Midwinter with Herodotus

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Ryzsard Kapuściński was a Polish writer who spent most of his working life as a roving foreign correspondent for the Polish state news agency (PAP) during the Communist era, but his own writings, in the form of personal journals, mix reportage with a more allegorical and subversive style, resulting in a powerfully idiosyncratic perspective. For long periods he lived in India, China, Latin America and, especially, Africa. He remains a controversial character, as much for his personal life as an adventurer and spy – as an article in the Financial Times explains – as for his abundant literary talents.

I have just finished his wonderful book, Travels with Herodotus, in which Kapuściński summarises a lifetime of travel with Herodotus as his literary companion, employing the Greek historian as both a template and a torch, from which to cast light on the events that he, Kapuściński, is witnessing in the turbulence of the twentieth century. This book has been on my ‘to read’ list for quite a while now, and the long winter evenings have given me time to fully savour it. I read slowly (unfortunately, I know no other way) and scribble in pencil on the pages, and sometimes stop to write something down, usually a digression based on whatever has been jolted into life by a story or idea in the text.

While reading Kapuściński’s book, there were many such pauses.

Consider, for instance, this reflection on the nature of the journey, and I don’t mean the jerr-nee – that all-purpose metaphor that has been foisted on us by wellbeing gurus and life coaches – but the fact of travelling from one place to another:

‘A journey, after all, neither begins in the instant we set out, nor ends when we have reached our doorstep once again. It starts much earlier and is never really over, because the film of memory continues running on inside us long after we have come to a physical standstill. Indeed, there exists something like a contagion of travel, and the disease is essentially incurable.’

The idea of travel as a continuum, as a coherent yet fragmented idea, is one that resonates powerfully with me. The analogy with film is also apposite; we are constantly running over the same movies of our lives, with the effect – or at least this seems to be the case with me – that these are episodes from a life lived by several different selves. It is an idea that I find strangely comforting, and fits in with my understanding of the ‘episodic’ versus the ‘narrative’ as described by Galen Strawson in his essay ‘Against Narrativity.’

At one point in the book, Kapuściński is stuck in the Congo during some long, drawn-out war, unable to leave, and in a dangerous place. He finds refuge with a Dr Ranke, who runs a small hospital. He is obsessed, as was Herodotus, by the way that people define themselves according to the differences they perceive to exist between themselves (or their ‘group’) and others. ‘I know my nearest neighbours, and that is all; they know theirs; and those know others still. In this way we will arrive at the ends of the earth. And who is to gather up all these bits and arrange them? No one. They cannot be arranged.’

And he goes on, wandering around the hospital, where the patients, displaced by the war, having walked about the country for weeks without food, are allocated rooms according to tribal affiliation:

‘Discreetly, I try to infer the differences. I walk around the little hospital, look into the rooms – not a difficult thing to do, because in this hot and humid climate everything is wide open. But the people all seem alike, invariably poor and listless, and only if one listens carefully does one notice that they speak different languages. If one smiles at them, they will respond in kind, but a smile such as theirs will take a long time forming and will remain upon the face for only a moment.’

He ends the book with a reflection on temporal provincialism, a concept I had never given much thought to, at least not in the way that Kapuściński describes it:

‘There were times when journeys into the past appealed to me more than my present-day journeys as correspondent and reporter. I felt this way especially in moments of fatigue with the present. Everything in the present kept repeating itself: politics – always perfidious, unclean games and lies; the life of ordinary man – unrelenting poverty and hopelessness; the division of the world into East and west – eternal duality.’

His conclusion on this other type of provincialism:

‘So there are spatial and temporal provincials. Every globe, every map of the world shows the former how lost and blind they are in their provincialism; similarly, every history – including every page of Herodotus – demonstrates to the latter that the present existed always, that history is merely an uninterrupted progression of presents, that what for us are ancient events were for those who lived them immediate and present reality.’

I particularly like the expression of that last sentiment; that history is merely an uninterrupted progression of present moments; there is really no such things as time: we live in a present that is on a continuum with other presents; there is no beginning and no end, just as there are no dividing lines or cut-off points in the perpetual flow of the present. The past and the future co-exist within the continuum of the present.

This reminds me of Einstein’s letter to the family of his friend Michele Besso, shortly after Besso’s death. He writes: ‘Now he [Michele] has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing . . . People like us who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.’

The connection between Kapuściński’s reflections on temporal provincialism and Einstein’s ideas about the physics of time might not be obvious, but it seems fitting that two individuals who between them witnessed much of the devastation of the 20th century should arrive at similar conclusions, if through very different means.

 

 

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