By Rosemary Gray Snelgrove
Most of us think that history is the past. It’s not. History is the stories we tell about the past. That’s all it is. Stories. Such a definition might make the enterprise of history seem neutral. Benign. Which of course it isn’t.
Thomas King, The Inconvenient Indian
What is Believable?
History as story-telling – does seeing it that way make the subject more approachable; a commonplace activity we all engage in? Does it also take away from our trust in what we’ve been told about the past? Don’t most story-tellers have an agenda – to lead us to see things their way, to perpetuate the status quo ? The critical question: what is the value of stories in our culture, our era?
Richard III – a simple straightforward villain from British history: almost a fairy-tale figure. He killed the two little princes, rivals for the throne. Probably smothered them with pillows, in the Tower. Right? But some argued for a different tale. Josephine Tey, half a century ago, wrote a mystery/history book in which Richard was not the guilty party –was, in fact, heroic, trying to defeat the really bad guys. Now his bones have been found and that drama-king, Shakespeare, apparently made up the whole story – deformities and all! Lose a villain, gain a good guy. Revision is 700 years too late to do him much good but it all illustrates the point that history, as written, is dubious truth. So why does it matter?
Why Does it Matter?
The clans’ and tribes’ views of reality were passed on within the group through storytelling – not written down. The custom wasn’t just entertainment during long nights. Holding to a shared belief about who we are matters to our survival: cohesion and trust are fundamental to standing against a clear danger. The group would believe their stories were precious because the tales addressed their existence – the manner and meaning of their lives. Was one person, the keeper-of-tales, prepared and trained for years by the elder story-teller, to eventually step into the role of maintaining the clan’s store of lore? As all sat together in a tent or a house of ice and snow, would custom and the attention of elders ensure that stories remained ‘true”. Whatever the human mechanisms, the group retained its life-saving identity as long as it held on to its stories.
We Could Lose Our Stories
Strangely, the verbal stories may have more resilience through time than those written down. With our culture’s general reliance on written information, we take what’s in a book pretty seriously , even in a skeptical era. ‘News’ and interpretation coming off the computer screen is given less credence, and we don’t put a lot of faith in speeches. We know that knowledge can be power and we’re wary about those who may be seeking to control us through manipulation of words. Media literacy is taught in high school – and our kids are a lot smarter in this area than it was necessary for us to be.
But even intelligent skepticism might rob us of attention and respect to the stories of our human paths through time.
How We Make Sense of Existence
Spoken, written – no matter. It is if the value of stories is diminished that our cohesion as people of the earth can be undermined. I’m reminded of David Suzuki and his long-running Nature of Things TV program: he continually tells stories of the past and present, regarding one or another part of the earth. He treats the subject and his viewers as part of what he’s explaining. His pronoun is “we” because he sees us as sharing the great tales of our earth and survival.
It’s a way of making sense of our existence. Thomas King, in the quote above, isn’t denigrating history, he’s pointing out that stories are a shared state of mind. And one I think we lose at our peril – both collectively and in our psyches. He’s also saying that what and how we tell the story isn’t a neutral activity – the matter of shaping how the listener sees things is embedded in telling the story and in its telling.
The Perils of Underestimating the Importance of Our Stories
The “peril” I speak of is that of losing our sense of being connected. That’s the collective imagination that is part of our identity – I’m a war baby, Canadian, a city dweller, from Montreal, initially an exile to Toronto, now a lover of Toronto and the Niagara Peninsula. This implies many things to me and others, who share parts or all of the story with me. And so what? Again, what difference does it make?
It means I’m part of a body of people, of David Suzuki’s we – moving through time and space on this huge earth, sharing experiences and figuring out where I fit. With no “we” consciousness, I may live detached, adrift and alone, with isolation as my way of life, not feeling I belong anywhere. I think teenagers often inhabit this lonely place until they’re able to break out into the world and recognize they belong among others (and eventually, once confident of belonging, they can reconnect with their family group).
The other twin peril is a more inward challenge. I need to discern some pattern, the wins and losses resulting from my choices or from sheer chance, the flow of things and how so much has worked together toward the outcomes, good and bad.
As a wife, mother, friend, shaped by the war, by feminism, by the ’60’s cultural revolution, trying to keep up with change, etc. etc. This is my personal story. Having a sense of moving along with its features keeps me in the game. I’m different from each other person, but my personal story fits within the larger human tale as we face common choices (voting, taking action, deciding whether we can remain neutral about the use of drones, how much we’ll involve ourselves in our children’s lives.
Making sense of it matters and keeps us sane. Thank God for stories.