Sunday, November 25, 2012

reading about history

An idle essay on history, for the holiday!

In the past couple of years, a good portion of my recreational reading has been history, and some of that has been by ancient historians: Plutarch, Sima Qian, Livy. For the past few weeks, I've been alternating between two books, a collection of abridged Livy (from the Ad Urbe Condita) and Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, which is a study of how language is connected, or can potentially be connected, to reality. I'm not claiming to fully understand the Wittgenstein, but there has been an interaction.

There are lots of reasons why reading history is enjoyable. The main reason, for me, is that it is so edifying: you are learning how the world came to be the way that it is, and you're also learning about certain constancies of the human condition, mistakes and actions and etc that have been repeated over and over again for thousands of years. Another reason is that it is entertaining in the same way that reading fiction is entertaining: there are heroes and villains, victories and tragedies, and all of it is ambiguous and complex, at least in hindsight.

What the TLP made me think about was this (although not in the confusing terms of propositions, pictures, facts, etc): the page one reads is a surface into which has been pressed different shapes. When one reads, one is feeling these shapes, and mentally reconstructing whatever it was that impressed them. When one reads fiction, the impressor is, supposedly, always secondhand, in that it is the mind of the author that has been impressed, and the author has reconstructed ideas based on those impression, recombined them into mental realities, and then created new impressions based on those mental realities in the page. One then uses those impressions to reconstruct the author's mental realities. Since these reconstructions are not based on physical reality, they constitute in the language of the TLP false facts (although, strictly, many of the components of these false facts must be true; a falsehood cannot be sensible if it is not seemingly possible, its possibility being dictated by the local truth of its parts).

When one reads history, then the intention is that physical reality is impressed into the page, and that when one reads history and reconstructs his own mental realities, these should be (or be close to being) true facts. This is the intention of the honest historian, but he must inevitably fail, because he cannot base all, or even most, of his impressions on physical realities. Historians gain their knowledge by reading what was written by others before them, and then they compile what they have read into narratives that can be understood holistically by others. The historian must judge what are true and false facts, and impress only the true facts. Since other writers may not have thought of themselves as historians, and may not have been intent on impressing true facts, these judgments will be difficult, and the historian will sometimes fail.

So, when reading history as a naive consumer of text like myself, one is in the interesting situation of feeling out these impressions and forming mental reconstructions of the impressors, which are actually impressions of reconstructions of impressors that are actually reconstructions themselves and et cetera. Some of the impressions are mostly true (with local falsehoods), and some must be mostly false (with local truths). It's like Indiana Jones and the Holy Grail, except there's no reward or punishment for deciding that one or another fact is true or false. In reading fiction, the decision is implicit in the definition, but in reading history, you get the sense of walking along the true side of a very fuzzy edge, a transition into the false side. This transition gets broader and broader the further back in time one goes.

This then gets back to another issue which I'd like to write about sometime: the ubiquity of blur. All systems for transmitting information lose local details before they lose fundamentals. High spatial frequencies are lost in image formation; high temporal frequencies are lost as sound travels through a medium; sharp edges on an object are worn down by friction over time; genetic mutations effect molecular changes in the phenotype; and the details of history - names, dates, the precise unfolding of events - are misremembered or, mostly, forgotten. These are details in the literary sense, but they seem exactly analogous to physical details: what happened in Caesar's final days? Did he go to the forum in spite of warnings? Was Brutus really his son? These sorts of details, the answers to these sorts of questions, are permanently forgotten, but we know the larger, deeper, important events: Caesar was murdered by a conspiracy of Senators.

Interestingly, in the same way that a knife might be sharpened, or faded images might be retouched, old stories about the past might be sharpened up with added details; doped with false facts, to bring them into narrative focus. Caesar was warned about the Ides of March; he saw Brutus and said, "You too, my son?" The doping could also be with irrelevant facts: this is what you could buy from a street vendor in those days, this is what the men and women of this station wore on their feet. This sharpening, false or irrelevant, is enjoyable in a special way when it comes from someone who was writing more than 2000 years ago, because it is more immediate: nothing (except for the translator) has touched these impressions since they were formed. It's like holding something very, very old in your hands.

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