I’ve been thinking a lot about the relationship between history and fiction lately, or, I guess, how we combine the two. I mean, we seem to be obsessed with historical fiction whether we’re using it as the basis of science fiction, to imagine dystopias, or to escape into eras with frillier clothing (for both genders) and even more rules. But, oddly enough, I think our obsession with history sometimes makes us forget that it’s real–and I’m using present tense there for a reason. The whole thing reminds me of when people get so enmeshed in a debate over something like gay marriage that while they quote their policies, precedents, and other abstractions, they forget that they are essentially talking about real people who live real lives. Sometimes we start thinking about it too abstractly. Other times we forget that it actually happened.
I guess part of what brought this to the forefront was a fanfic I found when I was looking through a livejournal community called “badfic quotes” (don’t laugh–I like silly things too, okay?). Someone had written a fanfic for Quentin Tarantino’s new movie, Inglorious Basterds. Now, I haven’t seen the movie, and so I’m going to refrain from judging it or even commenting on it. Nevertheless, I have to comment on this fanfic. As anyone who has dipped so much as a toe into the world of fandom knows that if an attractive actor appears in a big summer blockbuster, someone will write a fanfic with an original character, usually (loosely) based off the author, who enters a relationship with that character. It doesn’t matter if that character is sulky Snape or sadistic Rorschach; the original character will bring out his sensitive side. So I guess you could say I wasn’t surprised that a fanfic existed that centered around giving one of the Nazi characters a love interest.
Here’s what did surprise me: as a pretext for the relationship between the original character, Ada, and the Nazi, the author felt the need to make use of another common fanfic trope (in fact, my least favorite): the old “kidnap, rape, and torture the woman so that the man can comfort and heal her.” The surprise is that the torturers, in this case, were a group of Jews who somehow happened to survive, committing organized acts of violence, in the countryside of Nazi-occupied France. I’m going to pause here and let this entire concept sink in because I understand completely if it takes a moment.
My first reaction to reading this was anger–I could barely even make it through the review, which mocked the fanfic. The author’s “disclaimer” certainly didn’t help either: “If you are offended or angry, then I’ve done my job by provoking something.” I suppose she did provoke complete bewilderment. In any case, the anger soon stopped because I realized something about this fanfic author: the Holocaust was not real to her. I’m not saying that she’s a denier–I doubt that she’s even Anti-Semitic (her story though…). I think she wrote this fanfic as if she were writing about the 100 Years War or the Revolutionary War or even the Peloponnesian War. We all know that these wars happened, but we don’t think about what that means. We know people died during them, but it happened so long ago that the deaths mean nothing to us. Now, the allegory doesn’t quite work because the Holocaust was not a war between the Germans and the Jews (who were German. And French, and Polish, and…); it was an ethnic cleansing. But then, this writer doesn’t seem to be conscious of that either. (For the record, it is entirely possible to write a story from the perspective of the Nazis or Germans during WWII, but one of the major challenges in writing it is to keep it feeling real.)
This was a really jarring realization for me; the Holocaust may have been 70 years ago, but it’s still very real to most of the Jews I know (and many of the non-Jews I know.) I remember the moment when I first learned about it; I remember my dad being worried about whether reading Number the Stars would give me too many nightmares. It’s one thing if you’re reading about people who want to kill other people and another thing to realize that if your great-grandparents didn’t have the means to move when they did, you might not be sitting here, typing on a keyboard. I’m sure there were other moments in history when this could have happened, but 70 years is still too soon, too scary, and, actually, younger than my grandparents.
Apparently, seeing Inglorious Basterds apparently made the Holocaust even more fictional for this fanfic author, and that scares me. It pushed history farther into myth, into the past. Am I saying that it’s a terrible movie or evil because of this? No. I haven’t seen the movie, and I cannot judge it. Also, I’m pretty sure that not everyone is viewing the movie in the same way; my dad loved it because he saw it as a kind of revenge fantasy, a way of coping with history (and perhaps present fears of antisemitism, which considering the resent shooting at the Holocaust museum, is not paranoia.). At the same time, I do think that mythologizing certain parts of history or even, to invent a term, “historicizing” history, pretending that it no longer affects the way we live, does no one any favors. I’m not sure whether if we can assign blame in this case, but I know the effect is not good.
What I do know is this: writing historical fiction doesn’t have to turn history into myth. Toni Morrison wrote in her afterward to The Bluest Eye that she didn’t simply want to “touch people,” but she wanted to make sure that “they were moved.” I’m not sure if the wording is correct–I don’t have my copy with me, but this standard that Morrison strives for in all of her fiction has stayed with me whenever I think about political and historical fiction. What does it mean to touch someone and how is it different from moving them? For me, the answer . When you hear a touching story, the meaning stays within a story. You might feel sad for the characters and the situation they’re in, but it doesn’t change your understanding of the real world.
And a moving story?
In my senior seminar on Toni Morrison, during a discussion on Song of Solomon, we started discussing The Seven Days. In the novel, The Seven Days were a group of black men in the who killed a random white person for every senseless random act of violence committed against black people. The group was entirely fictional, but it launched quite a conversation. By the end of class, many of us were on the verge of tears, and the discussion had strayed into Morrison’s other novels, the Civil Rights Movement, and the then-current issue of the Jenna Six. We actually had a real, honest discussion about race. Amazing. It was not comfortable, but I think that’s a given considering that it was a good discussion about race relations. Song of Solomon is a story that moves.
This is one of the amazing thing to me about Toni Morrison: In her novels, the past is alive and well, still changing how we live, love, and treat others. She forces us to own it. Imagine how it would profoundly change US culture if we saw slavery, the Jim Crow laws, and the Civil Rights movement as events that still actively influenced how Americans live.
Before I stop, I want to stick on one more example of this mythologizing phenomenon, a case in which a tv show historicized a current event. There’s a show my brother loves called “Deadliest Warrior.” For those of you who haven’t heard of it, it’s a bit of a combination of a Street Fighter video game, the History Channel, and “Mythbusters.” The show takes two famous warriors from “history” and pits them against each other based on imputing data on the weapons they would have used into a computer: Viking vs. Samurai, William Wallace vs. Shaka Zulu, Pirate vs. Knight, etc. In these cases the contenders existed so far in the past that they have already become myth. However, the show’s season finale featured a showdown between the IRA and the Taliban. Yes, the IRA and the Taliban. I needed a moment to let this sink in, and so I’m giving you one too.
Now, I’m assuming the show specifies which incarnation of the IRA it’s talking about, but that’s neither here nor there. I’m actually more interested in the inclusion of the Taliban at all. Looking at warriors using fighting styles no longer practiced for war, and admiring their weapons is one thing. Now whether we should glorify war or violence at all is a very complicated question that I cannot answer and cannot even begin to address in a way that comes even close to being interesting in this post. But there seems to be something fundamentally different in looking at a gladiator or samurai, types of warriors who no longer practice, and looking people who right now are committing human rights atrocities. Abstracting a member of the Taliban and glorifying their fighting style historicizes them, places them in the past.
I’m not saying that the makers of the show think the Taliban are no longer a threat. I would argue, though, that to come up with this idea, on some level what the members of the Taliban do are not real to them. They know logically that the Taliban commit atrocities, but the reality of what that means hasn’t hit home to them. I’m not saying this makes them bad people; there are plenty of atrocious things in this world that are not 100% real to me, at least all the time. If I constantly thought about the reality of every single tragedy, murder, or human rights violation, I would not be able to get out of bed. This does not mean that it’s okay to examine these atrocities in the same way we might look at Spartan troops, the likes of which no longer exist.
Other than that particular episode of “The Deadliest Warrior,” I’m afraid I don’t have a strong moral pronouncement on any of this. When does it become okay for history to become myth? When it stops effecting us? How do we decide that? These are complicated questions. I’m not even saying that creating works of historical fiction that are not as life-changing as Toni Morrison’s novels is necessarily dangerous. As I noted before, sticking a dose of fiction into a horrible reality can be a coping mechanism. Also, if we taught history better, maybe seeing Inglorious Basterds would not have contributed to the mythologizing of the Holocaust or slavery would not just be “that thing that happened to the blacks a long time ago, but then they had exciting escape adventures, and Martin Luther King happened, and now Obama’s president–Post-Racial America Yayz!”
At the same time, we cannot do ourselves the disservice of pretending that an event’s consequences end when it does. That’s like saying that American culture in the 1960’s promptly changed on January 1st, 1970 at 12:00 AM. It’s like saying that we already know how Bush’s presidency will change our country or that 9/11 no longer affects us. History has a long half-life, it decays slowly, seeping into the landscape of culture. It’s too powerful and too dangerous to treat any other way.
Also, Toni Morrison is brilliant, but that’s another story.
(This post is dedicated to my flatmate, Taylor, because it was inspired by a conversation we had. Also, he brought up the example from our Toni Morrison seminar in conjunction with this issue.)