Samuel Butler said…

“God cannot alter the past, but historians can.”

Go ahead. Alter the past. I dare you.

Man, where to start with this one?

My first thought is to reference Orwell’s 1984, in which the character O’Brien says to Winston, “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” It’s kind of the same idea, if a bit more insidiously carried out in that novel.

When I wrote a review for Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, I started off by saying that “History is, in its way, a fiction.” And that’s far more true than we care to imagine. It’s the story we tell ourselves about who we are and what we stand for, and in order to make our preferred narrative work, we find that we have to pick and choose what we talk about. We say that history is written by the victors, and that has always been true, no matter where you go.

In Zinn’s case, he wanted to tell the tale of the abuses of the United States, starting with the first Natives to meet Columbus and moving through the centuries to the hard-fought battles for civil rights in the 20th century. He admits at the beginning of the book that it’s the story he wants to tel, and does so because no one else had told it in such detail before. Zinn’s narrative was so strong that it inspired counter-narratives that explained why U.S. history proved we were awesome. Despite being completely contradictory, they were both true, depending how you define “true.”

So yes, historians can change the past, turn a hero into a despot or a victory into a defeat. What’s interesting about Butler’s line is that he has decided to conflate “history” with “the past.” If history is the story we tell ourselves about ourselves, then what is the past?

Honestly, it’ll take a much better mind than mine to answer that. It has been said that there is no past at all, the the universe is an unending Now, and it is merely our collective memory of a different Now that we call “the past.” If that is true, then the past cannot be altered because it doesn’t exist.

On the other hand, perhaps the past is a real place, ensconced in the dimension we call Time, but one to which we are forbidden to return. It would be as if we were walking down a road, but only allowed to walk forward. Going backward, stopping – these things are beyond our ability, and perhaps that of God as well. The past is a place protected due to the fact that no one can get at it.

My hero…

I’ve always been a big fan of time travel, and so I like to believe that there is a real past that we can get to, if only we can find the right police box or get the right car up to 88 miles per hour. Even if I could get there, however, would I be able to change anything? There’s plenty I’d like to change, after all – I’d like to find young me and just say, “One: you’re gay. Two: join the swim team. Three: Buy Google and Apple stock. I’m out, enjoy Japan.”

Would it have any effect, though? After all, if Past Me took that advice, then Future Me could not exist to give it. On the other hand, I think that if a strange guy showed up in my room when I was thirteen and said all that to me, I probably would have freaked out, rather than taken his advice to heart. The potential changes in my life might be swamped by the massive amount of anxiety and uncertainty that such an event would lead to.

Of course, Butler wasn’t talking about time travel (as far as I know), nor was he actually suggesting that we find a way to go to the past and make some adjustments. Rather, he was simply trying to emphasize the power and influence that historians can have over how we perceive the past (regardless of whether or not it exists). It’s a lesson that we should all take when learning about history, both recent and ancient.

History is a story, and you need to know who’s telling it to you, and why.