History is complex and interpreted, and there isn’t a single objective account of “actual” events. People are complex and never fully known, and their intentions, feelings, opinions, and actions vary from object to object, from subject to subject, and from time to time. Historical narrative is re-written by each new regime that comes to power.
These are truisms now, in our “post-modern” world. We understand this, or so we say. And yet we keep seeking that one “true” story, that one account of how it “really” was, that one “actual” portrait of some giant of history, and the fluidity of their reality discombobulates us and confuses us and shakes us up and makes us bitter. We may comprehend intellectually that any account is biased, but we need our world to be stable in some foundation of it — to know something sure about its past, about the heroes and the villains that shape our existence. Our values. Our oaths of loyalty. Our personal narratives.
This is why we choose history — to some degree, it’s inevitable. Even when we are faced with a radical re-drawing of the maps of the past in the wake of a collapsed civilization, our first move is to bring to consistency the new history, just being written. New consistency, in which all former heroes are villains and all villains are heroes — anything just to know where is up and where is down. And we ignore as many facts as the previous history did. All the opposite facts. When the only way to survive is to deny the old, the pendulum swings all the way, and everything old must burn. It is a defense mechanism. As the pendulum swings, it cuts history into shreds.
Facts are important. And there is a relationship between fact and truth that is neither to be denied nor ignored. But there is only a measure of truth that we can find in fact, and there is only so much fact that we can find in the histories we uncover.
We never will be able to paint a life-like portrait of a man long gone, a revolutionary leader, the organizer and head of the first crime-fighting force charged with bringing order to the nascent, civil war-torn USSR. As children, we used to read of him as of a near-saint, so much palpable love and admiration poured from his comrades’ and students’ descriptions of him. He was an icon, and untouchable great. An example to follow in perseverance and dignity, in compassion and humility. An embodiment of every value we held dear. Was this portrait true? Among other literature of this kind, demolishing every hero of the past, accounts of this man are now coming out, and he is shown a monster — a brutal and remorseless murderer of children, without conscience or compassion. Without hesitation. Is this portrait true?
I doubt it. I doubt either is true if we look at the facts. If we were able to follow him invisibly, there, in his past, and see it all again. I don’t know what he was like exactly, but I suspect that he wasn’t a saint, wasn’t a monster, although he might have been one or the other at one or another moment. I know I have been.
Pendulum swings, and I ask myself: does it matter? What matters to me in his portrait? What matters in how we speak of any of them — legends, giants of history? And I must say, most of the time I answer: what matters to me has already happened. His life and his kind, towering, figure – his example, the way I knew him – accompanied me through my childhood and youth and shaped me. Wanting to be like him and knowing it was possible. Seeing the best of humanity in the stories told of him. It mattered. How much of it was fiction? Maybe much, maybe nothing. I cannot know now; all I know is that I loved him, the man I’d never met, for what he taught me to be. For giving his life for a better life.
Does this mean that I don’t care if the story by which I steered my values might have been a lie? No. I care. But it was not a lie – and this is one place where truth exceeds fact. I’ve felt every word of that story with my heart. Those words came from the people who knew him. And I rest securely in the knowledge that the love permeating their words is real. Love cannot be faked. And this is where I come back to the many-flowing streams of history. I am not disputing the facts of the “new” narrative – at least not here, not now; that’s not my point. I am standing bathed in the truth of my “old” narrative because, whatever new facts may come out, the man I know through the love of his life’s recorders cannot be denied. He is real.
And so, one more time, then… What matters in how we speak of them: legends and giants of history? How do we talk about them?
I suppose, we remember that they were people – complex and changing, rarely saints, rarely monsters. And then we find in them what means something to us, good or bad. Inspiration, warning, lesson… And we talk about that.