What's a Common Reader -- and what is Uncommon Reading?

Virginia Woolf defined a common reader as someone who is not a scholar; not a critic. A common reader "reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole." By that definition, I'm definitely a common reader -- reading an uncommonly large and diverse collection of books.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

What Happens When Readers Manipulate History

By now, after watching what passes for political discourse in the world today, I should be used to people confusing "casual" relationships with "causal" relationships -- you know, what happens when people comment on the fact that there are a lot of thunderstorms on election days (casual relationship) and moving on to concluding that election days provoke stormy weather (causal relationship). Still, the way in which historians and philosophers consciously or unconsciously manipulated and distorted whatever reality was originally contained in Cornelius Tacitus's short work on the German tribes during the early years of the first century A.C., as described in A Most Dangerous Book by Christopher Krebs, left me speechless -- well, nearly so.

When Tacitus was writing this relatively short work (dwarfed by his Annals and what survived of his history of the period from Nero to Dominitian), the German tribes occupying part of what is today Germany were among the few peoples to remain unconquered and uncolonized by Rome. Hence Tacitus's interest in crafting what seems to be the first ethnographic study to have survived. It's hard to imagine that he expected it to be used in the ways that it was: to demonstrate German religiosity, linguistic integrity, national identity -- and ultimately, and most perilously of all for the 20th century, Nazi ideologies revolving around an Aryan superman. Along the way, as the centuries passed, thinkers emphasized what was useful to their particular cause (sometimes mis-translating or ignoring facts contained in the original Latin that didn't support their theories) and glossing over inconvenient observations by Tacitus (such as the propensity for human sacrifices by the Germanes). As Krebs notes, ruefully, "he was repeatedly forced to say what in fact he had not" to satisfy patriotic stirrings and urges. Few of these philosopher-patriots seemed curious about the merits of the work itself -- had Tacitus ever visited Germany himself, or was he just recycling myths about 'barbarian' peoples and applying them to a region that had a bona fide history of fierce resistance? (Yes, Krebs refers often to the wiping out of Roman legions by warriors under the command of Arminius/Hermann in the forests of Teutoburg.)

The book canters through time, giving the reader a whirlwind portrait of humanist and Enlightenment thinkers, both German and others (there's an interesting look at Montesquieu here, and who knew that Jacob Grimm was a legal scholar as well as a re-teller of folk tales and myths?), who drew on Tacitus's work. For me, the most fascinating chapters were those that dealt with the rediscovery of a Tacitus manuscript in the early Renaissance (to his immense frustration, noted bookhunter Poggio Bracciolini never did manage to lay hands on it) and those later in the book in which Krebs examines the way in which a German "spirit" arose -- based in part on Tacitean analyses -- even before the creation of a pan-German state in 1871. Throughout, Krebs tosses one example of another of Tacitus-based political philosophies that abounded "in inconsistencies aided by inaccuracies" in the interpretation of the original document. As Krebs concludes, the Tacitus oeuvre was not born dangerous, "his readers made it so."

This was a lively and fascinating book, one that is based on tremendous scholarship but which wears that lightly. Krebs can appeal to the general reader, never forgetting that they may not have the depth of knowledge about Fichte or Martin Luther that he has acquired (much less of Tacitus himself). He also knows when to display a ready wit, commenting that an Enlightenment-era salon was one in which "the lack of morals was more readily condoned than the lack of wit or finesse." He is careful to show how discussion of cultural or national distinctiveness can tip over into a discussion of racial difference, and ultimately, racial superiority.

As we head into another presidential election in the United States -- one that will undoubtedly see candidates from all parties appealing to the primary documents crafted by the country's founding fathers -- I can't help wishing that those candidates and their speechwriters would turn to this book as a reminder that when you set out to mis-represent what is contained in a document of this kind, or try to ascribe to it powers that it doesn't contain, you set off down a dangerous path. Sadly, I suspect that I'm wishing in vain. A highly recommended book; 4.4 stars.

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