Swans Commentary » swans.com January 30, 2012  



History: Sired By Literary Nomads
How Itinerant Scribes of Antiquity drafted Historiography


by Raju Peddada


Part I of II



"A historian has many duties. Allow me to remind you of two which are important. The first is not to slander; the second is not to bore"

"Let the science and research of the historian find the facts and let his imagination and art make clear its significance."
—George Trevelyan

[Author's preface: This cogitation, rather a lengthy captious delving of sorts, was induced and incited by the "HN-Syndicate," which places articles in a historical perspective with scores of publications, whose editorial board had approved my articles, citing them as "in depth," overmatching some its current reportage. Then, after a week of exuberance, they turned around and rejected me as a potential contributor because I was not an "Academic Historian" like the ones on their roster. Which prompted this impudently irritant disquisition, as a "letter" to their board, eliciting this response: "... you make some concrete and relevant points, but having a historiographic background is an essential credential for any assignment with us..." Historiography (1560-70 Origins - French & Greek), meaning: Methods of evaluation in historical scholarship -- is the word they put up, as a barrier to quash my nascent ambitions. A word that was coined almost a thousand years after Herodotus had created its original blueprint... a word that sounds presumptuously exclusive, more intimidating than Astrophysics, and not to mention, pleonastic -- like that grandiloquent word "assassinate" for Kill. Here is my blustery, yet, fact-filled dissertation.]


(Swans - January 30, 2012)   I am an ardent devotee of the word. Just like seeds hold entire forests within, words pack whole histories within. Seed pods explode, dispersing the propagation engines of the next generation. Similarly, powerful sentences are like seed pods, with images and ideas dispersed onto fecund minds, engendering new worlds of progression, as well as regression. You are reading, abruptly you hit a wall, nothing makes sense, one small word has tripped you up, you are quite frustrated; then, you drag out the dictionary or the encyclopedia and look for its meaning. A revelation ensues, a detonation takes place in the brain, worlds pop up like jack-in-the-boxes, eliciting a frown or a smile, turning what you are reading into a reflection or a raft on the rapids.

Words evoke, and words of history have a compressed energy, like that of a grenade, waiting to be released. You can throw a word or two out there, and see them explode, with shrapnel that can lacerate many of us. Words like Idi Amin, Bosnia, the Holocaust, Armenian genocide, the Eastern front, Hiroshima or Nagasaki, Ground Zero, D-Day, Barbarossa, Lockerbee, Beirut, Hezbollah or al Qaeda lacerate our psyche and soul, while words like Ford's Theater, the march on Trenton or Princeton, Gandhi, Gettysburg, Antietam, Washington, Hamilton, and Lincoln can bring about melancholy and choked emotions of pride. Words are switches for mental videos, their sole purpose being to trigger your imagination, to evoke. I will take a good writer any day over a puffed up historian, if he can transport me to the other worlds with his narrative.

Well-written history carries us away. The earliest history was the record of visual experiences on rocks as petroglyphs; clay tablets came later, as accounting records from the Sumerians, but "modern history" as we know it today was the creation of folksy literary nomads, like Herodotus, who wrote their observations on their current events. Also, the itinerant amateur treasure hunters, like Giovanni Battista Belzoni (1778-1823) and Heinrich Schliemann (1822-1890), predecessors to the modern archaeologists, inadvertently opened the doors of history. I like my history written by skilled narrators, using words as chisels, to carve the events with lucid and piercing details like Tacitus did in his "Annals," and like Edward Gibbon: devoid of pretensions about being a historian, but a masterful prose artist that stood on the shoulders of his predecessors from antiquity, and delivered his magnum opus: "The History of the Decline and Fall..." utterly accessible and delectable.

The depiction of ancient life must have life -- a spirit about it. Nobody ever lived like a mere record, some obscure footnote. One of the best historical discourses ever is Jane Taylor's "Petra and the Lost Kingdom of the Nabataeans." She makes individuals and their lives come alive with her narration. Academic historians today, for the most part, rewrite history that is seriously wanting in "life," offering us a desiccated and formal regurgitation from the primary sources and field research, but what is even more grating is their populist opinionization of history for their ideological leanings. At a time when most historians in an academic setting wield personal agendas and yield to political ideologies, it will be remiss of us, who love reading history, not to question what a real historian is and what is his responsibility.

Recorded history has been made available to us in various forms as the consequence of curiosity and observation of individuals since the dawn of civilization. The narrative quality is often colored by the individual's outlook, psyche, and experience -- as the telling of history has always been distilled through personal experiences. For this very reason, we must credit the primary empirical historians like Herodotus, Tacitus, Livy, Ptolemy I, and many others, who opened our windows into extinguished worlds with their diaries and journals in various iterations. How about Thucydides's description of Athens as a "polis" during the reign of Pericles? Most known "diarists" from the antiquity were astute wandering observers, farthest from an academic historian.

Speaking of diaries, how can we ever resist being teleported into the harrowing scenes of the most visceral fictional diary ever written: "A Journal of the Plague Year" by Daniel Defoe? Defoe's fictional narrator is able to deliver historical vivacity and veracity, a great feat of creativity. Another masterpiece is "A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain." This work is imbued with several historiographic precedents, personal methods of recording and discourse from a writer who was a businessman, a soldier, a spy, an economic journalist, and a polemicist. Was he a "qualified" historian or, for that matter, would any academic historian offer a better view?

I would advocate the hypothesis that the first historiographers were traveling diarists who, based on necessity, developed their solecistic and idiosyncratic methodologies to document what they saw and experienced, using all of their senses. Memories of these itinerant diarists from antiquity, and even today, serve as the quarry for narrative history. In addition, archaeological digs, cultural artifacts, written records, and memoirs make up the bulk of our primary source for the interpretation and narration.

The French thinker, Voltaire, railed against European academic sedentism, and professed the imperative of studying Eastern civilizations like the Chinese, the Japanese, and the Hindus. He claimed that the narrow study of history of the Western civilization distorted and atrophied the field of historiography. Through the ages, literary nomadism engendered cross pollination of ideas, which helped in the epistemological broadening of history, resulting in the rapid invention and diffusion of fresh historiographical methods in the study of humanity. Also, literary nomads, with their comparative studies, have wrought historical and cultural relativism to the forefront, giving the relatively new protocol of historiography additional contextual tools to enable better presentation of material.

The impact of Asia on European writers and the effect of Europe on American writers are recurring themes in literature and memoir writing. Many multicultural memoirists were regulated by the nomadic stimulants: itinerant, dislodged, scattered, and in a perpetual state of transience. They believed that the true condition of the human race is nomadism, not sedentary life. This became the seed bed for ideas, in various forms of observation of the surroundings they traveled through, that have become today the primary sources for contemporary historians, in their cushy university environs.

Early historians were all nomadic in the true sense: Herodotus, Arrian, Ptolemy I, Xenophon, Thucydides, Plutarch, Josephus, Tacitus, Eunapius, Julius Caesar, Polybius, and Sallust. There were literary wanderers in every era. In the age of discovery, the curators of memory were Ibn Batuta, Marco Polo, Hun Tsang, Alcuin, and Magellan. In the age of enlightenment and reason they were Defoe, Boswell, Gibbon, Darwin, Tocqueville, Goethe, Montaigne, Rousseau, and Stendhal. The modernists were Gustave Flaubert, Rainer Maria Rilke, André Gide, Malraux, Henrik Ibsen, Gogol, and Conrad -- and many others not mentioned here. They all developed a variety of original methods to record and narrate their observations for posterity, which we today call historiography -- well, at least since the 15th century.

These peripatetic writers laid the foundation of the methods by which we evaluate, isolate, or integrate social and cultural ideas and form historical narratives, and hardly anyone aforementioned was a "professional" historian, ordained by some academic institution, like a university. And today, based on their (the universities') exclusive and convoluted criteria, none of the above writers (before they became famous) would have been offered a department chair or be accepted as historian, or for that matter, even be allowed to teach for their want of "qualifications" -- yet, and ironically, their copious quarry of musings are mined everyday by these very department chairs and pedagogues for study, interpretation, and dissemination.

Today, some academic historians, who come from the university environments, "create" alternative histories based on their own interpretations from the primary sources and disseminate this matter into the mainstream student bodies. I think this is a gross dilution and opinionization of history by these narcissistic academicians for the sake of catering to their own agendas. On the other hand, and paradoxically, the beauty of narrative history resides in its inherent malleability. It can be debated, regurgitated, recycled, re-calibrated, and deployed for myriad agendas and outcomes. Incidentally, these debates keep the profession of history in a healthy state and at the forefront of popular culture.

History is the only subject in a perpetual state of expansion, like a gaseous nebula, or an exploded star, enveloping all spheres of existence on earth and elsewhere. It is also a subject that does not attract the young readers; rather, only mature audiences. Nevertheless, technology is spurring history, making it culturally mainstream through social media with unfolding events and discoveries that seem almost fictional. However, history, to have any intellectual depth, veracity, and value, must be presented with untainted accuracy in transparent prose of how, what, where, and when in time. It also must possess literary merit in its narrative execution to be of any value to posterity. Allow me to extend this discourse in the second part of this essay in which I will further explore the historiographic origins and the methodological formation in the writings of the observers from antiquity.


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About the Author

Raju Peddada is an industrial designer running an eponymous brand, purveyor of ultra luxury furnishings of his own design (see peddada.com). He is also a freelance correspondent/writer for several publications, specializing in commentary, essay, and opinions on architecture, design, photography, books, fashion, society, and culture. Peddada was born in Tallapudi, a small southern town in south India. He's lived in New Delhi and Bombay before migrating to the West Indies and eventually settling in Chicago, Illinois, where he worked in corporate America until he chose to set up his own designing firm. He lives with his family in Des Plaines.   (back)


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Published January 30, 2012