Wrong Again

I know, I alone
How much it hurts, this heart
With no faith nor law
Nor melody nor thought.

Only I, only I
And none of this can I say
Because feeling is like the sky –
Seen, nothing in it to see.
Fernando Pessoa

DSCI0012I hope if there is ever a cocktail party in the afterlife I will find myself seated next to Herodotus. I just finished Book Two of The Landmark Herodotus The Histories which is edited by Robert B. Strassler and translated by Andrea L. Purvis.

The enthusiasm with which he collected as much information in the form of fact, “fact,” anecdote, eye-witness report or opinion is highly engaging. Book Two focuses on Egypt and all things and matters Egyptian. It’s all very interesting and entertaining.

I have to say that I am enjoying the interplay between Herodotus’s text and the footnotes most especially. In a description of Lake Moeris, Herodotus is, as usual, very thorough in his account:

Its circumference measures 397 miles, equaling the length of the coast of Egypt itself, but in this case extending from north to south. Its depth is 50 fathoms at its deepest point. This is clearly a man-made lake… (section 2.149 page 187)

What I haven’t put in are the numerous footnote annotations. Along with converting, for instance, a fathom into feet, (1=about 6 feet) and that sort of thing,  is very helpful information such as – Herodotus is wrong about the origins of the lake. It is clearly a natural lake. That one made me burst out laughing because there is a “Herodotus is mistaken” on nearly every page. In fact he is wrong about the circumference as well, it’s actually 170 miles. But the subtle cheek of the retort “It is clearly a natural lake.” Well, I found it very funny.

Okay, so I might need Mr. Strassler seated on my left to keep the information on the up and up, but that’s okay, it’s a party! Champagne cocktails for all! What fun it would be to listen to all the fantastic stories Herodotus gleaned.

He is the father of history just figuring it out the best he can as he goes. It is his passion for it that is so attractive to the reader.

Today I was thinking all day about a discussion (maybe too strong – an exchange of comments more like) I had on an excellent literary blog in which my question was whether or not it really mattered if one possessed all, or at least a lot of the knowledge that was referred to in any given book. I had read the book in question  The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis almost 2/3 through before I found out (by happenstance) that Reis was a heteronym*  of the poet Fernando Pessoa (who was a character in the book, along with Reis – it’s a really good novel by the way).

I was put out at the time- it seemed pretty relevant information. How the hell was I suppose to know?- I had swiped the book from one of my kid’s bookshelf after all, I didn’t know anything about it! But then I calmed down, after all, I had been enjoying the book all along, so it didn’t really matter. Did it?

I used my embarrassing ignorance to illustrate the larger point that the story is that good. Good enough to stand on its own, unhinged by prerequisite knowledge.  But, as the other blogger commented,  (and pointed to another excellent literary blog as example) the knowledge adds layers. And that is absolutely true, hence my irritation.

The interesting thing to me however, is that knowledge, on its own, is merely pedantic (and sadly, often is, in the hands or words of the “educated”). It is the joined force of knowledge and passion in both the  writer and the reader that raises the meaning to the correct level. Like many people I am intimidated by really smart people, and yet knowledge is no mystery: it can always, and fairly equally be acquired. Passion is different.

Letting yourself really love something almost demands that you don’t think yourself away from the feeling. They are opposites in a way: knowledge is full, facts you can see and point to, but there is nothing to point to when it comes to feeling. It’s a funny sort of balance, but trying to get it right is half the fun I suppose. Maintain the boundless wonder while accumulating the facts, that’s the trick.

Herodotus may get some of the knowledge parts wrong, okay, more than some, but his passion and love of collecting and sharing as much information as he can is wonderfully inspiring. His opinions and insights are very enjoyable to read. I suppose there is the possibility that he might turn out to be a complete bore of a blow hard after a few drinks, but I doubt it.

*Heteronym is a concept of Pessoa’s invention, it is a term he used to name the characters that he sometimes wrote as. He wrote many poems, for instance, as Ricardo Reis, and there were others as well that even “knew” each other and had exchanges. As Wiki explains, these are not pseudonyms, merely false names, they are fully realized characters with individual writing styles.  See? Knowledge – it’s all good.

**Herodotus Book One
Herodotus Book Three


13 responses to “Wrong Again

  1. Usually if readers find anything in Herodotus boring it is the Egyptian chapter. So you are on your way! I love it when the annotator is having fun, too.

    There are many interesting paths to follow in your essay here. I will just mention that blogging has greatly reinforced, for me, your idea that “knowledge is no mystery.” Especially in the humanities, knowledge really is available to anyone with the passion (and energy and time) to look for it and use it. We just have to keep at it. Meaning accumulates.

  2. Well that is certainly welcome news. It’s always nice to know one might be past the hard part.
    Yes, meaning does accumulate, but more than the dead weight of accumulation is the connections. I love the visual of the brain always making new pathways and synapse. The more we “keep at it” the more complex and richer the connections, which is a wonderful thing.
    Time and energy are the only things that conspire against us. The Devil wears a watch.

  3. Dearest,

    I’m do glad you’ve been reading Saramago and Pessoa!!! So different and so similar!!!
    You’re not wrong, sweety. You just didn’t know. You don’t have to know it all, do you? Besides there’s no such a concept as “knowing it all”.
    I disagree from you, Jess. Knowledge is not pedantic per si, but the people who make use of it or the way people present it. Knowledge is one of the greatest things you can “possess”, the only one no one can take away from you. And Jess, you do “own” a lot of it!!! 🙂
    Well… allow me to improve your knowledge a bit more. Pessoa didn’t invent nor create the concept “heteronym”. An heteronym is “an imaginary name used by an author to sign his work, giving that imaginary author different individual characteristics from those of the real one, creating another “self”. (*) (http://aaiii.blogspot.pt/2008/06/entre-o-heternimo-e-o-pseudnimo.html)
    His multiple personality allowed him to create different “selves”. He was himself as an author, being others, writing in a totally different style, giving his “other selves” names, dates and places of birth, a character and a personality. It was as if it was not enough for him being only a single person. The concept “heteronym” was surely created by researchers and by those related to literary studies to name those “other selves” Pessoa created, in order to try to understand and show different perspectives of the inside and outside world, keeping a distance from his own view of reality. Fernando Pessoa’s heteronyms were: Ricardo Reis, Álvaro de Campos, Alberto Caeiro and Bernardo Soares. (http://www.pessoa.art.br/?p=563) Besides he also created other fictional characters, but we cannot call them heteronyms. (http://www.pessoa.art.br/?p=704)
    You may have already found a lot of explanations for Fernando Pessoa’s heteronymy. It’s almost all pure speculation, although the studies are immense and intensive. So I’ll leave you here Pessoa’s own explanation on the subject. The source is http://www.pessoa.art.br/?p=563 and the translation is all mine. Trustful, hopefully.

    “For some temperamental reason that I do not intend to analyse, nor matters that I do it, I’ve built inside myself a variety of characters, different among them and from me. To those characters I’ve attributed various poems that are not like me, nor portray my feelings and ideas.
    So must be the poems of Caeiro, Ricardo Reis and Álvaro de Campos considered/ faced. There’s no point in looking in any of them for ideas or feelings of mine, for lots of them express ideas I don’t accept, feelings I’ve never had. Read them the way they are, that is alias the way it should be.” (*)(F. Pessoa)

    Hopefully you’ll keep on reading Pessoa. He’s fascinating, fabulous, a genius. A personality like yours requires a poet like him!

    “Outrora eu fui tua princesa a amámo-nos com um amor de outra espécie, cuja memória me doí” Fernando Pessoa

    (“I once was your princess and we loved each other with a love of another dimension, whose memory hurts me.”) (*)
    Fernando Pessoa

    (*) Translations are, as I’ve mentioned before, my own responsibility. Sorry if it sounds funny, sometimes. Pessoa’s Portuguese isn’t the best, either. He grew up in South Africa and one can notice a lot of English Influence in his writing… It makes translation work even more difficult! Anyway! I’ve tried my best…



    • Thank you! That is really fascinating. We certainly can not know everything, particularly the nuances of multiple languages – and those are the details I love. Through Saramago I got know Reis and Pessoa and, well, they live on in my heart.

  4. Reblogged this on nós and commented:
    Wow!!! Someone overseas is reading Pessoa and Saramago! And blogging on it!
    Thanks Jess!

  5. I thank you for them… that they live on in your heart!
    None of them can!



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