The Poetics of History 2

My first comment on this subject has prompted some comments that suggest a lot of further comments (I’m in a permanent state of Infinite Regress here: everything I write seems to suggest several hundred more things I could write) and subjects to look into further. Empathy; the relationship of research to teaching; other minds and solipsism; the tendency to value emotional stances like empathy over ‘cooler’ more cognitive commitments to justice or equality; and so on.

And there is also this article in the New Yorker about a book of history and a play, Thucydides’ History and Euripides’ Medea.

To describe this war in all its complexity, Thucydides had to invent a new way of writing history. In his introduction, he says he will eschew “literary charm”—mythodes, a word related to “myth”—in favor of a carefully sifted accuracy…But this desire for what we would call balanced and accurate reporting led, paradoxically, to a most distinctive literary device: the use of invented speeches and dialogues to illustrate the progress of the war and the combatants’ thinking about it. Every key moment in the war…is cast as a dialogue that, as Thucydides admits, may not be a faithful reproduction of exactly what was said in this or that legislative session or diplomatic parley but does elucidate the ideologies at play. “My method has been,” he writes, “to make the speakers say what, in my opinion, was called for by each situation.” This, more than anything, is what gives the History its unique texture: the vivid sense of an immensely complex conflict reflected, agonizingly, in hundreds of smaller conflicts, each one presenting painful choices, all leading to the great and terrible resolution.

Which is very like the way Euripides wrote his plays, to the disapproval of Nietzsche, who claimed that Socrates and Euripides rationalized and so ruined tragedy. But others like the interplay of argument, the effort to think things through, the questioning of each other’s assumptions, that many of Euripides’ plays show us. There is room for empathy – with Medea, Andromache, Iphigenia – and also for enhanced understanding of the issues, at least as one Athenian playwright saw them. And the great skeptical historian was doing much the same thing. Thucydides was a little bit of a dramatist and Euripides was a little bit of a historian.

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