Wednesday, 22 July 2009

History in the Making


»Arnold Toynbee was here«

If you like history, like I do, then you probably know that many textbooks suffer from what could be politely described as... actually, there is no polite word for it: let's call it tediousness. Fastidiousness. Being boring. Sequences of numbers and names and alleged political and/or economic reasons – as if people and their all-too-human urges didn't exist at all, let alone be, as they are, at the very core of History.

But every now and then, there is a historian who shows a feel for the vividness and uniqueness of every single moment in time/space. It is as if they cast their minds back in time, to try and pierce the veil that seems to separate us from what has been.

And then there is Arnold Toynbee.

Toynbee's writings captured the imagination of many people. Which is why mentions of him appear in popular culture, from Indiana Jones to computer games – and the great science fiction writer Ray Bradbury called one of his stories The Toynbee Convector. (Which is also the name of a blog dedicated entirely to our Arnold.)

Arnold J. Toynbee piercing the veil of Time.
(Actually, I have no idea of what he was doing or what he was looking at at the time. But I suspect nobody else knows it either, so my theory is just as good as anyone else's.)

As you may know, he was one of the most influential - and maligned - historiographers of the 20th century, known chiefly for his monumental work, A Study of History (finished in 1961), comprising 12 (twelve) volumes. (You can find fascinating excerpts here.)

It's a huge work, both physically and intellectually, which is why usually abridged versions are used for study. But however fascinating - or controversial - his take on history as-we-know-it may be, it is what's been omitted from the abridged versions what interests us here.

In volume X, there is a section called The Inspirations of Historians, and therein a subsection (E) called The Quest for Meaning Behind the Facts of History (duh - no wonder it's being omitted...!). In it, Toynbee reveals a set of extraordinary experiences with what he called, very aptly, "local annihilation of time". It turns out, his vision of history was, quite literally, a vision (or two).

Here are some of the sights Toynbee sighted during a travel to Greece, in 1911/1912. (The accents are mine, to emphasise the questions that are of greatest interest to us here.)

Not having access to the original text, so I could read it in its entirety for myself, I am reduced to copying excerpts from other sources, relying (justifiably so, I believe) on their integrity and precision of reading/typing. ;)
Most of the information was taken from here, as it is the best internet article on Toynbee's peculiar journeys though history I have found to date. (You'll notice it's a cached version; the original doesn't seem to be available right now.)

It seems that on March 19, 1912, Toynbee (who regularly refers to himself in the third person, just so you don't get confused) "stood staring" at a Jacobean, i.e. Baroque, country villa in Crete, when...

"the spectator had an experience which was the counterpart, on the psychic plane, of an aeroplane's sudden deep drop when it falls into an air-pocket. On that spot on which Time had stood still since the eviction of the Venetians by the 'Osmanlis in the War of Candia (gerebatur A.D. 1645-69), the spectator was suddenly carried down in a 'Time-pocket' from a day in the year A.D. 1912 to a day in the fifth decade of the seventeenth century on which History, in that house, had come abruptly to an end in an evacuation without any sequel except solitude and decay."

Some of the sights were far more gruesome - if historically much more significant.
(After all, isn't the historiography - and, to a large extent the history itself - of the Western civilisation one long string of massacres and bloodbaths...?)

On the 10th January, 1912, as he (= Toynbee himself) sat musing on one of the twin summits of the citadel of Pharsalus, with his eyes ranging away to the peaks of Pelion, Ossa, and Olympus over the downs of Cynoscephalae <...> the middle distance of a sunlit landscape came, in the brooding gazer's imagination, to be overcast with the sinister mist that, on a morning 2,109 years back in the Past, is blindfolding the patrols of two armies as these nervously grope their way towards one another on those fog-bound slopes. When the parting of the mist reveals to the posthumous spectator's sight the right wing of the Macedonian phalanx already carrying all before it in the momentum of its charge downhill, he instantly feels the stab of anxiety that, at this moment, pierces King Philip's heart as he glances back over his left shoulder to look for the left wing of the phalanx that should have been following his own right wing up. <...> And now it is no battle; it is a massacre -- for these uncouth Italian troops have never been drilled in the humane rules governing the 'temperate and undecisive contest' in which the regular forces of a civilized Hellenic World are more or less innocuously exercised. Look, the outmanoeuvred phalangites are raising their pikes -- they are making the signal that they surrender -- but those murderous Roman swords callously complete their cruel work."

"As the harrowed participant from another world averts his eyes from an unbearable spectacle, they catch a glimpse of a despairing commander riding off,
ventre a terre, with no more than a handful of life-guards still attending him. <...> Before the dreamer has time to refocus his diffracted historical vision, it all vanishes abruptly into thin air, and the landscape flickers back into a pastoral present in which sounds floating up from the slopes of Cynoscephalae to the heights of the acropolis of Pharsalus are, not the din of sword-blades nor the shrieks of wounded men, but the tinkling of goat-bells and the bleating of sheep peacefully grazing, to the strain of their shepherds' pipes, over the site of a double historic battlefield. Can the dreamer really have sunk, for that instant, those twenty-one centuries deep below the current surface of Time's waters on which he now finds himself riding, once again, in his normal waking life? He might doubt it if the poignancy of the momentary experience had not left a sequence of Greek elegiac verses running persistently through his head."

More experiences were to follow, including one - tremendously far-reaching - in the otherwise unexotic location of London town:

"In London in the southern section of the Buckingham Palace Road, walking southward along the pavement skirting the west wall of Victoria Station, the writer, once, one afternoon not long after the end of the First World War -- he had failed to record the exact date -- had found himself in communion, not just with this or that episode in History, but with all that had been, and was, and was to come. In that instant he was directly aware of the passage of History gently flowing through him in a mighty current, and of his own life welling like a wave in the flow of this vast tide. The experience lasted long enough for him to take visual note of the Edwardian red brick surface and white stone facings of the station wall gliding past him on his left, and to wonder -- half amazed and half amused -- why this incongruously prosaic scene should have been the physical setting of a mental illumination. An instant later, the communion had ceased, and the dreamer was back again in the every-day cockney world which was his native social milieu and of which the Edwardian station wall was a characteristic period piece."

The few "serious" historians who deign even discuss the subject of Toynbee's wildly peripatetic take on time and history, all too often dismiss his visions as being simply (simply?) mirages produced by a heady combination of knowledge and vivid imagination.

But were they really?

The sensation of slipping into an "air pocket" is all too peculiar, too specific to be attributed to flights of fancy. To dismisss that would be tantamount to calling his accounts - a bunch of lies. Either that, or the consequence of some brain disorder... the existence of which, of course, would have to be proven (which does not equal surmised.)
And any "theory" that necessarily requires the total and a priori annihilation of the "opponent" or reliance on unproven hypotheses isn't much of a theory.

No mere flesh and blood

(And for the Romans roaming the roads of Britain, just type "Roman" in the search machine at the top of the page. :-))

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