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
I 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.