Today's date:
Winter 2004

Herodotus and the Art of Noticing

Ryszard Kapuscinski, author of the seminal works Emperor and Shah of Shahs, is perhaps Europe's most renowned literary journalist. This is adapted from a talk he gave to Lettre International in Berlin.

Warsaw -- Herodotus -- who lived 2,500 years ago and left us his "History" -- was the first reporter. He is the father, master and forerunner of a genre -- reportage. Where does reportage come from? It has three sources, of which travel is the first. Not in the sense of a tourist trip or outing to get some rest. But travel as a hard, painstaking expedition of discovery that requires a decent preparation, careful planning and research in order to collect material out of talks, documents and your own observations on the spot. That's just one of the methods Herodotus used to get to know the world. For years he would travel to the farthest corners of the world as the Greeks knew it. 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 in the shape of a plate encircled by a great stream of water by the name of Oceanus. And it was Herodotus' ambition to get to know that entire flat circle. Herodotus, however, besides being the first reporter, was also the first globalist. Fully aware how many cultures there were on Earth, he was eager to get to know all of them. Why?

The way he put it, you can learn your own culture best only by familiarizing yourself with others. For your culture will best reveal its depth, value and sense only when you find its mirror reflection in other cultures, as they shed the best and most penetrating light on your own. What did he accomplish with his comparative method of confrontation and mirror reflection? Well, Herodotus taught his countrymen modesty, tempered their self-conceit and hubris, the feeling of superiority and arrogance toward non-Greeks, toward all others. "You claim that the Greeks have created gods? Not at all. 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. Besides 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 and hungry for knowledge. We can imagine the way he acted, talked, asked and listened. His attitude and bearing show 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 notices the weakness of human memory, aware that his interlocutors relate different and often contradictory versions of the same event. Trying to be impartial and objective, he conscientiously leaves 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 is a tireless reporter. He takes the trouble to go hundreds of miles by sea, on horseback or simply on foot only to hear another version of a past event. He wants to know, no matter the price he pays, and wants his knowledge to be the most authentic, the closest to the truth. This conscientiousness sets a good example of the responsibility we assume, for all that we do.

The third source of reportage is the reporter's homework: to read what has been written and endures in texts, inscriptions or graphic symbols on the topic a given reporter is working on. Herodotus also teaches us how to be investigative and careful.

In his times, the amount of materials he could rely on was far smaller than that available today. So whatever he managed to collect was precious. He naturally was well read in Homer, Hesiod, poets and playwrights. He would decipher inscriptions on temples and town walls. Everything was important, potentially able to reveal a message or new meanings. By his own example Herodotus showed that a reporter should be a careful observer, sensitive to details seemingly insignificant and banal, which may turn out to be symbols or signs of worlds much more important, stretching farther out, and of 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," adding that it is the eye that plays the most important role, because it perceives differences best. We also know the importance of the eye of the reporter, focused, penetrating, noticing what seems invisible, which may be the other face of a given phenomenon, often the most essential.

However, the snag is that to notice what is the most essential, you often have to be on the spot. And to get there, you have to take a trip, to travel. And out of those travels, his presence on the spot resulted in Herodotus' great reportage about the world that we have been reading for 25 centuries. Reportage is created out of what Aristotle called "tendency to acquire knowledge." And in this human desire, a reporter's passion meets the expectations of his readers, listeners and spectators. A reporter, driven by the "tendency to acquire knowledge," tries to meet halfway the curiosity about the world of his readers, their own "tendency to acquire knowledge."

And here is why good reportage is so popular in the contemporary world. The contemporary man, living in the world conjured up by the media of illusions and appearances, simulacra and fables, feeling instinctively that he is fed untruth, hypocrisy, falsehood and virtual manipulation, seeks something that has the power of truth and reality, things authentic, that is.

I see that during my meetings with readers. When I tell about one of my reporter's adventures, someone is likely to interrupt me with the question: "Is that authentic?" I assure the person that I have really been there. And then a wave of relief rolls across the audience and a friendly atmosphere sets in. Why, they're taking part in something real, since someone who has witnessed the event is actually standing right in front of them.

What is a literary reportage, then? How to define and describe it? It's not an easy matter, as we are living at the moment of "blurred genres," a new species.

Working in the countries of the Third World, as a correspondent of a press agency for quite a long time, I had this unsatisfied feeling resulting from the paucity of the language of press information when confronting the rich, full-of-variety, colorful, often hard-to-define reality of those cultures, customs or 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 we deal with are beyond the sphere of description, which the formulaic message is unable to convey. So what is the way out of this cul-de-sac of unsatisfied feelings and frustration? I availed myself of the suggestion of such writers as Truman Capote, Norman Mailer and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, whose writing straddles the border of fiction and press chronicle. They introduced the term "New Journalism," "nuevo periodismo." By this term they meant the kind of writing in which authentic events, true stories and accidents are described with language containing the writer's personal opinions and reactions and often fictional asides as added color; with the techniques and manners of fiction, that is. So this creative and enriched combination of two different manners and techniques of communicating and describing make up a literary reportage.

This has turned out to be a happy and seminal "blurring of genres," especially in the light of the progress in science and technology, which has enriched and incredibly differentiated the picture of the world, ever more difficult to describe with language.

I saw it for myself writing The Shadow of the Sun. How to describe a jungle with the language of press information? This is downright impossible unless you reach for the treasury of belles-lettres, for its rich variety of expression. On the other hand, today, 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 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 their specific geographical and historical conditions.

The problem is that we know little about other cultures, and rather than decent knowledge we are likely to make do with easy and false stereotypes. This is what Herodotus understood all too well. Better still, he knew that only mutual knowledge of each other makes understanding and connecting possible, as the only way to peace and harmony, cooperation and exchange. With this assumption in mind, a reporter takes a plunge into the hive of activity: travels, investigates, takes notes, explains why others behave differently from us and shows that those other ways of existence and understanding of the world have a logic of their own, are sensible and should be accepted rather than generate aggression and war.

So it's plain to see what responsibility lies with our work, reportage. Plying our trade, we are not just men or women of writing pursuits, but also some kind of missionaries, translators and messengers. We do not translate from one text into another, but from one culture into another in order to make them mutually better understood and thereby closer.