When I was in college, there were two classes that showed me the true importance of storytelling.
The first, if you can believe it, was a History class.
This was unlike any History class I had taken before, for the simple fact that instead of the large, dry textbooks of my younger years, we took our education from novels. These novels, while primarily fictional, had a historical center to them that was so intricately balanced I hardly knew I was learning anything at all.
The second class I took was aptly titled “Fiction and Addiction,” for it focused on novels that explored addiction in all of its aspects. However, underneath this veil of addiction, there was another message, a message that we are in desperate need of now more than ever.
In my final paper for “Fiction and Addiction,” I focused on a contrast between George Orwell’s classic, 1984, and a novel called Austerlitz, by W. G. Sebald. Anyone who has skimmed 1984 has at least a peripheral idea of the role of Winston Smith: Winston works as a historical revisionist, scouring through newspapers and documents and destroying/altering anything that is not in line with the current beliefs of the leading party. He, essentially, is in charge of rewriting the past. Now, this job seems to hit a little too close to home today, what with recent talks of “fake news” and “alternative facts” pervading the political landscape. It’s almost as if Orwell was some sort of unrealized psychic (or our nation’s leaders are taking a few pointers from rather unusual source material).
Ahem, but I digress. In the contrasting novel, Austerlitz, the titular character Jacques Austerlitz relays his life history to a first person narrator. About midway through the novel, a remarkable transformation occurs. The story turns from a focus on Austerlitz’s life to a gripping account of the events of the Holocaust. This recounting is described in such heartbreaking detail that there is no doubt that it came from the mind of a victim, one who was in the midst of the events as they happened. Austerlitz ends up learning more from this tale within a tale than he ever knew from the History classes he had in school and comes away with more knowledge of himself and others than he could have ever hoped to gain behind a desk.
For the sake of those who may want to explore these novels further, I will spare any finer details of description. But these two novels fully opened my eyes to a striking reality that I had only partially woken up to in high school: History is only as true as the people who tell it.
I had taken a class my senior year of high school that discussed certain aspects of American history that are often left out of textbooks, appropriately named the “Other America.” This class made me realize that there are many events, people, and places that have been wiped from educational history. So, when I entered college and received the opportunity to take the two classes mentioned earlier, that kind of completed the whole puzzle for me and enlightened my understanding of the truth behind the history we know and the history we could know, the history we should know.
“History is only as true as the people who tell it.”
When I came out of that History class that taught with novels, I had a deeper connection to history than I had ever had in 13 years of pre-college education. The format of novels had allowed me to attach myself to these characters I was reading and sympathize with their excitements and tragedies. I was learning without feeling like I was learning, which, in many ways, is the most successful way to learn of all.
So, you might be asking, what’s the point? What do these novels that I read in History class, 1984, and Austerlitz all have in common? The point is that these novels showed me that the true historians of life are the artists.
Writers, photographers, painters, actors. We all have the power to preserve history in its truest form. The History books you read as a child are created by men and women in powerful positions, men and women who can choose what is added and what is removed. In essence, History books are created by modern versions of Orwell’s Winston Smith. But novels, films, pictures, art is created by people who have a story to tell, people who have a life at stake and knowledge that they want to share with the world. History is created in censorship; art is created in honesty.
“…the true historians of life are the artists.”
In a time of uncertainty, as we live in today, where ideologies of the past come to threaten our future, it is up to us as creators to maintain the record of history. If you have a story to tell, if you have a truth that can no longer remain within your bones, let it out. Give us your story, release it to the world so future generations can know what really happened in the humble year of 2017. Give us your story, before it is swept under the rug.
We need stories, because without the stories we tell, history is as good as fiction.