Friday, April 11, 2008

Travels with Herodotus...and Kapuscinski

"The past does not exist. There are only infinite renderings of it."

In his final book, "Travels With Herodotus", the late Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski ponders a life spent thumbing through "The Histories" while his work took him to Africa, Iran, India and China.

Both books are a reminder, especially to Westerners, that there is a world out there - and it has things to teach us.

Kapuscinski writes only briefly about his time in Iran probably because he devoted an earlier book to that experience. But Iran - Persia - is always in the background as Kapucinski considers Herodotus' chronicle of the war between the Greeks and the Persians and the nature of those two powers.

In Kapuscinski's view the Greeks prevailed because Greek life embodied a semblance of self determination and popular representation, unlike the all powerful monarchy of the Persian Empire (albeit an at times benevolent one under rulers like Cyrus the Great). His argument is essentially that a free people will prevail because they're motivated to fight for what they have:

"On one side from the East, comes an immense powerful steamroller, a blind force subject to the despotic will of a king-master, a king-god. On the other side sprawls the scattered, internally quarrelsome Greek world, rife with disputes and antagonisms, a world of tribes and independent cities without a common government to bind them..."

We are reminded by Herodotus and Kapuscinski, as we are time and again when we read everything from Edward Gibbon's "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" to Graham Greene's "The Quiet American" of the lessons of history: That power corrupts not only those who wield it, but those who are subjected to it. Self-preservation and cynicism replaces citizenship. We have nothing to say in defense of anything, we are only against something. Our compassion is flickering, our desire for retribution abiding.

One passage in Kapuscinski chilled me as I read it. He was writing about the Third World. I was thinking about the world I live in:

"At any moment and for whatever reason, these people, to whom no one pays attention, whom no one needs, can form into a crowd, a throng, a mob, which has an opinion about everything, has time for everything, and would like to participate in something, mean something.

All dictatorships take advantage of this idle magma. They don't even need to maintain an expensive army of full-time policemen. It suffices to reach out to these people searching for some significance in life. Give them the sense that they can be of use, that someone is counting on them for something, that they have been noticed, that they have a purpose."