Marco Polo History
I have not told half of what I saw. (Marco Polo on his death bed, when encouraged to retract some of his crazy stories before facing judgement)
It’s unlikely that Polo actually observed firsthand everything he claimed... (Every Polo biographer since then)
I’ve been watching Marco Polo on Netflix. The series didn’t last long – it started strong, then tanked after two short seasons. Apparently Netflix took quite a loss.
It’s interested me enough so far, though, that I started a book about Polo and his travels. I picked it up used a few months ago for my classroom library, then forgot about it until packing up for the summer. Since I’m watching the series, I figured I’d bring it home.
Marco Polo is an interesting tale on several levels, not least because it’s not always easy to tell when he’s reporting hard facts (however unbelievable they must have seemed to readers), when he’s employing hyperbole or artistic license to make a larger point, or when he’s repeating legends and hearsay as firsthand experience. Further complicating matters, his account was written many years after the events it describes, and with the help of a successful romance novelist. So… take his story for what it is.
Except… I’m not actually reading Marco Polo’s account of his travels – I’m reading ABOUT Marco Polo and his account. While I don’t doubt the expertise of the author, I’m learning the parts SHE finds most significant or interesting, through HER voice and interpretation of HIS voice and interpretation. Modern commentary, facts, and expert insight into a seven hundred-year-old travelogue shamelessly mixing commentary, facts, and hearsay.
And wild lesbian orgies.
Or are those just in the Netflix version? I’m still learning as I go on this one.
Which brings me back to history according to Netflix. The series is an artistic spin on Polo’s account, itself an artistic spin, both based-on-but-not-bound-by factual history. I’m hardly an expert on the subjects involved, so I’ve developed a system for determining historical validity.
If a passage in the book connects with something in the show, and they more or less agree, I consider that information irrefutable. If I watch the series struggle through something counterintuitive in terms of accessible storylines, I internally file that information as plausible. And anything including extended lesbian orgies, I accept as artistic discretion – essential to a larger truth, whether they fit the story or not.
And oh, what artistic discretion! Here, I’ll rewind and show you again as proof…
I fear perhaps I’m modeling some rather shoddy history. It seems like I should be far more concerned with accuracy and documented facts as best they can be discerned. I used to cringe at Disney’s Pocahontas, and I still resent The Patriot and Cold Mountain. Why go soft now?
Still, the show DID get me reading the book. And much of the information I’d have otherwise had difficulty synthesizing or retaining has proven “stickier” because I enjoy the show. Events or characters which wouldn’t necessarily rouse my intellectual ya-yas on the printed page give me a bit of a rush when I recognize them from the screen. When I recently predicted the behavior of a character based on my reading, you’d have thought I’d just translated the lost languages of Mohenjo-Daro or unearthed a pristine copy of the Trump pee-tape. The circle was now complete! I was but the learner. Now, I am the Master! Step aside, David McCullough – I GOT THIS.
I had a professor at Tulsa Junior College back in the day who taught several of the required history classes most four-year universities expected as part of a well-rounded transfer student. I remember two big things about those classes.
The first was Hannibal – the only Black kid in the room. Hannibal knew a great deal more than I did about American (or any other) history. He and I had several interesting conversations about being Black in a socially “white” world, especially in the context of public schooling. Whatever clue-age I managed in my early years of teaching students who weren’t entirely like me was largely due to his patience and clarity. I wish I could thank him.
The other part I remember was the impact of Professor Burke’s stories about American history. I was particularly entranced by my first exposure to the tawdry tales of Andrew Jackson and Rachel Donelson.
Donelson was a divorced woman at a time when aspiring public figures did not associate with – let alone marry – such soiled creatures. Jackson fell in love with her and they wed, only to discover a few years later that her original divorce had never been finalized and they’d been living in bigamy. Jackson fought for her honor – sometimes literally – but his political opponents fed on the fallout and it was simply too scandalous to fully overcome.
After losing the controversial Election of 1824, Jackson finally won the Presidency in 1828, a watershed moment in the expansion of American democracy and for all practical purposes the birth of the modern Democratic Party. Rachel died before Inauguration Day of heart failure; Jackson forever blamed his political opponents.
Professor Burke’s tales of Jackson and Rachel and her ex-husband – an abusive scoundrel named Lewis Robards – were the sort of baroque melodrama cable TV and YA fiction later learned to weave into dirty gold. The stories were full of anachronisms and hyperbole and plot condensations – reduced like soup to their tastiest elements. I wasn’t the sharpest kid in the room, but even back then I was pretty sure Rachel hadn’t telephoned Jackson in distress (“Andy! Andy! He’s fulminating at me again!), nor had “Andy” hopped onto his duel-sport to Lancelot her away to the Hermitage.
But I didn’t care – I loved his stories and felt like I was learning. Years later, Professor Burke’s stories repeatedly anchored the “real” learning I did about Jackson and his world – kinda like this silly Marco Polo show.
Other times, though, the ways in which history is presented, distorted, or simply fabricated, aren’t intended to enlighten, educate, or even entertain. Sometimes people just LIE – to manipulate, to justify, to obfuscate. In recent years, I’m not even sure many of the worst perpetrators actually KNOW what’s supportable and what’s not in their bizarre renderings; they don’t even seem to care. Simply repeat the lie ad infinitum, and make its refutation personal – as if history is just another religious doctrine or political ideology to be hurled at one’s enemies or slathered like cheap gilding over your own corrupted ideologies.
Not to be too dramatic or anything. I mean, I’m not Marco Polo.
Reality matters. Oddly, this is a controversial and politically loaded statement at the moment. Facts are important, even when they’re inconvenient – sometimes BECAUSE they’re inconvenient. They don’t change based on the sheer repetition of bombastic nonsense or the lusts and machinations of the powerful.
But compiled facts aren’t usually SUFFICIENT if we’re trying to learn cohesive lessons. They can’t teach us what matters, or explain causes, effects, motivations, failures, or human nature. All history is interpretive – no matter who’s telling it or who pretends it could or should be otherwise. Events happen for reasons, they have effects, they fit into various contexts and complicate multiple lives. There’s also simply too damn many of them to present the entire record of mankind as an unbroken, sterilized anthology. And we keep learning about and creating more of all of it – daily.
How to best pick and choose, present and shape that history is a valid question and an appropriate debate. It assumes, however, that those so engaged are operating within an agreed upon range of morally defensible goals. Choosing a Black guy to play James Madison who breaks into song while engaging an Asian Aaron Burr is artistic discretion; insisting that the Civil War was about states’ rights or that most slaves were slaves by choice are damnable lies which do real damage to living people and our collective memory, no to mention our collective ideals.
Netflix, presumably, wants to make a few bucks pushing popular history. Polo likely wanted to thrill his audiences while still introducing them to an exotic world he found genuinely amazing. Professor Burke just wanted to help a bunch of clueless kids learn and remember some American History. I’ve shaped a few tales myself over the years, attempting to emphasize a lesson or better understand an era. Sometimes it works, other times I’m just… wrong.
None of which deserve the sort of condemnation earned by intentional twisting or recklessly disregarding our collective past in the service of narcissism, power, marginalization, “other-izing,” or the deification of evil.
History teaches us. It challenges us. It entertains us. Sometimes it confuses or discourages us; other times it exhorts and enlightens us. It’s bigger than our understanding and better than our application.
History may be complicated and subject to some interpretation. It may provide inspiration for some questionable artistic spins in the name of entertainment or experimentation. What it should NEVER be, however – what it MUST NOT become – is the subjective plaything of whoever’s in charge, to manipulate and discard as they whim.
Compared to that, how much harm can a few more lesbian orgies really do?
Now where’s that remote…?
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