I have been thinking a lot lately about history and memory, dear Reader. It has all been inspired by a handful of texts which do not have very much in common at first glance. Since the New Year, I have been reading Art Spiegelman’s brilliant and heartbreaking Maus, the defiant Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, the derisible The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel, and Lance Parkin’s Magic Words (a biography of Alan Moore), and I went to see T2 Trainspotting with some friends. An eclectic mix, you might think, but they all in some way deal with memory and nostalgia.
Maus is, in part, the story of a man coming to terms with his difficult relationship with his father who is telling him the story of how he survived the Holocaust. The father’s memory is not perfect, which the author notes, and he destroys the diaries of his wife before his son has the chance to read them, eliminating her valuable perspective from the narrative. Persepolis is one step less removed from the reader, being the recollection of a woman who lived through the Iranian Revolution and its aftermath. The Case for Christ contains a chapter where the author feebly attempts to interrogate the authenticity of the initial reporting of the life of Christ (the rest are not great either, but this one is most relevant to the present discussion). Magic Words is a very carefully researched book where the author has found versions of events that conflict with Moore’s memories, even instances where Moore has contradicted himself. All of this coalesced around a very telling moment in T2, a movie in which a former heroin addict returns to his hometown and the friends he betrayed to escape his fate, where one character notes how two other characters, and British culture in general, revels in the past, while she and her people look to the future. This struck a chord with me.
Historians tread a very fine line when dealing with historical texts. I tell my students to always be aware of the bias inherent in their sources, to never trust authors or authority. I think that they think I mean, ‘watch out, they might be lying!’ (which is very likely), but what I actually mean is, ‘don’t for one second think what you are reading is True’. Now, I am not saying that, for example, Bede lied to us… apart from those cases where he clearly obfuscated the facts because they didn’t suit his version of events… and those times where he made errors because his understanding of history and politics was less robust than ours… added to the fact that ‘history’ meant something different to him and his work was designed to reveal God;s plan and act as a moral guide for the reader… but he drew from the memories of his teachers and superiors and from his own experiences, experiences radically shaped by the fact that he spent his entire life as a monk. There is nothing wrong with this, it is inescapable: he and his writing were products of his environment and life. Now, historians are (or at least should be) attuned to this intrinsic feature of the texts which we study; we obsess over placing them in their context, in understanding not only the author but the world they were born into. And I think that people broadly undertake a similar process in day-to-day life when they interact with the recent past. But when it comes to our own lives, somehow we forget.
We know that politicians lie, but not the one I voted for. We know the media is biased, but not the one I watch. We know that people believe strange and crazy things, but my beliefs are not to be questioned. But more than that, we are loath to put others in their appropriate context. People don’t take the time to understand why others don’t respond to situations as they would.
During the Arab Spring, I was amazed at Western commentators saying things like ‘democracy isn’t part of Muslim culture’, and how quick they were to see the revolution as failure. How quick we are to forget the difficult and violent birth of modern democracy in the West and that it more often under threat not from outside forces but internal belligerents. When people denounce the Iranian desire to defend their sovereignty how quick they are to forget how often Iran has been invaded or its government overthrown by other nations (not that I am defending the Iranian government, I am just saying it is worth understanding their position). People baffled by Brexit overlook that nationalism, while feared as the root of fascism in Europe, is wedded to the concept of democracy in the UK (again, I think Brexit is a terrible idea, but we have to see where the other side is coming from). I recall seeing a documentary about the American fascination with medieval fairs and dressing up like knights and wenches because men were more chivalrous and whatnot, forgetting the fact that life then was short and cruel if you were anything other than a nobleman (emphasis on the ‘man’). Our memory is short and fickle, and this is nowhere better underlined than in the slogan ‘Make America Great Again’. When, exactly, is this period of history that the American people supposed to harken back to? Because, until very recently, vast swathes of the American people had no voice in their own nation because of the colour of their skin or the nature of their genitalia. Technologically and scientifically, we live in a sci-fi future most sci-fi authors from fifty years ago couldn’t have dreamed up on their best day. Sure, we are wrecking the planet, but at least we now recognise that fact and are trying to fix it, and we no longer put lead in paint or advertise cigarettes to kids. American could be great, but not ‘again’ – but isn’t that the point of America, to always try to become better than what it was yesterday? And the UK cannot leave Europe any more than it could move to the moon. And why would it want to? It enjoys bothering the French and Germans far too much.
‘How on earth did we go from comics and movies to Brexit and American populism?’, you might be wondering, dear Reader. Humans are prisoners of history, we can only understand the present by calling on past experiences, and we try to discern the future based on established patterns. Which is not just folly, it is madness. The world is too complex, there are an infinite number of variables. But to do nothing, to surrender history and forget memory would be not folly in the extreme, but ethically criminal. The texts I noted at the beginning of this essay (which, much to my surprise, is a lot longer and more despondent in tone than I had expected it would be) are all making claim to authenticity, though not in the same way. Maus and T2, for example, are very aware of their fragile narrative, of how tenuous memory is, while Persepolis and The Case for Christ make decisive claims (one is a sincere and honest comic, the other is comically arrogant and verges on deceitful). The biography of Moore walks the line between the two, where the author contrasts Moore’s memory of events with whatever other sources he can find, often showing Moore’s memory to be inaccurate but yet somehow true. All reflect on the past of a certain character or character: the author themself, a historical figure, fictional individuals. All try to evoke a past which no longer exists, whether it is Auschwitz during the Second World Was or Northampton in the Eighties, but T2 explores the nostalgia, or rather the despair, of such memories. Many of the characters of T2 seem to miss the ‘good old days’, which, if you have seen the original movie, were objectively awful.
And that is the trap we are all caught in: we mythologise our own past. Everything was better when we were younger, probably because we didn’t have to pay taxes. If we took five minutes to reflect on the past we would see that it was mostly awful for most people until very recently, and the present still sucks for a lot of people. But it remains a distant land to us, an alien space that we came from but can never truly return to. Spiegelman briefly touches on this despair of memory in a panel where he draws himself working away at his desk which sits atop a pile of emaciated bodies, victims of the Holocaust. We all live because of the sacrifice of untold generations who fought wars so we wouldn’t have to, who ploughed fields from dawn to dusk to provide a better future for their children, who marched and were beaten for daring to ask for equality, who demand that their bodies be respected and held sovereign. For this reason, and many more, we should always reflect on our own biases, on how we understand history and the manner in which it unfurls.
In the end, we answer only to ourselves, and we should live with dignity and extend to others the respect we would expect from them. But we don’t, we are petty and fearful. We ought to be true and good, but that is so very difficult and the world is so very trying. We should look forward to the challenging future, but we comfort ourselves with inaccurate nostalgia and downright fantasy.
In the end, Maus, Persepolis, and T2 have one more key feature in common: hope. Spiegelman is evidence that his parents survived unimaginable horror; Satrapi escaped Iran and found freedom; the most tragic characters of T2 break their downward spiral and change their course.
In the end, our personal memories are lost to time and it is unlikely that we will be remembered by history (the fact that the considerable efforts of a huge number of people are forgotten is a tragedy in itself), and the best we can hope for is to live on in the memories of others. Be someone worth remembering, preferably for a good reason.
In the end, I hope I am.