Thursday, July 3, 2008

Inevitability, Part 2

The Expedition of Cyrus, written thirty or more years after the events, is not a straightforward history. Xenophon had time to reflect and the book is nuanced and enriched by a number of themes, one of them being the record of his own and the army's gradual disillusionment. When he came to write his account, he could look back on thirty years in which the mainland Greek states had been battered into disillusionment themselves, and so the two years of his and his men's suffering came in his mind to encapsulate and adumbrate what followed. (I should say straight away that I don't consider this to be a flaw in his work: all history-writing is biased or angled in some way or another.) --Robin Waterfield, from the preface to Xenophon's Retreat Convergence is a wonderful thing. I've rarely run in to a quote that more beautifully illustrates a point I want to make than the one above. Xenophon's Anabasis (or The March Up Country or The Expedition of Cyrus) is an excellent example of the way the personal story can become the universal story and be incorporated in to history itself. Waterfield encapsulates exactly why Xenophon is an unreliable narrator (or, more accurately, not entirely reliable narrator, as we can trust his account, but not entirely) of his own personal tale and, therefore, this bit of western history. It's the reason that we're all unreliable narrators of our own personal tales. We filter those stories through our disillusionment or joy, and make them impossible to separate from the meaning we try to give to our own lives. The effects of inevitability on our own personal tales are somewhat mitigated by our understanding of chance. We may honestly believe that god or fate wanted us to be in exactly the right place at exactly the right time to get that perfect job or meet that wonderful beloved, but most of us are perfectly willing to acknowledge the role that chance plays in those encounters. However, once we move from the personal to the societal story, we lose the necessary perspective, precisely because the best we can do is guess at the biases and blinders worn by those recording the history. It becomes even muddier as we draw back from the primary sources to the secondary, tertiary, and beyond and work from translations from ancient to modern or from one language to another. Then, if we make the next step from a history book to a textbook, even more is lost of the original intent. It's possible to take a scientific approach to the study of history, but history cannot be confused with hard science. Two plus two does not always equal four. We cannot replicate Marathon or Thermopylae in a lab to see what would have happened to civilization as we know it if the Greeks had lost, we can't use Napoleon as a control to determine whether or not Alexander the Great could have captured India and find out whether that would have wiped out the Mughal Empire a thousand years before its foundation and ended up creating a Eurasia-spanning Western concept of modernity long before the 19th Century. Instead we're left with incomplete, biased records of what happened. We mistake national epics for neutral viewpoint historical compositions. We take for granted the author's concept of the inevitability of their circumstances and add them to our own understanding of the universe. Victors and survivors write the history of the world and there is a high degree of overlap between those groups. The defeated and annihilated rarely get to tell their side, so we're left only with exaggerated accounts of the evils of a defeated foe or the incompetence of a would-be conqueror. Armed with these incorrect assumptions we in the West assemble a history based on who we think should be our forebearers. We reject the Persians, for they were so incompetent they could barely defeat 300 with an army of a hundred thousand (which, it shouldn't have to be said, couldn't be further from the truth). To the Greeks we append the Romans, to the Romans we append the great societies of the Renaissance and the world-conquering European Empires of the 19th and 20th Centuries. In doing so we create a mystique of ever increasing power, progress, and innovation before which the uneducated savages or hidebound, unchanging powers of the rest of the world had no choice but to fall. In doing so, we tell our part of the story as heirs to a world beating tradition that shall continue on forever and never fail and how dare the Chinese, the Japanese, or the Indians try to compete? Why did Communism have to be contained? Why isn't Iran or North Korea allowed access to nuclear technology? Because we say so. Seriously, that's the reason. Yeah, there are arguments about destabilization and dangers to neighbors, but, ultimately, North Korea or Iran with the bomb is far less dangerous than the US and USSR were during the Cold War and no more dangerous than India and Pakistan pointing nukes at each other across a contested border (an artificial border, mind you, created by the British as they attempted to take apart the arbitrary system created by centuries of cultural penetration and colonial rule). We live in a world dominated by the European story of inevitable victory. We define modernity according to what the West says is modern. When push comes to shove, we justify military intervention according to Western ideals and attempt to clamp a Western style liberal democracy on top of a country that has no concept and no tradition of such. It never seems to work, and yet we keep doing it, because we believe it is inevitable that everyone will eventually become like us. This assumption, in turn, is built on the idea that we are like we are and it was inevitable that we would be this we and be superior to everyone else. That sense inevitability is built on a single, core assumption that dominates the study of history and is completely and totally wrong. We assume that things happened the way they did because they had to. This attitude is gradually changing, but it's because our conception of the nature of the study of history and the role of the historian is changing. The texts, however, have not changed. Xenophon and Eusebius haven't magically become impartial observers. Plutarch and Pliny haven't suddenly added appendices full of alternate explanations for their histories. The destroyed histories of conquered peoples will never be found, or if they are they'll only be in fragments. It's possible that the most fascinating of the dozen or so fascinating ideas and concepts Ken Alder touches on in The Measure of All Things is a section on the nature of error. See, error as we know it today is a relatively new concept that was really only ushered in to our consciousness at the beginning of the 19th Century. Error for us is a matter of statistics and repeated experimentation. Say we add 2 and 2 and get five. We know that an error was made because previous trials have told us that 2+2=4. However, before the scientific revolution data that didn't match up with what was expected was considered to be in error. So to take the simple mathematical problem, say I believe two and two equals five and keep getting four. I would believe myself to be in error. If it took that long for the concept of the nature of error to make its way in to science, imagine how it's worked for history. Absolutely everything in the study of history hinges on the assumptions made by the historian, whether it's the primary source writer or the student coming in later to examine the work. Humans are bad at questioning their assumptions and even worse at divining the actual assumptions on which others are creating their constructs. Such is the nature of the beast. But that's why we need to re-evaluate the stories we tell ourselves about how we got where we are. As I feel inadequate to the task of completing this thought, I'll leave off here with the words of John Darwin: We need, in short, a more realistic view of the contentious past to make sense of our times -- and to begin to see them not as an everlasting 'present', but as a historical 'period', condemned like all others to change and decay. In earlier parts of this book, much stress has been laid on the tortuous route by which the contemporary world came into existence. The account that they give has little in common with those road maps of history on which ideologues (of every persuasion) draw their straight lines. It suggest, nonetheless, that a number of grand themes form the heart of the story -- and offer a glimmer of insight into the fate of Eurasia, and thus of the world. --John Darwin, After Tamerlane, p. 491

2 comments:

Stinger said...

Great post!

Geds said...

Why thank you.

I was a bit worried with this post, as it required a couple of lateral leaps of logic and I wasn't sure I'd explained my thoughts well enough to allow anyone to actually follow it. And, as it's possible that you've guessed, the idea of history written as inevitability kind of feeds in to my deconstruction of the historical nature of the Bible...