In War and Peace, Tolstoy writes about the “law of retrospectiveness…which makes all the past appear a preparation for the subsequent facts.”
By the way, retrospectiveness is not a real word. Sorry, I guess you don’t have the same clout that Shakespeare has, Tolstoy. Wait, did I just copy it down weirdly?? Ugh, there’s no way I could’ve made up a word like “retrospectiveness.”
For some reason, I didn’t note down the page of this quote, so I don’t have any context to give you except that he was probably in the middle of philosophizing about something or another.
Neither skimming the notes at the end or digitally searching the Google Books pdf helped me in locating it. And that’s the extent I am willing to search for a quote in a book that’s over a thousand pages.
But who cares what he was talking about. What matters is that Tolstoy strung a bunch of words together and expressed a feeling way better than I ever could. The way I would’ve tried to explain it would have been something like this.
When we look back on history, we see it as linear. This led to that, and then this person came to power, so this happened. It’s cause and effect. But history is different than the past by itself.
The past is everything. It’s every decision, event, and person that has ever existed. But it would be impossible to take into account all these billions of moments. Instead, we pick out certain decisions, certain events, and certain people that best explain the “subsequent facts” before us. Then we link them up and create the pretty paper-chain we call history.
And the fact that we do this makes complete sense.
For example, in fourth grade, I learned the names, capitals, and abbreviations of all the states in America and where they are on the map. Now imagine if my teacher had also made us learn the names and location of states that were proposed but don’t exist: Franklin, Jefferson, Superior, Delmarva, Absaroka, Scott, Transylvania, Deseret, Westsylvania, Nickajack, Lincoln, and Sequoyah.
Did you even know there were proposed states that didn’t make it?? I had no idea.
That would have been weird. I would’ve been an annoyed nine-year-old, frustrated at having to learn this useless information.
But if you were a historian detailing the history of Native Americans, the story of Sequoyah would not be so pointless. The name Sequoyah was in honor of the creator of the Cherokee syllabary, and the proposed state would have a large population of Native Americans. Congress rejected it. Instead, the land became part of the state of Oklahoma, a state where Indians made up less than a quarter of the population.
A problem that comes with only being able to focus on a limited number of moments is that the billions of moments can be taken to create a million different stories.
Actually, the amount of possible stories should probably be more than the number of moments, right?? You know, permutations and stuff. Math.
The story that I’ve been taught is largely a consequence of the facts I’ve been given, and which facts I’ve been given is laregly a consequence of where I live, when I am living, and who I live with. The history I know and don’t know will have much to do with the fact that I live in Texas in the United States and am the daughter of Chinese immigrants.
By the end of high school, I will have spent one year on ancient empires, one year on Europe, one year on US history, and one year on US government. Right now, I can tell you about how Mao Zedong made the whole country spend its time chasing around a species of birds with clanging pots and pans so that they would die out from not being able to land, and how because of this and other things, farmers didn’t have time to plant crops and starved.
I live in Texas, and here, middle schools spend an entire year on Texas history. I know for a fact other states do not do that. I know that while many history textbooks across the country might all be written by McGraw-Hill, they’re not exactly the same. And while I don’t know this for sure, I’m guessing kids in Germany learn way more about Otto von Bismark than I did in European history.
My paper-chain looks different from yours, ours look different from theirs, theirs look different from the aliens, and all of ours look different from those who will be alive two hundreds years from now.
I really just want to end this post with that sentence because I have no idea where to go with this now. What’s my conclusion supposed to be? That the history we’re taught can be biased, self-centered, and therefore sometimes problematic, so good luck figuring it out?
The reason I’m even writing this post and having this problem right now is because of a book I read recently: How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States by Daniel Immerwarh. Oh my goodness, the amount of things that I learned from reading this book is insane.
Some of it is unacceptably basic information (like how the US owns five inhabited territories, and three of them are next to Australia?), and it has made me wonder about everything I don’t even know that I don’t know but really should know. It seems like the only solution to this problem is to read even more books. Which I guess isn’t too bad of a conclusion to land on.
I don’t know.
What do you think?
Did you know that America had state proposals that didn’t become states or that it has territory across the Pacific?? Imagine if we had a state called Transylvania—“Hello, I’m Transylvanian.”
What’s a book that blew your mind with all the things you didn’t know?
Which history classes have you taken?