12/2/12 Facts? News? Fables? Fabrications?

This is not a news blog. Nor is it a history blog. I am not an historian. It has been suggested that I am a passable amateur historiographer, but I am not capable of being an historian, since I cannot help but extrapolate and insert myself into places where a lack of evidence or a laze of research has left gaps. This is one of the problems of history . . . the historian cannot always separate himself from the history he studies, but it is not a problem which historians are unaware. We all are informed by our culture, our traditions, and our training, bringing with us biases and prejudices which have governed our opinions since childhood. While a true historian approaches this with great caution, I do so with glee and abandon. This, my friends, is called fiction. There is not always a clear demarcation between the facts of history, the passions of the writer, and fiction. It is up to the reader to sort things out to his own method of understanding. It is up to the reader to discern fact from fabrication. The doing so is the better part of the fun of history, though our discernment can lead us as astray as a passionately opaque historian. The point where we insert ourselves into history is where we come away with our own conclusions that make it useful.

It has been said that everyone is entitled to their own opinion but not their own facts. I disagree! I am entitled to my own facts! Oh . . . don’t misunderstand me! I know which ones not to challenge and which ones can be messed with. I will not fool around with Newton’s Laws of Motion or Thermodynamics, Newton’s Principia Mathmatica, Ohm’s Law, or Boyle’s Law. People ignore then violate these all the time with the worst consequences.  Avogadro’s Number, Planck’s Constant, and Einstein’s Relativity, are things I know better than to fool around with, but I am not capable of meaningfully distorting them or violating them in any way. I know that where you have oxygen, fuel, and a source of ignition, you’d best be planning on having a fire or at least a fire extinguisher to the ready.

I know that if you put granulated Sodium Hypochlorite (swimming pool chlorine) down an armadillo hole and pour some household ammonia on top of it, you really need to have a previously and carefully prepared exit strategy from the very dangerous eruption that will instantly follow. I also know that the danger from doing this is not necessary since the chlorine or the ammonia alone is enough to get the armadillo out of the hole. I also know that the combination of the two will definitely leave a dead armadillo in the hole, and a dead everything else in the hole, as well as a potentially dead me if I am so foolish as to ever try this again.

I know that heating pine resin for your homemade Stradivari violin varnish needs to be done outside, since if it gets to a certain temperature an exothermic reaction follows, right on your kitchen stove. If you don’t know what exothermic reaction means, then understand that it is good to know when you are potentially nearing one and to know that a fire extinguisher will be absolutely useless until the reaction is over, and then only to put out the significant fire that was started on its account. Gunpowder ignition is exothermic for goodness sake. Nitro-Glycerin can go exothermic so fast that it is a detonation, meaning it oxidizes all at once. I know that when using a homemade furnace to melt aluminum, it is best not to put the small, broken chainsaw parts you think are aluminum into the hot fire, since they may very likely be magnesium, which could have unintended consequences for your homemade furnace and adjacent structures; once again, a fire extinguisher just may not help you. Some things you just don’t mess with, since the rules by which physics and chemistry govern themselves are not likely to change because of your opinion about them. I have learned not to even challenge the Peter Principle, which states that in any organization, everyone rises to their level of incompetence. This is nearly as inviolable as the uselessness of a fire extinguisher in the middle of an exothermic reaction.

I know that what goes up must come down. I know that the water-lubricated surface of wet pavement reduces the friction required to stop an automobile in a short distance. I know that a frog bumps his butt every time he jumps. I know what people say happens when we make assumptions. We all know lots of these things. We all know things which we have learned best not to challenge.

Even history has facts which it is best not to challenge. Why would I challenge the date of the Norman invasion of Britain? I have no foundation upon which a challenge can stand, other than the date 1066. History tells me that William the Conqueror invaded England and whipped King Harold II on October 14, 1066, at the Battle of Hastings. I could rebut this, but it would be pointless to do so. It doesn’t matter to me (nor to the Normans or British, now!) whether it was September, November, 1065, or 1067. It was when it was, and I have been trained that it was October of 1066. I am comfortable to take the word of others on that. I wasn’t there, and some that were, perhaps not having a calendar at hand, may have argued over the exact date. Sometimes. I wonder what day it is. But there are an infinite number gray areas in the humanities, the human sciences, philosophy, and theology that allow as much tampering, bending, and manipulation as one is capable of imagining. We should know the limits of reasonable tamperability, though. Yet, when we have reached that limit and are still not satisfied, we are not required to stop; we can move on directly to fiction. It does not matter. I’ve read many of works of fiction that contained in them the truth about a lot of things. Fiction is like that. It can continue where the facts leave off, not being constrained by them, not limited by them, but set wonderfully free from the chains that are facts. I do this all the time in my writing. Mostly, I provide a warning, but sometimes not. Let the reader beware.

I write this blog because I am required to write it. I don’t know why it has become a requirement, nearly an obsession; perhaps my own sanity demands it. I am aware of the motivations that began it, since I wrote them down. They are at the top of the blog header. How it has grown to be what it is is a mystery to me, but not one I spend too much time pondering to myself, since its pondering is here for you to read about. It is a powerfully curious thing, though. I can speculate about it, but mostly I wonder.

I frequently try to think of what others must have been thinking when they write something obscure. I speculate about their motivations. I then wonder about my speculations. I have written about this before . . . speculating about things I wonder about. I reckon I am not through with that, yet.

I mix facts and fantasy at will, and place historical characters in modern settings, choosing for them the words they spoke for themselves under different circumstances, or inserting the words I think they might say if they were with us, today. Those are liberties that I allow myself, though any words I create for the mouth of another are really my own words. Isn’t that what fiction is? When we analyze the motivations or the thinking of another, are we not teetering on the verge of fiction? But, what is to stop us? Where is the line between truth and fiction? Of course, it must be . . . if it is on the news . . . then it must be true. If it is on the news channel that I watch, it must then be truer. If the analysis is reinforcing a conviction I already hold, it must then be truest. Is there a true, a more true, and a most true? Is not true a word which has no superlative? Benjamin Franklin said, “Half-a-truth is often a great lie.” I think that is about the most true thing I ever heard.

There is danger for us to be constantly reinforcing what we may already incorrectly or incompletely know. We love to surround ourselves with sycophants who massage our egos but do nothing for our understanding. In our effort to get at the truth, we must search out the things which challenge what we think and then ask ourselves, “Why does this challenge me?” How can we get at the truth if we do not strive to understand what it is that people unlike ourselves think? Why would we not enjoy their company?

Well, no one enjoys the company of a fanatic. Churchill described a fanatic as one who cannot change his mind and will not change the subject. Everyone finds fanatics tedious. Some of them are even dangerous. No one enjoys their company, other than their fellow fanatics with whom they get along just swimmingly. We can hold on to things that are dear to us in spite of near fanatical differences. That is why the shrug of one’s shoulders has an almost universal significance. Nearly everywhere it means “I don’t know” or “So what”. I can always shrug my shoulders at an obstreperous agitator. “So what,” my shoulders say to him, silently, but perhaps louder than my words.

I can nod my head as someone is telling me what they think, and frequently do. Sometimes I stop them in mid-sentence to warn them, “My nodding means that I am understanding what you are saying. It is not to be interpreted as my agreement.” So many times, this seems to satisfy others since they see us as listening and striving to understand. Many times those we perceive as adversaries merely want a hearing, not necessarily concurrence. Many times they are satisfied to have been given the hearing, and both leave the exchange having learned something, if nothing more than something about each other; that they have passionate convictions they hold dear, and they know the other is willing to give, if not their concurrence, then at least their consideration. Sometimes in human relations, this is enough. Sometimes, it is not enough, but it is all we can give.

So, I will write. I will study history. I will use it until it fails me, then I will take to fabrication, speculation and sometimes, outright prevarication. I will write the truth as I see it interspersed with whatever my mind can conjure, by whatever devices I can make use of, but never will I do so with the intent to deceive. There is a big difference between deception and entertainment. My purpose here is to entertain, inspire, exhort, uplift, brighten, expound, challenge, divest, and occasionally agitate (in a good way) all those who stop here for a brief sojourn. It is never my intention to deceive, even if I do allow myself the luxury of fiction.

And you can send me an e-mail. You can be angered or amused. But you can’t comment on this page unless you are a hacker, and if you are a hacker, you will soon be exposed. Please, hackers, don’t take this as a challenge . . . I know your capabilities and I am not your equal. There are so many things I am not equal to: so many things against which I don’t measure up. We must all know our limitations, though, sometimes they are fictional boundaries we have set for ourselves.

If we are to dabble in fiction, why have any boundaries at all?

Thank goodness I am not an historian.

On Christmas Day, 1066, William the Conqueror was crowned King of England. One of his first acts was to appoint court historians to record the story of the King’s remarkable invasion and conquest of England. They would do this in French, since none of them spoke Germanic tongue that then passed for English. After many days of assembling the recollections of key players, dictation to scribes, and the careful assembly of page after page of documentation, none of which was obtained from any English-speaking participants, since they, having been defeated were either not around, being mostly dead, or if still living, not congenial enough to participate in the writing of the history of their own defeat, some disagreements broke out among the historians as to the actual date of the Battle of Hastings. There were many heated exchanges, and a document that seemed to satisfy the writers was finally produced which was presented to the newly crowned king.

The court historians were proud of the ruthlessness of their King, and pointed out how complete and cruel his crush of the English was. Entire villages and towns were laid waste, much booty was collected and shared among the men, and stories of rapine and pillage were glorified in the history. King William thought some of this less than noble and would have no part of it.

Speaking to the Chief Court Historian, the King insisted, “These stories of rapine and pillage sort of put me in a bad light. I was hoping for Papal sanction, but these could be detrimental to my cause. I want them struck out. In fact, leave out all the ugly stuff, and just write about how we have kindly ‘liberated’ England from the oppression of the wicked English King Harold ll.”

“But, Your Majesty, the Court Historians, after much work, have completed this document which details the facts of the invasion, the facts of the battle, the first-hand recollections of your generals and other senior officers, and preserves their words and the glory of your conquest for future historians,” argued the Chief Court Historian.

“Well, I don’t like it, and I want it changed, with the bad parts all removed,” said the King.

“Your Majesty, my professionalism will not allow me to do that,” argued the Chief Court Historian with the King.

“Bailiff!! Cut off his head!!” said the King, whereupon the Bailiff drew his sword and with a single swoop, promptly removed the head of the Chief Court Historian.

The King looked around at the horrified Court Historians and pointed at one. “You! You there! You with the curly-toed shoes . . . come forth!!”

Since they were all staring terrified at the lifeless head of their former supervisor laying there on the cold stone floor, none of them immediately responded to the King’s order. As they slowly came back to reality, emerging from the real but surreal one that had captured them, everyone looked down at their shoes. Pierre Sans-DuLuc suddenly realized that he was the only one wearing curly-toed shoes. He took in a big gulp of air, and with knees knocking and hands trembling, presented himself before King William, bowing low.

“What is your name?” asked the King.

“I am called Pierre Sans-DuLuc, Your Majesty,” Pierre croaked out. His throat was as dry as late-summer cotton.

“Really!!” observed the King. “Well, Monsieur Sans-DuLuc, you are the new Chief Court Historian. We shall see if you are as unlucky as your predecessor or perhaps a bit more lucky. I want this history document edited so that it will make me look better in the eyes of history. Can you do that for me?”

“Oh! Yes, Your Majesty, and quickly,” said Sans-DuLuc.

“Then kneel before me,” said the King. Sans-DuLuc knelt. As the King approached him, drawing his sword, he shivered in terror, fearing his head would soon join his predecessor, but he only felt a light touch of the flat of the King’s sword on each shoulder. “Arise, Sir Pierre DuLuc. From this day forward, you shall be known as DuLuc. I strike the ‘sans’ from your name, as you have proved this day that you are with luck and not without it. Now, off with you all, and go and get me my history.”

Sir Pierre DuLuc, sans Sans, arose, delighted with this turn of events. There was one question he had of the King though, and he felt since it was his lucky day, he might be able to hazard a single question directed at the King which might help him in his task of more accurately recording history. “Your Majesty, if I may be permitted to speak . . .”

“Well, What? What?”

“There is a question of the date of the invasion and battle, itself, Your Highness. Some say September, some say October, yet others say November. No one seems to have brought a modified-Norman calendar, and these Brits use the old Julian one. What would his majesty prefer the date to be? It shall be so arranged.”

“September, October, November? One month, or another. It is no matter,” said the King. “History is what we will make it. I like October, myself, somewhere around Columbus Day but definitely before Halloween.”

“Is that Columbus Day according to our modified-Norman calendar, the old-Julian, or the new and improved modern scientific Gregorian calendar, Sire?”

“I suppose we should make the best use of new scientific discoveries; we don’t want the world perceiving us as not modern. Let it be the Gregorian date. Now, off with you. Get to your task, DuLuc, while you are still du luck.”

DuLuc bowed low before the King and turned and exited the throne room, all of his now subordinate court historians behind him in single file, each breathing a heavy sigh of relief to be out of the presence of the unpredictable king . . . each glad to have a heavy breath to let out in a sigh.

One of the junior historians asked DuLuc, “What is the Gregorian calendar, Sir DuLuc?”

“I don’t know. I made that up. We’ll have to invent it now, I suppose, to go along with this Columbus Day the King mentioned,” said DuLuc.

“Who is this Columbus?” asked another of the historians.

“I don’t have a clue, but I dared not reveal this to the King at the time,” said DuLuc. Everyone nodded their still remaining head in agreement.

After they had left, the King also departed the throne room while he was having it cleaned up with a vacuuming-steam cleaner, removing every trace of the previous Chief Historian. As he was walking towards his chambers, he laughed to himself over the entire exchange. He thought it was remarkable that the new Chief Historian never mentioned a word about Columbus, but acted as if he knew what the King was talking about. He could hardly wait to see the new history, no doubt, with some reference to the word “Columbus” which was the Latinized name of one of his favorite Italian drinking buddies from his college days in Paris. “History is what we will make it! Cheers, my friend Colombo,” he spoke to the wind. “We will write you into history!”

I laugh at myself!

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