Friday, May 22, 2009

The Ancients Whisper

So, to set the scene ... and with no reference to the title of this post which, evidently like all my titles, breaks evolving rules of social media ... I took the day off to make a four-day weekend, cleaned two aquaria, ran around town and faced down the mad weekday traffic of downtown San Francisco in order to do my duty by recycling a bunch of old computer stuff. Now I am chilling with a beer that descibes itself as a "Handcrafted Ancient Ale". This would be a Midas Touch by Dogfish Head Craft Brewery who write this about the brew: "This recipe is the actual oldest-known fermented beverage in the world! It is an ancient Turkish recipe using the original ingredients from the 2700 year old drinking vessels discovered in the tomb of King Midas. Somewhere between wine & mead; this smooth, sweet, yet dry ale will please the Chardonnay of beer drinker alike."

I picked the beer because I am re-reading ancient history. The regular reader of this scratch will note that my reading habits are a never ending peregrination through history, period by period as the mood strikes me. What I want to focus on, in reading ancient history for the first time in 25 years, is the mind of the ancient world ... how did people construct reality, what were the signposts of the mind, what assumptions of system and configuration informed perception and action?

One has to beware of this sort of thing because the tendency is to look for commonalities. That is what I like to call the tyranny of relevance ... what can I find in the mind of Sargon that is like me. No doubt that sort of thought is comforting, but making the assumption that relevance and an unrequited empathy is the purpose of the study of history predisposes us to project our own being backward. That would be at best idealism and at worst an underhanded teleology. In other words, the approach that starts and ends with commonalities across the millennia either postulates some prior universal humanity, which would be a religious concept, or it assumes that history is the process whereby the present drags the past behind it.

I am human, of course, and I want to know what it would be like to be in Uruk in the third millennium before the myth of the cross ... I want to know how those people are just like me. But that is a projection; it has to be balanced with an understanding of how they differ.

So, from reading the magnificent Landmark Herodotus ... there are two themes that I found constantly in Herodotus.

Firstly, at least in the written word, there is a familiarity with the immediacy of death that we have lost in the modern Western world. That is a subset of the immediacy of culture and habit and action. Herodotus explains things very plainly and forwardly, even when he speculates about underlying causation. He is plain with his audience as if they are at his side. This is partly explained by his writing for a world which was still radically aural ... aural is in the hearing side of a radically oral society. This was a world where, notwithstanding writing, people knew things by reason of their having heard them ... and speaking and hearing were formalized in a way that we have lost. Now, we lost that way only recently, and there are still many places where that way has not been lost, or at least not fully lost. But in a radically oral society, and especially in a radically oral society before the invention of a radically literate society, people thought differently than we do.

That difference ... and I reference my dissertation on this ... is the difference between the primacy of authority over authenticity. In the ancient world, authority spoke, and authority guaranteed authenticity; we, by contrast, are obsessed by the authentic, and afraid lest we have been conned into accepting something inauthentic. In that sense, for us, authority exists primarily to guarantee authenticity. Herodotus never thinks of the authentic ... notwithstanding that he often does not believe things he has been told. He wonders about the veracity of who told him about things, and he posits veracity based on that. There is a religious dimension to this. You never read him saying that some passage is the inerrant, uncreated, permanent word of god ... in other words authentic by reason of the text being authoritative. Rather, you read him speaking about the authority of various interpretations of oracles. It is curious in this world where science and religion were genuinely inseparable that the divine was revealed not through inerrancy but through interpretation.

So the immediacy about which I started this section is an immediacy of speech and person and authority. And that dovetails with a world view that is immediate. I noticed how flatly Herodotus explains culture ... this or that is the habit of such a people. He does not layer his explanation with any ideology of acceptance or non-acceptance. Difference inheres in peoples and locations, and that is the way the world is. We do not see universals in Herodotus. We see a wide-eyed explanation ... albeit with plenty of sly self-credentialing ... where he postulates an audience that will accept his revelation as true because he is an authority. Immediacy, authority, interpretation.

Note how that differs from the Christian world with its distant god ... a world of mediation, authenticity, and, paradoxically, inerrancy. So ... and I slide into the tyranny of relevance here ... there is an argument that in some ways liberals and our love of ambivalence share at least the notion of interpretation with Herodotus where modern christians share virtually nothing.

So, on to the second theme ... reciprocity, or balance. Not balance in the sense of equality, but reciprocity in the sense of the action assuming or predicating or predicting the unavoidable countervailing counteraction that will balance the scales. For example, pride always calls out a comeuppance. The gods are the agents of this phenomenon, but they as much as we are bound to it. Reciprocity, in that sense, is a characteristic of reality, an ether in which we live. It is inescapable in Herodotus. It can be complex, and sometimes the reciprocity is paid by subsequent generations ... that, of course, is another part of the ancient mind, the corporate nature of the individual's being. And again, that is something that has not disappeared in much of the world. But I would aver that these notions were unquestioned in the ancient world where even in a place like Diyala province in present-day Iraq, people are aware of the antithesis to their corporate notion of personality ... that's why they hate us.

Reciprocity in Herodotus exists on the grand scale ... the Athenians helped the Ionians to revolt against the Persians, and the Persians burned Athens to the ground. But the Persians profaned various temples, so they lost at Salamis and Plataea. Herodotus explains all of this, as above, flatly and plainly, if artfully. He explains it as my grandfather explained the birds and animals, and the way that you do things. He explains it as if it is plainly real, true because it is, not because it is authentic.

So immediacy and reciprocity. Not that those are exclusive to the ancients. I have to find a way to express what was different about the ancients, and those are starting points. That's why I read history. I have finished Herodotus ... I thought him an excellent way to start thinking about the ancient mind. Now I am reading the history of the ancient Near East. Let me say only this about that ... the time from the first writing that we have from Uruk until Alexander defeated the Persians is longer than the time that separates us right now from Homer. Pause, my friend, for a moment, and think about that.

In the meanwhile, I have finished the second of my ancient Turkish beers. It is full and honeyed and grained. I know it is ancient because the label assures me of its authenticity ... and that is a relief since I paid $13 for four of them. Authentic ancient beer in a modern bottle. The authority is a web site put up by the makers ... and that I distrust. Hmmm.

Photos by Arod of statues at Sans Souci, Great Frederick's palace in Potsdam, Germany.

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