Sunday, July 27, 2014

Histories and Stories

I'm hoping to share more translations, but in the meantime I wanted to put together some words to articulate an idea. It's an idea I've had as long as I've studied the history of Kazakhstan. I haven't questioned or reconsidered this idea critically, though.

With many historically important events in history, I believe that one possible avenue of research is to separate the event from its name. I think the reason for this is obvious: events happen in the unending flow of time, which passes without a name more significant than the date, whether that include century, decade, year, month, day, hour, minute, and/or second.  In my research I am working on the Bare Footed Flight of the Kazakhs, but I think I can draw a useful comparison from most events in history in this regard. So, at random I picked the first event that came to mind: the shot heard round the world. Different people attach this phrase to different events, but the one I had in mind was the opening of the American Revolutionary War.

This shot (famous in America, at least) refers to the first bullet fired under orders during the American Revolutionary War, more specifically by the rebel side. When one arrives at that definition, it becomes relatively easy to trace the shot generally to a skirmish on a bridge near Concord, Massachusetts. For non-Americans, let me explain that the Battles at Lexington and Concord are taught to every American child. Or, more accurately, the names of these events are taught to every American child; the actual causes of the battles and the controversy in the colonies at the start of the war are not taught. And, to be perfectly clear, there is no historical evidence on the actual "shot heard round the world," since its importance was not suggested until years later. Even more interesting, there are contradictory accounts from the previous Battle of Lexington, so it remains possible that the "shot heard round the world" actually was fired in another place, earlier that same day. In other words, it becomes painfully obvious that that shot wasn't heard even "around the county," let alone "around the world." This is the wonderful intersection of literature and history: the American Revolution did become recognized as an important event to many people around the world, though perhaps not during the Revolution itself. At that later date, the start of the War of the American Revolution also became important.

But where does the phrase come from, if not from a historical description of gunfire and violence? For historians (and other chronically cynical people), the answer is not surprising. The phrase sprang ripe and mature from the fertile ground of patriotic imagination. About sixty years after the supposed event, the shots were memorialized by a very famous essayist and poet whose name is also taught to American children: Ralph Waldo Emerson. I can say truthfully, though, that I have no memory of learning the connection between the event and the man -- I imagine that is not something taught in schools.
By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.
As it turns out, this event is actually a much better example than I knew when I picked it. The reason is that the phrase happens to be poetic, literally coming from a piece of poetry rather than from contemporary accounts of the shot. To reiterate, there is an important historical event: the beginning of the War of American Independence. However, sources are contradictory and difficult to parse for specific, clear pictures of how the war began. More importantly, the feelings of the people involved are largely a mystery, save for those who both articulated those feelings in writing, which itself would not be a 100% true account of their actual feelings and beliefs. While some people may have felt and believed they were living on the cusp of a historical change, for the vast majority of people it was just Wednesday, perhaps a terrible Wednesday or a normal Wednesday. So, there are two ways to approach these events, possibly in tandem: studying the historical sources related to the event itself and studying the historical sources related to the naming of the event, what I would call for our purposes the story of the event. Doing this in combination allows the reader to have a more complete understanding of the story, the origins of the story, the facts that made up that version of the story, and the array of other facts that were not a part of the story. Some of these facts were difficult to find or forgotten, certainly, but at the end of the day the person writing the story of the event was a poet, an essayist, a lecturer, and not as concerned with presenting the fullest, most complete vision of history as with the presentation with the story of that history.

In much the same way I study the Bare Footed Flight, which has both a story and a history. The story is much younger than the history, since I have struggled to find written evidence of the story dating  before 1900. Certain elements of the story, like the poem Elim-ai, do have a written history dating to the 19th century. However, there are many pieces of historical evidence contemporary to the events of the 1720s that do not agree with the story as preserved in so-called Kazakh National Culture.

And I believe that studying both the history and the story is important for approaching a more complete understanding of the history of the Kazakhs.