On Flattening Historical Distance


There is a widespread –and likely perennial– habit of flattening historical distance to assimilate everything to one’s own parochial universe.  Children are like this. The Piglet is like this, for he

lived in a very grand house in the middle of a beech-tree, and the beech-tree was in the middle of the forest, and the Piglet lived in the middle of the house. Next to his house was a piece of broken board which had: “TRESPASSERS W” on it. When Christopher Robin asked the Piglet what it meant, he said it was his grandfather’s name, and had been in the family for a long time. Christopher Robin said you couldn’t be called Trespassers W, and Piglet said yes, you could, because his grandfather was, and it was short for Trespassers Will, which was short for Trespassers William. And his grandfather had had two names in case he lost one – Trespassers after an uncle, and William after Trespassers. [A. A. Milne, The Complete Tales of Winnie-the-Pooh (New York, NY: Penguin — Dutton Children’s Books, 1996), 32]

(It is not at the center: the Piglet’s house is, in fact, on the southwest edge of the Hundred Acre Wood according to the map drawn by Ernest Shepard, the official illustrator.) Attention to historical detail requires attention to how the object under question is an artifact that, though it can be variously used by us, comes from a world that is, at least in some degree, different from our own.


Since children are naturally like this, it is no surprise to find out that many childish habits are not unlearned by maturity, but by the slow accumulation of awareness within a culture, awareness that is passed down through various channels of transmission.

The Medievals were like this. Those living in the Medieval period would habitually represent figures from the biblical world, or some of the heroic figures of Classical or Christian antiquity, as dressed like themselves. They thought of these figures as contemporaries.

The Native American tribes who lived on the plains were like this. They knew they could dismount a rider from his horse if they strung a rope across his path, and held it tight; they tried this technique for the trains on the First Transcontinental Railroad, and were disappointed.

It is likely that, without training to remove them, many habits of thought we associate with childhood are simply natural prejudices; one of these is the assimilation of possibilities to the scale and templates we currently have. Consciousness of historical distance can only occur when we have cultivated an awareness that allows for a larger scale than a village, or even a city or country: one must see the past of one’s own heritage as another place, so as initially to keep oneself and one’s own ways and assumptions and habits out of that time-place as much as possible (only then should one deign to knock, and enter).


The world of ancient texts is not our own, even if we occupy an institution that has always housed them. We assume too much about ancient texts in general, regardless of our commitments, and, all too often, because of them (complicating this is that most are not aware of the implicit commitments they have). I have heard bizarre things from people of all commitments about Plato as well as the biblical texts. The history of interpretation and use is completely overlooked: people think they can simply pick up an object or text and read it as though it were made from within the milieu they live in and know — like the Piglet, above.

Adam Gopnik, a writer, recounts a story about his son, Luke, that illustrates the same point. Luke was born in New York City, but raised in Paris. There was no thriving baseball culture in Paris –the children played soccer– and Adam was worried that this essential element of the American heritage would be lost to Luke unless he, as Luke’s father, did something about it while Luke was still very young. Luke knew nothing of baseball. So Adam made up a bedtime story for Luke called “The Rookie.” The story, set in 1908, was about a 3-year-old boy (named “The Rookie”) who was a pitching prodigy, and so began to play for the New York Giants. It starred many of the famous personalities of the era (Ty Cobb became the Rookie’s nemesis), some chronologically misplaced.

Coogan's Bluff -- Merkles_Boner_game_Polo_Grounds_Sept23_1908

Coogan’s Bluff

“The Rookie” was a huge success: Luke loved it. He seemed to have tremendous sympathy for the 3-year-old Rookie whenever he was called a “baby” or a “crybaby,” and otherwise seemed to identify with the boy’s age-specific problems. Adam even found a picture of several people watching a Giants’ game from Coogan’s Bluff, which then overlooked Polo Grounds (the Giants’ home field before moving to San Francisco), and hung it above Luke’s bed to give him some sense of it all. From the angle of the picture one cannot see anything happening on the baseball field itself, though, and this, together with the general lack of context for his bedtime stories, began to trouble Adam:

I began to wonder: What picture did he summon up when, night after night, he heard the words Polo Grounds, full count, all the way to the backstop? Not an inexact picture; no picture at all. He had never been to a baseball game, never seen a bat or a glove, never been inside a ballpark or even watched a ball game on television. […] No one Luke knew played baseball, no one talked about it; the words and situations were pure language, pure abstract lore. The clichés I rolled out –“He had all day,” “steamy Sportsman’s Park,” “no foreign substances on the old pill”– what did he think, what did he see when he heard them? I knew that he wanted to hear the words as much as I needed to say them –he zipped through dessert to get to bed every night– but what did the words mean to him? [Adam Gopnik, Paris to the Moon (New York, NY: Random House, 2001), 203]

So, when in New York for a trip, Adam went on a mission to collect memorabilia to make the story more concrete, and to help flesh out what he was talking about when he told it. He found some paraphernalia, as well as some photos and a video.

When I got home, I put on the video, from the PBS Baseball series, which I had never seen, and we watched all those flickering, overfrantic little ghost figures racing around. One by one the faces and bodies and actions that you couldn’t see in the photo above Luke’s bed were being filled in. There was Ty Cobb, looking appropriately evil; there was John J. McGraw. There was pitching and batting (I realized, from Luke’s comments, that he had them the wrong way around). There was baserunning.

There was Christy Mathewson, and then a picture of Matty, handsome and assured as ever, slowly dissolving into a picture of a small, serious boy with blond bangs, wearing a baseball cap and a perfectly sober expression, going into a pitching windup. I still have no idea who he actually was […], but of course Luke knew, perfectly well.

“There he is,” he said. “Rewind it.” We watched Matty and the Rookie appear again, and then he told me to turn it off. He was uncharacteristically silent for the rest of the afternoon, but before dinner I heard him talking to his mother in the bath. “[The pitcher] had his hands up like this” [during his pitching windup], he was saying chattily. “I don’t know why.” [Gopnik, Paris to the Moon, 207-208]

 Luke also thought of “the Chief” (John Tortes Meyers, who was the Rookie’s catcher, and who babysat him) as a woman, even though he knew the Chief was a man, because of the strong archetypal mothering role he had interpreted him as filling. Adam showed him a picture of the Chief. Luke blushed with embarrassment.

Interpreting the past is not easy. If we remain children, we shall never enter it; if we remain children, it will never be with us in a way that we can truly say we understand.

8 thoughts on “On Flattening Historical Distance

  1. Very cool. And all so true. This is exactly why I work so hard with students to look at all the angles, question the authenticity of documents and records in relation to what they may be arguing in their papers and projects. Don’t get caught up in the narrative, it may not be true. What we see in the mind’s eye, what we were taught to believe must be picked and parsed apart. Otherwise we learn nothing, never evolve in our perspectives, and are therefore stunted mentally and, perhaps, emotionally.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thinking clearly is hard work, and many would rather binge on Netflix.

      –not that that’s a slight to Netflix-binging sessions, which I’ve had my share of. Even Nietzsche acknowledges that great-souled people need comfortable routines now and then.

      –not that I’m great-souled. :-D


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