Guys, these are my thoughts on retrospectiveness

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?

Also! My friend Lucy (previously seen here) has started a blog!!! And it’s amazing. I mean, it’s called Not All Who Sonder, what more do you want.

13 thoughts on “Guys, these are my thoughts on retrospectiveness”

  1. This post is so enthralling! I’ve always found it so interesting the way we see history. It’s like back in middle school, when one of the bulletin boards outside a history teacher’s classroom at my school said “it’s not HIStory or HERstory, it’s OURstory.” But where does “our story” begin and end, and what does it leave out? What you said about Otto von Bismarck is so true. I only learned about him because I chose to take the elective of European History. It’s possible we talked about him in AP World, but he was probably hardly mentioned. I’m willing to bet most people at my school never even learn about him, yet as you said, in Germany he’s probably as well known as George Washington is here in the United States.
    I think this is why history fascinates me so much~ there’s so much to learn, kind of an infinite amount of information and perspectives. It would be impossible to actually know everything because of all the perspectives that have been left out of history and sides of stories long gone that we will never know.
    I definitely never knew about the proposed states. I feel like that’s something they should teach us! Maybe not as having to memorize them, but as a way to acknowledge the parts of history that didn’t make it into the books, because it’s still history whether or not College Board decides it’s going to be on a test.
    Hmm, a book that blew my mind with all the things I didn’t know…I’m not sure. I don’t read a lot of nonfiction, but I would say Heaven is For Real blew my mind. So did Making Sense of the Bible by Adam Hamilton.
    What history classes I have taken: Human Geography (this is kind of history, maybe more social studies), European history, world history, and U.S. history. I’m sad that next year is government/econ and the HISTORY history classes are over because I both love history and love my history teacher that I had for world and euro.
    This is an amazing post! My mind is properly blown after reading it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh my goodness, thank you Olivia.
      Ohh, that’s a interesting quote. It’s funny how things in classrooms can stick in our memories. I remember last year in my history teacher’s classroom was a quote that said, “It’s a good day to have a good day.” I think this one stuck because my friend would say it to us.
      Yes! Ahh, I took European history last year! (My school doesn’t do World history). That’s how I learned about him as well. Ohh, I didn’t even consider how he’s probably as significant as George Washington. Dang, it would be so interesting to learn a history course from different places around the world.
      Yes!!! (Aha, I wonder how many times I’m going to say that in this comment.) History is like the OG rabbithole.
      Isn’t it so interesting? Hahah, isn’t it kind of strange how much College Board does in deciding test material, and therefore what we learn? Agh, I actually just really thought about that as I wrote that sentence. Like because of the shortened AP test this year, we’re not finishing the APUSH units.
      Ahh, Heaven is For Real! Whoa, Making Sense of the Bible sounds very interesting. Thanks for mentioning it :))
      Our classes our similar like science! I’m not sure what history I took freshman year because it wasn’t an AP class. It was ancient history. Then I’ve taken APEURO and APUSH. And next year I’m taking gov/econ too. (Actually, this year. Can you believe we’re going to be seniors???? Because I absolutely cannot.) I know, I’m sad about the end of history classes too! History teachers make a huge difference.
      Thank you again, Olivia :))

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’ve definitely seen that quote in classrooms before too! Last year my bio teacher had a sign that said “if the cell in your hand doesn’t have a mitochondria, put it away” and that one has stuck with me as well.
        I agree! I want to take all the different history classes. Even of different states. I hate to be un-Texan, but Texas history didn’t interest me that much.
        The OG rabbithole! I love that.
        Exactly, it’s crazy. I understand the whole getting college credit part but it is strange how everyone just universally decided that due to the global pandemic we no longer needed to know like World War 2 or the Cold War or anything.
        It’s super good! It’s kind of from a Methodist perspective, I think. I know my parent’s adult Sunday school class did a whole lesson on it years ago which is why I read it.
        Whoa, ancient history sounds cool though! So far my favorite history class has been AP euro, but probably because my teacher is actually the greatest teacher in the entire world. Her lectures are amazing and everyone thinks so, even people who hate history, which is when you know she’s good. I can’t believe we’re going to be seniors either, time is going by so fast!! It’s kind of scary, but exciting.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Ahaha, that sign definitely would’ve made me smile. I fall for puns like that every time. That reminds me of a shirt my friend has that has a fish and the words “Keeping It Reel” underneath. One time when I was telling him I liked his shirt, he told me I had already told him the exact thing multiple times before but I had no memory of this. So now whenever I see his shirt, that is the memory I think of.
          Haha, what else would you put on your list of un-Texan things? A bunch of my friends at school are super Texan, and compared to them, I’m pretty un-Texan.
          I know right??
          I think it was more interesting than I thought it was going to be. Going in I was not very excited. Oh my goodness, that’s amazing. I want to meet your history teacher!

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Haha, that’s so funny! I would do the same- both with complimenting the pun and with repeatedly doing so. I think I do that- where I say the same thing to someone over and over again and they either politely ignore me or politely inform me. XD
            Hmm, my un-Texan list (or at least a start to it): I don’t really care about saying the pledge to the Texas flag, I don’t own cowboy boots or want to necessarily, I don’t want to live in Texas forever, I think Whataburger is good but not especially amazing, and while I am not against football in any way, high school football is not a huge deal to me. What about you? On the flip side, a few Texan things I do like: Buccees and Tex-Mex food.
            She’s the greatest!

            Liked by 1 person

            1. Ahaha, now I’m curious if I’ve done this to anybody else too.
              To be honest, I don’t know if I can reliably say the allegiance to the American flag. Or even sing the lyrics for The Stars Spangled Banner. Ahahah, me too for cowboy boots, living in Texas, and high school football as well. Okay, I think I’ve only had Whataburger max twice, so I don’t even have an opinion yet. I have no problem with the food–that’s great, and Buccees is fun as well. My most un-Texan thing probably is that I don’t say y’all. And I don’t like country music. Uhh, maybe that’s the most one.

              Liked by 1 person

              1. Yeah, when I pledge allegiance it’s more of a natural reflex, and if it’s taken out of the context of standing up in my second period class at school, who knows if I would even be able to do it. Do you have those things that just are so specific to a certain scenario that you’re not sure you could do them outside of that scenario, because they’re so tied to it? Haha, I definitely say y’all a lot. I don’t even notice it until I try to write a blog post and have to backspace all my y’all’s…welp, now I sound so country, I promise I’m not, I live in the suburbs. XD I’m indifferent to country music? I used to listen to it a lot more, but when I got my license I pretty much stopped, since I mostly listened to it when my mom was driving me and she’d play a country station.

                Liked by 1 person

                1. Ohhh yes, I get what you’re saying. Hmm, let me think if I have an example. Ohh okay, when I used to take art classes, I always felt like I could draw better there than during class at school. That’s not exactly the same, but it’s the closest I can think of. Hahaha! I feel like when I hear my friends who love country music talk about it, it seems pretty often they mention that their parents play it all the time too.

                  Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! Ahh, me too. Now I keep being aware of book recommendations that look at the parts of history that usually don’t get told, especially the US. Ohh, what a hypothetical.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I really enjoyed reading this post! The way that we construct history is really fascinating, and that Tolstoy quote really sums it up well. It’s not bad that we all have different perceptions of history- it would be impossible to teach/learn EVERYTHING THAT HAS EVER HAPPENED. But it’s important to recognize the fact that we DON’T have the entire picture. And this post is a wonderful reminder of that. We organize history based on where we are.
    I didn’t know those names of proposed states! It totally makes sense that there would be ideas for states that never happened, but I never really thought about it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! I know right, Tolstoy just doing all kinds of things well. (He also uses CALCULUS to make a metaphor about history at one point, like what??) Exactly!! That would be awful. Just going to history class and being avalanched by fact after fact without being given any kind of story to tie things together. Ahh, exactly again.
      Isn’t it crazy? I feel the same way–that feeling of duh, of course.

      Liked by 1 person

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