What Was It Like…?

In a recent blog post, Ashley Diaz Mejias, a staff member at UVA and blogger for The Other Journal, mentioned the instant access of anyone of any age to any part of history in modern society. Granted, this was not the thesis of her post, but it was the part that grabbed me. She discusses this specifically in the context of music from any era suddenly being relegated to someone’s iMix, downloadable as a “classic,” or described in generic terms in a Wikipedia article. As readily accessible as any part of our history is, it is presented in a cold and detached manner: anyone can read any part of any event, but they are reading about it, not experiencing it, and I’m convinced that this is no substitute.

Music is an excellent example, using Mejias’ own example of Kurt Cobain. To describe Nirvana’s influence on the history of music is to digress into genre descriptors of “post-punk,” or “grunge rock” or something similar. This is far from listening to the music, experiencing the music. And even if one does experience the music now, they are experiencing it outside of a social context. Similarly, I observed with interest the New York Time’s publication of an apparently never-before-seen photograph of the Tianeman Square protest this week. It was a transporting experience to see that event frozen in time by a camera lens, but I am still seeing it almost without a referent. I need a narrator, someone who can lend their experience, their story to the events that I witness…to put the image in context, entrench it deeper in the sounds and smells that were actually there that day, in order to provide an accurate frame for the picture. Without understanding the angst of the day, one would fail to appreciate all of the layers of Nirvana. Without understanding the tension of the war, one would fail to appreciate, as I did, the sounds I heard this week of the BBC reports of the D-Day invasion of Operation: Overlord.

Where I think this leaves us is a recognition of the importance of storytelling. The best history is borne of the stories of those who lived through the events, kept alive and in the spirit of it’s telling by those to whom it was told, as well as through technological means. With this, we can avoid the idiocy of those who would claim that the Holocaust never occurred, or at least minimize the uneducated masses who would believe such nonsense. To lose the art of storytelling is to lose knowledge of history, which is already taught through a lens of propaganda in our public schools to a generation that is relying on us for accurate information of the history that preceded it. When we lose the knowledge of history, it will repeat itself in all of its bloody and senseless violence, robbing us of any progress we may have made.

Technology is a beautiful tool, but it is only a tool. The availability of music from my childhood for immediate (and legal, of course) download is a wonderful thing. The immediate access to any desired historical knowledge from my desktop is invaluable. All things being equal, however, it an important but singular piece of the puzzle that cannot stand alone, because it is only the skeleton that requires the flesh of story, a report without essence, a body without soul.

Because, for all of our facts and boundless prose, we are still in desperate need of substance to fill it. If we lose our story, we lose ourselves.