Thursday, October 18, 2007

Historians Circling Overhead


Several months ago I was walking across campus with one of my professors and two other students, and the professor started describing some strange birds she had seen on the way to work that morning. She claimed they were enormous, and were spreading their wings and doing a kind of dance. I think she said that it looked like they were about to mate. She believed they were eagles, and one of the students confirmed that eagles were indeed making a comeback in our part of the state. I was skeptical, although I didn't express it at the time. All I could offer was to describe them to my dad, a dedicated birdwatcher, and see what he thought they might be. One of the reasons for my scepticism was the many times I myself made broad claims about spotting raptors and the like, only to have my dad reveal them as crows or pidgeons.

If I had been on my toes I would have easily realized that they were more than likely turkey buzzards. She had described them as being on the ground, and earlier she had talked about how the road had recently been full of deer so that you had to be careful driving. My theory, one that I arrived at a couple of days later, was that a deer had been hit by a car and the birds she saw were buzzards, very common in our area, fighting over the carcass.

I emailed her (sometimes I just think I have too much time on my hands) with my theory and she concured, relating that the following day as she drove by there were more of them.After all this I began to think about the relationship of vultures to historians.

The class that this particular professor taught had to do, roughly, with the interpretation of the past by fiction authors. I was kind of a willing foil in her class, and I took the stance of the stuffy literalist history major who believes in absolute truths blah blah blah. We read a number of books that distorted history for literature's sake, awesome books like Seamus Heaney's translation of Beowulf, and in thinking of the vultures I began to see myself as one of them, picking over old primary sources in an archive somewhere and digesting what I needed and regurgitating the rest up for succeeding generations all covered in stomach acids and mucous. I'm kind of gangly too, although gangly is quickly turning into paunchy, and I hunch over a lot and my face can get very red--just like the turkey buzzard.

I've been churning this in my mind for these past months--this class made such an impression on me--but I didn't know what to do with it. I didn't particularly think that the vulture/historian concept was such a bad thing, but I couldn't quite figure out how it could be good. Then I was visiting the always wise and witty (and probably the most shameless punster I know of) Archie and discovered this.

If the vulture keeps the environment free from carcass odor then, if I stretch, I can tie together my analogy. Historians treat history to a thorough deodorizing if they are good. I don’t mean that the historian cleanses the historical event from any of its terribleness (if it actually was terrible), only that they keep the event from just sitting there, corroding and offering up unpleasant myths and misunderstanding for concurrent and future generations. They do digest it, and produce concise packages of molecularly-changed regurgitated information—sometimes in the form of excruciatingly boring thirty-page papers for journals like The Journal of Historical Methodology and Anthropological Survey Statistics.

As I sit on my porch being eaten by little black mosquitoes, I wonder if the historian/vulture, like the mosquito, is nothing more than a parasite. Absolutely not! Whether he, or she, be a garbage collector, an interpreter, a propagandist or a poet, the historian's relationship to his source should always be reciprocal—so that the historian gives back, at least in some form, what he has taken. Let’s see a mosquito do that. Thwack!

8 comments:

Charlotte said...

Great post, Ian, and what a simile: historians are like vultures digesting information for us! Your professors must love you.

imichie said...

Thanks Charlotte, high praise! I've been working on that idea for a while and it's starting to take shape finally, thanks to the great world of blogs.

Froshty said...

I love analogies and yours here is particularly apt, Ian.

linser said...

I think you're one of the more interesting and attractive vultures. I used to move in the world of historians and while a lot of them are great there are some that personify all the worst characteristics of vultures. Maybe not because they were historians but despite the fact that they were.

imichie said...

Thanks Froshty, more praise--tingle tingle.

Yep Lindsay I bet this is true of every profession. But I've been lucky as a student and have seen mostly the good side of historians. I've yet to have one spit their half-digested lunch at me. But there's still time.

archie FCD said...

I find it interesting to work (in an amateur kind of way) in a field where there are no primary sources. That period before written language, in the world of oral transmission around campfires or in smoky caves. There are some tales which bear so many similarities that there almost certainly is a common ancestor story based in a forgotten history. So I am probably a ghostly vulture feeding on ectoplasmic information.

These references to toothless birds biting off more than they can chew is surely acci dental.

Chet Slessenger said...

I should explore some of those caves Archie. Any recommendations for books that draw on those early periods would be great.

As usual you have ruined my digestion for the rest of the day with that pun. For-tooth, ye should be ashamed.

archie FCD said...

Chet, I am not aware of any books specifically aimed at this subject. There may be obscure, unpublished theses of which I am also unaware. I trawl through websites looking for folk tales, I study Graves "Greek Myths" and similar books. Religious creation stories are useful. I also do it all the wrong way around. I have postulated my theory and am now looking for data to support it. Once I have the data, I attempt to be very strict in fitting it into the theory and drawing conclusions. I find that the Central Asian country of Kryzyg is an interesting location. I still need much wisdom too think about this.