Charles Olson on History, Story, Localism

I expect to be in Gloucester, Mass., a couple of times this month, and have been thinking about Charles Olson and his insights about History. The following passages are from The Special View of History, a thin book with text that was originally presented as a series of talks at the experimental Black Mountain College in North Carolina in 1956. Ann Charters edited and introduced the book. 

Special View of History cover.jpg

. . . . "What did happen? Two alternatives: make it up; or try to find out. Both are necessary. We inherit an either-or, from the split of science and fiction. It dates back at least to Plato, who used the word 'mouth' as an insult, to say it lies, and called poets muthologists--don't tell the truth, and so mislead the Commonwealth.

"Story was once all logos, the art of the logos. 'The normal or characteristic function of the ancient Story Teller,' says J. K. Thomson, from whom I draw most of this on the Logos, 'was not to invent. It was to repeat.' It was not mere word or expression of human experience so much as it was a form of human experience itself.

"Because it was oral it was also Muthos. Logos itself did not originally mean 'word' or 'reason,' or anything but merely 'what is said.' For some reason, says Thomson, Homer avoids Logos, preferring Muthos, but Muthos with him means 'what is said' in speech or story exactly like Logos in its primary sense. Herodotus calls Aesop a Logopoies, and is himself called by Aristotle not that, but 'the Muthologos.' What it all comes to is this, that to those who listened to the Stories a Muthos was a Logos, and a Logos was a Muthos. They were two names for the same thing.

"One need notice, however, that Herodotus may have been conscious of a difference he was making when he did add the word 'history.' The first words of his book --- oi logoi --- are 'those skilled in the logoi' --- not 'historians.' '['I]storin in him appears to mean 'finding out for oneself,' instead of depending on hearsay. The word had already been used by the philosophers. But while they were looking for truth, Herodotus was looking for the evidence."

. . . .

" 'Story. Be cockney. Drop the H --- how often, if you are a writer, have you been told by everyone you meet, if you could take my life down, that would be a story?"  . . . .

" 'Man is estranged from that with which he is most familiar.' --- Heraclitus" . . . . 

"History is the new localism, a polis to replace the one which was lost in various stages all over the world from 490 BC on, until anyone of us knows places where it is disappearing now."