Saturday, September 11, 2010

Rubbing shoulders

"The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there,"
wrote L. P. Hartley in a now largely forgotten novel. During his
travels through India, China, Algeria, the Congo and Iran, Ryszard
Kapuściński also traveled to the foreign countries discovered and
described by Herodotus in his Histories. Toward the end of his book of
memoirs, Travels with Herodotus, Kapuściński quotes with approval this
passage from T.S. Eliot's "What is a Classic" (1944):

"In our age, when men seem more than ever prone to confuse wisdom with
knowledge, and knowledge with information, and try to solve problems
of life in terms of engineering, there is coming into existence a new
kind of provincialism, not of space, but of time; one for which
history is merely the chronicle of human devices which served their
turn and have been scrapped, one for which the world is the property
solely of the living, a property in which the dead hold no shares. The
menace of this kind of provincialism is, that we can all, all the
people on the globe, be provincials together; and those who are
content to be provincials, can only become hermits. If this kind of
provincialism led to greater tolerance, in the sense of forbearance,
there might be more to be said for it; but it seems more likely to
lead to our becoming indifferent, in matters where we ought to
maintain a distinctive dogma or standard, and to our becoming
intolerant, in matters which might be left to local or personal

Kapuściński explains:

"To protect myself from this temporal provincialism, I set off into
Herodotus's world, the wise, experienced Greek as my guide. We
wandered together for years. And although one travels best alone, I do
not think we disturbed each other -- we were separated by twenty-five
hundred years and also by distance of another kind, born of my
feelings of respect. For although Herodotus was always
straightforward, kind, and gentle in relation to others, there was
always with me the feeling of rubbing shoulders undeservedly, perhaps
presumptuously, but always thankfully, with a giant."

Ryszard Kapuscinski, Travels with Herodotus, Kindle Edition 2009, 98%
into the book.