by Aidan Chivers
Some of the most charming moments of big family events are the retelling of old, familiar and utterly worn-out stories of past times. Told with delightful precision – and often, it is vaguely suspected, highly fabricated plot details – these family favourites resurface year after year, with no innovation or variation in the storyline, and are greeted invariably with the same reactions of both hilarity and derision.
These tales encompass a whole range of experiences, from the immensely trivial to the vaguely traumatic. For me, all of them have a feeling of childish permanence about them: no longer accounts of things which really happened, they have assumed a timeless, story-like quality, which reduces these real, genuine events to the status of medieval folklore, fables from antiquity, something semi-fictional. They become part of a rich and fully-formed family mythology.
Distance from events inevitably brings about a difference in perspective.
The death of a contemporary is shocking and sorrowing; a generation later it will have softened, by the erosive force of familiarity, into a memory. For the next line in the family tree, it will be reduced to a story. Three generations later, depending on the circumstances, it might be forgotten, or trivialised, or even comic.
This effect is relevant on a global scale as well as on a personal one. The brutalities of Isis are real; the Roman persecution of Christians is simply a story. The migrant crisis is shocking; the Biblical strife of the fleeing Israelites is merely a part of our cultural consciousness. Saudi Arabian human rights abuses are horrifying; ancient Aztec human sacrifices are some of the most entertaining content of the Horrible Histories children’s books.
We might, therefore, expect this blasé awareness of some of the barbarities of history to anaesthetise us against the horrors of the 21st century, or against those personal griefs which we all must someday experience, by letting us consider ourselves within the broader perspective of human experience. But these stories, these exempla, typically rely upon the reductive process of storytelling to reach our modern ears.
We have centuries of emotional insulation between us and the sickening injustices towards the victims of ritualised female infanticide in early China, or the Athenian generals executed following the unsuccessful Battle of Arginusae, or the Protestant martyrs, burned alive in Oxford. The memorials of Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley and Thomas Cranmer now stand at the south end of St. Giles’, serving more as a tourist attraction than as a monument to the horrors of the past.
The language used to tell this kind of story has passed through generations of ears, minds and mouths along the way, each absorbing their own portion of the shock factor and leaving only the bare skeleton of the facts themselves. This historical transferral of information leaves us alienated from the subject itself. The more often that such stories are retold, and the more ingrained they become in our collective consciousness, the more they lose of their emotional impact. We may never be able to find genuine solace in tales of historical suffering, however striking we find the similarities with our own predicament.
But perhaps there is something reassuring about the idea that our most all-consuming emotions and most outrageous behaviour might one day become the subject of harmless family anecdotes. Gradually drained of all their original meaning and intensity, they can fade away in plain view, withering into the bare outline of their former, Ozymandian domination over our faculties and senses.
Blind rage, boundless passion, deep hatred: the deft storyteller from posterity can neatly and efficiently gut them all of their tragic power, leaving just enough of the bare bones to construct his artful and artificial simplification. Emotional distance is the inevitable consequence of this most gentle and good-natured of distortions. And with it comes the warm, fuzzy glow of familiarity.