The Pokey Finger of God

meditations on religion and culture

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People and History

July 27th, 2008 · No Comments · culture, history

Two famous biographies are here summarized to make a point about a significant problem in the art of archaeology. The question is whether one can even determine if the character of some ancient story actually lived when all you have are the written records that tell the story.

My first subject has defined an entire school of investigative research, and has been frequently been given credit, by his example, for the general improvement of police detective work since the 19th century.  There is copious written material describing the man, his works, his methods, and his environment, all unquestionably published at a time contemporaneous with the events recorded. The histories provided are unquestionably about real, verifiable places and set in the appropriate time, with no recognizable . There is even video proof of the man and his methods. Interestingly, something of a hero cult has even developed over the years regarding this English gentleman.

Naturally, the person I am speaking of in this case is the fictional sleuth Sherlock Holmes, created out of the genius of Arthur Conan Doyle. The video proof is obviously that of the various imposter-actors who have worn the fabled cap and coat. The “historical record” was simply Doyle’s regular column in the Strand Magazine. That and all the hundreds of books of commentary thereon, written since Doyle struck his last tittle. The thing about the hero cult is no joke, nor is this fictional character’s impact on real-life investigative professionals in any way illusary.

My second subject was a national treasure and an object of devotion. He was the modern Prometheus in every way, ushering America into a brightly-lit and musical century of a somewhat smaller world. Acres of press and dozens of biographies were written about the man in his lifetime, and we have many hundreds of confirmable photo, video, and even audio recordings from inventions made by the man himself. It is a much harder task that I had expected to say anything relevant about this exceedingly famous personage without immediately giving away his identity.

But even for a verifiable and famous personage like Thomas Alva Edison, there is easily as much mythology about the man as there was history. For example, everyone knows that Edison invented the light bulb. Except that he didn’t. Light bulbs already existed before Edison turned his attention to them. What he did do was put some of the resources at his “invention factory” in Menlo Park towards systematically discovering the best material to use as the “filament”, or the burning part of the bulb.

What this means is that several (perhaps dozens) of low-paid physics students did painfully tedious experiments with hundreds of sample materials. For weeks, these experiments were conducted until the very best materials were found. And the cheapest was used to create abundant and cheap light bulbs that made Edison yet another fortune and crowned his glory. And the students who actually did all the work? Mostly forgotten.

Most curiously, although the man certainly has his modern fans, there just doesn’t seem to be a generalized hero cult about the man that existed in his lifetime. Much of his genius is now seen to be a skillful combination of media manipulation and patent farming. Admirers of competing inventor Nikola Tesla (who does seem to have an active hero cult) have done some good work knocking away some of Edison’s shiny exterior. Although it was Edison’s own silly obsessions that weighed the most against him, ultimately dragging down his reputation toward the end of his life.

These two examples show the problem pretty clearly. We have great heaps of written materials that frequently appear to be valid from the context of their own times. We’ve made movies about the people talked about in these stories, so there are many who think they’ve seen the true stories of their lives. Many  think they know what these people should look like, how they spoke, even what they believed.  Whatever truth may lie at the bottom of all of this is lost in a miasma of ideology and .

How are we to know when a famous person really existed? Holmes and Edison were contemporaneous — even Holmes’ stories started coming out when both men were roughly the same age. Someone who lives in a time or a place where they might miss the point about Holmes being fictional might really wonder about this. Had Holmes and Edison played chess together? Might they have gone to school together? Once the existential questions are set aside, mighty struggles can then ensure speculating this interaction of that. What about The Seven Percent Solution, in which Holmes turns to Sigmund Freud for help in kicking his cocaine addiction? This even comes from a distinct source — doesn’t this prove that Holmes existed?

So what if we tried to avoid the vagaries of ego and hero and attempted to look at larger groups and measurable activities? Okay. Let’s make it really easy and look at something as modern and American as apple pie and Fahrvergnügen: baseball. The origin of baseball is easy, right? Everyone knows Abner Doubleday invented the game in a cornfield near Cooperstown, NY, in 1839.

Except that he didn’t. Doubleday was a remarkable man, and a true American hero. He was a West Point cadet who served faithfully in the Mexican-American War, the Civil War, and in battles against native peoples.  He wrote many books[1] and none of them even mention baseball. He never spoke of it, and as far as we know: he never played it; he never even watched it. For a man who had as little to do with baseball as he had to be credited with its invention took an act of bravado by baseball club owners interested in making the game seem more “American” (some years after Doubleday had passed on).

Credit for the establishment of the modern, American game of baseball is credited (by no less than the United States Congress in 1953) to a certain Alexander Cartwright for his Manhattan team, the Knickerbockers. Cartwright published his club rules in 1845, and these became the basis for the rules used today in professional and college leagues all across America. But Cartwright did not invent the game, which had been played, in various forms and incarnations, by young men and women throughout the colonies from the earliest times. Forms of ball-and-bat games are discussed in medieval European documents, and possibly derive from games played by pre-Christian Celts as part of Spring fertility rites.

Several lessons here:

  • Things get out of hand really fast. It’s easy to forget how much of what we do today has been done about the same way for thousands of years, with only some of the pattern changing a little in the last century.
  • Pointing to the origin of a group activity is like nailing jello to the wall. People use what advantages they have at hand and this changes how they do things, like play games. People have been playing games for as long as there have been people, so we can assume that many of the “best practices” for such activity had long before been worked out before the first milkmaid protected her dangling stool  from flying turnips[2].
  • People can be strangely possessive about their national mythos, so things like mentioning that baseball wasn’t invented here can really upset people. No doubt getting into things that are actually packaged and distributed as “religion” will dutifully stir up emotional distractions, as well.
  • Finding out what really happened with something is possible up to a pretty limited and modern point. Before that, it’s all a lot of speculation. This is rarely the result of a conspiracy, more often it is simply another example of the tendency for people to forget.

To put a fine point on it: Holmes, Edison, and Doubleday were all significant personages 125 years ago and today the legends they have collectively inspired have distorted the truths of each. The language in which their original stories were written is nearly the same one we speak today, with very little variation. And yet we are still unable to clearly distinguish fact from fiction. The stories of the were written two and three thousand years ago in dead languages that had been translated through other dead languages into  predecessor languages of our own.  Not only were the original and intervening languages different, the cultures, the worldview, and the size of the world was very, very different when most of the stories of the were first written down. Life before and life during the Roman Empire were very different things for most peoples — life afterward was as unimaginable for the people of those days as life before the Roman Empire is to us. Little wonder we struggle today with the ancient materials of the .

  1. Kudos to reader Tom Barthel who clues me into the fact that there are no legitimate biographies of Doubleday.
  2. stoolball was a medieval precursor to both baseball and cricket

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