Buckle Up

Chapter 20 — The Redistribution of Innocence

Jules: [while cleaning the bloodied car] Oh man, I will never forgive your ass for this shit…

Vincent: Jules, did you ever hear the philosophy that once a man admits that he is wrong, that he is immediately forgiven for all wrongdoings? Have you ever heard that?

Pulp Fiction, 1994

History is old by definition. Nor it does it help the child’s appreciation of history that it’s most usually presented as dusty and fixed to a wall, as if it were a very long tapestry displayed in the very long corridors and galleries of an ancient museum a very long way away, to be studied with reverence, or admired in silent awe. There are signs everywhere saying, “Do not touch.”

The earliest chapters of it, situated in the first gallery you enter after you’ve paid your fee, look like the tapestries made by the weaver Judocus de Vos of Brussels in the 17th century and gifted to St John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta by the Aragonese Grand Master Ramon Perellos y Roccaful — that is: very faded, very stiff, and very boring.

It gets more realistic and more interesting as you go along. The great battles are depicted in pen and ink, and the victors are celebrated on horseback in oils. In the 19th century these give way to sepia daguerreotypes of your great-great-grandparents. It ends in a small gallery upstairs where a carefully curated selection of black and white photographs dispenses with the 20th century. After that it’s just you and your iPhone.

But if you look carefully enough you’ll see loose threads sticking out here and there, tiny defects in the otherwise masterful handiwork of Judocus de Vos and his successors. If you were to pull on one of them, the weave would begin to unravel. And if you were to pull hard enough on several of them at once, the entire fabrication would come down in a thumping, dusty heap, which is why they put up those velveteen ropes to keep you just a little more than an arm’s length away.

I have Helen and Igor to thank for this Aragonese metaphor of history. Before the few wonderful days we spent with them in Malta a year ago my picture of history was based on the museum I was taken to, not altogether willingly, in Pietermaritzburg or Durban circa 1963. There it was divided into a series of glass boxes much like the shop window of King’s Sports in Longmarket Street where Bruce and I would stop to look longingly at, respectively, the brand new pellet guns and the brand new rugby boots, while my mother searched out the least worn Merchiston blazers and bashers in the second-hand section at Stuttaford’s.

The museum’s glass displays were set into the walls of the quiet and gloomy corridors on the first floor of a municipal building that could have been a City Hall. Each of them contained a smaller than life-size plaster-of-paris creature painted and posed against a moodily lit backdrop illustrating its geographical or historical context. There was a lizard in a desert, a sabre-tooth tiger in a jungle, and a mammoth struggling to get out of a pit of mud. I remember a Bushman crouched in a dark cave, the glass eyes in his wrinkled face reflecting the red and yellow flickering firelight emanating from two little electric bulbs partially buried in the sandy foreground.

They were more vivid even then those images of the Eiffel Tower and the Grand Canyon I’d seen in Rodney’s 3-D viewer. They felt like moments of history sculpted out of time itself, frozen here in concrete exactitude, redeemed forever from the fleeting billions of similar instances that must have preceded and succeeded them. I wouldn’t have framed it in these words then, but that’s how they felt to me; that’s the impression I was left with afterwards: not the curator’s intended lesson, not the marvel that these creatures should once have existed at all, but the overwhelming, irretrievable loss of all the moments of existence unrepresented here — unseen, unimagined, unrealised and unrecognised. I knew I wasn’t supposed to think these things or feel like that. It seemed disrespectful to the effort they’d put into making them.

After the Bushman came the Hottentot and the White Settler in 17th century breeches of royal blue velvet. At the end of the last corridor I understood what the whole of it meant. It was the Evolution of Man from Swamp Creature to Jan Smuts.

Otto von Bismarck is said to have said, “Gesetze sind wie Würste, man sollte besser nicht dabei sein, wenn sie gemacht werden”, which translates more or less as, “Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made.”

When someone pulled on this particular loose thread it turned out that the earliest known quote regarding laws and sausages should rightfully be attributed to one John Godfrey Saxe writing in the University Chronicle of the University of Michigan on the 27th of March, 1869, which is an obscure little example of what inquisitive moths can do.

Sometime later an anonymous wag, most likely a bitter young copywriter, added a third subject, which is why I first heard it from my good friend and former colleague Rae Burdon in the following form: “There are three things you should never see being made: laws, sausages and advertising.”

I had been working long enough in the business for the list to strike me at the time as funny, insightful, elegant and exhaustive. Since then I’ve come to believe there’s a fourth, more gruesome in its manufacture even than advertising, and that’s the making of history.

We could insist on seeing the butcher’s recipe. We can look back at Hansard for the logic that led to today’s legislation. Advertising, thankfully, is seen, used and discarded as regularly as toilet paper. But what we don’t know until it’s too late to make a difference is that history is being made and remade in front of our wide-shut eyes: that the tapestry we think of as the fixed record of events over time is constantly being amended — invisibly mended, more aptly, as if by an army of elves with quick needles and matching threads, and so skilfully done that their handiwork goes unnoticed between one minute and the next.

If this doesn’t seem gruesome it’s because these busy little creatures are often the elves in ourselves. Sometimes we are conscious of rewriting the narrative of our personal lives to accommodate the awkward facts of the present; usually we aren’t. All the while we are sleeping, dreaming, waking and breathing, our unconscious selves are busily editing and re-editing the lives we’ve lived thus far to appear continuous with the hopes and wishes we still cherish for the remainder of them. And there’s nothing wrong in it: it’s the way we sustain our courage in the face of tomorrow; it’s the sane response to today’s insanities.

I’m not going to apologise for bringing Gaston Bachelard (1884–1962) into this. In the post-truth era of slippery facts and instant opinions we defer far too readily to the impatience the general reader has with writers in general, the effect of which has been to divorce from our everyday conversations the ideas that people much smarter than us thought long and hard about many years before the first fluffy intuitions of them floated into our minds on a stray breeze.

There’s a self-satisfied smugness about this casual dismissal of thoughts that were thought before we got to think them, like a picky refusal to eat a tub of hummus that’s a day past its sell-by date, as if only those nourishments still sparkling with this morning’s dew should be permitted into the chaste temple of the mind. Our appetite for the freshest gratifications has made us fat on salad and lean of meat.

And it hardly needs to be said that the same smug entitlement to the new, the unused, the unsullied and the un-common is a symptom of the wider disease of disposability, which began with plastic and will end with our intellectual inheritances unrecycled.

Bachelard is known as an epistemologist, a philosopher of science and an early structuralist, but it was John Lechte’s description of him as a “theorist of the imagination” that first got my attention. There was something irresistible in that: something beautifully, almost pataphysically absurd, in the idea of the imagination needing a theory, or the idea of someone imagining that the imagination was in want of a theory. But what I found went less to the symbolism of Alfred Jarry, the reputed father of pataphysics, than to the intimation I had in Pietermaritzburg or Durban circa 1963 that anyone who had a mind to it could sneak into the museum in the middle of the night, dress the Bushman in a shirt and tie, and change history forever.

In The New Scientific Spirit (1940) Bachelard writes: “No doubt there are some kinds of knowledge that appear to be immutable. This leads some people to think that the stability of the contents is due to the stability of the container, or, in other words, that the forms of rationality are permanent and no new method of rational thought is possible. But structure does not come from accumulation alone; the mass of immutable knowledge does not have as much functional importance as is sometimes assumed.”

The De Vos tapestries, the glass display cases in the museum, A.N. Boyce’s A School History of South Africa, the twelve volumes of the World Book Encyclopaedia that once stored all of human knowledge since the world began on a shelf beneath Fanny Smith’s silver in the lounge at Drakesleigh — these are the containers I imagined to be stable until fifty years later when I discovered how easy it was to invent a website. Our faith in the immutability of the containers has long since been replaced by a not unhealthy cynicism, but we, or possibly just people of my sort of age, still cling to the naïve belief that the contents inside will remain by and large unalterable.

I have rewritten the histories of brands and been paid for doing so. In South Africa in the mid-1970s I witnessed daily the deliberate omission from official broadcasts of news items that could have altered the history of the nation had they been aired, heard and universally debated. I’d like to say that I was unwittingly complicit in it, but I was witting enough.

The consequences of rewriting your personal history may not be much worse than living a deluded life or being found out a liar. The consequences of rewriting the history of a nation, of the calculated, clinical re-engineering of established facts and recorded truths, are invariably felt only a long way away, at the gruesome end of gravity’s rainbow, our accountability divided by the distance of its parabola, the awkward remainder attributed to human error.

It comes to this: that it’s not enough for history’s winners that they get to write history unless the lives of the losers are expunged from the record.

The trope of “The Cleaner” was around before Pulp Fiction. Today John Wick has a team of them. But no one has done it better than Tarantino’s Winston Wolfe, the Harvey Keitel character brought in to clean up the mess in the backseat of the car after John Travolta’s character accidentally shoots the hapless Marvin in the face. There is a peculiar satisfaction in watching Wolfe at work: there’s the forensic intelligence, the clockwork efficiency, the deadpan expression, the flawless finish. It’s the kind of satisfaction we get from watching the sure motions of any expert who knows exactly what he’s doing, a detective, a surgeon or an assassin, the morals of it don’t matter: it’s the fascination with procedure more than anything else, with the procedural detail, with complexity made simple — and the more detail the more fascinating, the deeper the feeling of being a privileged witness to the inner workings of genius.

But watching the expertise of “The Cleaner” gives us a more profound satisfaction. The surgeon and the mechanic fix and restore; the detective finds order in chaos, and sometimes, like the superhero, delivers justice to the victim and just desserts to the guilty. The assassin’s preparations make us God for an hour. These are the pleasures of healing, of vindication, or of some kind of correction.

Winston Wolfe reaches the parts others cannot reach. He removes the backseat of consciousness to get to the mind’s darkest and dirtiest places. He brings a black plastic bag and a bottle of bleach. He works with in surgical gloves with the specialist’s tools of erasure. He will find guilt’s fingerprints in impossible places. He doesn’t pause to wonder at the quantity of filth. He has no interest in the content of festered memories in the black bin bags. He is there to cleanse — not to forgive.

This isn’t healing, restoration, vindication or correction. This is the forensic removal of all evidence of transgression, the reorganisation of reality to its pristine state of original innocence.

It’s the difference between exorcism, which was a rooting out, an expulsion, an active banishment, a conclusive purging of sin and the roots of sin — and the priest’s feeble gestures of absolution. It’s the power of the sangoma versus the efficacy of ibuprofen.

Superstition was once a refuge for the morally anxious; now we want our souls to be laundered more than we ever wanted them to be blessed.

Forgiveness is a ritual performed with empty words in echoing public places. It is the apology of the church to the victims of its abuse, or the apology of the politician to the survivors of his genocide. Cleansing was never as benign. It came in bayonets and blood, in torture chambers, in killing fields and gas chambers. We think we are wiser than that now, but it is still the burning impulse in Trump’s “fire and fury”, and it fuels the populist fantasy of the courage and character required to push the Red Button.

The nuclear option would of course make all of this moot. Which is not to say that technology hasn’t provided us with equally effective methods of cleaning up the loose ends of history. The internet is an industry of revisionism. Its plasticity, its fluidity and its contemporaneity have made is possible to revise today the revisionist versions we deemed satisfactory yesterday. I understand that we will soon be given the legal right to remove the evidence of our youthful foolishness from public inspection. Less interesting to me than the ethical arguments of either side is how nicely it illustrates, now that it is viable in practice, how close we are to replacing expiation with erasure.

This is not to be mourned. What we are looking at is merely the extension to the individual of the privilege that history’s winners have always had to write the official version of the past; of the devolution to Auden’s Unknown Citizen of the hitherto exclusive power of nations and corporations to make and remake themselves in the image of their evolving interests or brand guidelines. You can see it as the democratisation of agitprop. I see it as the redistribution of innocence.

It is in this sense, in the revelation that intellectual freedom is impossible without innocence, or, conversely, that intellectual enquiry is inevitably distorted by historical guilt, that we are able to discern Bachelard’s new method of rational thought: a conception of history as conditional and fluid, as a fiction convenient to the interests of the present, the latest draft of a screenplay still being tested in focus groups in Poughkeepsie, an unfinished biography of the world ghost-written by a retired copywriter, paid for from the dividends of our ignorance. It’s not the truth. It’s not even a poor copy of the truth. History is what you want it to be.

This is easier for the children of the 21st century to understand than it is for the children of the 20th. Knowledge for us sprang from a fount or was stored in a font: the ambiguity of the metaphor is revealing in itself. A fount would produce no more than a trickle: a font would have to be much smaller than, say, a 44-gallon drum. You covered your bets if you thought of it as both small in volume and rigidly contained.

Our children grew up in the wild places a long way downstream. Knowledge for them is a river with as many springs as there are URLs, and with as many tributaries as there are sources of information. It is a flowing, living thing, uncontained and uncontainable, and neither its course nor its contents are or ever were immutable. For us it was important because it was only a trickle, and it was sacred because it was stored where fonts are stored or where founts are found, in consecrated temples, or on remote mountain tops kept secret by unnameable spirits.

It’s a nice image — the idea of our children frolicking in these limpid streams. And perhaps their children will get to enjoy that privilege. But for now they need to know, as some of them already do, that the contamination of the 20th century hasn’t yet run through to the disinfecting sea. The amount of pollution we fed into nature’s pure waters in those one hundred years has its equivalent in the loads of rubbish that were fed into the pure fountain of knowledge, some of it in ignorance, most of it in the acrid wash of the solvents used in the attempts to cleanse history of its imperfections, its consequence now visible in the gruesome deformities of religion, race and nationality that disgrace our common humanity.

The crucial point is that the first is a direct result of the second, that it is our tainted view of history, in particular the history of the 20th century, that makes possible the continuing contamination of our society and our planet. Ecology is epistemology in a mirror.

We know our way of life is not sustainable. Stewart Brand told us in the sixties, and serious governments are taking him seriously now. But it won’t be enough to clean up the rivers and the lakes unless we clean up the story of how all that plastic ended up in the belly of the whale.

Cleansing history of its national, racial and cultural biases will take some doing if the example of the history of British abolitionist movement is anything to go by. The received wisdom, including the version we were taught in South Africa, is that the campaign of William Wilberforce to prick the British national conscience was so passionate and so compelling that even the most hard-hearted politicians of the day wilted in the blaze of his moral indignation, and slavery was outlawed forever and, by implication, everywhere on the planet.

This was a touchy subject in South Africa in the 1960s, but the apartheid government was smart enough, even then, to spin the story in its favour. The Bantu population, far from being bonded vassals of the whites, could exercise their liberty in their very own homelands, a policy more generous in spirit and application than was afforded to persecuted minorities in most countries of the world at that time.

Most South Africans bought this version, just as most Britons bought the Wilberforce version. Among the legatees of British colonialism who didn’t was one Eric Williams, an apostate in the woodpile whose 1944 book Capitalism and Slavery argued the British abolition of their Atlantic slave trade in 1807 had more do to with economic necessity than with Christian altruism or humanitarianism. His point was very simple: British workers in the factories and forges and on the farms of industrial England had to be paid for their labour; the slaves in the colonies didn’t. This gave colonial producers of globally traded goods an unfair advantage, and the only way to level the economic playing field was to free the slaves.

This was shocking in 1944 when globalism meant only that the world was round. But it is precisely the same argument that motivated the coal miners of West Virginia to vote for Trump’s protectionist agenda, and that inspires the animus against Rumanian fruit-pickers in Britain now.

The British dealt with Eric Williams the way they deal with all political dissidents. They made him a Companion of Honour, and quietly set about discrediting his theory.

The Williams version is as plausible and the Wilberforce version, and I have no way of knowing which one comes closer to the truth. The illustrative difference is only that the Williams version has been written out of history and the Wilberforce version hasn’t.

But I did come across a few interesting facts while I was researching this. The Qin Dynasty (221–206 BC) outlawed slavery in China. The Xin Dynasty outlawed it again in 9 AD. William the Conqueror prohibited the sale of slaves to non-Christians in 1080, presumably because Christians would be nicer to them.

Iceland abolished slavery in 1117. In the 13th century the Holy Roman Empire condemned slavery as “a violation of man’s likeness to God”. Norway abolished slavery in 1274. Louis X abolished slavery in France in 1315. Sweden, Poland and the Ming Dynasty abolished slavery in the 14th century. In 1493 Queen Isabella of Castile banned the enslavement of Native Americans unless they were “hostile or cannibalistic”. Native Americans were ruled to be subjects of the Crown, and Columbus was prohibited from selling Indian captives in Seville. Those already sold were tracked, purchased from their buyers, and released. In 1503 Native Americans were allowed to travel to Spain only of their own free will. In 1537 Pope Paul III promulgated the Sublimis Deus which forbade slavery of the indigenous peoples of the Americas and sanctioned their right to freedom and property. The Sublimis Deus also applied to any other population yet to be discovered.

By 1800 slavery had been outlawed in Japan, Portugal, Haiti, Chile, Serbia, Russia, Spain, Scotland, Habsburg, Denmark and Malta.

In 1805 a bill for the abolition of slavery was passed in the House of Commons but rejected in the House of Lords.

Only a hopelessly naïve romantic would imagine that history could be returned to its pristine state of innocence by cleansing it of its accumulated cultural and political blemishes and stains. Enter the Winston Wolfe of historiography: H.G. Wells.

I see a lot of blank looks when I mention H.G. Wells in English company. This puzzled me when I first began to talk about him with some enthusiasm to anyone who would listen. I thought they’d be happy to know how much I admired the genius of one of their national treasures. I thought he’d be right up there with Terry Pratchett, OBE, Sir Bruce Forsyth and Sir Mo Farah.

It took me a while to figure out that the man who in the decades between the two world wars was regarded in Britain, the United States and the Anglophone diaspora as the world’s most influential living writer had quietly been removed from English literary and political discourse and placed in a glass box alongside Eric Williams and a Bushman in a little-visited museum. That Wells should have been so effectively written out of history when he was the first author since Tacitus to attempt to write an unbiased history of the world is doubly, absurdly and tragically ironic.

Profoundly shocked by the horrors of the First World War, Wells described history as “a race between education and catastrophe”. In 1919 he set aside his fiction to write The Outline of History, intending, as his subtitle said, to provide …a Plain History of Life and Mankind.

It sold two million copies in short order, and was still in print in 2005. But, with the notable exception of the eminent historian Arnold J. Toynbee, it was met by the academic establishment with “unmistakeable hostility”.

“They seemed not to realize,” Toynbee wrote, “that, in re-living the entire life of Mankind as a single imaginative experience, Mr. Wells was achieving something which they themselves would hardly have dared to attempt.”

In a lecture at the Royal Institution of Great Britain on Friday, 20th November 1936, Wells would take his idea of a universal, unbiased framework of historical knowledge even further. Dismayed by the social and political ignorance of the framers of the Treaty of Versailles, fearing another world war, and deeply frustrated by the inability of world leaders to see beyond their national interests, he proposes the creation of an updateable repository of knowledge for “the ordinary man”:

“The World Encyclopaedia would be a row of volumes in his own home or in some neighbouring house or in a convenient public library or in any school or college, and in this row of volumes he would, without any great toil or difficulty, find in clear understandable language, and kept up to date, the ruling concepts of our social order, the outlines and main particulars in all fields of knowledge, an exact and reasonably detailed picture of our universe, a general history of the world, and if by any chance he wanted to pursue a question into its ultimate detail, a trustworthy and complete system of reference to primary sources of knowledge. In fields where wide varieties of method and opinion existed, he would find, not casual summaries of opinions, but very carefully chosen and correlated statements and arguments.

“This World Encyclopaedia would be the mental background of every intelligent man in the world. It would be alive and growing and changing continually under revision, extension and replacement from the original thinkers in the world everywhere. Every university and research institution should be feeding it. Every fresh mind should be brought into contact with its standing editorial organisation. And on the other hand its contents would be the standard source of material for the instructional side of school and college work, for the verification of facts and the testing of statements — everywhere in the world. Even journalists would deign to use it; even newspaper proprietors might be made to respect it.” (My italics)

I discovered on Wikipedia that I wasn’t alone in thinking that it sounded a lot like Wikipedia. Joseph Reagle writes, “… H. G. Wells was concerned that his World Brain be an ‘encyclopedia appealing to all mankind’, and therefore it must remain open to corrective criticism, be skeptical of myths (no matter how ‘venerated’) and guard against ‘narrowing propaganda’. This strikes me as similar to the pluralism inherent in the Wikipedia ‘Neutral Point of View’ goal of ‘representing significant views fairly, proportionately, and without bias.’”

Wikipedia isn’t always right. It is vulnerable to abuse. It is inherently elitist when only 34% of the world’s population have access to a computer and 14% are still illiterate. For some time to come its content will continue to reflect the profile of its contributors — the academically privileged, the promotionally savvy, the intellectually self-sufficient, and the digitally capable.

It clearly doesn’t appeal “to all mankind”. As of 1st September 2017, there were 5,468,991 articles in English, and it continues to grow at a rate of over 20,000 articles a month. But that constitutes only the tiniest fraction of one percent of the approximately 4.59 billion pages that were on the internet on Sunday, 27th August, 2017. If the internet is Wells’s “World Brain”, Wikipedia is just a pinprick of neurons in one of its temporal lobes.

And nor does it yet represent “significant views fairly, proportionately, and without bias.” It is disproportionately Western, and disproportionately white.

The Wikipedia page titled “Abolitionism in the United Kingdom” fails to mention Eric Williams.

But it tries to be neutral. It has been able to resist the commercial bias that would inevitably result from an attempt to monetise it through advertising. Even more importantly it is a living, growing thing, less of a fixed repository of historical knowledge than an emerging consciousness. For this reason alone Wikipedia, or some future version of it, offers us hope that education will win the race of history before catastrophe does.

In the 20th century, history’s winners were able to write the history of history’s losers out of history. Today we are able to beginning to read their stories and hear their voices. Tomorrow someone may include Eric Williams in the public history of abolitionism. It would be a small moral victory in the vast chapter of European crimes, but the pulp fiction of the 20th century would be nudged a fraction closer towards the Non-Fiction shelves in your local bookstore.

One day we may be as publicly conscious of slavery and colonial genocides as we are of apartheid and the holocaust. Forgiveness comes with understanding, but absolution is made possible only by remembering.

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