Thoughts on Paris, Terrorism and History

la-fg-paris-attacks-reaction-20151114-picturesI was going to write a post about spirituality and religion in my books (I don’t think I’ve covered that yet – if I start repeating blog topics, tell me), but then the tragedy in Paris happened last night. I’ve never been there, I don’t know anyone who lives or was visiting there (thank God), but like the rest of the world, I’m in shock and saddened beyond belief.

The “buy my book” posts certainly seem inappropriate and small-minded right now, and why blog about history when we are living it? Blogging is a form of therapy, so I’m going to take this chance to try to process what has taken place, and maybe, by reading this, you’ll be able to do the same – maybe just a bit.

I keep thinking about what happened – suicide bombers in Europe, sprays of bullets into a crowded concert and a packed restaurant, all innocent people going about their daily lives – and all I can think is “what is this world coming to?” I know incidents like this have been happening in the Middle East for years, but it’s like 9/11, we never thought it would happen to us, to the Western world.

And yet it has.

What does this mean? None of the people who died could have known it was going to be their last few hours on earth when they piled into that concert or sat down for dinner. In some ways, it’s proof that when it’s your time, it’s your time. But no one should have to fear doing mundane things because they might be killed. But that’s the whole point of terrorism, right? Demonstrate that you (the terror group) are powerful by showing you can get to people anytime, anywhere. In America, recent events have shown us it is no longer safe to go to school, to church or to the movies. Now you can’t have dinner or go to a concert without wondering if someone is going to blow themselves up or open fire.

It’s all about fear.

The question is, do we let it stop us, or do we carry on in spite of (or because of) it? The answer is that we have to carry on. We have to mourn, we have to pray and we have to live, no matter if we have two days or 50 years to go. We cannot back down and hide in our homes. History has shown us that waves of terror come and go. Countless lives are shattered and lost in the meantime, but as the human race, we have to overcome.

How? I have no idea. I feel so small and insignificant in the face of such pure evil and hatred. I don’t believe more violence is the answer, yet as much as we’re told to forgive, I find it very difficult to feel merciful toward groups/individuals who show no mercy toward innocent civilians.

But one thing we can each do is forgive those in our lives who have wronged us. (I’m saying this just as much to myself as to everyone else.) It’s freeing. It brings about a small measure of peace.  Maybe if we practice it in our own lives, the energy of the universe will slowly begin to tip from hate to love.

Speaking of hate, I feel compelled to point out that even though ISIS claimed responsibility for the attacks, this isn’t a Muslim problem. It’s not an immigration problem. It’s not a racial problem. It’s a violent, crazy group of radicals problem. Intolerance does nothing but increase fear and injustice, the very things terrorism feeds off of. We can counteract that by being tolerant of our fellow human beings, no matter their race, creed, ethnicity, or country of origin. And if we teach our kids to be tolerant and accepting, we win small victories toward a better future.

And we can pray. Pray for the victims and their families, for a shell-shocked country, for a world that will never be the same. And if you’re not religious, that’s fine. Just do something nice for someone else. That’s one thing that continues to amaze me (in a good way) about humanity – how we pull together in times of crisis. If only we could keep that up after the dust settles.

History is being made, there’s no doubt of that. I’m only 36 years old. I’ve never known a world where the Middle East wasn’t at war (most of the time with this country, formally or informally). I’ve already lived through (not personally, but culturally) the Iran hostage crisis, the Lockerbie bombings and hijacking scares of the 80s, the fear of the IRA blowing up England in the 80s and 90s, the rise of home-grown terrorism with the Oklahoma City bombings, 9/11, London, Mumbai, and now Paris. The pace is accelerating and it’s terrifying. Pope Francis called these latest attacks part of a “piecemeal Third World War.”

I’m sad to say I think he may be right. There are no easy answers. But we have to keep on living.  Hug your loved ones tight and pray for France. Try to be a little more kind to your fellow man. I know I will. It’s all we can do.

Midnight in Paris: A Movie for Writers

Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris is a movie all writers should see. No matter what you write, you’ll find something to appreciate in this film. But what surprised me the most when I saw it last weekend was how much it moved me as a historical fiction writer.

I don’t intend this to be a review, so I’ll just touch on the high points of the plot, as they apply to this post. The movie is about Gil (played by Owen Wilson), a successful Hollywood screenwriter turned aspiring novelist who regrets never living and writing literature in Paris. On a trip there with his fiance and her family, he finds that every night at midnight he can travel back in time to the 1920s, a time he yearns for as an ideal age. After various adventures with the literary and artistic elite of the time, including his idols F. Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Cole Porter, Picasso and many others, Gil realizes that everyone finds the present boring and longs for another time.

I’ll admit, I’m a little jealous of Gil being able to have his work reviewed by one of his historical idols (who wouldn’t be?!) And real-life quotes like Hemingway’s “No subject is terrible if the story is true, if the prose is clean and honest, and if it affirms courage and grace under pressure,” and “If you’re a writer, declare yourself the best writer,” make the movie relatable on a personal level.

But what makes it truly great is a strong theme of living in the past. Anyone who writes historical fiction can no doubt relate to this exchange:

One of the two over-the-top antagonists (I wish Allen had been a little more trusting of his audience and more subtle in their characterization) has one of the most poignant lines in the film, “Nostalgia is denial – denial of the painful present… the name for this denial is golden age thinking – the erroneous notion that a different time period is better than the one ones living in – it’s a flaw in the romantic imagination of those people who find it difficult to cope with the present.”

Is he right? Yes and no. I agree that yearning for the past is a way of dealing with a difficult present (if we didn’t have difficulties, what would we write about?), but I don’t think it’s a flaw. For some of us, it’s just the way our brains work. If wasn’t, there would be no historians and no record (romantic or otherwise) of what came before. I disagree that nostalgia is denial. It’s recognition that something in the past resonates with us more than the present. We can find ways of mining our love of the past to improve our present by incorporating the values or ways of life we feel our society has lost or is losing, or at the very least, capture them in our writing for future generations.

Historical fiction serves a great purpose. It not only entertains and provides a means of escape, it educates about a bygone time in relatable ways history textbooks never can. Until time travel becomes more than fantasy, it’s the closest thing we’ve got.  We’re fortunate that history gives us such a rich tableau from which to draw in our writing.

By far my favorite scene is this one (I wish I could find a video clip for you):

Adriana: Let’s never go back to the ’20s!
Gil: What are you talking about?
Adriana: We should stay here. It’s the start of La Belle Époque! It’s the greatest, most beautiful era Paris has ever known.
Gil: Yeah, but about the ’20s, and the Charleston, and the Fitzgeralds, and the Hemingways? I mean, I love those guys.
Adriana: But it’s the present. It’s dull.
Gil: Dull? It’s not my present. I’m from 2010.
Adriana: What do you mean?
Gil: I dropped in on you the same way we’re dropping in on the 1890s.
Adriana: You did?
Gil: I was trying to escape my present the same way you’re trying to escape yours, to a golden age.
Adriana: Surely you don’t think the ’20s are a golden age!
Gil: Well, yeah. To me they are.
Adriana: But I’m from the ’20s, and I’m telling you the golden age is La Belle Époque.
Gil: And look at these guys. I mean, to them, their golden age was the Renaissance. You know, they’d trade Belle Époque to be painting alongside Titian and Michelangelo. And those guys probably imagined life was a lot better when Kublai Khan was around.
Adriana:  What are you talking about?
Gil: Adriana, if you stay here, and this becomes your present, then, pretty soon, you’ll start imagining another time was really your, you know, was really the golden time. That’s what the present is. That it’s a little unsatisfying, because life’s a little unsatisfying.

The key point here? No one is ever satisfied with the time in which they live. It’s possible to view the past through rose-colored glasses, but the present is seen with painful clarity. That’s exactly why historical fiction has a market. Everyone has a different point in time that is their escape.  Like Gil says about living in the past, if you read (or write) too much of one time period, you get comfortable with it and it gets boring, so you move on to another, seeking to fill a void created by the present. But for historical fiction writers, the past is the present, and that’s what sets us apart from other writers.

So what do you think? Have you seen Midnight in Paris? Did you like it? Can you relate to what I’ve said or do you think I’m totally crazy? Do you think living in the past is pointless or do you see some value in it?