Wednesday, August 20, 2014

A Salute to Anne Komnene

There is no more potent a metaphor for time than as a flowing stream. It is both unitary and changing, creating anew and destroying the old. A river is at once a complete object yet always different, you wouldn't dare step in it twice. History is quite the same: as an American – do I live in the same country which was founded in 1776? Wittgenstein and Howard Zinn would have two very different answers to that question. For now, we'll put aside those questions and get to the point of why I'm writing.

In the opening of Anna Komnene's Alexiad she quotes Sophocles' Ajax, “TIME in its irresistible and ceaseless flow carries along on its flood all created things, and drowns them in the depths of obscurity”. This is terrible! This is a tragedy! You can't resist it, you can't stop it, it touches all created things which is problematic seeing as that's pretty much everything. It turns what is the real into the obscure. So what in the world are we to do about it...Anna has an answer:

“But the tale of history forms a very strong bulwark against the stream of time, and to some extent checks its irresistible flow, and, of all things done in it, as many as history has taken over, it secures and binds together, and does not allow them to slip away into the abyss of oblivion.”

Now that is beautiful. That which is destined to fade away and be destroyed is destined to be saved by the hands of man. That is what I intend to do in this blag, curate parts of our humungous and impenetrable historical tradition in this little corner of the internet. Sometimes I'll write about some strange historical thing which fascinates me, other times I'll try and delve into some questions regarding the phenomena of history – What is it and why should we care? For now, you'll have to trust me that you should care...

Full disclosure – I don't have a PhD, I'm no researcher nor do I have access to many of the books which I should. I'll try my best but certainly I'll get things wrong and you, kind reader, should absolutely inform me. I cannot understand the whole of history alone, it was created with group effort and can only be understood through group effort.

Getting back to the subject at hand, Anna continues, “I intend in this writing of mine to recount the deeds done by my father so they should certainly not be lost in silence, or swept away, as it were, on the current of time into the sea of forgetfulness.” Well Anna, you quite succeeded. 1000 years later the deeds of your father (the Byzantine Emperor during the 1st crusade) were not lost in silence. So, how did she do it? How did she build such a dam blocking that sea of forgetfulness? If you must say something to not be lost in silence...then what do you say?

This is the labor of the historian. Every written word and recorded fact is no longer yours, it is given over to your future generations. They will read it as a map, pointing away from what is motivated, towards what is real. Anna continues,

“But he who undertakes the role of an historian must sink his personal likes and dislikes, and often award the highest praise to his enemies when their actions demand it, and often...blame his nearest relations if their errors require it. He must never shirk either blaming his friends or praising his enemies. I should counsel both parties, those attacked by us and our partisans alike, to take comfort from the fact that I have sought the evidence of the actual deeds themselves, and the testimony of those who have seen the actions...”

This puts her firmly in the tradition of Daniel Dennett! The historian must erase their personality from their writing, and evaluate all possible evidence. But...there is a gaping hole, a primordial abyss of a question: Is that possible? But that question is not for now, we must at least respect her ability to step outside of herself and understand that the question What really happened? cannot be answered by a single human being – or even by a single culture. That question is reserved for future generations to figure out, the most we can do is hand them our evidence. Anna Komnene only wrote one book and it was one thousand years ago, I think she must have done something right.

It makes me unbelievably happy to see another human being – trapped in a brutal world a thousand years ago – simply stop and look around for the bigger picture. I can only hope that a thousand years from now someone will come along and do the same, adding their contribution to our collective bulwark against that dastardly stream of time.

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