In Defense of Herodotean Historiography
On July 29, 1890, Von Gogh died with a bullet in his chest. But what really killed him is photography.
Almost six decades earlier, modern science gave birth to photography, empowering even the most inartistic hands to capture the vivid details of life with a click. And in a flash, the photographer crystalizes the world in front of his eyes, with a solid result--a photo--that surpasses the very best efforts of the old masters in terms of objectivity and realism. Just look at Leonardo's Mona Lisa. Standing in front of the painting, we cannot help to notice the distorted landscape, the androgynous face, and of course, the wicked smile. "Oh, only if they had
cameras," we complain, "Leonardo would be in very long lines to collect his unemployment insurance!"
Vincent von Gogh, however, was less lucky. Growing up with photography, he nevertheless decided to paint landscapes and portraits. And his pictures, including the above self-portrait, are blurring and unrealistic. Oh, boy. What a mad man! And if we look at a photo of him
, we could easily imagine his frustration leading to his suicide!
Similarly, we lament Herodotus' lack of erudition, and we quite correctly hold him in contempt as at least an inferior historian if not the father of lies. Indeed, Herodotus' stories, such as his digressions on the griffins, gold-digging ants, and long-lived Ethiopians, are so cheesy and tale-like that the title seems quite inappropriate. Instead of Histories, His Stories.
But should Herodotus apologize for his subjective, inferior scholarship? Perhaps, instead of issuing an apology, he needs an apologia
, speaking in defense of his honor.
Firstly, to require Herodotus to adhere modern historiography is simply absurd. As the first historian, he simply has no "beaten path" to follow. Secondly, the "beaten-path" itself is problematic. Perhaps, the writing of history itself is very personal. Although modern historians refrain from using first person pronoun, "I," and qualifying their sources as Herodotus often does, their subjectivities and biases lurch into their works anyway. In fact, arbitrarily deciding which events to record (among thousands of battles, they handpicked the Battle of Midway to be a turning point) reflects their tastes, just like Herodotus' decision to record the Egyptian bathroom practices reflected his penchant for oddities. The only difference is that, Herodotus presents his material as "the result of [his] enquiry," while historians are invoking the Muse in silence, presenting their works as authentic record of the past. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, Herodotus seems interested in not only chasing the fleeting historical truth in his logoi
, stories, but also the underlying principal of history, the logus
--the universal law.
Obsessed with his philosophical pursuit, Herodotus sometimes presents passages that are ridiculous to us. His explanations for the reproductions of the rabbits and lions are factually wrong but understandable: instead of accepting the fickleness of Fate, Herodotus tries to breathe a sense of rationality into history. In his work, we find symmetry, the cyclical progression of history, and cause-result mechanism. And thus the Histories becomes something more complex than a record on the Persian Wars and his traveling--it also introduces us to Herodotus the Man.
Just like von Gogh, Herodotus is an impressionist. He draws about what he has seen in his way--unmistakably Herodotean. And his Histories, his stories.