The myth of history

One of my favourite running jokes in the animated series Futurama is their depiction of history. As Futurama is set around the year 3000, our time is history so we get a representation of how these future people imagine our lives. Much like we try to piece together ancient history from fragments, the future people have no reliable record of our era (“The Stupid Ages”) because of alien invasion and various other catastrophes.

The reason I like their history jokes is that they are broad and subtle at the same time. Broad because their guesses at our lives are always absurdly wrong. The have one piece of evidence and from this they extrapolate our entire lives, usually with surreal results. “Primitive” car assembly robots are depicted like Flintstone cavemen, complete with leopard print leotards, clubs and saying “ooga-booga.”

When an ancient pizza place is uncovered, it is surmised that the scoop used to get pizzas out of the oven was actually for paddling delivery boys. The main character, Fry (who was a pizza delivery boy in the 20th century), corrects the museum and tells them paddling him was only one of the uses it was put to (“It was also used to move pizzas and crush rats”).

The jokes are subtle at the same time because they are pointing out that our understanding of ancient history are probably just as screwy. Very little history is based on “fact” – it’s nearly all guesswork. Sometimes there is a lot of supporting evidence but there’s no getting around the fact that, educated or not, guesswork is the dominant feature of history.

One of my favourite examples of this is the so-called Venus of Willendorf. This paleolithic sculpture of a well-rounded woman has produced many theories, usually geared to fit in with the political agenda of the theory’s proponent. The exaggerated sexual characteristics have led many to believe that it is some sort of fertility object or it is evidence of a strong matriarchy existing in a prehistoric culture. Yeah, either that or it was made by a teenage boy with a thing for big titties.

There’s also a storm in a teacup being brewed by certain historians over the new film “300”. The film is based on the graphic novel (i.e. comic) by Frank Miller, which in turn is inspired by the famous story of the stand taken by 300 Spartans against an advancing Persian army in the Battle of Thermopylae. It is by all accounts a visual extravaganza and if you happen to like watching large numbers of semi-naked men with impressive abs get disembowelled, then this is the movie for you.

But a number of historians are up in arms over what they perceive as the gross inaccuracies in the movie (what, you mean there weren’t really obese guys with swords for arms working as executioners in ancient Persia?) Their self-righteous prattle is completely pointless for two main reasons:

1. It’s entertainment you fucking idiots. For god’s sake, it’s a movie based on a fucking comic. A classical story is being used as a vehicle to explore themes. It has no pretension of being a history text. And it’s hardly the film-makers’ fault if anyone takes it such.

2. Your precious “history” is bullshit. What are so-called historical records of the Battle of Thermopylae based on? Third hand accounts, self-serving memoirs and poetry for fuck’s sake! There is no evidence whatsoever that any historical version of Thermopylae is any more accurate than the imaginings of people from the year 3000 in Futurama. Opinions are not the same as evidence.

For anyone who feels like getting all huffy about the sanctity of history, think about this: how often have you been to some sort of performance (a concert, a play or maybe a movie) that you absolutely loved then later you heard someone else savaging it, saying it was the biggest load of shit ever? And how many times have you witnessed some significant event then heard someone else report it totally differently?

Maybe their physical location was different to yours and so they literally saw it differently. Maybe their personal or political outlook is different to yours and so they saw it differently metaphorically. Or maybe they’re a liar. Or maybe they’re just a dick. But when you can’t trust someone to accurately report on something you witnessed yourself yesterday, how the fuck can you trust accounts of what may or may not have happened thousands of years ago?

In short, if you feel that it’s necessary in your professional role to get worked up over a movie (whether your a historian or maybe a politician) you’re not a professional. You’re a fucking joke.



Filed under General Angriness

9 responses to “The myth of history

  1. “either that or it was made by a teenage boy with a thing for big titties.”

    Another pearler of literary genius, Mr Angry!! 😉

  2. Even better is that they’re relying on accounts of the battle of Thermopylae taken from Herodotus.

    To put that in context, Herodotus has two nicknames:
    “The Father of History” (because he wrote stuff down about what had happened in the past! Gasp!)
    “The Father of Lies” (because he made shit up all the time to make the stories better.)

    Although I haven’t seen 300 I doubt it veers into that dangerous category of “entertainment disguised as fact.” which many films belong to. It looks melodramatic and over-the-top, no-one’s going to mistake it for an accurate portrayal, in the same way that people mistook Schindler’s List for a documentary.

  3. Ha! The Venus of Willendorf has been a hate object of mine for YEARS. The absurd commentary around it, I mean. Why they assume every damn thing in the ancient world had a religious significance, I do not know.

    Actually, yes I do. It’s so we can view religiosity as a continuum, with very clueless religious people at the beginning and very clever secular ones at the end. We’ve got to see everything as a progression, with us being the fabulous end-product our whole species was striving toward all along. Feh!

    I’m guessing religiosity rises and falls periodically, like hemlines and haircuts. For chrissakes, the ancients had exactly the same big brains we’ve got, they just didn’t have as much collected data.

    I bet the Venus of Willendorf was the Stone Age mud flap girl.

  4. And so we see the flaws in both history and evolutionary models of psychology (and sociology/ this case Weasel is talking about relgion). We weren’t there…we don’t know…we make guesses, but they remain guesses. It can be fascinating to learn about..but it can never be mistaken for the truth. Which is a slippery enough eel in itself.
    Thanks for being incisive, you who is full of the grandiose anger.

  5. Over the years I have been “party” to two events that have been reported by our national newspapers here in the UK. In neither instance were the reports even close the the true events. One has to assume that all such reports are equally inaccurate.

    If future histories are going to be based upon press and TV reporting then they will be equally flawed. However there are no alternate accounts in most instances and no mechanism to determine that any
    alternate accounts are more accurate in any case.

    So we just have to accept that “History is Bunk”.

  6. I really like Futurama, it was really funny. I especially like the evil robots. They are wickedly funny.

    I have read 300 the comic book and I enjoyed it. There is no need to analyze it, just to enjoy it. Currently I am watching it and I like it.

    Frank Miller does great stuff.

    Naturally, some people have a tendency of saying:
    “Oh, I’ve seen it in a movie, so it must be true!”

    There is nothing that you can do with those idiots. If the movie gets a few people interested in history and Sparta, well that is great.

    Personally, I really enjoyed Ilium and Olympos from Dan Simmons. Those are novels, science-fiction novels and I recommend them. Why do I mention them? They have to do with The Iliad.

  7. 300 is actually a shortened, PC form of the original title:

    “Leonidis’ balls are 300 times bigger than any other man’s”

    (saw the movie on sunday, loved it)

  8. Gruntski: thanks mate, although it was a mate of mine who said that first. If he had a blog I’d give him credit.

    Massif: Good point, films in the “Schindler’s List” mould are a bit dodgy because they’re so closely linked to real, recent events people think they’re “real”. Anyone who thinks that about 300 is nuts.

    Weasel: I’m at work so I didn’t follow you link… because I have a horrible idea I know what it is.

    Alabaster: Thanks, if my anger can educate others, I’m happy.

    Mike: Exactly. One variation on that theme is how often people who gain fame say “I used to believe what I read in the papers now I see blatant lies written about me every day.”

    Range: Futurama is possibly the greatest achievement of western civilisation 😉 I read about those novels recently too, they sound good as well.

    Engtech: I’d hate to be the guy who has to hang the letters on a cinema screen for a title that long. They must love short titles like “300”. It doesn’t actually open here for another two weeks – I’m going to see it in IMAX when it comes out.

  9. Pingback: Best of Feeds - 27 links - blogging, google, tips, development, alist, howto « //engtech

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