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travels with herodotus

Ryszard Kapuściński has often been called the "reporter of the century", the 20th century that is, for his unique brand of literary travel reportage. 'Travels with Herodotus' ('Podróże z Herodotem', 2004) was his one of his last books, a thoughtful and inspiring homage to the world's first travel reporter, Herodotus.

The first to realize the world's essential multiplicity was Herodotus. "We are not alone," he tells Greeks in his opus, and to prove this he undertakes his journeys to the ends of the earth. "We have neighbors, they in turn have their neighbors, and all together we populate a single planet."

Since the 1970s Polish journalist Kapuściński wrote a string of books, reporting from all over the world, including Africa ('The Emperor', 'The Shadow of the Sun'), the Middle-East ('Shah of Shahs'), the Soviet Union ('Imperium') and Central America ('The Soccer War'). His almost novelistic approach to reporting journalism epitomized a new genre of 'literary reportage', with other practitioners like VS Naipaul and, in Dutch, Lieve Joris. Despite revelations after his death that he may at times have taken too many literary liberties with his factual material, Kapuściński's books still stand as incredibly insightful accounts of historical transformation, connecting the sweeping political shifts of the 20th century with personal stories - indeed showing that political reality is always made up of a rich and complex tapestry of personal histories.

In 'Travels with Herodotus' Kapuściński looks back on his own career as a travelling reporter, from his first bewildering assignments in India and China to later adventures in revolution-torn Africa. And he recalls how before his first journey beyond the Polish borders - and beyond the Iron Curtain, which in the 1950s was in the process of being raised - he received a gift which was to become a lifelong companion on his travels: a copy of 'The Histories' by Herodotus of Halicarnassus, written two and a half millennia ago.

Led by his fascination for this book, Kapuściński's primary journey in 'Travels with Herodotus' is in time, as he retraces Herodotus' travels, analyzes his reports and muses on the methods, intentions and lasting legacy of the man he considers to have been "the first globalist".

In the world of Herodotus, the only real repository of memory is the individual. In order to find out that which has been remembered, one must reach this person. If he lives far away, one has to go to him, to set out on a journey. And after finally encountering him, one must sit down and listen to what he has to say - to listen, remember, perhaps write it down. That is how reportage begins; of such circumstances it is born.

Written in the fifth century BC, 'The Histories', to put it simply, invented history. (The Greek word 'historia' translates as inquiry, research, or as Kapuściński prefers, investigation. It is where our word history originates.) Never before had anyone surveyed the known world methodically, researching its peoples, their customs, beliefs and origins. From Homer's mythological odyssey to Herodotus' factfinding missions was a stunning leap.

Specifically, Herodotus set out to explain how the great conflict of his time, between the Greeks and the Persians - and in a wider context, between Europe and Asia - came into being. For Kapuściński the encounter, or clash, between the West and the rest of the world, particularly what used to be called the Third World, is a theme that runs through his work. Not surprisingly perhaps, as he witnessed firsthand how former European colonies the world over were wresting their independence from dying empires. He experienced how his own reception as a European in these new and often chaotic nations changed. In short, he saw how relations between peoples and cultures were fundamentally changing, and it is from this perspective that he reads Herodotus.

[Herodotus] is the first to discover the world's multicultural nature. The first to argue that each culture requires acceptance and understanding, and that to understand it, one must first come to know it. How do cultures differ from one another? Above all in their customs. Tell me how you dress, how you act, what are your habits, which gods you honor - and I will tell you who you are. Man not only creates culture, inhabits it, he carries it around within him - man is culture.

Further on he adds, in what sounds even more like a mission statement for his own work:

Herodotus is never shocked at difference, never condemns it; rather, he tries to learn about it, to understand and describe it. Difference? It serves by some paradox only to emphasize a greater oneness, speaking to its vitality and richness.

In 'The Other' (2006), a collection of lectures, Kapuściński explores the theme of the encounter with the Other in a time of globalization - a question he defines as central to the 21st century. Drawing on the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas, among others, he pleads for an open dialogue between equal Others (as opposed to the two alternative options he sees: waging war or building walls), where the attempt at understanding becomes an ethical responsibility. Again, Herodotus serves as an archetypical model.

Traveling and encountering various tribes and peoples, Herodotus observes and records that each of them has its own history, which unfolds independently from yet parallel to other histories - in other words, that far from being one story, human history in its aggregate resembles a great cauldron whose perpetually simmering surface sees incessant collissions of innumerable particles, each moving in their own orbits, along trajectories that intersect at an infinite number of points.

Kapuściński goes into some depth retelling the stories of Darius and Xerxes, visiting the sights of their palaces and battlegrounds, and juxtaposing the Persian despotic rulers with their Greek counterparts, the city states of Athens and Sparta feuding among themselves until the eleventh hour. But by far the most interesting parts of 'Travels with Herodotus' are Kapuściński's attempts to bridge 2,500 years of history and understand how Herodotus worked - as if he were admiring a colleague working under much more difficult circumstances than he ever experienced.

It is interesting to ponder what people in those times understood by "the world." There were still no adequate maps, atlases, or globes. Ptolemy would not be born for another four centuries, Mercator not for another two millennia. It was impossible to gaze down on our planet taking a bird's-eye view (could there even have been such a concept?). One acquired geographical knowledge by becoming aware of a neighbor not of one's own people, and one passed on that knowledge orally.

And perhaps even more fundamental than the lack of geographical knowledge, Kapuściński reflects, was the pre-modern experience of time.

Herodotus discovers something else as well, namely, the multiformity of time, or, more precisely, the multiplicity of methods of measuring it. For in the old days, peasants calculated time by the seasons of the year, city dwellers by generations, the chroniclers of ancient states by the length of the ruling dynasties. How does one compare these measurements, how does one find a means of conversion or a common denominator? Herodotus wrestles with this issue constantly, searches for solutions. Accustomed to an exacting mechanical measurement, we do not realize what a problem the computation of time once presented, how much difficulty lurked therein, how many riddles and mysteries.

Imagining such basic and, to us moderns, mindboggling challenges, Kapuściński manages to bring to life Herodotus' classic work in a way that the high school history books - or indeed the laboriously translated passages from the original Greek under the stern guidance of our own Mr Crocker-Harris - never did.

Kapuściński once called his own work "literature on foot", emphasizing how the only viable method of reportage, of collecting facts and opinions about the world, is to go out and ask the people who live there. (As we enter the age of big data and desktop journalism, this basic fact is worth reiterating.) In 'Travels with Herodotus' he attempts to timetravel on foot, patiently and humbly following the steps of the man Cicero called the "Father of History", comparing his experiences to his own in the 20th century. He warns himself - and us - for the dangers of what he calls spatial and temporal provincialism, of taking one's own limited worldview, from one culture and one era, and making it all-important.

The antidote to both kinds of provincialism, of coure, is travel, seeing the world and reading the classics. Kapuściński and Herodotus make great travel companions, both humbling and inspiring.


how much globalization can we bear?

In 2003, German philosopher Rüdiger Safranski published a little book with the intriguing title: 'How much globalization can we bear?' ('Wieviel Globalisierung verträgt der Mensch?'). Ten years later and in the midst of severa… Read the full post »

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