There’s a Hemingway story called Now I Lay Me in which he fears sleeping at night ever since he was struck by a mortar during World War I – ‘blown up’ as he puts it. To fall asleep in darkness would cause his soul “to fly out of his body,’ that is, he would die. To stay awake he remembers a trout stream he’s fished, pool to pool; he remembers fish caught and lost; he recalls looking under rocks and rotten logs for anything that will stay on a hook – grubs, worms, grasshoppers, and once a salamander whose tiny feet clutched the hook so desperately that his like was never used again. Hemingway returns to the attic in the house where he was born and examines jars of snakes and assorted specimens left by his father. Finally he thinks of the people he knows and says two prayers for each. By then it’s daylight and he can sleep.
For those of us with the opposite problem, how not to stay awake, the process is the same. In repetitious memory the insomniac must drift off without knowing it. And for those who haven’t fished for trout or observed the suffering of a salamander, who don’t have enough friends for the final prayers, good thoughts must be found. When waking up at three a.m. to the world’s evil we need a strategy.
My own is to read, or even better, to think about Herodotus, the first historian of the western world. Herodotus was born in Halicarnassus, a city in modern Turkey, in 484 BC. He is known as the father of history and the father of lies. His subject was the Mediterranean world, over which he traveled and recorded what he saw and heard. He compiled these accounts into a single work called The Histories, published in 430 BC. His story begins with the Trojan War and ends with the two invasions of Greece by Persia. Throughout he shows how western values of cooperation and adherence to the rule of law overcome the forces of tyranny represented by the Persian kings.
While current events can be downright depressing, history at a distance of thousands of years can, emphasis can, have a soothing effect. Events occurred so long ago that the greater themes outlive personal tragedies. With Herodotus we settle into the comfort of hubris and virtue rewarded, where a story teller shows us the truth while recognizing fantastic stories for their own value: they were told and therefore worth preserving. Invasions, plagues, tortures and vendettas. A man who rides a dolphin to safety, another who can swim under water for miles without a breath, kingdoms gambled for what Hamlet called “a quarrel in a straw.” A king, Croesus, asks the Delphic oracle if he should go to war against the Persians. The oracle replies that if he goes to war he will destroy a great kingdom. He goes to war; the kingdom destroyed is his own. As he sits atop a pyre ready to be burned alive he laments his fate and repeats the words of a wise man named Solon, that one can only measure a man’s happiness after his death. Impressed by this wisdom, the Persian king lets Croesus live.
Herodotus rejects Homer’s version of the Trojan War, that Paris won Helen as a reward from Aphrodite. To find the real story, Herodotus interviews traders and wise men – Greeks, Arabs, Persians – who describe a series of back and forth kidnappings started by Phoenician traders and ending with Helen’s abduction by a Trojan prince whose ship was blown off course and wrecked in Egypt. Herodotus concludes that Helen never saw Troy and that Menelaus sacked the city on false premises.
Between the bookmarks of the Trojan War and the Persian invasions Herodotus recounts the rise of Greece and Persia. He interrupts this story at many points to record the life ways of tribes and nations from the Indus River to Gibraltar. We learn the history of Egypt and the source of the Nile, we are told that Indians and Ethiopians have black sperm, that Persians maul their dead with dogs before burial, that certain tribes eat human flesh, that Egyptians embalm cats, that Scythians get milk from mares by inserting a hollow bone into the animal and blowing into it, which causes the teats to descend.
Herodotus ends with the Greek victories over Persia, first at Marathon, then in a series of battles seen as great markers of western history. Herodotus recounts how the Greeks constantly argue among themselves before coming to consensus, and how they are challenged by tyrants who not only force their men into battle, but in Xerxes case, by a king who orders the sea flogged with chains to punish the god who wrecked his bridge in a storm.
How does all this put me to sleep? This melt of fact and fiction is my own trout stream, pool to pool and story to story.