Sunday, April 11, 2010

AtF: Arguing Both Sides

Rhino of Steel made some comments on last week’s AtF that got me thinking.  Since I’m planning on writing two of these damn things tonight and really need a reason to not stab myself with something,* I think I’ll follow up on them.  I’m going to take them, and my thoughts on them, in no particular order.

I’ll start with this:  “The second point really shows his faith actually, but only his faith in the capability of medieval scribes. If he honestly thinks such a mistake couldn't be made even with a correct version in front of him, he is sadly mistaken.”

The “second point” refers to this quote from After the Flood:

Similarly, the second item concerns the garbled British report of a fortress that was erected at Caesar's command when he returned to Gaul. Caesar does not name the fort, whereas the British account reports its name as Odina.

The likelihood of “garbled reports” getting passed down from scribes is, of course, one we have to contend with at all times.  There is only one place, in fact, where such difficulties are largely ignored.  That’s right, Biblically literal Biblical studies.

This is an interesting blind spot that I’ve never really thought about much before.  I remember growing up in church and taking for granted that the Bible was an accurate document that was recorded properly down to the jot and tittle by every single scribe.  It was also taken for granted that the Gospels were written by the actual disciples and/or were based on what we now consider to be proper historical groundwork: interviewing people, checking facts, etc.

This is, of course, BS.  It’s also quite obvious that Bill Cooper still believes it.  Otherwise we wouldn’t be here, reading through his terrible book.  He also exhibits, as Rhino points out, a similar level of faith in the scribes who recorded Tysilio and passed it down to Geoffrey of Monmouth.  For that matter, he places a tremendous amount of faith in Nennius and G of M.

Yet Cooper does not place the same amount of faith in the scribes who recorded Caesar’s books.  Check that, he doesn’t place the same amount of faith in Caesar himself.  Caesar didn’t mention the fortress at Odina, but Tysilio did.  Therefore, in Cooper’s world, Caesar got his own story wrong.

Think about this.  Let’s say for the sake of argument that I become one of the most famous and influential people in human history over the course of my lifetime.  I end up, as so often happens, writing my memoirs.  Over the course of the story of the first three decades of my life I mention growing up outside of Chicago, going out to school at Western Illinois University, and moving to Dallas.  Some time long after I die an anonymous author claims she found a new biography of my life that includes the story of me moving to Tallahassee, Florida three days after my twenty-fourth birthday and building a house there.

Now, I’ve never been to Tallahassee.**  I’ve sure as hell never built a house there.

So what is a future historian to do?  Do they conclude that the manuscript claiming my sojourn in Florida is wrong or that I was wrong?

Moreover, let’s say that the person claiming I built a house in Tallahassee conveniently happens to be the owner of a property on which she claims I built my house and is attempting to turn it in to a tourist attraction.  Could we logically infer that the already questionable story is, in fact, a forgery?  I’d say yes.

You’ll note that Cooper doesn’t seriously consider the possibility that the British report of Odina is wrong.  Moreover, he handwaves the possibility away.  The reason for this is simple.  I, playing the role of a real historian, can use the discrepancy to poke holes in Cooper’s thesis, as I have done.  Since Tysilio is pretty much the only document that supports that thesis, however, Cooper has to instead poke holes in every other historical document ever.

Truly, it must be exhausting.

And it leads me to another point Rhino made:

Something with the third point is bugging me now too. He says the Britons knew about Labienus. How, exactly? The disputed amount of interaction between Gaul and Briton aside, I can't see the identities of Caesar's lieutenants as being something they would be all that interested in. Even if they were and they had detailed information then surely they would have been aware that he was actually in charge of the legions in Gaul at the time and, you know, alive.

I’m not sure if this was also part of Rhino’s thought process, but it’s most certainly part of mine (and you can know this because you’re about to read it…).

Cooper argues with himself here.  In claiming that the Britons knew about Odina when Caesar didn’t mention it, he’s claiming that Tysilio had access to intelligence no one else did.  Since Caesar didn’t mention it even though he mentioned, basically, everything else that he ever did and everywhere he went, Cooper is arguing that the Britons had better intelligence about Caesar’s movements than Caesar himself did.

And then he turns around and claims that they were so confused about Labienus that they had him dying in Britain while he was still very much alive in Gaul.  This creates a friction, a tension, if you will.

See, it’s entirely possible that one side in a battle could get accurate information about one thing and completely miss something else.  It happens all the time.  It’s that fog of war thing.  It’s not hard to believe, for one thing, that Caesar got a bunch of stuff wrong in his records regarding the names of the people he fought against and what the locals called the places where they fought.  So if we had two equally credible sources and Caesar said he went to a fort called Fortburg and laid siege, but Tysilio said he laid siege to a fort called Dirtmound, I’d take Tysilio’s account.

In this case, however, Tysilio gets two things really, really wrong and both of them are, quite literally, about things in Caesar’s backyard.  To claim that Tysilio is correct about Odina based on the Briton’s excellent intelligence gathering apparatus while incorrect about Labienus based on the Briton’s apparently inept intelligence gathering apparatus reeks of special pleading.

This actually highlights one of the really, really weird problems that I have writing these posts.  It’s excruciatingly easy to miss Cooper’s, shall we say, creative, use of sources and argument style.  He will make two different arguments that completely refute each other, but I’ll miss that fact because I’m too busy refuting each of his arguments.  Much of this book is actually self-evidently wrong, but I keep missing that particular forest for the trees.

Again, this goes back to that Biblical literalist mindset.  They’ll claim that the Bible is inerrant and doesn’t contradict itself. But that only works if you don’t actually look at the Bible as a whole work.  As long as you take individual passages and make sure no one ever looks at two or more bits at the same time (or looks, but only through the correct lens), then you can make that claim.  This, I believe, is why so many Evangelical types have this habit of taking individual verses, or even chunks of verses, when attempting to use the Bible to support their arguments.  It doesn’t work in the larger context.

And neither does Tysilio.


*At this time next week Geds will be at Scout Bar in Houston.  Why?  Because Local H will be there, too.  It’s actually a part of this thing called a vacation.  I’m going to spend a long weekend in Galveston hanging out on the beach.  Oddly enough, this will be the first time since I was in kindergarten that I’ll be next to a body of water larger than Lake Michigan.  Unless Lake Superior is bigger, at which point it will be…oh, never mind.

Either way, this evening I’m lubricating my double dose of self-hatred with Rahr & Sons Ugly Pug Black Lager.  Should reinforcements be necessary (and they will), my options then move in the general direction of Buffalo Trace bourbon (yeah.  I’ve had the same bottle for several weeks now.  Bill Cooper hasn’t actually made me an alcoholic.  Ha!) or the ever-popular Tanqueray & tonic.  Yeah, we’re fucked up now.  Seriously.  Tanqueray Rangpur and tonic.  It’s the only mixed drink I’ll willingly suffer.

**But I did watch Zombieland last night, natch.  I learned three things from that movie.  Never go to strip clubs, amusement parks, or Garland.


DagoodS said...

Being the terrible parent I am—I allowed my children to watch Zombieland. “Rule One,” is now a frequently heard comment in my house if anyone whines about being physically unable to do a project.

The joys of twisting one’s own children…

Geds said...

You, sir, are my new hero.

Although stories like that tend to erode my confident, "Women are too smart to have children with me, as I'd corrupt them to no end," basis for, y'know, not having children. So I also kind of hate you. Just a little bit.

Rhino of Steel said...

I feel bad for not commenting for a week when you quote me but I have the 10,000+ words from essays to show why I was busy. Definitely has nothing to do with procrastinating for too long.

I hadn't actually thought about the parallels to Biblical literalism but that makes a lot of sense. I remember when I was younger and learned about the Red/Reed Sea mis-copy which helped start me along the road to seeing what else had changed over time, or what else was mistranslated (like the rise on the third day thing which Easter reminded me of). I suppose that as a Biblical scholar of sorts, Cooper is used to having to poke holes in every other source of evidence. You can't make the Old Testament narrative fit any other way.

I was actually thinking more along the lines of the world's worst scouts for the other point which is still Cooper arguing with himself. They knew the name of a fortress that even Caesar can't name but have trouble finding the huge camp of Romans. You can't have it both ways. Coupled with your point of view just makes it even more ridiculous.

Part of me thinks Cooper is saying so many blatantly false things simply to hide his poor argument. Then the more realistic part of me takes over and I realize that he is just that bad at history that he doesn't understand why his arguments conflict.

Rule #1 is great way to get the larger and nerdier amongst us (read: me) out and running. Well, Rule #1 and the Pokewalker. I need more watts!

Geds said...

It's quite all right. I'm actually fantastically good at commenting on posts, then forgetting the blog exists. I actually once got another blogger to start an entire series of things, then went back, like, a month later and thought, "Wow, he actually did that!"

It amused me...

Either way, I think you're right. Cooper is simply a terrible historian. Absolutely nothing in AtF strikes me as being systematic enough to warrant the idea that he's intentionally trying to cover much of anything.