“Poetry is nearer to truth than history.” -Plato
I’ve been watching the news as the United States and Russia arm wrestle for control of the narrative of what is happening in world events. As someone who first trained as an historian, and went on to become a writer and consultant in the field of creativity, change and leadership, I find it fascinating.
Recently Putin stepped out of the box of expectations, hired an image consultant to help him woo the U.S. public opinion, and took to the op ed section of the New York Times to tell his story. Senator and past U.S. presidential candidate John McCain has blustered about countering in the Pravda, the official newspaper of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation. But they say they’ve received nothing from him.
Who launched the chemical weapons? That’s the log line of the Syrian conflict. With fingers pointing to Assad, the rebels, and a western conspiracy whose motive it to prey on public sympathy/outrage and use it as a reason to go to war. The United States has liked to position itself as a mediator in the Middle East, harking back to the great Camp David photo op. So when Putin stepped up with a plan to avert war and neutralize the chemical question in Syria, many on the U.S. side found it galling to accept the offer, painting it as a Trojan Horse, which it may very well prove to be.
I was a child of the cold war. I was full of patriotism when Canada beat the USSR in Copps Coliseum here in Hamilton in 1987. Cried when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. Wondered how such a threat, enough to set in motion a global arms race that ended in a stockpile of nuclear and conventional weapons big enough to destroy our world and a few others beside, could just evaporate when one side lost interest, or financial ability to stop playing.
I find myself back and forth in my position on Snowden. Who is doubtless a criminal, stealing information from his employers, because he didn’t like the story they were telling and thought that the public might spin it differently if they had access to the data. And yet, he stikes me like a Promethean figure. Levelling the playing field between the gods and men. Choosing exile and possible death as the cost of that. I’m sure there are many in the U.S. administration who would chain him, like the mythical hero, to a rock to have his intestines eaten daily by a sea monster, if they could. Putin of course has milked it for all he is worth, and the “liberator” finds himself a refugee in the land legendary for its repression of free speech.
History comes from Greek and means to inquire. But the modern definition is a written record. A story, in other words. Written by contemporary observers, and then analyzed by future generations, with the benefit of hindsight, a longer timeline, a broader context, alternate sources etc. The first question an historian always asks is who wrote this, to whom was it written, why was it written, who paid for it to be written, what was the intended impact, how was the story used, and what other stories might be told from the core data. Each generation of historians review the work of their predecessors, looking for holes, new angles, and the biases inherent in the work that’s gone before, that might have shaded interpretation.
History is inherently unreliable. Because the writer was almost never trying to give a true account. Most often to give a useful one. Useful for some political purpose or another. Sponsored by one party or another. So if you’re looking for truth there you’d better bring your sifter. Just look at how it is being made now, if you don’t believe me.
Poetry can also be political. It’s storytelling bypasses facts altogether, and goes straight for the emotions, through choice of language and image and rhythm. It aims at the essence of things. It wants to move you. Which is why tyrants both use and fear it. And Plato wanted poets banned entirely from his Republic.
But poets have a greater appreciation for the truth, I think. Because a false story can be swallowed. But a false poem doesn’t work somehow. The measure of the art is in how true it rings. And resonates with what our body knows.
Three morals in this story,
1. History is a story, told from a specific viewpoint, for a specific purpose, in order to sway public opinion and influence posterity.
2. History is being written now.
3. If it’s truth you’re after, you’d do better to study poetry.
Yours with creativity and imagination,