Quotations

From Julian Barnes’s book, A History of the World in 10½ Chapters (1989):

There’s one thing I’ll say for history. It’s very good at finding things. We try to cover them up, but history doesn’t let go. It’s got time on its side, time and science. However ferociously we ink over our first thoughts, history finds a way of reading them. We bury our victims in secrecy (strangled princelings, irradiated reindeer), but history discovers what we did to them. We lost the Titanic, forever it seemed, in the squid-ink depths, but they turned it up. They found the wreck of the Medusa not long ago, off the coast of Mauretania. There wasn’t any hope of treasure, they knew that; and all they salvaged after a hundred and seventy-five years were a few copper nails from the frigate’s hull and a couple of cannon. But they went and found it just the same….

We all know objective truth is not obtainable, that when some event occurs we shall have a multiplicity of subjective truths which we assess have a multiplicity of subjective truths which we assess and then fabulate into history, into some God-eyed version of what ‘really’ happened. This God-eyed version is a fake – a charming, impossible fake, like those medieval paintings which show all the stages of Christ’s Passion happening simultaneously in different parts of the picture. But while we know this, we must still believe that objective truth is obtainable; or we must believe that it is 99 per cent obtainable; or if we can’t believe this we must believe that 43 per cent objective truth is better than 41 per cent. We must do so, because if we don’t we’re lost, we fall into beguiling relativity, we value one liar’s version as much as another liar’s, we throw up our hands at the puzzle of it all, we admit that the victor has the right not just to the spoils but also to the truth. (Whose truth do we prefer, by the way, the victor’s or the victim’s? Are pride and compassion greater distorters than shame and fear?)