Swans Commentary » swans.com February 13, 2012  



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


by Raju Peddada


Part II of II



[ed. Read the first part of this essay.]

"Without the imaginative insight which goes with creative literature, history cannot be intelligibly written."
—C. V. Wedgwood (1910-1997)

"Faithfulness to the truth of history involves far more than research, however patient and scrupulous, into the facts. Such facts may be detailed with the most minute exactness, and yet the narrative, taken as a whole, may be unmeaning or untrue. The narrator must seek to imbue himself with life and spirit of the time. He must study events in their bearings near and remote; the character, habits, and manner of those who took part in them. He must himself be, as it were a sharer or a spectator of the action he describes."
—Francis Parkman (1823-1893)


(Swans - February 13, 2012)   Herodotus and Thucydides are considered the founders of the discipline of history, but they were empirical observers and diarists who had devised their own methods. Arguably, the first historiographer was a Chinese court scribe known by the name of Sima Qian (145-86BC) from the Han Dynasty. Then there were two Arab historians, one was Ali-al Masudi, who was also referred to as the Herodotus of the Arabs; the other one, Ibn Khaldun, was considered as the forefather of historiography. Not much is known about their educational background, except that they were mostly self educated, and just by experimenting, devised chronicling methodologies that had evolved into the historiographic descipline. I believe that the first modern historian was Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu, who can also be considered the first modern historiographer. The progenitors of this discipline, like Tacitus, have had an enormous impact on humanity; their works have been continuously translated, and interpreted by man, for a variety of ends... some for edification, some for devastation.

There are a plethora of examples where history's reinterpretation had served to incite paroxysmal cataclysms. Christopher Krebs, a classics professor at Harvard, speculated that Tacitus's Germania, an unflattering study of Germanic tribes around the first century, was reinterpreted by the Nazis as historical evidence of their "Aryan superiority," which became the propaganda vehicle for their deadly ideology. Also, the premier Nazi, Hitler, used the Versailles Treaty after WWI to incite national socialism leading to the decimation of millions of lives in WWII. And for that matter, it can also be blamed on Woodrow Wilson's The League of Nations, which was political denialism and obscurantism at best, staged as a "peace-for-all" egalitarian intellectual theater, utterly devoid of any prescience or realistic ethnic or geopolitical assessment.

Populist interpretation of history by individuals in the field, with agendas, is cause enough for serious contemplation and questions, as to what really is a historian's responsibility. I wonder if the American Historical Association has any influence in regulating these warped, politicized, and to a great extent, alienating academic outputs, like Wendy Doniger's Hinduphobic and the infinitely stupid The Hindus: An Alternative History, which scored one star on Amazon.com reviews by serious scholars, with review titles such as: "Abundance of pettiness," "History or HerStory?," and "Fraudulent History Book." We would be better served with critical accuracy in books like Hindu Manners, Customs and Ceremonies by Abbe J. A. Dubois, an early 19th century cultural classic by someone who had experienced it first hand, or a recent book by Philip Goldberg titled American Veda.

Are there any ethical standards for these academic historians? My derision does not circumscribe all academic historians, but there are many rotten ones that stink with their agendas filtered through reinterpreted history. These pedagogues, by virtue of their personal or political indulgences, have caused the devolvement and reduction of genuine historical scholarship to histrionics and ideological propaganda. For the most part historians are a benign and beneficial group that edifies our humanism. There are refreshing anomalies, even in the present environment of rampant historical misrepresentation -- like the exemplary and redeeming work of contemporary historical scholarship in revivifying prose: Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 by Edwin Burrows and Mike Wallace; also, David Hackett Fischer's Washington's Crossing, incidentally, both Pulitzer Prize winners.

From the beginning, the profession of history had been fought over and debated in fits and starts. One famous debate raged on between two eminent historians, J. B. Bury and G. M. Trevelyan, over whether history was a science or an art. This debate persisted on how far a historian would go in the pursuit of his "science" and, if at all, this profession should be inclined to institute laws and standards, which interestingly was the antithesis to R. G. Collingwood's 1946 classic thesis The Idea of History.

Edward Gibbon drew heavily from these primary empirical observers. He relied on their notes, opinions, reflections, and ruminations to fashion his masterpiece The History of the Decline and Fall of The Roman Empire. It was quite astounding to see that he had credited 72 primary chroniclers-observers in his bibliography in just 230 pages of his second volume, which covered the end of Diocletian era to the establishment of Constantinople and Christianity. He referred to them as "chroniclers who made the past come alive." These itinerant diarists were indeed dedicated, they were beyond mere historians, they became the curators of legacies, with their manifest art of the narrative prose, and sustained guardianship and presentation of facts.

There is another hypothesis I want to advocate, and that is that history is not the realm of only the primary observers, chroniclers, or diarists, but to a great extent the domain of some other observers as well, like the playwright and the fiction writer. Eighteenth-century novelists called their writings "Histories" on their title pages. No one was more brazen than Mr. Henry Fielding, who titled his fictional masterpiece History of Tom Jones, a Foundling. He had also claimed that what he wrote was "true history." If one wanted to study women, their behavior, the nuances in their relationships, and their milieu, between the seventeenth and the nineteenth centuries, Jane Austen and George Eliot would be the answer. For the in-depth knowledge of the bourgeois society around the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth century, one would depend on Marcel Proust to a great extent.

Don't forget Geoffrey Chaucer, Thomas Malory, Laurence Sterne, William Shakespeare, Sir Walter Scott, James Boswell, Daniel Defoe, Charles Dickens, and William Thackeray for the English society through centuries of evolution. The satirical depiction of contemporary times through plays is an age-old art, especially in the Hellenic and Roman times, attended by the thousands at the amphitheaters strewn across the Agean and the Mediteranean, where known playwrights like Aristophanes or Euripides once made a living. Through whose quill does the Elizabethan age come alive? The realists like Stendhal, Goethe, Roussseau, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Solzhenitsyn, Zola, and Pasternak also painted their times to life in vivid prose.

None of these observers of their day, or fiction writers, as we call them, came remotely from an academic setting, or the historiographic protocol, decorated with hyperbolic degrees. Actually, most of them hadn't even attended writing classes -- Anton Chekov was a medical student, and others had disparate backgrounds. But they nurtured their observations of the human condition and offered us panoramas of their time by crafting their own methodology to capture and relay the essence of their age, what we now consider as the classics. Academic historians, with a historiographic background? Hardly. That was then. Today, however, narrative history is filtered through modern analysis of other social sciences like economics, sociology, politics, psychology, anthropology, philosophy, linguistics, and most importantly, archaeology.

My roving conjecture here is not to take away from the modern professional historian. We on the outside all know the impact of published white papers after research, field studies, and archaeological recalibration of history, with accuracy for pedagogy and popular consumption. I also must take my hat off to the underpaid profession of an historian, who designs and uses original metrics, contemporary technology and methodologies, and carbon dating to give the accurate view of ancient life. But let us not lose sight of the fact that it is the "amateur historian" outside of the profession, with observation and chronicling skills in prose, that has made it possible for the professional historian to borrow and paint the vanished age in vivid colors for our senses. Even today the personal journals and diaries of the people in general provide, as aforementioned, our real history as living narratives in all their organic flaws and perfection. Would you want to ingest the palpable immediacy of a suffering during the Holocaust through the writings of the victim or read the dry and formal academic renditions in third person?

Here is an excerpt from a report that echoes my sentiments.

The Education of Historians for the Twenty-first Century

Part 1, Report and recommendations

... We commonly understand the discipline of history to be empirically grounded, to depend upon the imaginative construction of narratives that are explicitly referential and thus distinguishable from fictional narrative recent critics notwithstanding. The primary agenda of history as a discipline is to examine the human experience over time, with a commitment to the explanatory relevance of context, both temporal and geographical. Not just recently, but for more than a century, the discipline has been regularly enriched by the incorporation of various orientations derived from other disciplines. This openness and eclecticism is recognized as one of the discipline's particular strengths, a point nicely made by Tony Becher in an ethnographic study of historians: "History, though epistemologically soft, seems in an apparently paradoxical way to have achieved [a strong sense of disciplinary cohesion] ... by virtue of its very openness, all-embracing catholicity of coverage, and relative absence of theoretical divisions."

This ardor for history was ignited in me by my high school history teacher, Mr. G. B. Singh, who actually was an accountant. He repeatedly told us "our imagination holds the key to our transportation...and that intuitive immersion enables us to experience the past in the present." He always claimed that "...history is something very much alive." We always waited for his hook statement before commencing every class: "Can you imagine sitting exactly on the very spot where Buddha sat...can your hear him?" Even today, after almost four decades plus, his words nudge me into the arms of melancholy for the good times in his edifying and entertaining classes. It is as though Mr. Singh appeared for a brief moment in time, like an Elysian planter, and vanished after sowing the ideas about grasping the fine nuances of the symbology and the forms of existence, and the pure joy of letting your imagination roam. Good teachers, regardless of their qualifications, plant the seeds of our pursuits long before we mature as adults.

This leads me to the pivotal point: that intuition and passion propels all individual pursuits, especially the notable ones. Even today, despite the proliferation of the exclusive academic clubs, it is the individual with the street smarts, observation powers, passionate drive, and diligence that finds the answer in any sphere. History is replete with storied examples, making my point with titanium certitude. Boccaccio was a disgruntled banker and lawyer, and Gibbon, after fourteen months at "boring" Oxford, educated himself by just reading, while the greatest writer in the English language, Shakespeare, had no formal education, especially in playwriting. His contemporary, another playwright, Robert Greene, had called him "... an upstart crow..." And, for that matter, Herodotus, the father of history, was a wandering "bum." Tacitus, Livy, Xenophon, and Arrian, if living today, would probably be barred from teaching history, for the want of a historiographic background... and, I could see them double up in resigned laughter over the current academic gobbledygook, in requirements, to do a job at a news agency.


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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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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published February 13, 2012