History in Three Keys: The Boxers as Event, Experience, and Myth

By Paul A. Cohen | Go to book overview
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PROLOGUE
The Mythologized Past

Historians, much like art restorers removing the grime from old masters, not infrequently set for themselves the express task of stripping away the layers of myth that conceal from view the true face of the past. This is what John Keegan and Paul Fussell attempt in their classic studies of the boredom, cruelty, and fear of ordinary soldiers at the front. 1 It is what Vera Schwarcz had in mind when she wrote, referring to the demythologization of May Fourth it "might yet become what it really was: the halting, confused movement of a small group of intellectuals trying to awaken themselves. 2

But there is a potential downside to this process of historical restoration, which Schwarez herself, in the same piece, alluded to. "To bring May Fourth back down to human scale, " she wrote, ". . . is to risk reducing it to a truly marginal event. . . an event of merely historical significance, with no claim upon the values, loyalties, ideals of the present." 3 Other examples of this negative aspect of demythologization abound, from all areas of life. Gabriel García Márquez's fictional portrayal of Simón Bolívar as a foulmouthed, flatulent hypochondriac "capable of crossing the Andes barefoot, naked, and unprotected, just to go to bed with a woman" threatened to deprive Latin Americans of one of their few genuine heroes. 4 The Library of Congress's release of Thurgood Marshall's papers shortly after his death, by unveiling in the most intimate detail the processes by which the Supreme Court operates, risked stripping the Court of an aura thought by some to be essential to its authority and legitimacy. 5 And the cleaning of the frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel dispossessed art lovers permanently of a Michelangelo they had known and cherished. 6mantling of the mythologized past, in short, is seldom pain-free: It entails a loss, often irreversible, not unlike that resulting from death, that can be severely disturbing and may, because of this, be stubbornly resisted. 7

"Myth," in everyday parlance, often implies something "fabricated" or not true." My use of the term here, although not excluding this connota

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