Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Omissions

Last week, Jeffro posted the following about Lee's surrender at Appomattox Courthouse in 1865, and I took the event to task for its appeal to nobility in the face of the bloody-mindedness that had been the Civil War. Whenever someone points out to me something noble about that war, such as Chamberlain's defense of Little Round Top or pretty much anything to do with Stonewall Jackson, I find myself remembering Andersonville, Fort Pillow or the New York riots.  But then, I am built that way, and knowing it gets me thinking about Slaughterhouse Five.

Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five is about Billy, who is unstuck in time, and thus simultaneously experiences different periods of his life without those things occurring in continuity.  One of those events is the mass bombing of Dresden, between February 13 & 15, 1945, which in the story Billy survives, written that way by Vonnegut because the writer himself was imprisoned in Dresden after being captured during the Battle of the Bulge - and survived the bombing with others in an underground meat locker that the German guards called Schlachthof Funf, or 'slaughterhouse five.'  Vonnegut's theme throughout the book is that fundamentally we survive as human beings because we remember the good and forget the bad things that happen to us.

I've always had trouble with that formula, but I don't deny it's what most people do, nor do I deny that it works.  It is much, much easier for the South to remember the signing of peace between gentlemen than the 30 thousand something prisoners who died under horrific conditions in Andersonville.  My mind, however, always goes to dark places.

It is the reason why I often do not get along with other historians, because it seems to me that historians more than anyone like to cherry pick the events of the past, particularly upon the subject of atrocities.  George Santayana's words, that "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it," is sadly quoted to much by people who do not know that Santayana also said, "History is a pack of lies about events that never happened told by people who weren't there."  I think truly the second quote hits closer to the mark.  To it, I will add one of my own.  The history we think we remember is a lie of omission.

Vonnegut's argument is that we do that because we would go crazy as a society if we lived too near the truth.  Perhaps I'm only dark in my outlook because I never have been that close to the truth.  I've never been in a war-zone.  I've never seen people blown apart.  I've never had a pistol pointed at my head.  Every idea that I have about the horrors of anything are second hand, at best.  The omission in my understanding of violent history is that I've never experienced any.

Perhaps that is why my dearest time is spent in one of two unreal dreams.  I am either writing, or I am designing, things that haven't happened to people who don't exist, for the sake of an ersatz emotion for deaths that cannot occur.  Perhaps it is my tendency to escape into a mock recreation of violence - rather than nobility - that drives the game world I fabricate and run.  I feed my dark side while admitting that I would not want to do so by travelling to modern day Liberia, Zaire or Afghanistan.  If I truly had a dark side, if my mind were truly driven towards comprehension and understanding, then surely the logical course of action would be to set aside the game and partake in the reality.

I omit that option, though, and cheat by getting upset over the brutal events of history.  I am no different than those who cheat by swelling with pride over the noble events of history.  It is two sides of a coin.  I am simply remembering the other side.  I only run a dark world, with dark people in it, because that is my particular fetish.

Doesn't make me better.  Only makes me different.




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