Friday, July 24, 2009

History, Journalism

We take a breath ten to twenty times a minute; a newborn breathes (so I’m assured) forty-four times a minute, a running athlete every second. A history that might record our every breath, explicitly, I mean, would probably be as boring as the sequel that the eager publisher hurries to the market: My Life: One Eye Blink At a Time.

I made the mistake a couple of months ago of picking up a history of Rome. The dreary results of that decision are found here and there marring my blogs. The latest consequence of that error has been reopening Gibbon’s Decline and Fall at a point where a sheet of paper was sticking out. The paper was a map from the Internet showing parts of Europe, Africa, and Asia as the Romans (and Gibbon) called them. Illyricum is the Balkans, Pannonia is my Hungary, The Mediterranean is Mare Internum, etc. Reading Roman History is a kind of Madness: One Emperor at a Time.

Much as breaths and eye blinks punctuate our lives, so reading history punctuates mine. The intervals are greater, but the reactions, each time, invariably, are the same. Eventually I’m overcome by exasperation. I have the feeling that formal histories miss something essential. That impulse, several big breaths ago, sent me looking for the fine structure of history, in that era. The field is sparse, at least the kind of literature you can buy in a bookstore. I have a single slender volume on everyday life in Rome. Wouldn’t you know it! It begins with the first problem most of us have when we wake up. It seems that to find a comfy place in which to urinate was not that easy in the good-old-days—unless, that is, a leather tannery was right next door. Those places liked collecting urine as a processing chemical and made “facilities” available to the public. Oh, my. The scatological isn’t neglected later either; I learned that doing Number Two was also a more or less public event. But enough of this giggly stuff.

The resolution of history—I mean that now in an optical sense—illustrates our limitations. At the very fine resolution we get a replay of ordinary experience that we normally ignore. At the highest resolutions that one finds in cyclic historians there seem to be no people there at all; the actors are civilizations. In the middle ground are notable figures, and the more notable they are, the more one longs for a peaceful game of tic-tac-toe.

Journalism, the so-called first draft of history, lives up to the name. It’s rhythm is daily, more recently almost hourly, but the focus is on Important People, and the importance of these people is in part derived from the vicious things they do. My experience—or reactions to them, actually—appear determined to wean me of these interests, but like all of the rest of the humanity I’m morbidly fascinated. It’s very hard to break the habit of enjoying the outrage at all the horrors, which is actually no joy at all. But it takes genuine effort to turn away. And the sophisticated forms of it, such as vast, beautifully written, scholarly histories are no more elevated, in result, than journalism, or seeing gladiators slaying one another, or watching the modern versions of them mowing down jerking, spasming bodies on TV.

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