Thursday, December 8, 2011

How Time's Leveled Us

This disaffection. This is armageddon. Ah, Mary, how time's leveled us. We are made equal, both mere curios of our vanished epoch in this lustless world.
This world, where in comparison I am made ignorant, while you...
you are made virtuous.
- From Hell
by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell 

I'm using this quote because I think it testifies to the power of story.

Mary Kelly (or Marie Kelly) was just a simple, impoverished Victorian woman whose only means of supporting herself came from the world's oldest profession. There wasn't really anything noteworthy or special about her, at least not that we know. Normally we would probably pity or even detest a poor prostitute as a member of the dregs of society.

Left at that, she probably would have been forgotten by history. Instead she became a figure that has entered into the popular conciousness. She's been written about in countless books, depicted on television, and even portrayed on the cinema screen by Heather Graham.

All because she was horribly slaughtered by the person (or persons) we have labeled Jack the Ripper.

Instead of detesting this prostitute, we mourn and even revere her. And, if the identity of the Ripper really was Sir William Gull, as Moore tells in his fictional account, then the statuses of Gull and Kelly have really reversed. Kelly has gone from a lowly prostitute to a virtuous victim of tragedy and violence. And Gull has gone from a respected physician who made many contributions to modern medicine to, well, a monster.

Of course, there are many holes in the Gull as Jack the Ripper theory, and Moore admits that. But does it matter? Look what a story can do. The story of Mary Kelly turned a poor prostitute into a legend that will always be remembered in come capacity.

I always like to ask what's more important, what really happened, or what we remembered happened? History isn't necessarily made by the victors, but by those who can tell a good story about it. Is history what actually, literally happened, or just the stories that we tell about what might have happened?

Man, the historian in me is bubbling with rage at that. Yeah, I even get into trouble with myself sometimes by what I write.

Sometimes a person will ask me about some odd event in history and inquire if that really happened or is just a legend. Often I will reply, "Does it matter?" That answer tends to displease the person, but I think it's a question we need to seriously consider. Sometimes history is uneventful and boring. But a good story about that period can make it riveting.

If you think history is boring, you're just not reading the right version of it.

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