Monday, April 28, 2008

Finding the story in history

Then again, Herodotus’ work may have presaged another genre altogether. The passage about lions, hares, and vipers reminds you of the other great objection to Herodotus—his unreliability. (For one thing, nearly everything he says about those animals is wrong.) And yet, as you make your way through this amazing document, “accuracy”—or, at least, what we normally think of as scientific or even journalistic accuracy, “the facts”—seems to get less and less important. Did Xerxes really weep when he reviewed his troops? Did the aged, corrupt Hippias, the exiled tyrant of Athens now in the service of Darius, really lose a tooth on the beach at Marathon before the great battle began, a sign that he interpreted (correctly) to mean that he would never take back his homeland? Perhaps not. But that sudden closeup, in which the preparations for war focus, with poignant suddenness, on a single hopeless old has-been, has indelible power. Herodotus may not always give us the facts, but he unfailingly supplies something that is just as important in the study of what he calls ta genomena ex anthrōpōn, or “things that result from human action”: he gives us the truth about the way things tend to work as a whole, in history, civics, personality, and, of course, psychology. (“Most of the visions visiting our dreams tend to be what one is thinking about during the day.”)

All of which is to say that while Herodotus may or may not have anticipated hypertext, he certainly anticipated the novel. Or at least one kind of novel. Something about the Histories, indeed, feels eerily familiar. Think of a novel, written fifty years after a cataclysmic encounter between Europe and Asia, containing both real and imagined characters, and expressing a grand vision of the way history works in a highly tendentious, but quite plausible, narrative of epic verve and sweep. Add an irresistible anti-hero eager for a conquest that eludes him precisely because he understands nothing, in the end, about the people he dreams of subduing; a hapless yet winning indigenous population that, almost by accident, successfully resists him; and digressions powerfully evoking the cultures whose fates are at stake in these grand conflicts. Whatever its debt to the Ionian scientists of the sixth century B.C. and to Athenian tragedy of the fifth, the work that the Histories may most remind you of is “War and Peace.”

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