I’m back after an unexpected break. When I finished writing this piece last week, my nose was stuffy and my throat was unhappy, and it seemed really inappropriate to read a post that had “tears” and “history” in the title in a voice eerily close to that of Henry Kissinger. I’m planning to get back into a weekly rhythm, alternating between podcasts and text-only posts. I’ve also decided to post the full text for each podcast, in case you prefer reading on screen while I get all the audio kinks worked out. Thanks for tuning in!
Nearly every creative person I know has experienced the question, often asked by someone with a blank, slightly-confused look: why do you do that?
Why do you take all those photos, or scribble notes everywhere, or make birthday cards by hand? Why do you knit, or make quilts, or paint with watercolors, or make sculpture from scrap? Why do you want to write a novel or make a film?
Some people ask these questions out of innocent curiosity, because they’ve just never experienced such impulses.
But from other people, the tone can be vaguely threatening — even menacing.
It seems that what they’re really saying is: “What gives you the right? What makes you important enough to do that? Who do you think you are?”
Studs Terkel once described his work as “conversations with people not celebrated”.
In a 1997 interview, Terkel references a Bertolt Brecht poem which he considered a kind of credo. Here’s the audio from the interview:
And here is how I summarized Terkel’s recollection of the Brecht poem in the podcast version:
Who really constructed the Pyramids of Egypt and the Seven Gates of Thebes? When the Great Wall of China was built, “where did the masons go for lunch?”
“When Caesar conquered Gaul, was there not even a cook in the army?”
When Sir Francis Drake defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588, “did he do it by himself, or what?”
“When the Armada sank, we read that King Phillip wept. Were there no other tears?”
I hadn’t heard of this Brecht poem until Terkel mentioned it, but it does remind me of reading the description of Xerxes’ army in The Histories. According to Herodotus, there were 2,641,610 soldiers of various origin in that army. When you add what I’ll euphemistically call ‘support staff’, the number more than doubles.
Of course, Herodotus isn’t exactly considered an investigative journalist, but even modern scholars think the number might have been at least two or three million.
So it wasn’t Xerxes, who invaded Greece: it was millions of people. What was that really like, from moment to moment?
For example, what did all those standing on the shore really think when they saw the king order soldiers to lash the waters of the Hellespont as punishment for destroying his bridge?
So I tracked down this Brecht poem. It’s translated title is “Questions from a Worker Who Reads“. Here are the last two stanzas:
Every page a victory.
Who cooked the feast for the victors?
Every ten years a great man.
Who paid the bill?
So many reports.
So many questions.
History is not simply a grand procession of other, more important people. It’s not merely wars and occupations of territory, religious bifurcations, trade disputes, endless intrigues, rapprochements, and murderous royal successions.
History is an aggregation — an accretion, actually — of the thoughts and experiences of each human being.
Great 20th-century historians like, Studs Terkel and Howard Zinn taught us that, though others like Montaigne laid the groundwork before them.
We don’t shoot photos or scribble notes or quilt to capture history with a capital H. We shoot to capture our history — our own lives and experiences.
Let future generations — the Studs Terkels of the 22nd or 28th centuries — worry about how to catalog and absorb the materials we’re creating. That’s not our job. Our job is to capture, document and preserve the ideas of our time so those future historians have something to work with.
The diaries we keep, the poems we write, the photos we take and post to Flickr — whatever medium we use to capture our sensations of the world around us — they are all ways to store ideas in seemingly-inert objects. It’s through such artifacts that ideas can survive local indifference or open hostility and be brought to life again in another place, or another time.
What gives us the right? What makes us important enough to do all this “creative stuff”? Who do we think we are?
We are not slaves hauling stones to the gates of Thebes, leaving no other trace of our existence. We are not another unnamed laundress in Xerxes’ caravan.
We are making those reports Brecht was talking about. We are the keys to exploring those many questions.
We are the other tears — and joys — of human history. And, unlike King Philip’s contemporaries, we have widening literacy, pens and paper, blogs and Twitter, podcasts and HD camcorders. Why shouldn’t we use them?
- Studs Terkel, Oral Historian and Radio Legend, Dies at 96
- Bertolt Brecht: Questions from a Worker Who Reads
Outro music: A song by students from the Xi’an Biomedical Technical College, Xi’an, China. Recorded in September, 2007.