Kapuscinski on history and Herodotus

The Saturday, June 9 Guardian had a very nice extract from Ryszard Kapuscinski’s last book, which contains some interesting reflections on Herodotus and history-writing.  Here’s a passage that I found particularly apt, especially from a man (a cosmopolitan in the best sense of the word) who managed to worked very effectively on the boundaries between journalism and history-writing.  It’ s about the difficulties of extracting a history from the usual welter of events and conflicting testimonies:

Herodotus is entangled in a rather insoluble dilemma: he devotes his life to preserving historic truth, to prevent the traces of human events from being erased by time; at the same time, however, his main source of research is not first-hand experience, but history as it was recounted by others, as it appeared to them, therefore as it was selectively remembered and later more or less intentionally presented. In short, not primary history, but history as his interlocutors would have had it. There is no way around this divarication of purpose and means. We can try to minimise or mitigate it, but we will never approach the objective ideal. The subjective factor, its deforming presence, will remain impossible to strain out. Herodotus expresses an awareness of this predicament constantly qualifying what he reports: “as they tell me”, “as they maintain”, “they present this in various ways”, etc. In fact, though, however evolved our methods, we are never in the presence of unmediated history, but of history recounted, presented, history as it appeared to someone, as he or she believes it to have been. This has been the nature of the enterprise always, and the folly may be to believe one can resist it.

RK’s personal identification with the ancient historian highlights the riskiness of the transition from oral recounting to written narratives, and the un-empirical foundations of history and history-writing.  This from a man who traveled all over the world to witness some of the greatest scenes of political catastrophe in the past 30 or 40 years.

RK justified his interest in history and the classical past as represented by Herodotus as part of an exhaustion with the present, and with the repetitions enforced by politics and journalism’s exclusive focus on the most recent past.  After a lifetime of traveling to one crisis after another, he wished to cross temporal boundaries, as well: 

And just as I had once desired to cross a physical border, so now I was fascinated by crossing a temporal one.

I was afraid that I might fall into the trap of provincialism. We normally associate the concept of provincialism with geographic space. A provincial is one whose worldview is shaped by a certain marginal area to which he ascribes an undue importance, inaptly universalising the particular. But TS Eliot cautions against another kind of provincialism – not of space, but of time. “In our age,” he writes in a 1944 essay about Virgil, “when men seem more than ever prone to confuse wisdom with knowledge, and knowledge with information, and to try to solve problems of life in terms of engineering, there is coming into existence a new kind of provincialism which perhaps deserves a new name. It is a provincialism, not of space, but of time; one for which history is merely the chronicle of human devices which have served their turn and been scrapped, one for which the world is the property solely of the living, a property in which the dead hold no shares. The menace of this kind of provincialism is that we can all, all the peoples on the globe, be provincials together; and those who are not content to be provincials, can only become hermits.”

So there are spatial and temporal provincials. Every globe, every map of the world, shows the former how lost and blind they are in their provincialism; similarly, every history – including every page of Herodotus – demonstrates to the latter that the present existed always, that history is merely an uninterrupted progression of presents, that what for us are ancient events were for those who lived them immediate and present reality.

 This notion of a temporal ‘provincial’ is a challenging one for us, because it goes to the heart of our notions of periodization, specialization, professionalization.  Read the sample of RK’s meditation on Herodotus to see if you think he goes beyond the dilettante’s ‘enthusiasm’ for his latest discovery, and provides a different kind of insight into the materials of Herodotus’s history.




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