For those who, like me, ponder the nature of historical truth, listen to Peter Vansittart. He thought that “history is a compendium of rumor, misunderstanding, inaccurate translation, error and fraud.” I find it hard not to believe this. The transformation of historical truths into legend and myth has always fascinated me. The Duke of Wellington is supposed to have remarked that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. In fact, there were no playing fields at Eton in the Duke’s time. What he actually said in 1815 was, gentlemen, I think I owe my grasp of strategy to the tricks I used to get up to in the garden. Now, that was translated into French, then translated back into English fifty years later in the version that we now know.
The picture of the French Revolution one gets from a book like The Scarlet Pimpernel, the stories of a figure like Lenin, which one hears from a committed member of the Communist Party, are all wildly inaccurate, I think, in terms of historical truth. Since I was brought up on very old-fashioned history books, I had much to unlearn. If something was in print, I believed it to be true, even though it says black is white in the first paragraph, and black is not white in the second paragraph. In about 1840, King Louis Philippe brought back Napoleon’s body to Paris. When an old horse escaped and joined the procession, rumor went round that this was Napoleon’s own horse, Marengo, who would have been almost forty years old by then. It couldn’t possibly be true, and people knew it; at the same time, they believed it might. There’s a Russian proverb: he lies like an eyewitness. It’s always seemed to me very true.”
Thought provoking, that. What is this abstract thing called history? The fact is that only individual people live now, have lived in the past, and will live in the future – with all they feel and think. But history, the subject, history, the object of our study, completely ignores individual consciousness. Yet individual consciousness is all there is. It follows then that history, thought of as a subset of time, as something objective that things happened “in,” is unreal. All that happens – all – happens to and between thinking and feeling, conscious individuals.