What potential do we actually have to capture events in regard to preliterate societies at a historic level? The answer is clear of course: rather low. And, given the subjectivity of individual memories, in regard to “Western civilisation” we are facing the uncomfortable situation of the misrepresentation of the facts. Using statistical methods for assessing the testimonies of witnesses will not help us. Conversely, it seems that they may even worsen the possibility of their interpretation. Other difficulties may also arise in regard to sharing the collective memory, which is still more prevalent in archaic societies than in modern civilisation.
As has been demonstrated by Claude Lévi-Strauss, a narrative programme of native people tends to engage with semi-finished products. These are comprised of mythical clichés, which, although they have some basis in reality, are essentially wrapped in the peel of other stories with which the listeners are already familiar. It is actually the same as if we were seeking to transform a story of the contemporary world into a fairy tale. In order for the story to receive proper attention from the audience and will be easier to remember, it is necessary to work with the traditional structure of the story and to insert into it the elements that the watchers in the auditorium have been anticipating it will include. This manner of creating stories composed partly of reality and the collective memory and partly based on myth is described as the intellectual tinkering (bricolage) of archaic humans. Even our modern epics however are also based on respect for the rules of traditional composition. Perhaps that is why the sci-fi Star Wars and the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit fantasies have all enjoyed such popularity. In both of the epic productions there are a multitude of narrative clichés, i.e. there are powerful and at the same time not simply “just” magical mysterious forces (Yedi, rings) and there is a main character who, only after his initiation to the story, becomes a hero (Luke Skywalker, Frodo and Bilbo), the listener must undertake a long journey together with these heroes that is not just about moving in space, but also represents an inner search for oneself (returning to Tatooine and to Yoda, journeying to Mordor), and finally there is the grand finale based on the realisation that good and evil are separated by only a tiny step (Frodo nearly destroys the ring, Darth Vader rejects the dark side of the force).
The description of past events (and also of more long-term processes) compiled solely from historical sources will therefore always suffer the danger of being distorted. Moreover, professional historians know this well and therefore they often take recourse in the creation of variants and models that basically reflect the written information that is available. Some researchers argue straightforwardly that it is impossible to learn about the past objectively, because its description will always be adapted to the time-period in which the historian is living, while the projection of the relative present to the interpretation of the past may not represent a conscious attempt of the describing subject.
Herein, however, we are not seeking to evaluate the role played by history in regard to learning about our own past, but rather to approach the essence of the others. Since the term “the others” overlaps in its meaning with the term “a society without a history”, any identification of the event in such a case is basically impossible. The focus of interest therefore shifts from them towards the study of structures, representing the stable domains of specific archaic societies.
Want to learn more?
- Kottak, C. P. 1991. Cultural anthropology. New York: McGraw-Hill (5th edition).
- Lévi-Strauss, C. 1966. La pensée sauvage, Paris: Librairie Plon.
- Le Goff, J. 1980. Time, work & culture in the Middle Ages. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.