Long ago and far away, in the days when I was earning my degree in history, woodsrunning and advanced beer swilling, my girlfriend became most upset because one of her roommates in a big old Victorian house in Berkeley had dismissed her English literature pursuits as useless. He was a sciences guy. He was also an asshole.
She sought my counsel in constructing a counter-argument that would make the case for the relevance and importance of literature. I said, “Just tell him ‘I know it’s only rock and roll — but I like it.’”
My girlfriend found that less than satisfying. In fact, she was pissed off. She felt that saying “it’s only rock and roll” trivialized her work in the same way The Asshole did. Sigh… We weren’t really a very good match, which she figured out a little sooner than I did. A bullet dodged and another story.
Anyway… that “oh, fuck off” attitude has always worked for me. I’ve never required the validation of others and the Imprimatur of Significance to justify chasing what I love. The “importance” of studying history has always played second fiddle to the pure joy of it.
I was reminded of that ancient college-days exchange the other day when I saw an interview online with medieval historian Dan Jones. Jones, a Brit, is a hot ticket in the world of popular history — and deservedly so. I listened to The Plantagenets as an audiobook and liked it a lot. He’s got a new volume on the Templars dropping in the U.S. this month.
Jones is young, handsome, well-inked, and he rocks a leather jacket. He’s about as far from the donnish history professor as it’s possible to be. In fact, he’s a hip, “edgy” dude well-positioned to snare the millenials who are drawn to medieval history because they’re addicted to Game of Thrones. And he’s having a lot of fun. Imagine that.
Jones noted in this interview that there are all sorts of reasons to study history, but the one that’s best is that it’s fun. It’s storytelling, with the added spice of knowing that it’s true.
Of course there is value to the study, beyond the pleasures it provides, and Jones identifies that in a way that again hits the x-ring. From an interview with Medievalist.net:
It can always sound really glib when historians start dancing up and down and saying, “hey, my book is super-relevant today.” And, justifiably, a lot of historians get jittery or sour-faced at the word or the question “how is this relevant?” So, I prefer a slightly different term, which is resonant.
Ah, resonance. I love that word. Relevance is a cold concept that’s all in the head, the intellect. Resonance is something you feel — the reverberations of the actions of people that vibrate down the centuries. I feel about relevance vs. resonance much as J.R.R. Tolkien felt about allegory vs. applicability. Allegory, which he despised, works through “the purposed domination of the author,” while applicability lies in the active engagement of the reader.
“Relevance” is something we try to impose. Resonance is something you feel in your bones.
Jones also had something valuable to say about the relationship between “real history” and mythologized history or legend. They don’t have to be at odds.
I spent the last year of this book working on (the History Channel’s forthcoming drama) Knightfall. I was working with them right from the pilot script to – I’m still working with them. And so that show was the other side of Templar history. It’s heavily infused with the history, but also it fully embraces the mythology, and so I was getting my sort of mythological kicks working with the producers and the writers and the departments and the actors on that. Why kill the joy? As I’m getting older I’m becoming much more chilled out about that kind of stuff. It’s really super fun to believe that the Templars have the Holy Grail. In fact, let’s look back at 1200-1210, Wolfram von Eschenbach sticking the Templars in the stories of King Arthur, guarding the Holy Grail. These two things can coexist. Make the history books super exciting, show people that real history is as exciting as the mythology, and don’t try and view it as a zero sum in which you’ve got to destroy the other one.
Now, a cynic might say that it’s easy to be “more chilled out about that kind of stuff” when your’re getting a nice consultant’s paycheck to play along. But I see no reason to believe that Jones is anything but sincere about this — and he’s right. Now, there’s cheap mythologizing and there’s rich mythologizing, and the former deserves a quick and ignominious death. But the rich kind is, well… rich.
That’s what The Revenant was for me — a grand Myth of the Mountain Man.
Myth has a couple of different meanings. One is something that is false, not true, a pernicious kind of cultural lie. The other, grander meaning, which demands a capital “M,” recognizes Myth as the stories a people tell to explain and culturally understand nature, history and the way humans behave. Sometimes there’s a fine and blurry line between mere myth and Myth. You recognize the Right Stuff when you see it.
When passionate historians like Jones get involved with productions that blend history and myth, the odds that you’ll get the Right Stuff get a whole lot better.
I have never doubted the power or importance of Story. I’ve never felt any need to justify my passions by saying, “but it’s Relevant.” I require no validation from others and seek none. I am grateful that for me it has always been sufficient to say “I know it’s only rock and roll — but I like it.”
Ain’t it straaaaaaange?