I often ask myself whether I am. History, I mean. Not that anyone is opening a museum dedicated to my life, a definitive space for finite time as it is now in the works for 1970s pop act Abba. To be history, I suppose, means to be quite past it; insignificant, irrelevant, outside of what matters now, someone either to be forgotten or to get nostalgic about. To be part of history, on the other hand of time, means not only to think of oneself in context but to be thought of as belonging to it, as fitting into its continuum. And to make history is to take part in its continual shaping, be it wilful or inadvertent, by bringing something (or someone) about. So, am I a manifestation of history? Am I making it? Or am I beyond its bounds as determined by those who assume the authority of authoring it in word and image?
Such questions have been whirring through my mind after watching The History Boys, the film adaptation of the acclaimed stage play by Alan Bennett, the well-known British radio raconteur. The History Boys documents the quest of a group of students who, in an effort to make something of themselves (or to please their folks), try to get into one of Britain’s most influential or prestigious institutions of higher learning by reading (that is, studying) history. Bennett sets the action, such as it is, in 1983, which means that, by now, those ambitious, playful and bewildered youngsters would be middle-aged men, like myself (pictured), a spinning forth of their fictional lives the film encourages in its “whatever became of” epilogue.
One of them did not make it this far into the 21st century, having given his life for his country (or those governing it on his behalf) by serving in the military. Most of his classmates, it seems, have gotten little out of their college education, other than the satisfaction of being able to brag about it. Except for the one, most vulnerable, least sure of himself, who took his schooling to heart and decided to pass it on. That one, according to the queer history of Mr. Bennett, is the outsider who, unlike his closeted professor, has a chance to be, make, and impart what he has learned about himself.
At first, I was irritated by the imposed pastness of the action, as much as I can relate to the period as one of adolescent confusion. Why bother to recreate a certain historial age, to impose a make-believe historicity on the growing-up experiences portrayed, thereby diminishing or obscuring their relevance? How would their story play out if were set in the present day, rather than a past that looks, by virtue of being bygone, quaint to those who have not lived it and to those whose vision is warped by nostalgic longing?
Might not such an act of looking back serve a purpose other than to suggest a past beyond change? The history of those boys turned men, individuals who were not always in control of their paths (as accidents shaped them as much as their actions), is not so much over as it is crossing over into the present. The History Boys strikes me as an old man’s gesture of bridging what is often thought of as a generation gap, a chasm into which recent lessons and those still present to teach them are tossed to be discarded. It is an encouragement to learn not from books and experience alone, but from intercourse with those around us, those whose stories might not get into the books other than by being thought of while reading.
The body of our histories, like the history of our bodies, cannot be got at from a distance, scrutinized in clinical detachment by ostensibly objective onlookers; it has to be lived, felt and shared in order to matter. Beyond the groping for bare facts in hopes of an elusive naked truth, beyond the stripping of traditions exposed as lies and the weaving of postmodern thought in a garish display of thinly veiled self-pleasuring, imparting an understanding of history is a mentoring in the half-forgotten sense of the word.
“Pass the parcel. That’s sometimes all you can do. Take it, feel it and pass it on. Not for me, not for you, but for someone, somewhere, one day. Pass it on, boys [and girls].”