To empathise or not to empathise?

In my latest Jigsaws 🧩 with Jamie video, I briefly referenced the different preferences my wife and I have when it comes to reading about history. For those of you who have not seen the video yet (and why not?!) essentially my wife prefers to read about modern history, typically anything within the 20th Century, while I am much more interested in ancient history, ideally anything older than 2000 years.

These differences extend beyond reading about history. Take fiction for example. The wife would happily read a story set during the Cold War, something likely to bore me to tears, whereas I select fantasy novels or science fiction. One of the last books I read was The Long War by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter, very much science fiction, while the wife is currently reading the Letters of Sylvia Plath, very much not science fiction. And when it comes to TV and film, well you can probably guess the pattern.

My wife has a clear answer for why she prefers modern over ancient history: relatability. For her, she can to a degree relate with the people living (and dying) just a generation or two in the past, and finds the worlds inhabited by ancient people too alien to relate to.

I would dispute the idea ancient cultures are completely alien from our own, people are just people after all with the same wants and desires and to a degree dreams. But that is not what I want to talk about here. Rather it has got me wondering why ancient history is so appealing to me, and I think it falls into two parts; the alien-ness and the unknown.

Homo Sapien Alienus

As I have said above, I would dispute the idea ancient cultures are entirely alien from our own. No matter when or where humans have lived, we have basic needs and desires and roughly the same brains functioning in roughly the same way. Humans are humans, it is what makes us human after all (if you know what I mean…).

That being said, the further back in time you go, the more unusual and mystifying society becomes. Not just the language people speak or the way they dress, but also the things they believe and the attitudes they have. Despite loving ancient history, I could never find myself interested in Roman history partly because they were portrayed as just like us (a misunderstanding thankfully corrected by the likes of Mary Beard in her wonderful book SPQR), while the rest of the ancient world, especially beyond about 2000 years ago comes with so many unexpected wonders to try and understand.

Similar joys can be found for me in the works of speculative fiction, especially fantasy and science fiction. An author good at their craft should have created a world different enough from our own, ancient enough if you will, to really pique my interest and keep me reading on. Unusual clothes and language are one thing, complex otherworldly beliefs are even better, while at the same time having just enough humanity to keep the characters relatable. When I read a work of contemporary fiction in contrast, I can still find myself immersed in the world being described, but I do miss the fun of discovering somewhere completely invented and new.

Off into the unknown

Historical events are subjective and open to interpretation. As much as certain groups of people (typically with nefarious agendas) wish to deny this, history and the understanding of events are not fixed. Even with say video footage of the event, understanding the event cannot be done with 100% certainty. All it takes is a clever camera angle or a little bit of photo manipulation after the fact for the events to appear very different to reality.

The further back we travel in time, the greater the uncertainty about events become. Travel far enough back to prehistory and we no longer have even written records to rely on, rather just the scant objects left behind which have survived to the present. The greater the passage of time, the greater the unknown.

For some people this is a source of frustration, but not for me. Give me the few loosely connected facts which can be known, and I’m more than happy to let my imagination run away with me. In some ways, the less I know about a culture, the better the picture (my picture) I can produce of the world.

Once again the same applies to fiction. Some of the worst science fiction or fantasy is created by authors who insist on describing their world in great detail and leave no room for mystery. Having the odd fact or tidbit about the world being created is important, but I want to fill in the vast space between with my understanding of the world.

Emphasis on empathy

Empathising with someone else is easier if you have something in common (though empathy for the other can be learned!). Having a greater understanding of and empathy for people and events in more recent history (and contemporary fiction) is understandable. Yet, when we restrict ourselves to the well known, we miss out on a chance to really let our imaginations run wild. Not having a complete picture of the ancient world can be frustrating, but for me at least that is all part of the fun.

If you want to hear my original comments on ancient vs modern history and much more besides, check out my latest Jigsaws 🧩 with Jamie video below.

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