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Angus Johnston @studentactivism
, 24 tweets, 5 min read Read on Twitter
I had a powerful hunch last night, when I saw the thread that told the story of Emil and Xaver, doomed lovers of the First World War, that the tale was made up. Turns out my hunch was right.…
Nobody ever got that lucky tracking down archival sources.
For more on this, see Mike Stuchbery's thread, still in progress, on the hoax.
(One thing: I think it's fair to call it a hoax—rather than just a "fiction"—because of all the purported evidence deployed in the telling. Without all the photos and documents, it would have read entirely differently.)
I remember thinking last night that some elements of the narrative seemed absurd. Without the documentation, I would have dismissed the whole thing as fiction. With them, I wound up wondering which parts were real and which were fake.
It's not just photoshop and other kinds of visual and auditory manipulation we need to worry about these days. That thread was a perfect example of how real, unaltered artifacts and documents can be put to work in the service of a lie on social media.
There's also something really interesting about the role of translation here. Because I read an amateur translator's version of the thread, I wasn't sure how much of what I was reading was an accurate version of the original author's words.
And because the story didn't come from an English-speaking country, I couldn't read the various documents, either—and trying to track down the true story was going to wind up being arduous.
In all honesty, if the latter chapters of the story hadn't turned quite so preposterous—and if he'd provided a more plausible account of how he learned it all—I probably would have fallen for the whole thing.
Someone should write something placing this incident in the same genre as all the dubious /r/relationships stories that have been making the rounds recently. There are new genres of folklore emerging, and it's fascinating to watch it happen in real time.
Turns out I have one more thing to say about the #EmilyXaver hoax. Here goes...
A big part of the power of a story like this is the window it gives us into the lives of the protagonists—what it tells us about what it was like to be young and in love with another man in Central Europe a hundred years ago.
And if you make that up—if you write letters from lovers who didn't exist, say, based on your fantasies of what they might have said, rather than research into what men like them DID say—you're not just painting a false picture, you're erasing the truth.
I'm far from an expert in the time and place where this story is set, but the details of (for instance) the reburial rang powerfully false to me. It just didn't feel like the way that process would have transpired.
It's experiencing hundreds, thousands, of small stories that allows each us to acquire that sort of a gut sense of how a particular time and place in the past would have worked, and so telling the details of those stories accurately is essential.
Particularly for a story like this, which is so resonant and yet so elusive, the last thing you want to do is just make stuff up—to put your make-believe in the place in people's brains where they store what they think they know about the past.
When I was a lot younger, I stumbled across a file in my grandfather's papers—a short story he wrote when he was in college. It was autobiographical, and it was about his relationship with my grandmother.
He wrote it before they were married, and from the narrative I think he may have written it at a moment when they had broken up, or were thinking about breaking up. It's a sad story.
But without going into detail (maybe some other time), what it told me about their relationship—about the way people like them approached romance and sexuality at that time, in that place—was utterly unexpected.
Not bad unexpected, not traumatic unexpected, and not romantic unexpected, either. Just alien. Different. Outside my experience.
Those kinds of stories rewire your brain. They give you insights—into the past, and into the present and the future, too—that you could never get any other way. And they're invaluable for that reason.
Historical fanfic like #EmilyXaver does the opposite—it rewires the past to fit what's already in your brain. Which is a real shame.
I've got other work to do right now, but I'm going to try to come back later and tell at least one real individual story out of LGBTQ history here, as a counterweight.
Ooh. Maybe other historians (professional or amateur) could do the same? Tell one of your favorite actual LGBTQ history stories as a way of showing what #EmilyXaver pretended to? Maybe hashtag them #NotEmilyXaver?
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