I made the mistake of reading a ‘new’ Titanic story this week. It was marketed as the story of one lifeboat of survivors and what their lives were like after the experience. In reality it was yet another story like all the other stories that have come out about the boat in the last thirty years. Titanic stories have become a write-by-numbers enterprise.
I love history. Both of my parents were History majors in college, and most of the books in our house were about history in one scope or another. As a Christian educated in Christian schools I’ve lived my life with my head always half inside the histories presented in The Bible. When those Easter movies air on TV, I realised this year, they don’t play like stories from foreign times to me, but like familiar tales. For me a movie set in Jesus’ Jerusalem feels contemporary.
I get that most people don’t really like history all that much. If you have a bad history teacher or a mind more suited to other things, the past can seem flat and dull and completely disconnected from who and what you are today. I really think that it is for those people, the history-averse, that these types of accounts are written.
Whether it’s the Titanic or Ancient Egypt or The Blitz, when writers try to draw people into history they do so by exploiting grim tragedy. ETA: We get to hear seemingly quirky details about Life Back Then to emphasise how it differs from our life. The manifests for the cargo hold on Titanic provide endless fascination for this type of thing. A Car. Several dogs. Live Chickens. Opium. We have to hear tidbits that humanise the people–she had just received a doll for her fourth birthday that she slept with always!–before watching grisly events bring about the people’s death. I hate it because it turns history into a freakish sideshow of Redshirts And How They Bought The Farm.
Real history isn’t so death-obsessed. It focuses on life. It shows us how lives were lived and why they were lived that way.
We are always doomed to repeat the central fact of history; mankind is mortal and we all will die. But the history we can change is that history that happened around the living. Why do governments slide into fascism and what does it look like when they do? (Hint: TSA) Why do treaties work? Why do other treaties fail? What wars were just, and why were they fought? Is this war we are about to embark upon one of those? Is this war we are in the middle of waging still just or has it turned pear-shaped?
History can tell us so much. It’s a shame that we’ve let grief-porn pass for history for the last decade.