The debate over whether it is better to think in terms of histories rather than History seems somewhat frivolous. Yet upon further reflection, it is an entirely valid question and one that begs to be asked. ‘History’ is a less inclusive, broad term that presumes to place ‘everything that happened’ into one word; in contrast, ‘histories’ denotes possible interpretations of the same event that are not featured in basic history books.
History is a word typically used by those who see the story of life on earth as having been written by the victors. Indeed, most history textbooks in schools tend to analyze from only one certain perspective. This would frustrate any student who yearns to think critically about the past. The so-called winners, those who defeat others in battle or outlast one another, have a wealth of information to offer those who wish to study. Yet by skimming the surface of the past, true depth is rarely reached. Certainly the Romans, whose power spanned centuries, were able to record the histories of their day. The biases and revisions, however, are not always explored. Every civilization in history has had some form of an agenda, and the winners are the ones who get to write the books.
As an example of this, much of the modern thought on King Richard III of England is overwhelmingly negative. He was murderous and lustful and his death on the field of battle led to the brightest age of England, begun by Elizabeth’s grandfather, Henry VII. But was Richard rotten to the core? So Queen Elizabeth would have us believe. Since Shakespeare was a Court playwright under her reign, she was able to enforce her biases. Thus, the main reason why we judge Richard so harshly is due to Shakespeare’s ruthless play, Richard III, which portrayed the king as a fiend among men. The stories of life only echo this example of incredible bias, and how this bias is able to make it into contemporary history books as fact.
Similarly, in Guy Delisle’s Pyongyang, we see examples of different interpretations of the same events and situations. Guy and his interpreter have very, very conflicting views of the South Korean-North Korean relations and how the U.S. relates.1 In this case, the two have separate ideas as to why the two countries split and whether they will reunify. Further, since Guy is the author of the novel, he portrays his own position as ‘the correct one,’ showing his own belief in the idea of History as opposed to histories. He fails to grasp his interpreter’s perspective, a blunder which many of the victors of the past also failed to do. Thinking in such a limited way curbs the ability of an individual to think critically about the events of previous life.
In deciding whether ‘History’ or ‘histories’ is a better term, it is clear that ‘histories’ is much more inclusive and multi-faceted. Though the victors of ‘History’ would have us believe otherwise, everything that has happened in the world has several perspectives and interpretations. To blindly accept what one is told without further investigation is to live a life without using one’s ability to critique, question, and learn at a far deeper level.
1 Delisle, Guy. Pyongyang. Montreal: Drawn & Quarterly, 2003. See pages 64-65 for the conflicting views.