You have heard of the kiwi: flightless, nocturnal, shortsighted, but very well acquainted with the forest floor on which it lives. There is another bird, known in English as the godwit, which every year assembles in great flocks on the northern beaches and migrates from New Zealand to Siberia and Alaska. Which to be? To risk never leaving Ithaca, or to risk never coming back? ... It depends on what one wants: a history which is one's own, or a history in which one can move freely; the island or the ocean, the landfall or the voyage. Beyond that, however, lies the understanding that one can't choose finally, and that that's what history is about.
- JGA Pocock, Valedictory Lecture (1994)
Only British historians can be great. Americans must be satisfied with being clever, perhaps brilliant; the French, unstereotypically, methodical. But that quiet sacerdotal judiciousness, that literary style which today even the litterateurs have forgotten—it makes for books of wisdom, and history can rarely deal in anything else. Richard Southern, E. P. Thompson, even crotchety Eric Hobsbawm writes in a way that says “great” in gilt lettering on morocco leather. It's hard to help thinking they have it easy; almost as if Hume, writing his History of England with his feet up on his desk, has started a tradition.
Pocock thinks of historiography as a directed flight or crawl, a god(wit)'s eye reconnaissance or a molelike feeling for the soil. He knows, far better than I, what he is talking about; but I don't quite agree with him. I wrote a few months ago about Montaigne and his rivers, and the flow of history; today I want to write about riding on that flow. For it is easy, for some people, to take flight and not get swept up in the flow: history is
about things dead, after all, and the living owe them nothing.
But I can't be a godwit, flying to Siberia with the cities of man so much scenery below. I must read someone's words and feel with her, peel away the human rawness and bewilderment and indignation from the mannered curlicues and classical dross. I must—I suppose—swim with the current.
There is an old Russian story about an old man who saves rabbits from a spring flood; he moves up and down the riverbank, pulling the drowning creatures out of harm's way. I find myself, against my better judgment, wishing I could do the same. I figure out quickly whom I sympathize with, I see a man after my own heart even through centuries. So I end up hoping, or rather wishing, that somehow that blind and stupid torrent delivers him some happiness before dashing him against the rocks. I am often disappointed.
But I don't have a sense of native soil either. I can smell it from afar, of course, but I'm a piss-poor kiwi. I neither stay in Ithaca nor return; I am Odysseus in transit, from island to island following those same invisible delineations. I get bored and restless if I stay home, with the familiar coffee-shop crowd, with their thrice-read papers and sarcastic diaries. Some swallows, I've heard, migrate to the same eaves for years and then—they're gone.
There is a well-known fable, popularized perhaps by Borges, about the Simurgh: thirty birds who go searching for the mythical sovereign Simurgh, and find out that “Simurgh” means “thirty birds”... So much history has now been written that it seems as if we historians are ourselves becoming what we are, we have long shaped the history we study. There is room, then, for godwits and kiwis, for waxwings and Kinbotes, for swallows.