History and Fiction, or Whatever You’re Having Yourself…

In the country I live in right now, Poland, I see the suppression of intellectuals, especially historians, and thinkers and writers, primarily through the use of the courts. A Warsaw court on Tuesday (January 2021) forced some historians to apologize to the niece of a World War II-era Polish mayor whom they reported in their book was complicit in the killing of Jews. Judges ordering historians to formally apologize is a rather authoritarian method in settling historical disputes. Shying away from unpleasant truths of history, censuring historians, deploying legal strategies to suppress intellectuals, crushing free speech or more generally turning educational systems into purveyors of dreary pointless rote driven junk knowledge by not properly investing in top notch teachers for as many as possible instead of a rather privileged few, is inviting big trouble for a country. In fact its the royal road to ruin for any culture or society. To drill down more specifically though, what is really the relationship between fiction and history? While the fiction writer mines history for inspiration, the historian mines events to find out what actually happened. On the other hand though all fiction derives its origins from history, the historian flees fiction as the source of all distortion. I write mostly fiction when I am not noodling about on this blog. The job of fiction is not to record what actually happened. That’s the job of history and of journalism. Fiction, not unlike philosophy, attempts to understand the meaning of existence. History on the other hand interprets and reinterprets events, its focus being on what actually happened rather than possibilities outside the realm of fact based interpretation. History teaches us all, and writers are largely the servant of history. History, to paraphrase James Joyce, is a nightmare we cannot escape. Fiction, as well as mining the meaning of things, also strives to entertain, and to educate. In some ways one could say that fiction attempts to mine the meanings of history in a trans historical manner. It delves into the minds and hearts of humans and non humans to express the inexpressible. Deploying the magic of fiction you can go anywhere in time or space. One can experiment with reality, which is far from deluding oneself about reality. One knows the truth. In fiction you can sit on a boat approaching the beaches of Dunkirk. One can sit in a rotting bunker during the fire bombings of Dresden. One can watch planes fly into the twin towers on that terrible day, and hear the cries of the dying. One can watch the first aliens land just outside Utah in 1560, travel with Mr Spock to Vulcan, or have a long interesting conversation with Attila the Hun. Some of these subjects have a firm historical basis, others do not. One can use imagination to see things that ordinarily one cannot see. Artists, good artists, are visionaries. History cannot rely on things like artistic vision despite the fact that the very best historians have an artistic soul, something they deploy to more deeply understand and explain their endless researches. The star that guides all of us who work in the zone of the arts or history, is of course, the truth, not comforting delusions and make believe. A historian or an artist who serves a political cause or who works merely for a temporary reward, whether it be a faculty job or a government grant runs the risk of being a hack or a government lackey. No ideology save the truth, however uncomfortable, should guide work in the fields of the arts. The sanity and health of a society is dependent on fact based historical writings and good fiction writing, not the decision of courts or politicians or ideologues. Societies are equally dependent on researchers whose authenticity and integrity work to dig up what actually happened and record it for posterity. This must be done without distortion. One strives for the closest approximation to the truth as possible. Alternate facts are actually lies. Fake news is really sanitized term for propaganda designed and deployed to make people do things they wouldn’t normally do. Entire societies are destroyed through the dissemination and enforcing of these conspiracy theories. Populations are cajoled and manipulated to believe in enemies that are not enemies. Then wars begin, usually beginning with culture wars, and, in time, people get guns to defend their own delusional version of the truth fed to them via ideologues and social media. Then bodies drop and our graveyards fill up and bitterness and hatred spreads. The truth really does set us free and to understand all is to forgive all, clichés notwithstanding. It is thus critically important that we preserve the integrity of our historians and our writers and artists. Our future depends on it.