Berlin, 4 October 2003
Herodotus and the Art of Noticing
Dear ladies and gentlemen,
This is a great and important day for modern literary reportage, as for the first time, it is being given the Lettre Ulysses Award for the Art of Reportage, an international honour in its own singular genre.
This is thanks to the initiative, ingenuity, good will, perseverance, and imagination of Mr Frank Berberich and the editorial staff at that significant cultural quarterly, the German edition of Lettre International. Worthy of special mention is the fact that the Lettre Ulysses Award was established by a small group of people, unlike other prestigious international awards, which are supported by bigger organisations, with large numbers of salaried staff, co-workers and volunteers, and last but not least, a group of international sponsors. A strong organizational and financial structure is essential for an award. In this world of institutions, even the best and most interesting initiative is unlikely to endure without an efficient organisation with permanent staff and offices. Furthermore, big, prestigious awards are the trailblazers of international cultural and literary life. Today’s readers are disoriented in this divided and scattered world, and they are guided by major literary awards, and the knowledgeable authorities associated with them.
Absent from among you, for obvious reasons, is a certain Greek of Halicarnassus, by the name of Herodotus, who lived about twenty-five hundred years ago and left us his History, a work which is still widely read and to some extent topical. It’s a book that still raises controversies among historians over what really happened in Greece and the world in Herodotus’ times, and how true were the facts and events he described to that ancient reality.
I have read History a number of times and have travelled with it over different continents, as to me it is an exemplary specimen of reportage. Yes, Herodotus was my first reporter, our father and master, the forerunner of a genre that is still developing so creatively and dynamically.
And where does reportage come from?
It has three sources, of which travel is the first. Not in the sense of a tourist trip or a relaxing outing: rather, travel as a hard, painstaking expedition of discovery requiring substantial preparation, careful planning and research to supplement the traveller’s own observations and experiences on the spot. This was just one of the methods Herodotus used to get to know the world. For years, he would travel to the furthest corners of the world as it was known to the Greeks. He went to Egypt and Libya, Persia and Babylon, the Black Sea and the Scythians of the north. In his times, the Earth was imagined to be a flat circle like a plate, encircled by a great stream of water called Oceanus. It was Herodotus' ambition to get to know that flat circle in its entirety.
Herodotus, however, besides being the first reporter, was also the first “globalist.” Fully aware of how many cultures there were on Earth, he was eager to become acquainted with all of them. Why? He believed that the best way to learn about your own culture is by familiarizing yourself with others. For your culture will best reveal its depth, value and sense only when you see how it is reflected by other cultures, which can shed the best, most penetrating light on your own, and thereby help you understand it best by yourself.
What did he accomplish with his comparative method of confrontation and reflection? Well, Herodotus taught his countrymen modesty, tempered their self-conceit and hubris, their belief in their superiority and arrogance toward non-Greeks, towards all others. He told them, "You think that the Greeks created gods? No. As a matter of fact, you've appropriated them from the Egyptians. You say your structures are magnificent? Yes, but the Persians have a far better system of communication and transportation."
Thus Herodotus tried by means of his reportage to consolidate the most important message of Greek ethics: restraint, a sense of proportion and moderation.
Beside travel, another source of reportage is other people, those
encountered on the road, and those we travel to meet, in order to get them to convey their knowledge, tales and opinions to us. Here, Herodotus turns out to be the master extraordinaire. Judging by what he writes, whom he meets, and the way he talks to them, Herodotus comes across as a man open and full of good will toward others, making contact with strangers easily, curious about the world, investigative, hungry for knowledge. We can imagine the way he acted, talked, asked and listened. His attitude and bearing show reporters what is essentially important to a reporter: respect for another man, his dignity and worth. He listens carefully to his heartbeat, and the way thoughts cross his mind.
Herodotus noticed the weakness of human memory. He was aware that his
interlocutors related different and often contradictory versions of the same event, so, trying to be impartial and objective, he conscientiously left room for us to decide about the most disparate variants and versions of the same story. Hence his reports are multidimensional, rich, vivid and palpable.
Herodotus was a tireless reporter. He took the trouble to go hundreds of kilometres by sea, on horseback or simply on foot, only to hear a different version of a past event. He was hungry for knowledge of the world, irrespective of what it cost him. He wanted his facts to be the most authentic, the closest to the truth. His conscientiousness sets a good example for us, of the responsibility we assume in a word, in all we undertake.
The third source of reportage is the reporter's homework: reading what has been written and endures in texts, inscriptions, or graphic symbols. Herodotus also shows us how to be investigative and precise. In his times, far fewer materials were available, so whatever he managed to collect was precious. Naturally, he was well-read in Homer, Hesiod, poets and playwrights. But he also deciphered inscriptions and symbols on temples and town walls. Everything was important, potentially able to reveal a message or a new meaning. Through his own example, Herodotus shows that a reporter should be a careful observer, sensitive to seemingly banal details, which could prove to be indications of new worlds stretching farther out, of a higher order.
"All people have a natural tendency to acquire knowledge," runs the sentence with which Aristotle, a little younger than Herodotus, begins his Metaphysics. He also noted that it is the eye that plays the most important role in this, as it is best at perceiving differences. The eyes of the reporter are vitally important, focused, penetrating, and noticing that what may seem invisible could also be an aspect of a given phenomenon, often the most essential one.
However, often, to discover the key facts of a situation, you have to be present. And to get there, you have to travel. Herodotus’ travels, and his experiences on arrival, make up his great reportage about the world, which we have been reading for twenty-five centuries with flushed cheeks.
Reportage arises from what Aristotle described as the "tendency to acquire knowledge." And in this human desire, a reporter's passion meets the desires of his readers, listeners and spectators. Reporters, driven by the "tendency to acquire knowledge," try to meet halfway their readers’ curiosity about the world, and their own "tendency to acquire knowledge."
And here we can find an answer as to why good reportage is so popular in the contemporary world. Modern people, living in a world conjured up by the media, of illusions and appearances, simulacra and fables, instinctively feel they are being fed untruth and hypocrisy. And so they seek something that has the power of a document, truth and reality, things authentic.
I see that during my meetings with readers. When I recount some of my adventures reporting, someone often interrupts me with the question: "Is that true?" I assure the person that I was really there. And a wave of relief rolls across the audience, and a friendly atmosphere develops. They're participating in something real, as someone who has witnessed and taken part in the event is actually standing right in front of them.
What is a literary reportage, then? How can we define and describe it?
It’s not an easy matter, as we are living at the moment that Clifford Geertz called the era of “blurred genres,” a new species. The anthropologist hastens to add “by virtue of their definition, innovations are hard to pigeonhole.”
Working in Third World countries as a correspondent for a press agency for quite a long time, I often felt dissatisfied. This arose from the paucity of the language of conventional journalism when confronting the rich, varied, colourful, ineffable reality of those cultures, customs and beliefs. The everyday language of information that we use in the media is very poor, stereotypical and formulaic. For this reason, huge areas of reality are then rendered beyond the sphere of description. So what was the way out of this cul-de-sac?
I looked for answers in the writings of Truman Capote, Norman Mailer and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, whose work straddles the border of fiction and press chronicle. They introduced the term "New Journalism", "nuevo periodismo." By this, they meant the kind of writing in which descriptions of real events, true stories and accidents are supplemented with the writer's personal opinions and reactions, and often with fictional asides to add colour; with the techniques and manners of fiction. Literary reportage is the creative result of a combination of two different manners and techniques of communicating and describing.
So this is a seminal and productive "blurring of genres," especially considering the rapid scientific and technological changes in the world which make life ever more difficult to describe with language. I realised this writing "The Shadow of the Sun" — How could I describe a jungle with the language of the press? This is absolutely impossible without borrowing from the treasury of belles-lettres, for its rich variety of expression. And on the other hand, literature avails itself continuously of reportage production. Notice how many reporters are characters of fiction, how many descriptions are typically in the reporter’s vein among classically fictitious fragments and dialogues!
In this multicultural world, people from those other cultures demand that they be treated as equal, command the same respect as we, and be in our good graces. It is a well-established given that there are no “higher” or “lower” cultures, and what makes a difference is just the result of specific geographical and historical conditions. But the problem is that we know little about other cultures, and rather than decent knowledge, we tend to make do with easy and false stereotypes. Herodotus understood this all too well. And he knew that only mutual knowledge makes understanding possible, and creates the only basis possible for peace, harmony, cooperation and exchange. So with this in mind, the reporter plunges into activity: travels, investigates, takes notes, and explains why others behave differently from us, and shows that those other modes of existence and understanding the world have their own logic and should be accepted, rather than generate war and aggression.
So reportage work carries a significant responsibility. Plying our trade, we are not just men of writing pursuits but also missionaries, translators and messengers. We do not translate from one text into another, but from one culture into another, to make them mutually better understood and thereby closer, even friendlier to each other. The way a reporter describes China, for example, will, consequently, determine his readers’ attitude towards China and the Chinese. Likewise with Brazil and so on. That is why do not forget the human and humanitarian results your reporting triggers.
Alongside Herodotus, also conspicuously absent from our company is the prime mover and shaker of contemporary reportage, who used to frequent his favourite coffee house here, on Unter den Linden in Berlin. I am speaking of Ego Erwin Kisch. How happy he would be, had he learned of this international ennoblement of reportage – thanks to the efforts of Lettre International. He was a great enthusiast of this particular genre. He wrote many reporter’s books, among others the great anthology Klassischer Journalismus, published here in Berlin in 1923, in which he included into the roster of those plying this trade the likes of Pliny the Younger, Charles Dickens, Émile Zola and Henry M. Stanley. Kisch would frequently emphasize that our trade requires passion, curiosity about the world and people, appetite for information, diligence, and devotion.
And these were the traits of Herodotus. Indeed, his History somehow played the essential part in an incident that happened to me years ago. There was a military overthrow in Ghana in 1964. The rebelling army toppled the then president of the country, Kwame Nkrumah. I was staying in Nigeria at the time and as soon as I heard the news, I drove to Ghana by car. I crossed the border without any problems at all, but right before Accra, I was stopped by a military patrol. The soldiers searched through my luggage. One of them found Herodotus’ History, and Agatha Christie’s The Mystery of the Blue Train. The soldier looked at both. Was it because Herodotus’ book looked too thick to him, or did the title of The Mystery of the Blue Train sound more attractive? It’s rather hard to decide now. Anyway, after a moment’s hesitation, he requisitioned Christie’s novel, which had the additional appeal of a flashy colourful cover. I heaved a sigh of relief. Herodotus was to stay with me.
Thank you very much for your attention.
© Foundation Lettre International Award