Wednesday, February 04, 2009
Larry Gonick's "Cartoon History of the Universe" Volume 1-7
It was a pleasure to revisit Gonick's madcap world history in anticipation of the new "Modern Era" volumes- the first seven blow out from the Big Bang to the rise of Alexander the Great. This is an irreverent, skeptical account of the past, so I can imagine it ruffling a few feathers in high school libraries- ("What was THAT the Greek heroes used to do with young boys?!?"), but it is a pun-filled run through time. I first loved this book in high school for actually enlightening me as to a life long suspicion:
As a kid I'd always just KNOWN that the Biblical story about Solomon's decision to split a baby in half failed in the "MAKING SENSE" department. You know the one, but let's recap: two women go to bed with their respective babies, one rolls over in the middle of the night and accidentally kills her child, so she steals the other woman's kid. The fight starts over whom the kid belongs to, it goes all the way to Solomon- and in the case that exemplifies his supreme wisdom, Sol says: "Well, let's make things fair. Cut the baby in two, give one half to each mom!" The "evil, fake mom" is like: "Makes sense!" The "good, rightful mom" says: "No, give it to her! I'll rather the baby go to her than die." Since such noble feelings could only have come from the real deal, Solomon knows whose claim is honest.
Is a cute story, if one doesn't dwell on it: why exactly is this THE most celebrated example of a wisdom that surely would have been spread among a thousand such cases? And since the point of the argument was that both mothers wanted to walk away with a living kid, clearly even the imposter mom would have been like: "Dude, if you split the baby it's going to die and be worthless to me too." If she was happy with a corpse, she would have kept her own baby's corpse! Wuldn't an advisor have been like: "Sol, have you lost it in your old age? Split babies DIE, smarter by far would have been to force the two moms to share the baby half the week- the fake mom might soon show her true colors."
WELL, thanks to the "Cartoon History of the Universe", my smarty suspicions were confirmed. The little anecdote does NOT detail an actual event, but is rather a political parable that has to be read by the revealing lamplight of historical context. Biblical scholars and historians now agree that the baby is actually supposed to represent the kingdom of Judah- Solomon was willing to let it be split in two by civil war to support his son's Rehoboam ascension. The split eventually took place, leaving Israel to the North and Judah to the South.
This blew my mind then! What other such legendary "events" were actually stand-ins for more complex encoded history? By then I'd moved on to Thucydides and Herodotus, the crafters of the historical profession, and truly began to get the idea of how story-telling and fabrication pervaded our collective records out of necessity. It was refreshing to hear from those two a suspected truth I had never heard in a textbook before:
"Look, this was a while back, so I'm going to have to make some stuff up. It's not an exact science, you know- how do you want me to know exactly what the queen said to the king 50 years ago? I don't even remember what my wife told ME this morning! But here's what I THINK they MIGHT have said, and it's juicy! Suspend that disbelief, people!"
This was also the birth of tabloid journalism.