Monday, June 12, 2006

Search for origins: Rome and western mainland Southeast Asia

Alexandre Grandazzi, The Foundation of Rome. Myth and History. Translated by Jane Marie Todd. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1997 (Review by Siri Walt in the Bryn Mawr Classical Review 98.4.02)[Review]

The central question of this volume is:

How are we to handle a historical period, of which we have a rich, but very mythical memory?

Could this question be applicable to pre-modern Burma?

What becomes axiomatic other areas of world history, we never be able to take for granted in the highly factionalized arena of Burmese history.

Even in the 1970's the Pulitzer prize winning historian David Hackett Fischer in his book Historians Fallacies observed what he called the ethnic fallacy in Burmese historiography where each ethnic group blindly advocated its own version of history.

A new addition to this chorus is professor Michael Aung-thwin of the University of Hawaii who being an expert on the 1000 year old empire of Pagan is now an expert on Burma's contemporary politics also.

Aung-thwin claims that after over forty years of isolation from the world foreign interference is the root of all problems in Burma.

In his latest book The Mists of Ramanna he follows the well-trodden Burmese ethnic-nationalist line of argument where Pyu ancestors of the Burmese are the
fount of all civilization in the western mainland.

At the same time, following the same pattern identified by Fischer 20 years ago, he claims that his partial Mon ethnicity gives him license to argue that the Mons were never oppressed by the Burmese.

Meanwhile, we're supposed to mindlessly nod at every point Aung-thwin makes, as if he was a soldier lecturing us in the Myanmar daily news.

Meanwhile, you see some historians citing only their own ethnic sources and claiming that they are authoratative without any proof or other historians claiming that neighboring historical traditions may not be comparable or commensurable. It seems that complete autonomy and incomparability is all the rage.

So what I'm about to propose is probably high heresy, I can't throw my ethnicity down on the table like a trump card like Aung-thwin.

I just want to suggest that some of the problems that the historiography of pre-modern [or pre-colonial] Burma faces have occurred before in other eras and regions, that they are not unique, that that other cultures far-removed grappled with the same problems and either have or have not found solutions.

Grandazzi's book on Roman history clearly points out what we perhaps have to look for:

"Grandazzi...makes clear that literary tradition and archaeology offer two distinct sets of data, he also assumes that they can at some point enlighten each other."

"But it does not become completely clear in Grandazzi's discussion where we are to find the criteria necessary to reconcile literature and archaeology."

Large numbers of scholars have been working hard on the origins of Rome for over a hundred years and they still can't agree. This fact should humble those searching for origins in western mainland Southeast Asia.

Scholars like Aung-thwin probably have precedents also:

"Ettore Pais. Pais tried systematically to debunk every single legend. Therefore, Grandazzi calls him the height of hypercriticism. But at the same time Pais demonstrated that the mythical accounts were symbolic discourses about the present, something which is rated by Grandazzi as the productive aspect of Pais' work. Nevertheless it has to be said that this working method is already present in the many essays of Mommsen, whom Grandazzi tends to underestimate, in which he tries to show how the legends of Acca Larentia, Remus and many others were shaped by later generations according to their needs and interests..."

"In Grandazzi's eyes, archaeology has slowly invalidated the hypercritical school of historians. He concedes, however, that the interpretation of archaeological data is not always easy, because 'stones always say what is expected of them'."

"Summing up his survey of prior research, Grandazzi sees the solution of the existing problems in interpreting the traditional narrative neither in philology, nor in archaeology nor in Dumezil's comparative mythology . According to him, the hypercritical school has yielded the field completely to archaeology, whereas the fideists assume that the tradition is getting more and more confirmed by archaeology. Grandazzi himself wants to overcome the dichotomy of 'truth' and 'falsehood' and to make historiography itself a matter of study. He calls this reflexive approach 'historiologie' and separates it from the traditional history of historiography. Following Foucault's concept of an 'archaeology of knowledge', he tries to situate historiography as precisely as possible in its historical context."

"But Grandazzi's historiology does at the same time not give up cognitive aims. He still believes in the progress of historical research. Therefore for him the study of former research can help to avoid future faults. So although 'truth' has ceased to be a valid point of reference which could serve to evaluate a historical discourse, it is still possible to determine the strata of earlier tradition in a given field of research. What Grandazzi proposes is a relativist approach, which sees historical research as an idealistic product of its time, but nevertheless enables one to get closer to the chosen subject, i.e. in his case the foundation of Rome."

So in other words, every era chooses their own false interpretation, but somehow over time historians converge on the what-actually-happened.

Perhaps it is what the notion of truth is applied to here, a search for origins, the foundation of Rome, and not the notion of truth or what-actually-happened [irrespective of what ethnic group you belong to] that is the real problem.

In Burma's case, the obssession with the present in all academic discourse together with extreme ethnic polarization probably means history will converge on what-actually-happened a lot slower.

"...even modern methods cannot enable archaeology to explain the origins of Rome, i.e. the beginning of an organized community. According to Grandazzi we still have to rely on the literary tradition to ask the right questions and to come to convincing interpretations."

So we may be stuck with what we have already had for a long time, the Burmese chronicle traditions.

What remains? 1. Translations into a language more accessible to a larger group of historians as well as 2. detailed philological study of existing manuscripts to unravel the textual genealogies and dependencies between historical texts.