The Distorted Historian
I was having breakfast with a friend in a coffee shop in Troy, New York when a strange man, probably in his 70s, appeared before our tiny table, presenting us with two 500-page Kinkos-bound volumes of History.
“Enlightenment and the Age of Voltaire”
by George Slyer
They were handwritten in lousy script on unlined white paper so the sentences squiggled about the pages, bending and deforming and warping with large indentations and odd underlinings and scribble-outs and super-enlarged punctuation beside teeny-tiny words next to huge capitalized words over pretty cursive words near sloppy block lettering. What I could make out, as I flipped through, as the strange man looked on, was beautiful. It was poetry. There were passing references to certain historical events and places and people but they were incidental. This was no ordinary history text. I stopped reading because I wanted to speak to the author, who jotted and printed and scribbled and chickenscratched these one-thousand pages, who brought them through the doors of this coffee shop, who was now seated beside me.
My memory of this particular breakfast is somewhat foggy, but it went like this:
“Did you write all this?”
“Why by hand? Do you prefer that over typing?”
“I don’t have a computer or a typewriter.”
“How many copies have you made?”
“These are the only copies. They were all I could afford.”
We spoke for a little while about this subject he was so passionate about but, not knowing nearly enough history, a lot of it went over my head. Occasionally, though, he would say something quite odd, something that didn’t make much sense at all, getting basic timelines completely backwards, like, “Da Vinci rejected a lot of Voltaire’s work.” and then he’d quickly flip to a page in one of the volumes and find a nearly illegible passage on the subject of Da Vinci’s view of Voltaire. Before speaking with George Slyer, I was almost certain that Da Vinci died centuries before Voltaire was born, but there, in George’s poetic scribbles and impassioned speaking, Da Vinci was Voltaire’s contemporary. I wanted to speak up and say that didn’t sound right to me, but not only did I not have the heart or mind to tell George the real truth, I was simply going on memory, and my memory is a little foggy.
Sure, George Slyer may have been outright crazy or afflicted with a few disorders (he stuttered a bit and had a slight palsy.) Or, George Slyer was one of the unfortunate few crippled by a clear view of an alternate history; a world like ours in many ways but distorted in others. Perhaps it was his way of dealing with the atrocities of the past that he uncovered in his research. Perhaps in order to balance his great equation, to reconfigure History and brighten up his own foggy memories, he needed to shift some birthdates around.
To him, these distortions were the Truth.
But why? And what else have I been missing out on? What else are we all wrong about? Can I get a copy of your books? I had so many questions for him but I was only able to ask for his phone number, which he wrote, along with his name, on a business card I had in my wallet, and then he left, off into the 3rd street fog, on a mission of sudden emergence, taking his distorted history with him.
Few things sadden me more than seeing a disappointed old man, nearer to death than I feel I’ll ever be, looking back on his life with shame or regret. I have tried very hard to construct some sort of happy storyline for George Slyer, in which his work is discovered and published and studied and his theories are pondered and his prose is lauded. The regular thoughts, feelings, ideas and events in my journal are interrupted by several narratives of what happened to George after he left that coffee shop. I wrote a bunch of songs about these alternate histories, about edited super-8 reels, relentlessly happy photographs and tall tales. The past is always well-lit.
I have altered my own memories of that breakfast, renting a fog machine for my brain, so that I can remember all the right things and distort the others so they fit into my happy story for George.
Although I keep that business card in my wallet, and underneath this:
is his phone number, I have never called it and I never will, because just as I did not have the heart or mind to tell George the real truth, I don’t have the heart or mind to hear the real truth from him.
released April 1, 2008
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