On learning history

History never had been a strong aptitude of mine. I never cared for it during the imposed coursework in high school or the institute. I digested the minimum to achieve the minimum required. Some detailed knowledge might have lingered in short term memory, yet very few of it did I assimilate in any shape but that of a very rough caricature.

One could say, I never held myself too enthusiastic to assimilate historical facts I had not actively solicited, be it in the academic medium or informally catered knowledge impressed upon me by others. Anytime I had acquired a authentic interest in any particular branch of history, the interest manifested itself almost by accident. I either became intrigued by a particular author who happens to incorporate history in an otherwise fiction setting, or became interested in history of a particular world region I intended to travel. Occasionally, a historical reference in cinema raised genuine curiosity to acquire more detail, but rarely, if ever, for history’s own sake or from a purely historical source.

These accidental sources constitute the majority of my knowledge of any significant substance. Otherwise, I tend to generally avoid conversations owing to the gaps in historical background, pleading ignorance.

Curiously, the older I became, the less concern I placed on any historical deficiency or ambivalence, considering historical pursuit, at least for it’s own sake, increasingly less important. This is in spite of gradually building a stronger base in history!

I place enormous emphasis on the present moment and a lot less on past history, individual or collective. This much I attempt at least consciously. Now many important lessons are to be learned from the past, and many of those we already assimilate, be it in a subconscious manner even. Such lessons generally base themselves around specific facts. Much of historical analysis, however, lends to opinionated and prejudiced perspective - so much, in fact, that having observed my own thought process over decades, I find total lack of historical knowledge in certain areas overwhelmingly preferential to an abundance.

Most sources that interpret history and not simply state facts, tread on much bias. You could consider this a necessary hurdle, except that such knowledge is of no way directly beneficial in pursuing most personal goals, short of those oriented around politics, diplomacy, international relations, or related disciplines and academia. If you mind too much public opinion, you may eventually sink in the belief that interest and pursuit of certain type of knowledge (historical, for example) is a necessary asset to a well-rounded human being.

Bear in mind, the definitions of a well-rounded human being and well-rounded education have themselves been established by human beings over the course of centuries of cultural and educational evolution to meet the overall needs of a well-behaved society consisting of appropriately programmed citizens. After some analysis, however, you’ll find that nothing in this argument yields to individual benefit, goals and pursuit, when you consider not only what you personally pursue, but what even an average individual pursues over the course of a lifetime.

If we agree to consider historical knowledge as not something necessary a priori, that nothing in remaining oblivious need negatively impact you as a rational, intelligent, and productive human being, and that you hardly compromise your status of a ‘well-rounded’ citizen within a more flexible framework of ‘well-rounded’ (if you even find such abstractions relevant), then we can relate to history in a more pragmatic fashion, subject entirely to individual interest or necessity.

As I mentioned, my curiosity arises spontaneously. I learn fragments from mostly literature. War and Piece details a lot of the events involving imperial Russia between 1805-1813. Boris Akunin, another Russian author and historian, in one detective series presents, albeit somewhat narrowly, much of the late 19th century and early 20th imperial Russia, including some coverage of Japan. Alexandre Dumas covers a lot of 17th and 19th century French history between the musketeer series and Count of Monte Cristo. Charles Dickens, in Tale of Two Cities, brings the French and British perspectives on the French Revolution period to the table. Joseph Conrad paints the background of the Napoleonic War period in the novella The Duel, this time from a French angle. In fact, Ridley Scott based his directorial debut, The Duelists, entirely on this work, being a case where I might prefer the film (although prefer the novella as a historical source).

Haruki Murakami, in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, provides accounts involving the Japanese and Russian forces in the World War II Manchuria (present day northern China/Mongolia territory). Isabel Allende and Gabriel García Márquez, in rich, often magical settings reflect on the turbulent historical events impacting their respective countries (Chile and Colombia). Erico Veríssimo reflects on a lot of Brazilian 19th - 20th century history from the perspective of the state Rio Grande do Sul in Incidente em Antares, also featuring elements of magic realism. Veríssimo does something similar on an even more epic scale in a six-part series O Tempo e o Vento, a work I have yet to read, but have heard compared in stature to War and Piece. Bulgakov, in Master and Margarita, employing satirical elements and magic realism, describes the reality of 1930’s Moscow and Stalinist Russia. For a purely satirical take on the same epoch, George Orwell brings another alternative in Animal Farm, although I am less of a fan of Orwell’s work.

The above represent select cases of my base in historical content, in an enjoyable context of fiction literature that I plainly adore. And I have yet to undertake many more works. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, for example, documents the events leading up to the Russian revolution in the second decade of the 20th century. Tolstoy covers a lot more 19th century Russian history in his other less acclaimed works. Joseph Conrad published other periodic pieces that I’ve been highly enthusiastic to explore. Victor Hugo, another 19th-century French literary force, also chronicles much of the respective history. I never did read the American classic Gone with the Wind, but have been meaning to for more in depth background on the US Civil War. All of these works, I must emphasize, rouse my attention for other literary motives, and not necessarily (if at all) for specific historical treatment.

For over a decade I’ve now eyed the timeless Plutarch’s (Parallel) Lives, and the momentum rises towards this milestone. While the collection can give a sense of an ancient Greek and Roman historical text (which the very Plutarch refutes), one generally considers it more of an entrepreneurial testament to the morals, principles, driving forces, particularities of the multitude of Greek and Roman figures the text addresses, rather than a dry résumé of their historical accomplishments. The text dates eighteen centuries back, the translations are many, and I still contemplate not only the preferred language but the specific translation.

Notice, I haven’t mentioned historical sources of cinema and television, and for one reason. Despite a multitude of fantastic cinema that accurately showcases historical events, I don’t assimilate much historical perspective from these sources, short of popularized but simplified chronicles of some major wars. Their coverage tends to be but a snapshot compared to the corresponding literature that I more effectively engage in. Likewise, I find the occasional historical series or documentaries equally forgettable. I wonder if others have a more reliable experience with this medium?