On Reality and the Past
Until recently, our perception of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, was of a world in sepia, or tones of black, grey and white, of fuzzy, scratchy images, of erratic and overly rapid movement. It was, nonetheless, somehow easier to relate to these as images of real life than renditions of people from earlier periods represented in works of art, perhaps because, despite their shortcomings, these film images are of people in fairly similar dress to us, in similar situations, but mainly, I think, because in appearance and in action they are imperfect, just as we are.
The soon to be released compilation by Peter Jackson of films from the First World War, titled They Shall not Grow Old (a line in Lawrence Binyon's well-known poem, For the Fallen), has employed digital image processing, to take these images, clean and sharpen them, adjust the speed, and add realistic sound. To judge from the brief previews available, the result is stunning, and does perhaps even more than the poignant poetry and heart-rending eyewitness accounts, to make us realise that the people involved in this terrible war were just like us.
We have no films from the Middle Ages, and the contemporary chronicles, as informative as they often are, generally lack the emotion that can bring us close to the individual. We need nonetheless to try to get a more real concept of the past by doing just that, getting as close to the individual as we can. It requires not only a grasp of the preserved information, but an ability to clean, sharpen and adjust, to use all of our faculties - knowledge, understanding and imagination. The best historians manage to do that.
Jorge Luis Borges wrote with a touch of humour - “Reality is not always probable, or likely”. Perhaps he meant that it is always subjective. That is certainly true, but it is just that - the individual's understanding and his or her individual way of seeing, that makes history come to life.