Rewriting History – when is it OK?

Theater J is about to reprise its hit show of two years ago, “New Jerusalem”, a very interesting and enjoyable play about the excommunication of Baruch Spinoza by the Jewish community of 17th century Amsterdam. Spinoza was born to Portuguese Jews, forced to hide their religion in their home country, but able to embrace it in Holland. His intellect led him to break from the traditional Jewish community in an unheard of manner, by expressing highly individual views on the relationship between God and the world. Today viewed as a precursor of the European enlightenment and even of the concept of separation of church and state, then he was cast aside by his community and forced to live a very lonely life.

“New Jerusalem” is the story of the Spinoza excommunication trial and the events leading up to it. Unfortunately, it is quite unhistorical – the trial, as it existed, was a closed affair, with even Spinoza himself not in attendance. In the play (at least as it existed two years ago), Spinoza is there, as is his sister, and a member of the gentile community who testifies or presents at length. In addition, Spinoza’s relationship with a non-Jewish woman is described quite differently than that relationship is documented by historians.

None of this makes the play less interesting or enjoyable to watch, but to the extent it gives the audience the understanding that they have witnessed an accurate portrayal of history, there is a problem.

I don’t mean to pick on “New Jerusalem”, however. This is a normal, rather than an abnormal occurrence in theater. In the recent production of “Parade” earlier this year, for example, the story of the conviction and execution of Leo Frank for a murder he did not commit, also took a great deal of liberty with the facts.

And it certainly is not a phenomenon limited to theater. Think of the movies. Think of the Oliver Stone films on Nixon or Kennedy. Or think of the recent Frost/Nixon film, where a central feature was a late night phone conversation that never occurred. Or “Moneyball”, where those involved said: it’s not quite the way it happened. Or Mark Zuckerberg’s generous remarks about “The Social Network”, where he criticized the historicity of the film, but said that he didn’t mind that – it’s just a movie, after all.

Well, all of this is preface to a book that I just read, and enjoyed a lot, J.M. Coetzee’s “The Master of Petersburg”, a novel by the South African/Australian author, published in 1994.

Now this book is an avowed “novel”, not meant to be history. The literary world is full, of course, of historical novels – where the author takes a historical situation, and does a little extrapolation to fictionalize a true story, without attempting to distort the history. This is done by introducing some fictional characters, making up some dialogue that might have been said by historical characters, and winding up with a reader-friendly way to talk about an historical event.

This is not what happens in “The Master of Petersburg”. The central character of this novel is Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky, renown author of “Crime and Punishment” and “The Brothers Karamzov”. Living in voluntary exile (to escape creditors) in Dresden with his second wife and young child, he returns (using a fake identity) to St. Petersburg to collect the few possessions of his 22 year old stepson (child of his first wife, who has died), who – the story goes – has committed suicide. He is devastated by his death; he was very close with the young man. He learns that the authorities are not so sure it is suicide and that his stepson’s possessions have been for the time confiscated. He falls for his stepson’s landlady, leading to obvious complications and confusion. He learns that his stepson has been involved with a notorious underground revolutionary movement, and that the authorities’ suspicions may not be groundless. It’s a very well written book.

The problem? None of this ever happened. Dostoevsky did have a stepson, son of his first wife, with whom he was apparently close. But his stepson did not die at age 22 in St. Petersburg – he lived a full life, surviving his stepfather. The entire premise of the story is false. (Well, false may not be the right word – there was a young 23 year old who died in an accident, and whose father was devastated by the death. But the father’s name was not Fyodor Dostoevsky – it was J.M. Coetzee. Coetzee wrote this book after his son’s death, transferring his grief to one of his literary idols.)

Reading the book (including the book descriptions on the dust jacket), you would not know that young Pavel did not die this mysterious death. You would think you are reading an historical novel – taking the facts, and extrapolating, but not distorting history.

Is any of this important? Somehow, I think it is. Recording history is a crucial (and difficult) societal activity – recording false history is dangerous. (If you want to see false history being created, and how dangerous it is, just follow the Republican presidential candidate campaign.)

Some years ago, the Washington area was under siege by the “Washington sniper”. Word got out that the sniper was driving an unmarked white, panel truck, of which there must be thousands in this area alone. It turned out that he was driving a souped up Chrysler (I think it was red), but the damage had been done. Even today, I shudder a little when I see an unmarked white panel truck and am very wary of its driver. Distorted history, even when you know it is distorted, sticks.
Coetzee’s distortions may not be important in the long run. Nor is the false representation of the Spinoza excommunication trial. But they are indicative – and they need to be accompanied by sufficient explanatory material to ensure that they are taken for what they are, and not as mirrors of what they seem to be representing.

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