Thursday, July 31, 2008

History Matters

Herodotus, goddamn it.

This New Yorker piece eventually gets it right for a long stretch. But it opens with the highbrow journalist's (or is it the New Yorker's?) condescension to "this ostensibly archaic epic" and closes with a barf-making moral equivalence passage -- America is the Persian Empire, see! Bush I is Darius! Bush II is Xerxes! Iraq is Greece! The mighty, evil empire loses and fails! Which I guess means bin Laden, al-Sadr, and the grubby beheaders of Baqouba are Leonidas and Callimachus, eh, smart guy? Didn't go there, did you? But you edged around it so tightly you can't prevent the thought from finishing in your reader's mind, if not on your page. And it's repulsive.

Time always tells, as he himself knew so well. However silly he may once have looked, Herodotus, it seems, has had the last laugh.

I don't think he's laughing, and I don't think he ever looked as silly, even to you and your friends, as you do now.

The discovery that great works of the past are not dusty and dull, but share stylistic qualities with the radically modern, is nothing new. It could only surprise a journalist. Someone who never had heard how Tolkien rescued "Beowulf" from the philologists. "Cinematic" is the praise-word the surprised discoverers usually bestow, as though people of the past never made big pictures in their heads before Hollywood put them into dark rooms to watch movies. Sure enough, it turns up here.

Here is where the reviewer (Daniel Mendelsohn) get it wrong while getting it right:

But the persistent appeal of such scenes, in which the outnumbered Greeks unexpectedly triumph over the masses of Persian invaders, is ultimately less a matter of storytelling than of politics. Although Herodotus is unwilling to be anything but neutral on the relative merits of monarchy, oligarchy, and democracy (in a passage known as the “Debate on Government,” he has critical things to say about all three), he ultimately structures his presentation of the war as a kind of parable about the conflict between free Western societies and Eastern despotism. (The Persians are associated with motifs of lashing, binding, and punishment.) While he isn’t shy about portraying the shortcomings of the fractious Greek city-states and their leaders, all of them, from the luxury-loving Ionians to the dour Spartans, clearly share a desire not to answer to anyone but their own leaders.

Anyone, at any rate, was preferable to the Persian overlord Xerxes, who in Herodotus’ narrative is the subject of a magisterial portrait of corrupted power. No one who has read the Histories is likely to forget the passage describing the impotent rage of Xerxes when his engineers’ first attempt to create a bridge from Asia to Europe across the Hellespont was washed away by a storm: after commanding that the body of water be lashed three hundred times and symbolically fettered (a pair of shackles was tossed in), he chastised the “bitter water” for wronging him, and denounced it as “a turbid and briny river.” More practically, he went on to have the project supervisors beheaded.

Herodotus’ Xerxes is, however, a character of persuasive complexity, the swaggering cruelty alternating with childish petulance and sudden, sentimental paroxysms of tears: it’s a personality likely to remind contemporary audiences of a whole panoply of dangerous dictators, from Nero to Hitler. One of the great, unexpected moments in the Histories, evoking the emotional finesse of the best fiction, comes when Xerxes, reviewing the ocean of forces he has assembled for the invasion, suddenly breaks down, “overcome,” as he puts it to his uncle Artabanus (who has warned against the enterprise), “by pity as I considered the brevity of human life.” Such feeling for human life, in a dictator whose casual indifference to it is made clear throughout the narrative, is a convincing psychological touch. The unstable leader of a ruthlessly centralized authoritarian state is a nightmare vision that has plagued the sleep of liberal democracies ever since Herodotus created it.

It's the stories in the histories that matter most. As in poetry and fiction. They teach us to be fully human. Not political. Not creatures of faction, class, race, or gender. But human. The great stories are stories of people, and ultimately there is no difference between the heroes whose names stand in memory after 2,500 years and those you never heard of, still living,

Some village-Hampden, that with dauntless breast
The little tyrant of his fields withstood,

or the slingers and foot-soldiers in the Anabasis, which is why we tell the stories over and over to ourselves and teach them to our children. This is what people can do! Even when all around them looks bleak!

It wasn't Xerxes' rage at the waves that I most remembered from that part of the story. It was what came just after in Herodotus' account:

As he marched out the army, Pythias the Lydian, dreading the heavenly omen and encouraged by the gifts given to him by Xerxes, came up to Xerxes and said, "Master, I wish to ask a favor of you, which would be a small favor for you to render, but would be a great favor for me to receive." Xerxes, thinking that he knew everything Pythias could ask for, answered that he would grant the favor and asked him to proclaim what it was he wished. "Master, it happens that I have five sons, and they are all bound to soldier for you against the Greeks. I pray you, king, that you have pity on one who has reached my age and that you set free one of my sons, even the oldest, from your army, so that he may provide for me and my possessions. Take the other four with you, and may you return having accomplished all you intended."

Xerxes flew into a horrible rage and replied, "You villainous man, you have the effrontery, seeing me marching with my army against the Greeks, with my sons and brothers and relatives and friends, to remind me of your son, you, my slave, who should rather come with me with your entire household, including your wife! You may now be certain of this, that since the spirit lives in a man's ears, hearing good words it fills the body with delight, when it hears the opposite it swells up. When you at one time performed well and promised more, you had no reason to boast that you outperformed your king in benefits; and now that you have turned most shameless, you shall receive less than what you deserve. You and four of your sons are saved because of your hospitality; but one of your sons, the one you most desire to hold your arms around, will lose his life!" Having answered thus, he commanded those charged to accomplish this to find the eldest of Pythias's sons and cut him in half, and having cut him in two to set one half of his corpse on the right side of the road and the other on the left side, and between these the army moved forth.

Which sounds rather unlike George W. Bush and a great deal like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. West is still West, East East, despite progressive polemics and the false weathercock of journalism.