March 6, 2004
Sometimes I get tired of The Truth. Too much of it makes me weary. I get tired of saying, “It didn’t happen that way,” to people interested in the Old West. Most people claim they want to know The Truth but when it gets down to bedrock, they really don’t want to know. Why? Maybe because, too often the truth is so predictable and boring. Did the Kid kill 21 men, one for every year of his life? No, he got, maybe four. Oh really? Thanks. Gotta go.
No wonder we long for legend and myth.
As a culture we seem to go for stretches where we fill up on legends, then purge them all in a bulimic gorefest of rejection and diarrhea (otherwise known as “revisionist history”). I guess I’m suffering from truth fatigue (or too much diarrhea). Right now, I just want to hear a good story. I sort of want to know if it’s true, but more often than not I just want to believe it’s true so I can relate to the hero or protagonist, and there’s a big difference.
Other cultures (Hispanic or Native American for example) don’t seem to mind if all the facts can’t be “proven,” or the quotes don’t contain enough provenance. Many of their legends seem to thrive in spite of the truth—they just enjoy them for what they are—legends.
So what does this say about us. I think this obsession with The Truth is an export of northern European culture. Some Viking, Dutch or Norman DNA triggers an anal obsession with facts, documentation and provenance. We (I’m half Norwegian) insist and demand “proof” and we won’t rest until we know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, exactly what happened.
First of all, you can never record anything exactly as it happened. The past is literally a foggy mess.
I sometimes think I have a good handle on specific Old West icons, but upon a second reading (or a 2,000th reading) it changes. Where I’m standing when I read it, changes the meaning; a new “fact” bends, or completely blows up a previous truth; conventional wisdom is more often than not, a bad joke. Advancing age also changes the perspective. Some of the Truths I “discovered” in my twenties take on a totally different meaning today, in my late fifties.
It’s all moving and we can never nail it down. Someone said it’s like trying to nail jello to a wall. Good luck making it stick.
Here’s another great metaphor: nailing down history is like trying to change a tire on a truck that’s going forty miles an hour.
Now if you read that last sentence and thought, “If a truck has a flat tire, how can it be going forty miles an hour?” You are probably of Northern European descent. This is exactly what I’m talking about. We’re too anal for our own good, I tell you.
Still, we trudge on, trying to patch together some sort of bailing wired, duck-taped facsimile of The Truth. I haven’t given up by a long shot, but I do get tired.
“There’s no future in history.”
—Old Vaquero Saying
“Rough work, iconoclasm, but the only way to get at truth.”
—Oliver Wendell Holmes
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