My major area of study in college was English literature and my minor was History. They call these areas “Humanities” because both are the study of humanity. Both study the way humanity describes itself. In Literature, at the school I have attended, they have mostly forgotten this, and think that Literature is about someone else; the Others who need to be chastised for their misdeeds or else exalted for their suffering. But it is still really a study in what the authors inadvertently reveal about themselves as well as what they say about the others.
I have on my shelf The Rise of the Roman Empire by Polybius and I have Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson. Autobiography is a strange book in several ways; it is written mostly as if it could be literally true but partly fantastically; it does not follow any one literary convention the whole way through. It is very hard to follow but it is not actually nonsense, any more than writing in an unknown language is nonsense. Whatever else it is, it is a homosexual love story; not particularly lurid but definitely homosexual. So I am uncomfortable even admitting that I own it. But it is a brilliant portrait of twistedness, and the truth of the revelation lends it beauty of a sort. In the literary circles they think it is beautiful because it is twisted, when actually it is beautiful because it is true, and even that misperception gives the book a revelatory power.
On my shelf I have Plutarch’s Fall of the Roman Republic and The Sunflower by Simon Wiesenthal. Sunflower is about a man who survived a Nazi concentration camp and was asked at one point by a Nazi for forgiveness. The latter half of the book is an open forum for various illuminati to opine on whether someone should extend forgiveness under those circumstances. But none of the commentators, not even one, realized that forgiveness is not something that we hold to dispense. Some said to forgive is divine and some said to forgive would be unjust, but nobody said that is impossible for any man to forgive, yet we can and must forgive because we have been forgiven. Forgiveness is not an act which elevates the mortal to the divine; it is an act by which the Divine One lowered himself to the mortal. But when the whole world gathers to discuss forgiveness, we presume to have the power.
On my shelf I have The Annals of Imperial Rome by Tacitus and The Cyberiad by Stanislaw Lem. Cyberiad is a science fiction work, and after a tiresome round of Isaac Asimov preaching Scientology it was a welcome send-up of the idea that science fixes the absurdity of life. But once the laughing is over about the helplessness of science to make sense of life there still is no certainty; just falling through endless space, without beginning and without end, a mirthless laughing which has nothing serious left to mock.
What castles these fictionaires have built in the clouds! Yet they never can have the authority of the historians who can tell us that Rome, mighty Rome, succumbed to the petty and the personal as mean as ever debased the American dream. The Roman history was fascinating to read, and the Civil War history, and the Jewish history, and the Russian history, what I read of it. We live in a human world, and there is nothing that better explains the present or predicts the future than history. It is incredible how the great tide of history is carried on the squalid selfishness of humanity. Whenever a noble man stands in history, he stands alone; and if great things are done, it is because many people thought that they would benefit by them, or were simply too timid to resist.
But I will never open the history books again, excepting times like now when I feel onerously that I am ignorant. Nor will I hand them over to a friend with a recommendation to read them, unless that person is already of such an historical bent that such books would be redundant.
I am asking myself today which of these books can go, and the truth is that nearly all of them can; I will not notice the difference. The only books I have a halfway serious intention of reading are the really foolish ones written by men in our own time. I am less curious about the arc of history than of where we sit at the present time; at a peak, as near as I can tell, creeping with that terribly slow imminence just shy of the descent. O Lord, have mercy.