Il existe une toute nouvelle façon de visualiser l’histoire de notre monde
par Vincent Manilève
«Rapidement, quelles figures historiques vivaient il y a environ cinq cents ans?» C’est une question complexe que pose le Washington Post sur son site. En pensant à Christophe Colomb, on peut alors se souvenir de Ferdinand le Catholique. «Mais pour la plupart d’entre nous, écrit le site, ce qui va nous venir à l’esprit est probablement le bourdonnement du néant, ou le doux chant des criquets.» Et effectivement, nos souvenirs de collège et de lycée en matière d’histoire peuvent avoir tendance à se transformer en une sorte de mélasse dont il est difficile d’extirper les éléments clefs.
C’est pour cela que le site américain relaie le projet de Tim Urban, qui gère le blog Wait But Why, et qui propose une autre façon d’aborder les milliers d’années d’histoire de l’humanité: «l’histoire horizontale».
«L’histoire est un enchevêtrement géant de milliers d’histoires entrelacées impliquant des millions de personnages, des chapitres innombrables, et beaucoup, beaucoup de narrateurs, écrit Tim Urban. Et vous connaissez les humains, ce n’est pas des choses qu’ils aiment. Le cerveau humain aime vraiment, vraiment, simplifier les choses. […] Nous voulons que l’histoire soit simple et claire, avec les bons et les méchants, et nous aimerions être sûrs que nos ancêtres, notre groupe ethnique, notre pays, et toutes les tribus auxquelles nous appartenons soient ceux d’Aladin, pas Jafar.»
Afin de remédier à notre vision linéaire du monde et de son histoire, il a décidé de lui donner une autre dimension en superposant les grands noms ayant vécu à une même époque et en leur donnant un code couleur selon leur domaine d’influence (religion, politique, sciences, etc.).
By Tim Urban
Most of us have a pretty terrible understanding of history. Our knowledge is spotty, with large gaps all over the place, and the parts of history we do end up knowing a lot about usually depend on the particular teachers, parents, books, articles, and movies we happen to come across in our lives. Without a foundational, tree-trunk understanding of all parts of history, we often forget the things we do learn, leaving even our favorite parts of history a bit hazy in our heads. Raise your hand if you’d like to go on stage and debate a history buff on the nuances of a historical time period of your choosing. That’s what I thought.
The reason history is so hard is that it’s so soft. To truly, fully understand a time period, an event, a movement, or an important historical figure, you’d have to be there, and many times over. You’d have to be in the homes of the public living at the time to hear what they’re saying; you’d have to be a fly on the wall in dozens of secret, closed-door meetings and conversations; you’d need to be inside the minds of the key players to know their innermost thoughts and motivations. Even then, you’d be lacking context. To really have the complete truth, you’d need background—the cultural nuances and national psyches of the time, the way each of the key players was raised during childhood and the subtle social dynamics between those players, the impact of what was going on in other parts of the world, and an equally-thorough understanding of the many past centuries that all of these things grew out of.
That’s why not only can’t even the most perfect history buff fully understand history, but the key people involved at the time can’t ever know the full story. History is a giant collective tangle of thousands of interwoven stories involving millions of characters, countless chapters, and many, many narrators.
And you know humans—that’s not how they like things. The human brain really, really likes tosimplify things. History provides the context of our world and our lives, because each of us is a character in this grand story—and the last thing we want to believe is that the story is too complicated and mysterious for us to understand.
Fairy tales are satisfying, because the plot is crystal clear—there are good guys and there are bad guys and there’s only one side of the story. Children identify with the good guys—the us guys—and they detest the bad guys—the them guys—and everyone’s happy. Stories written for adults aren’t that different—you loved Shawshank and Braveheart and Star Wars, right?
So when it comes to the story we’re all a part of, we most certainly want to feel the same way. We want history to be simple and clear, with good guys and bad guys, and we’d like to make sure that our ancestors, our ethnic group, our nation, and all the other tribes we belong to are Aladdin in the story—not Jafar.
The problem with this is that not everyone can be Aladdin. Someone has to be Jafar, right? Well, no. Not if there are many different story-tellers. Since no one is ever telling anything close to the full, real, complete story, in all its complexity—as we said, no one even knows the full story—each historian, each ruler, and each society creates their own fairy tale version of what went down in the past. When things are unsatisfyingly multi-faceted, we pick the facet we like best. When there are knowledge gaps, we make things up. When there are questions of motive, we pick one that fits nicely into the narrative.
This leaves us with plenty of tools to leave every story with a proper Aladdin and a proper Jafar and allows us to make sure that Aladdin is exactly who we want him to be.
The US is a good example. A huge number of people in today’s world have been told a story of the US in which the US is Aladdin, and a huge other number of people have heard the same story with the US as Jafar. Some people will claim to have a more nuanced view, but deep in their heart, when they see an American flag, they see either a good guy flag or a bad guy flag. (One of the major political divides in the US stems from liberals thinking conservatives over-Aladdinize the US and conservatives thinking liberals over-Jafarify the US while Aladdinizing the other side.)
This is the same phenomenon behind the stark opinion divide around Israel and Palestine. Hoards of people on both sides of what is an insanely complicated story are red in the face with ire at the other side, completely positive that their side is Aladdin and incensed that anyone could ever call the other side Aladdin and their side Jafar. Only with the stark clarity of a fairy tale could people ever feel so unshakingly sure.
Of course, it’s not that there are no good guys or bad guys in history. History is a pretty ugly story—what else would you expect from a species of primitive biological animals—and accountability for that ugliness isn’t spread out evenly amongst all people. To an extent, the definition of words like good and bad, right and wrong, and hero and villain lie in the eye of the beholder—but there’s also plenty of human behavior that qualifies as objectively good or bad.
So it’s not that there are never objective Aladdins and there are never objective Jafars—it’s that almost none of us has any idea what the fuck we’re talking about. Point to a historical event and tell me that there was a true Aladdin and Jafar going on, and I’ll acknowledge that that might be true. Tell me that you know who was who, and in most cases I’ll shake my head.
Which brings me to me. Blogging about history is asking for trouble. Portray nearly any story or person as an Aladdin or a Jafar and you’ll feel the wrath of both the people who believe the opposite situation and the people who think you’ve oversimplified the situation. Portray something in a nuanced and balanced way and you’ll get yelled at by people who believe both of the one-sided views. Nothing brings people’s tribal fires to the table like history. I’ve learned this from experience.
This doesn’t make me any less excited to write about history—but it makes me want to research the shit out of a part of history before I write about it. Only by reading a bunch of varying accounts and opinions can you start to form a clear picture of what we know and don’t know.
So that’s why for this post, I’m not gonna tell you shit. Rather than dive into the weeds of what happened when, and why, I’m going to focus on one of the rare elements of history that’s indisputably black-and-white—who happened when.
Because before we can responsibly start arguing with each other about Aladdins and Jafars, we need to get the basic timeline and characters of the story clear.
But I’m going to lay things out a little differently than you’re probably used to.
Normally, we learn about history’s storylines in isolation. We might have a strong sense of the history of physics breakthroughs or the progression of western philosophical thought or the succession of French rulers—but we’re not as clear on how each of these storylines relate to each other. If you think of history like a tangle of vines growing upwards through time, studying one type of history at a time is like following the path of one particular vine while ignoring the other vines around it. It’s understanding history in a vertical sense.
And while vertical history has its merits, it doesn’t leave you with an especially complete picture of any one time. An econ buff in the year 2500 might know all about the Great Depression that happened in the early 20th century and the major recession that happened about 80 years later, but that same person might mistake the two world wars for happening in the 1800s or the 2200s if they’re a little hazy on the history of wars. So while an econ buff, that person would have a pretty poor understanding of what our modern times are all about.
Likewise, I might know that Copernicus began writing his seminal work On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres in Poland in the early 1510s, but by learning that right around that same time in Italy, Michelangelo painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, I get a better picture of the times. By learning that it was right while both of these things were happening that Henry VIII married Catherine of Aragon in England, the 1510s suddenly begins to take on a distinct personality. These three facts, when put together, allow me to see a more three-dimensional picture of the 1510s—it allows me to see the 1510s horizontally, like cutting out a complete segment of the vine tangle and examining it all together.
A blog post is limited in its ability to examine all of history horizontally. But I’ve taken two separate cracks below that I think can work together nicely to help us take a horizontal view of different times. Both involve a lot of names.
Which leads me to the inevitable disclaimer about who I chose to include. I tried to remove my own biases by gathering the names from a handful of lists by publications like Time. I searched the internet for things like “most influential people in history” and “most important people in the Middle Ages” and “most famous people of the 19th century” and “most powerful Chinese emperors” and ended up with a big pile of names, some of whom I’m familiar with, others I’m not. That said, between the fact that the lists I used were by publications targeting English-speaking people and that I inevitably leaned more towards people I had heard of, the group of names will skew America- and Euro-centric, with places like Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia probably underrepresented. This isn’t entirely by accident, though—this post is only useful if you’ve heard of the people, and I intentionally chose names I thought a large portion of Wait But Why readers would know. In other words, merit wasn’t the only criteria—household fame mattered too. And yes, I missed a lot of people—with limited space on the screen, the names had to be a sampling, not an exhaustive list.
The blog: waitbutwhy.com