Every single history course I have ever taken – both high school and college – has begun the semester with the same mantra. All together now, you know it: “If you don’t learn about history, you are doomed to repeat it.”
I’ve always considered that to be an absurd saying. History is a cycle, doomed to be repeated over and over again simply because human nature is the same in any era. Man will commit the same crimes, aspire to the same goals and follow the same orders whatever decade you thrust him in. It’s as Ecclesiastes says:
What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.
Solomon knew what he was talking about. That’s why he got in the Bible.
Everything that happens today is just another version of what has already happened in the past. But that doesn’t make history any less interesting. History is full of stories, fascinating stories both big and small.
But if you happen to be mentioned in history, chances are you’re famous or infamous. Average, everyday people don’t often get their stories told through the annals of time. This is the best the average person can do to be noticed millenia after he’s dead:
Inside the dense and dull facts and dates and famous names are untold stories of humanity, glimpses that people in Ancient Rome or Civil War-era America or 16th century China aren’t much different than people who live today. History is on a constant loop, repeating itself with infinite variations. And because I want to relate to the people who lived centuries and millenia ago, because I want to be absorbed into their world, I don’t mind a little anachronistic storytelling. Maybe it’s not entirely accurate, but I think it’s acceptable for historical stories to be framed with modern conventions – the practice creates a bridge between yesterday and today and helps the contemporary audience connect and relate to the past.
Did Marie Antoinette in fact go to a masked ball and dance to Siouxsie and the Banshees “Hong Kong Garden?” (as depicted in Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette”). Um…no. But, using a song familiar to today’s audiences expresses Antoinette’s party-girl reputation, her youthful exuberance, her love of the new and exciting. Also, if the filmmaker had inserted classical music in that scene, would we have understood and felt the party atmosphere? I’m sure it would have been fun for people back then, but that wouldn’t translate to today and the effect would be lost.
Is anachronistic storytelling accurate? Of course not! That’s not the point. Sure, the historical framework – places, names, dates, events, etc. – should be right. But the paramount concern when telling a story is for the audience to connect to the character and resurrect a long-gone world, and you do that by inserting something familiar. I want to understand Antoinette’s pain in not providing a child for the king. I want to see her extravagant hair and watch her party in the gardens. Frankly, whatever she got up to in the 1700s, I’m sure plenty of party girls in the 21st century have done the same thing – just not in a corset.
In the realm of the printed page, I recently read an anachronistic historical fiction novel: Lindsey Davis’s The Silver Pigs, the tale of a young Roman detective Marcus Didius Falco, who investigates the theft of an ingot of silver and uncovers a conspiracy to overthrow the emperor Vespasian. I don’t want to read a dry telling of Vespasian’s rule, or a treatise on Roman conspiracies. Zzzzz…. I want to get inside the history through a character, and preferably a character with habits and a personality like someone I would meet in real life. Falco talks like a modern-day detective, he slums in a decrepit Roman tenement, he drinks like a fish and whores across the city. Davis created a character who would have fit in 21st century Washington DC investigating a plot to assassinate the president, just as easy as he did in Ancient Rome. And thanks to her anachronism, I learned more about the history of the Eternal City than I would have from a nonfiction history book.
I don’t want to be bored with history. If I’m bored, I won’t listen, I won’t learn, and then – as we said before – I’ll repeat it, right? There is a wealth of knowledge and stories in the thousands of years of human history – it’s a shame to bury that history in strict facts. I like it to be brought to life, so I can enjoy and appreciate a world very different – but amazingly similar – to my own.