progress revolving around great people and great events, a grand narrative that Gandhi rejected. As Ronald Terchek writes in Gandhi: Struggling for Autonomy, 'Enamoured of progress, this meta narrative does not bother to assess the costs of change or consider what is being discarded, confusing greater control over nature for control over oneself and mistaking new powers over nature for wisdom.'

In Akira Kurosawa's 1950 film Rashomon, a murder is described in four mutually contradictory ways by its four witnesses.The film gave rise to the term ‘The Rashomon effect ‘ which occurs when the same event is given contradictory interpretations by different individuals involved.  It refers to the contested interpretations of events and the existence of disagreements regarding the evidence of events. It indicates the subjectivity of perception which distorts recollection by observers of an event resulting in their relating substantially different but equally plausible accounts of it.

Such a “Roshomon Effect" was what concerned Gandhi while reading historical accounts. He was influenced by the Jain concepts of anekantavada (or "many-sidedness") and syadvada ("conditioned viewpoints"). It is illustrated  with the parable of the blind men and an elephant. As a poem about it concludes, 'Though each was partly in the right / And all were in the wrong!'. Thus while one's subjective experience is true, it may not be the totality of truth. David Hardiman writes in Gandhi in His Time and Ours:
When in jail between 1922 and 1924 , he read Edward Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire...He also read J.L. Motley's Rise of the Dutch Republic...and Lord Rosbery's Life of Pitt....He felt that though Gibbon and Motley claimed to present the 'facts and nothing but the facts' -...'facts' were always open to dispute. Taking a passage from Rossbery, he remarked wryly that even Pitt's supposed 'last words' were denied by his butler. What remained, therefore, was a presentation of an argument by each author.
What he concluded therefore was that, far from being objective, histories were also myths constructed by a writer using various sources and were distorted by their own prejudices and fantasies. He preferred great myths of the past like the Mahabharata which did not claim to be objective accounts of past events. He felt that these myths preserved the ethical learnings from past events which was what was important. For  Gandhi, righting present injustices was more important than avenging past injustices.

Societies are divided into two types depending on their attitude to history. Societies which lay great store in recording and remembering the events in their past are called historical societies. An ahistorical society is one that is  lacking historical perspective or context.  These societies depend on folktales, epics etc. which they believe contain important lessons from past events. India has been considered an ahistorical society. Ashis Nandy says in a transcript of a speech he gave called History's Forgotten Doubles:
The major difference between those living in history and those living outside it, especially in societies where myths are the predominant mode of organizing experiences of the past, is what I have elsewhere called the principle of principled forgetfulness. All myths are morality tales. Mythologization is also moralization; it involves a refusal to separate the remembered past from its ethical meaning in the present. For this refusal, it is often important not to remember the past, objectively, clearly, or in its entirety. Mythic societies sense the power of myths and the nature of human frailties; they are more fearful than the modern ones - forgive the anthropomorphism - of the perils of mythic use of amoral certitudes about the past.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Pitfalls of history - II

"History is a set of lies agreed upon.” - NapolĂ©on Bonaparte 

Carlyle stated that "The history of the world is but the biography of great men". According to ‘the great man theory’, history can be largely explained by the impact of great men, or heroes; highly influential individuals who used their power in a way that had a decisive historical impact. Similarly there are villain stories involving people like Hitler, Pol Pot, Mao, etc. But these stories lack the nuances of the many, many people involved and of the concepts and causes that influenced the events that are attributed to them.

The Great Person theory is available in the historical models of people all over the world. We put a name and face to a particular discovery or event, and that person then becomes the visible representative for all of the individuals involved. Its simplicity makes the past seem rather straightforward which makes it attractive. For most historians this is a grotesque parody of how history actually works. Of course great men and women do exist who have had massive influence on various historical events.

But the creations of these “Great People” are almost inevitably dependent on many people who came before them and acted along with them. Describing all of the contributions of colleagues and rivals who influenced the unfolding of historical events would be well beyond the scope of most history textbooks. The problem is that people may never really understand that this narrative is just a shorthand and not the full picture. As Edwad O. Wilson said, 'Genius is the summed production of the many with the names of the few attached for easy recall.'

At the other end of the spectrum in his view of history is somebody like Tolstoy who thought that these ‘great men’ are basically ordinary men who are too vain to recognize their own unimportance in the unfolding of events. He felt that, just like a writer of fiction, a historian is also a creative writer who gives us his particular slant of what happened depending on his prejudices and fantasies. In his essay The Hedgehog and the Fox, Issiah Berlin writes about Tolstoy’s view of history as presented in his novel War and Peace:
Tolstoy’s bitterest taunts, his most corrosive irony, are reserved for those who pose as official specialists in managing human affairs, in this case the Western military theorists, …who are all shown talking equal nonsense …, whether they defend a given strategic or tactical theory or oppose it; these men must be impostors, since no theories can possibly fit the immense variety of possible human behaviour, the vast multiplicity of minute, undiscoverable causes and effects which form that interplay of men and nature which history purports to record.
Those who affect to be able to contract this infinite multiplicity within their ‘scientific’ laws must be either deliberate charlatans or blind leaders of the blind. The harshest judgment is accordingly reserved for the master theorist himself, the great Napoleon, who acts upon, and has hypnotised others into believing, the assumption that he understands and controls events by his superior intellect, or by flashes of intuition, or by otherwise succeeding in answering correctly the problems posed by history. The greater the claim the greater the lie: Napoleon is consequently the most pitiable, the most contemptible of all the actors in the great tragedy.
This, then, is the great illusion which Tolstoy sets himself to expose: that individuals can, by the use of their own resources, understand and control the course of events. Those who believe this turn out to be dreadfully mistaken. And side by side with these public faces – these hollow men, half self-deluded, half aware of being fraudulent, talking, writing desperately and aimlessly in order to keep up appearances and avoid the bleak truths – side by side with all this elaborate machinery for concealing the spectacle of human impotence and irrelevance and blindness lies the real world, the stream of life which men understand, the attending to the ordinary details of daily existence. When Tolstoy contrasts this real life – the actual, everyday, ‘live’ experience of individuals – with the panoramic view conjured up by historians, it is clear to him which is real, and which is a coherent, sometimes elegantly contrived, but always fictitious construction. 
Utterly unlike her as he is in almost every other respect, Tolstoy is, perhaps, the first to propound the celebrated accusation which Virginia Woolf half a century later levelled against the public prophets of her own generation – Shaw and Wells and Arnold Bennett – blind materialists who did not begin to understand what it is that life truly consists of, who mistook its outer accidents, the unimportant aspects which lie outside the individual soul – the so-called social, economic, political realities – for that which alone is genuine, the individual experience, the specific relation of individuals to one another, the colours, smells, tastes, sounds and movements, the jealousies, loves, hatreds, passions, the rare flashes of insight, the transforming moments, the ordinary day-to-day succession of private data which constitute all there is – which are reality.