Friday, February 22, 2008
It ain't quite the light on the road to Damascus, but it'll do.
In December I had two watershed moments in quick succession, and I think they represented my first steps beyond a sort of event horizon. Today I realized that I'd only recounted one of them. This is the other. To set it up, I need to go back a ways.
A few years ago I took a hard look at my own ignorance and resolved to make myself less so by reading only history. This was very difficult, since I'd never liked history and never had a head for it; my attention span wasn't the greatest and my retention was abysmal. At first, my progress felt like slogging uphill through molasses. Then I read The Armada by Garrett Mattingly, and the scales fell from my eyes. It was the first time I had ever enjoyed reading a history book - the first time I even realized that it was possible for history to be exciting. In the midst of this wonder and exhilaration I was also frustrated: that I hadn't found this out twenty years earlier, and that despite my excitement I was still moving through the book at a snail's pace. Ah, but the reason for that snail's pace gave me still more cause for exhilaration: I was stopping every few sentences, and sometimes several times per sentence, to look up all the things I didn't know; and for the first time in my life, I was enjoying it so much that I didn't mind! Mattingly's book is a model of meticulous history, yet it's also the most captivating story I've ever heard. He gave me a precious gift: the knowledge that there are ways of looking at history that make it exciting.
I finished The Armada in May of 2006, and during the next eighteen months I discovered more ways to make history exciting. David Hackett Fischer's Washington's Crossing was a high point; it taught me a few things about historiography that I'll be talking about in future entries. I read several more books about the early days of the American Revolution, and several more about the Spanish Armada, growing more fascinated by the world of Philip II with each one. During my hikes and my commute I listened to many Teaching Company lectures on my mp3 player. I started to feel like I actually knew a thing or two. Yet I also felt like I could never make up for lost time, or for my lousy attention span and retention: what I didn't know was so vast that whenever I learned something new, I had nothing to connect it to. Soon it would fall out of sight, swallowed up by the deep shadows in my miles-wide chasm of ignorance.
Then in December I felt something new happen in my head. I had been going back and forth through the 12 Byzantine Rulers podcasts. They're good, but since they're so detailed, and since I had so little knowledge of the period, I had literally listened to some episodes around six times in order to take everything in. Again, I was frustrated, feeling like I hadn't even achieved a mental framework on which to hang anything, let alone a robust structure! But then one morning I felt a framework being built. I was listening to the episode on Irene, an empress who presided over a particularly disastrous era for the Byzantine Empire in the eighth century. The iconoclastic controversy distracted the empire from the Muslim threat that was whittling away its periphery. In the midst of this, Pope Leo got so fed up with receiving absolutely no support from Constantinople for Italy's fight against the Lombards that he finally went to France for help! That's why Charlemagne got in bed with the Papacy, it's how the Papal States got created, and it's what directly preceded the unprecedented crowning of Charlemagne by Leo in 800! Well, anyway, here I am swimming in the wide-open space and struggling to remember all this stuff, and all of a sudden my ears perk up. "Hey, Charlemagne! I had been struggling to remember what I knew of him..." and I felt the two whisper-thin filaments of understanding connect, and there was a TZZZZT as they were arc-welded together, and there was a framework. It's slender, but it's there; my attempted understanding of the eastern empire came together with what I'd forgotten about the west, and now I feel like I have something that's actually overarching and that can support other things.
Again, it may not sound like much. But it's real, and it's mine.