Overweening Generalist

Monday, June 20, 2011

Reading and Writing History in an Altered State

In historiography, it appears that some of the more interesting "recoveries" of the deep past were written from a sort of mental yoga. Let me attempt to explain what seems "obvious" on one hand, but...

When Giambattista Vico was writing his "ideal eternal history" of humanity, translated in English as New Science, he tells us of a quandary and how he got out of it:

"As I sought to discover the manner in which the first human thought arose in the pagan world, I met with arduous difficulties which have cost me a full twenty years of research to overcome. For I had to descend from today's civilized human nature to the savage and monstrous nature of these early people, which we can by no means imagine and can conceive only with great effort." (pp.124-125)

Well then, how did he do it? This "great effort" doesn't smack of what we ordinarily think of as "research." But maybe the great historians have carefully-guarded trade secrets, much as magicians and other conspirators do? (If "they" have such secrets, a few have been willing to talk about them; see the rest of this article.)

First off, I love the scholar (in this case, the greatest magpie scholar ever?) who takes on the heroic Orpheus role to go deep underneath in order to attempt to recover and bring back what is vital. To put it bluntly: it livens up the game. Who wants to hear, "Well, I've read a bunch of books on Subject X and I sat at a desk at home for 17 months at long hours to get this to you. I hope you like it."? What does it hurt to say - or hint  - that you gained all this knowledge and produced this marvelously imaginative book not by mere research alone, that you used tricks learned in Wizard School to really make it go?

For Vico, this "great effort" appears to be something called in Italian: entrare: the force of imaginative insight used to gain an understanding of remote cultures. The stupendously wonderful intellectual and 20th century historian of ideas Isaiah Berlin agreed with this ability, and said he invoked the "force" himself. He wrote that, after his in-depth study of Vico, he moved on to study Johann Gottfried Herder:

"Vico thought of a succession of civilizations, Herder went further and compared national cultures in many lands and periods, and held that every society had what he called its own center of gravity, which differed from that of others. If, as he wished, we are to understand Scandinavian sagas or the poetry of the Bible, we must not apply to them the aesthetic criteria of the critics of eighteenth-century Paris. The ways in which men live, think, feel, speak to one another, the clothes they wear, the songs they sing, the gods they worship, the food they eat, the assumptions, customs, habits which are intrinsic to them - it is this that creates communities, each of which has its own 'life-style.' Communities may resemble each other in many respects, but the Greeks differ from Lutheran Germans, the Chinese differ from both; what they strive after and what they fear and worship are scarcely ever similar." -p.51, The Truth About The Truth: De-Confusing and Re-Constructing the Postmodern World, ed. Walter Truett Anderson

Berlin defends the above against accusations of cultural or moral relativism by citing this power, or force of "imaginative insight." Berlin asserts that "Members of one culture can, by the force of imaginative insight, understand (what Vico called entrare) the values, the ideals, the forms of life of another culture or society, even those remote in time and space. They may find these values unacceptable, but if they open their minds sufficiently they can grasp how one might be a full human being, with whom one could communicate, and at the same time live in the light of values widely different from one's own, but which nevertheless one can see to be values, ends of life, by the realization of which men could be fulfilled."

How does one "open their minds sufficiently" in order to gain access to the seemingly palpable "reality" of some remote culture? It reminds me of anecdotes of profound psychedelic drug trips (and I have collected many) in which the psychonaut relives past lives, vividly. Timothy Leary, in his book Info-Psychology, called this "Neurogenetic Receptivity." Leary says that when this receptivity is switched on by a large enough dose of psychedelic substance, "the signals from DNA become conscious. The experience is chaotic and confusing to the unprepared person - thousands of genetic memories flash by, the molecular family-picture-album of species consciousness and evolution. This experience provides glimpses and samples of the broad design of the multi-billion year old genetic panorama." - (p.120)

[Jeez! Am I tripping? Or did the OG just go from a discussion of Sir Isaiah Berlin's readings of Vico and Herder by linking their mysterious yoga-like ability to recover remote historical feelings, to Timothy Leary? Yes. Yes, he did. OG admits it was a stretch, but if he can't be interesting, he hopes to get a laff. But if the OG can't be interesting or get a laff, what he most wants is to blow your mind. - the Mgt]

Gore Vidal has written numerous historical novels, some based in the fairly remote past. My favorite is Julian, about Julian the Apostate, but Vidal did some of this peculiar mental yoga to go way back to the 5th BCE: Darius and Xerxes, Pericles, Anaxagoras, Socrates, Confucius, Buddha, Herodotus. Vidal somehow channeled the grandson of Zoroaster. See Vidal's novel Creation

I once read an interview with Vidal and he said he used, not entrare, but Einfuhlen. When asked what that was, Vidal said he got it from reading Herder (!), and Vidal's understanding was that it meant "the ability to get into the past, while realizing that it's not just another aspect of the present, with people you know dressed up in funny clothes."

This sounds a lot like whatever it was that Vico did to solve his twenty year old problem, and it also sounds like some sort of psycho-archeological empathy. But there's got to be more to this act of what looks to me like a species of magick.

Back to Sir Isaiah, who tells the brave dissident Iranian intellectual Ramin Jahangebloo how he wrote his first commissioned work, a biography of Karl Marx:

"The history of ideas is the history of what we believe people thought and felt, and these people were real people, not just statues or collections of attributes. Some effort to enter imaginatively into the minds and outlooks of the thinkers of the thoughts is indispensable, an effort at Einfuhlung [note different spelling than Vidal's but seemingly the same word. - OG] is unavoidable, however precarious and difficult and uncertain. When I was working on Marx, I tried to understand what it was like to be Karl Marx in Berlin, in Paris, in Brussels, in London, and to think in terms of his concepts, categories, his German words." - p.28, Conversations With Isaiah Berlin

[Speaking of Timothy Leary, he - and Robert Anton Wilson - advocated sympathetically entering into other people's "reality tunnels" in order to better understand how your own nervous system works.]

I'm oddly relieved that this practice of Einfuhlung is "precarious and difficult and uncertain." It makes Sir Isaiah sound temporarily like Aleister Crowley. And yes, it must involve a yoga-like deeply immersive concentration on the many materials that feed the historical imagination.

Now that I think of it, what great history book that separates the historian from his/her subject by a sufficiently remote space-time does not entail some demands of entrare or Einfuhlung?

I see the historian doing months - possibly many years - of preliminary research, reading all sorts of information about the space-time in which she will journey, handling artefacts, daydreaming, invoking images...then, when in a deep enough state, commences writing amidst notecards and a feverish, active historical imagination.

And, if it's good stuff, the altered state passes from the pages to us, the readers. As if by contagion or by the well-known "contact high." Nudge, nudge, wink wink: we all want the Good Stuff, eh?

Mister Peabody and Sherman and their Wayback Machine to travel back in time:

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