A beautifully told story with colorful characters out of epic tradition, a tight and complex plot, and solid pacing. -- Booklist, starred review of On the Razor's Edge

Great writing, vivid scenarios, and thoughtful commentary ... the stories will linger after the last page is turned. -- Publisher's Weekly, on Captive Dreams

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Great Ptolemaic Smackdown

Have received Word that a fact article I wrote has been accepted by ANALOG SF magazine.  The title is:
The Great Ptolemaic Smack-Down
and Down-and-Dirty Mud-Wrassle

It opens thusly:
HISTORY MUST BE CURVED, for there is a horizon in the affairs of mankind.  Beyond this horizon, events pass out of historical consciousness and into myth.  Accounts are shortened, complexities sloughed off, analogous figures fused, traditions “abraded into anecdotes.”  Real people become culture heroes: archetypical beings performing iconic deeds.  (Vansina 1985)

In oral societies this horizon lies typically at eighty years; but historical consciousness endures longer in literate societies, and the horizon may fall as far back as three centuries.  Arthur, a late 5th cent. war leader, had become by the time of Charlemagne the subject of an elaborate story cycle.  Three centuries later, troubadours had done the same to Charlemagne himself.  History had slipped over the horizon and become the stuff of legend.(*)

This suggests that 17th century history has already become myth.  Jamestown is reduced to “Pocahontas,” and Massachusetts boils down to “the First Thanksgiving.”  And the story of how heliocentrism replaced geocentrism has become a Genesis Myth, in which a culture-hero performs iconic deeds that affirm the rightness of Our Modern World-view. 
(*)  In AD 778, a Basque war party ambushed the Carolingian rear guard (Annales regni francorum Ann. DCCLXXVIII).  Forty years later, Einhard, a minister of Charlemagne, mentioned “Roland, prefect of the Breton Marches” among those killed (“Hruodlandus Brittannici limitis praefectus,” Vita karoli magni [#9]).  But by 1098, Roland the “paladin” had become the central character,  the Basques had become Saracens, and a magic horn and tale of treachery had been added (La chanson de Roland).  Compare the parallel fate of a Hopi narrative regarding a Navajo ambush (Vansina, pp. 19-20).  


  1. I wonder how the most recent technology will affect this cycle. I imagine that it will be slightly harder for someone to turn people into legends when you can still find recordings and pictures of them, and go back and read their twitter.

    1. Might speed it up. Nothing propagates legends like the Internet. And Lukacs already noted years ago that documents written with public consumption already in mind tend toward idealized reconstructions. He compared the diaries of Tallyrand, written for his private use, and the diaries of Kissinger, written for publication in his own lifetime.

  2. I suppose one could say that anymore social media makes the banality of everyman's day to day a matter of public record. Will the cults for the deification of icons form anon-like cyber hit squads to purge the servers of twitter and Facebook of all but the most glorious digital missives?

  3. To be honest, I think that the speed with which individuals and events get turned into archetypal icons has very little to do with whether or not a culture has writing. All cultures, even when they have writing, are also oral cultures. Writing is helpful for those who want to go back and see the record for themselves, but few people do.

    Just to take an example off the top of my head, a common narrative is that Herbert Hoover was a do-nothing laissez-faire economist, who sat on his hands and did nothing as the economy collapsed around him as a result of an excess of laissez-faire capitalism run amok, until the heroic FDR came along and saved the day with the New Deal, putting people back to work and ending the Great Depression. Now, almost all of that is false-to-facts, or at least exaggerated. The record shows that Hoover actually tried to fight the Depression with a major increase in stimulus, that the run-up to the Depression involved a lot of hands-on government bubble-blowing in the economy, and that a lot of the actual things that FDR did (eg. having farmers dump their milk on the ground to raise prices) were policies we'd uniformly consider insane nowadays, and likely aggravated things.

    But despite the US being a society with writing and high literacy, the popular narrative took hold very quickly, much less than 80 years. Other examples include Kennedy and "Camelot", the way eugenics became associated with "social Darwinism" and laissez-faire economics rather than progressivism, and the way guys like Reagan and Goldwater, only 30-50 years out, are heavily mythologized by all sides.

    There are other differences too in how things get mythologized. In the case of King Arthur, the mythologizing was deliberate and well-known. Pretty much everybody knew that the stories were dramatized and fictionalized, and subsequent authors freely added to the embellishments over the centuries in keeping with that tradition. In the case of the political legends I mentioned above though, those that repeat them typically believe them. The same is true of the modern Galileo and Copernicus narratives - they're generally believed by the people who truck in them.

    There's also the difference between events that merely get simplified in the retelling, and those that get twisted. Massachusetts as the "First Thanksgiving [as we know it]" isn't really false, for instance, though of course there was much more to both Massachusetts and to Thanksgiving. It's just very simplified. The modern Galileo narrative, however, and the political mythologies mentioned above, are myths in a more pejorative sense: they both embellish and simplify things in a way that twist them, such that the real lessons to be learned from these events and individuals are lost or even reversed.

    Imo, the speed with which events and people get mythologized, and the form of mythology they take, has a lot more to do with ideology than with the presence of writing, with how important truth is to the worldview of the retellers, and with the reason those events are being mythologized in the first place.

    1. Actually, that was not a ‘popular narrative’ about Hoover; it was cooked up, in writing, by his political enemies. There was not much difference between Hoover’s approach to the Depression and Roosevelt’s, at least until Roosevelt packed the Supreme Court and began his unconstitutional expansion of the federal power. But the ‘narrative’, sc. lie, of the villainous Hoover and the heroic Roosevelt was perpetrated in the media and in academia, and became received wisdom among the literati for many years. It was only after Hoover’s death that it began to be challenged in a serious way — and then it fell apart entirely. The facts had never supported the case.

      However, this was always a matter of present politics rather than anything resembling myth or legend. Once the Depression itself has passed out of living memory, we shall see how many of the leading figures of that era pass into popular legend. To the extent that he is ultimately remembered by ordinary people at all, Hoover may just go down as the poor boob who happened to be in charge in 1929 and never knew what hit him. Which is not an altogether unfair assessment.

  4. My suspicion is that technology has less of an effect than we think. Mere lack of information has never been the reason for the horizon; it's more a transmission issue than an information issue -- tradition rather than data, pedagogy rather than available evidence. The amount of information that we have about Joan of Arc (who is the first historical person for whom we have truly massive amounts of contemporary information, due to contemporary correspondence, a witch trial, and a rehabilitation trial), or Galileo, or George Washington, is truly astonishing; but most of it is irrelevant for everyone except specialists who have the time and interest to sort through it all. It doesn't affect the horizon much at all, to the constant frustration of historians. Something like literacy, on the other hand, will have a big impact on the horizon, assuming it spreads around widely enough, because it has the ability to increase what people can learn about their past. But we don't seem to have anything capable of such a dramatic effect, and as a society our sense of even the recent past, if anything, seems to be regressing under the weight of too much information rather than leaping forward in any way.

    1. My comment passed The Deuce's. I think literacy does clearly make a difference, and I think we have to distinguish between misunderstanding and mythology. We can misunderstand what's going on right under our noses; mythology requires simplification to archetype.

      The Myth of Theuth in the Phaedrus puts it well: Theuth insists that his medicine (pharmakon) will extend the memories of the people and make them unimaginably wise and Tammuz replies that Theuth's poison (pharmakon) will create a dependency and make them misunderstand everything. The whole point is that both are right, of course. Literacy doesn't increase understanding -- that requires the same hard work it always did. But it can, if it plays a certain kind of role in education and communication, extend one's horizons.

    2. Yes, I hear something like this quite a bit: "If only [object of my ridicule] read more books, he wouldn't be so [proceed to belittle intelligence]..." as if merely lifting up a book of philosophy or hermeneutics or some-such-thing were sufficient to settle serious differences between world-views, or increase knowledge. Like you say, more than just base literacy is required, and work ethic in today's culture is, at best, on the wane.

      What's worse, with the internet's consequent information "inflation", is that moderns tend to see knowledge as nothing more than a wieldable tool or weapon to win an argument (witness mostly any internet "debate"), and then discard without so much as a thought or reflection.

    3. I think I would put it this way: writing and literacy can slow the process of simplification to archetype *if* the truth of the events are important to the culture in question, and if they're trying to prevent the loss of details in the first place.

    4. "Too much information"

      This is a good point. Historian John Lukacs referred to it as "inflation". As documentation multiplies, the worth of each document decreases.

  5. Since about 1750 the newspaper has been the first step in accounts being shortened, complexities sloughed off, and analogous figures fused (or one picked out to represent the lot). Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, it all happens within the week, rather than with the slow attrition of folk memory.

    1. The article, in the January/February 2013 Special double issue (already by now, Dec 24, the previous issue) was very good, but not 100% comprehensible. I don't think you explainbed the Coriolis effect - why we don't see it, and why it was later detected. In fact, what it is exactly.

      About newspaper articles - they were honest in the south before the civil war - afterwards, they left out a lot. because people in the North could read them later.

      People should make a record of just when they were good and
      when not.

      I like Footnote 16. There may be a lot of other things like that - medicine is a good example - where you have to CHANGE A FEW ASSUMPTIONS AT A TIME TO GET TO THE TRUTH. You can still try different assumoptions and see where you get to a contradictions.

      This also works for Benghazi.

    2. Objects at rest wrt the earth are actually moving eastward at high velocity. It does not shed this velocity immediately upon free fall. Therefore, a cannon ball shot due north will deflect slightly to the east as it travels. One dropped from a tower will fall slightly eastward of the plumb line. (The top of the tower is moving faster than the base.) Hooke failed to detect this when Newton suggested the experiment using a bullet, likely because the effect is small and it fell within the measurement error of the time. It was overwhelmed by other factors like not dropping precisely or deflection due to windage. Guglielmini detected it because he made the drop inside the tower, down the center of the spiral staircase, to eliminate wind. A German colleague did so using a vertical mine shaft. Signals are easier to detect when noise has been eliminated.


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