Tuesday, June 03, 2014
The Pond Water of History
Reading Norman Davies' two volume history of Poland. For a while I was off reading history. I thought of all the history I've read that's left almost no mark -- I know I've read a monumental history of Spain, for instance, thousands of pages long, and that all I clearly remember from it is that Cordoba was once a splendid Muslim city with a famous library. Shouldn't I maybe have read the Wikipedia entry instead? Years of my life have gone into reading these things. And now, the Polish dynasties sieve through my head, systems of land tenure, the wealth of Danzig, a vaguely grasped notion of the importance of the Vistula River, the extraordinary number of nobles and Jews -- one in ten people in Poland-Lithuania was one or the other, in the 16th Century! Unless it was the 17th. Will I remember any of it? Am I wasting my time?
I think I am not, but I'm not doing exactly what I thought I was when I started. When I was young and foolish, I thought I could learn all of history and have it all available in my head, or at least a lot of European history, or at least a lot of English history. Now I know that almost all this stuff will fall right back out of my head again. That doesn't necessarily mean it's not worth doing. There is another kind of knowledge building up, a synoptic sense of what people have done and will do, what sorts of organizations have succeeded, what sorts have failed, and some of the common notions of why. It's all terribly vague and unsatisfactory, and the more you read the more you realize how variable and subjective the notions are, but as it accumulates I find that I'm far less likely to be fooled by the demagogues and politicians of the moment. I'm no better at predicting the future than anyone else, but I recognize the rashness of betting on my predictions better than most. History has a way of wriggling out of what people expect.
And there is a sense one gets for the fullness, depth, complexity of any one place and its people. It's like looking at pond water under a microscope: suddenly you become aware of the incredible richness and diversity referred to -- but also concealed -- by a name like "water" or "Poland." As you focus the lens, you find Poles, Lithuanians, Ruthenians, Ukrainians, Prussians; Catholics, Orthodox, Jews, and an extraordinary number of Protestants (some of them handsome crackpots rivaling our own Baghwan Shree Rajneesh); a menacing array of Turks, Cossacks, Russians and Swedes circling the borders, searching for weak points. Each single one would reward a higher-power microscope with the same increase in complexity and variety.
That, too, is worth knowing: and you gradually obtain the conviction that the parts of the world that have not yet been given thousand-page histories by an Oxford or Harvard don are every bit as diverse and complex. You may not have looked at them yet through the microscope; you don't know what's there; but you know that if you did, they would resolve into new worlds and new constellations of sub-worlds. That, I guess, is what you really gain by reading these fat narrative histories: a sense for just how large the human universe is.