“‘Let us assume’ turns in a few pages into ‘We may assume,’ which, in a few more, is ‘As we have shown’ . . .”
In Book Marks, an occasional feature at Current, we take fresh cuttings from old books. Why look at old books? Because there’s a slat loose in the fence they’ve got us penned up in, and if we jiggle it free, we’ll see better what’s going on out there.
I offer an opening comment for orientation, but that’s not where the action is. I hope the words of those who have gone before will speak.
In 1933, an eighteen-year-old English dropout named Patrick Leigh Fermor set out on foot to cross the whole of Europe, all the way to Constantinople. If he had disappeared along the way (which he might well have done at any number of points—somewhere in the rapidly Nazifying Germany, for instance) he wouldn’t have been there to lead the undercover special ops unit that abducted a German major general in Greece during World War II, he wouldn’t have lived to be ninety-six, and we certainly wouldn’t have one of the finest memoirs of the twentieth century.
Fermor’s three-volume narrative of his walk across Europe contains not only the amusing tales we might expect of a teenager abroad, and passage after passage of luminous description of scenes, people, and customs, but also reams of reflection on history and its literature. He wanders not only across the back roads of Central Europe but also through its labyrinths of controverted history, lineage, and royal successions.
In Romania he observes that a particular centuries-long disagreement could be resolved if only a single thirteenth-century document weren’t missing from the Transylvanian archives. But it is. The resulting evidential vacuum has allowed divergent hypotheses to flood in and swamp all certainty. Or has it?
Hear what he has to say:
Theories can be evolved in a void, as it were, and the occasional fragments of hard fact—linguistic, geographical, ethnological or religious—need not fit into any jigsaw; indeed, they are unable to do so, because all the other pieces are missing; and within certain loose bounds they can be arranged in whatever pattern suits the speaker best. The interpretations are as different as the work of two palaeontologists, one of whom would reconstruct a dinosaur and the other a mastodon from the same handful of bone-fragments. ‘Let us assume’ turns in a few pages into ‘We may assume’, which, in a few more, is ‘As we have shown’; and, after a few more pages yet, the shy initial hypothesis has hardened into a brazen established landmark, all the time with not an atom of new evidence being adduced. Advantageous points are coaxed into opulent bloom, awkward ones discreetly pruned into non-being. Obscurity reigns. It is a dim region where suggestio falsi and suppressio veri, those twin villains of historical conflict, stalk about the shadows with dark-lantern and bow-string.
These ancient ambiguities would be a field for learned conjecture merely, were it not for the bitter rivalries that haunted them in later times and haunt them still. . . . In such an atmosphere, all objectivity of research liable to unearth evidence damaging to the researcher’s side must seem tainted with treason. . . .
I read all that came my way on both sides. The opposing cases were skilfully and persuasively argued; in each the chains of logic seemed faultless; all objections were faced and demolished; and when I turned from one argument to its rival the same thing would happen, leaving me stranded between the two. I am the only person I know who has feelings of equal warmth for both these embattled claimants and I wish with fervour they could become friends. . . . My unsatisfactory position between the two makes me useless to both.
— Patrick Leigh Fermor, Between the Woods and the Water (London: John Murray, 1986), 94-95
Jon Boyd is keeper of Book Marks at Current. He is associate publisher and academic editorial director at InterVarsity Press, the saxophonist in an improvisational rock band, a user of manual typewriters, and (with his wife and daughters) a resident of the City of Chicago.
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