Thursday, May 27, 2010

On knowing someone (or not actually knowing them at all)

You’ve all had the feeling – you thought you knew someone, and then – like a bolt from the blue – they do a 360 degrees on you and you have no idea who this person is after all. I’ve recently had this happen to me. Worse, I was not able to confront the person in question, since he died some 30 years ago. At least that is what I thought…

I realize this needs clarification. Alright, let me try. In the work of my master’s thesis [oh, bejeezles, is she going to start complaining about that again?!? Shut. The. Bagpipes. Up. And. JUST! WRITE!], I’ve read many documents written by people important for the tiny part of history I am focusing on. Some of these people you probably know, seeing as they were important also in a larger context, as Presidents and Prime Ministers in the not too distant past. John F. Kennedy, for instance, is a name I expect will bring out certain memories and images whether you were born in Toledo, Tokyo or Togo. The preexistent ideas we have about people of JFK’s caliber can make it difficult to remain neutral (if that is even a goal, but don’t get me started on post modern historiography).

Most of the time, however, it isn’t the personal notes of Kennedy or Eisenhower or Lyndon B. Johnson I get to read. I read about them, sure, but the day-to-day handling of the specific area of American foreign policy I am interested in (US peace initiatives in the Middle East between 1956 and 1967, in case I haven’t mentioned it before. I have. But you may not have read it. Or cared) didn’t often make it to the President’s desk. It may not even have made it to the Secretary of State’s desk. In the long run a policy is often to a large extent formed by the lower-level officials in the Department.

These are the ones I am surrounded by on a daily basis. These are people who aren’t particularly famous, at least not many of them (though some went on to do greater things later). These are names I had never even heard of only a year ago, but that I now have read so many letters and memos and telegrams and notes to and from that they almost feel like personal acquaintances. I start recognizing patterns – one has a particular way of sugaring pills, another has a tendency to always play the devil’s advocate. I can’t help but try to imagine what they were really like in real life, and before I know it I am no longer neutral to these guys (always guys, by the way. I have so far encountered one single woman in the hundreds of documents I’ve read, and she was a secretary). Based on my impression of these people from these old documents they wrote of records of meetings they attended, I even make up nicknames for some of them. One, his real name shall remain unrevealed for obvious reasons, is currently only known to me as “The Cold-Hearted Bagpipe” (I don’t usually say bagpipe, though…).

The neutrality issue set aside, it is relatively unproblematic that I make up these little stories about the people who otherwise would only be names on an old piece of paper. It is unproblematic because the events I am reading (and occasionally writing) about happened 40-50 years ago. Most of the people involved are long dead. Or so I thought.

I google most of the names that reoccur often enough for me to notice. The reason I do this is both because it is useful for me to know exactly what their position was at the time they wrote that document (the same document can take on an entirely different meaning depending on whether it was written by the director of some government agency or other, or if it was scribbled down by an on-the-floor bureaucrat), and because it is useful to know where they ended up after this job. Especially in the Israeli sources the seemingly unimportant nobodies participating in low-level meetings have a nasty habit of ending up as chief-of-this or minister-of-that. It just looks like you know what you are doing if you are able to mention things like this…

Anyway, there are apparently some glitches in my googling. One of the more prominent members of the state department fraction that dealt with the Middle East during my allotted eleven years, was a gentleman named Phillips Talbot. Now, this one I do feel comfortable mentioning the name of because he is one of the good guys (and before you ask – no, I have no silly nickname for him). From the documents I’ve read I had formed an impression of a respectable, thoughtful, and intelligent man, one who was not afraid to stand up for what he believed was right and one who was also not afraid to introduce fresh ideas in the policy he worked to implement. However, he was also a realistic person, and I don’t think it would have occurred to me to describe him as an idealist from what I have seen from his pen. All in all a solid image, one that lead me to think I knew most of what there was need for me to know about him.

But then I googled him again today, hoping that I’d magically come across some useful information (or some clues as to where I could find such information) about a conference he hosted in 1964. I didn’t find that, but I did find something else. I had never looked at his birth date before, but when I peeked at the Wikipedia page about him I noticed that it said he was born in 1915. Strangely enough, though, it didn’t say when he died. I had never really thought about the possibility that any of the people I encounter in my research could be alive. After all, most of them were in their fifties or sixties already then, so the chances that they were alive now seemed unlikely.

But Phillips Talbot is.

I checked more websites, (I think I’ve been through almost eight pages of google hits on him today,) and the verdict is clear. This man that I assumed was no longer with us is alive and vibrant. He is turning 95 in only a few days, but he seems in no hurry to go anywhere. There were a few interviews with him on YouTube from last summer. He is an elderly – but I wouldn’t say old – man, who still gives me the distinct impression of being respectable, thoughtful and intelligent. The only big difference from the image I had formed about him is that he is still alive!

Now, this doesn’t really change anything. He is still just one of the many people that had an impact on the issues I write my thesis about. The fact that I also found his email address online doesn’t really matter either, because at this point in my research the complexity of adding an oral source and the can of worms that can be just seems too much to deal with. Had he been one of the Presidents or Secretaries of State I would have tried to contact him, but right now I don’t think I will.

Even if this discovery doesn’t change anything, it affects me slightly anyway… Now I know that this is a real, living person. It makes me wonder if I will read his documents differently, or if I will weigh my words more carefully when mentioning him. Even though I decided not to contact him, I can’t help but wonder if this will turn into one of those “what if’s”. What if I had emailed him? Would he have been able to enlighten me on certain things I had overseen or interpreted incorrectly? Further, the discovery that I had overlooked the fact that one of the people I spend every day with, so to speak, is still alive, makes me wonder what else I might have missed. Are there gaping holes in my research that I am blind to? Finally, the things I learned about Talbot’s work before and after he left the Near East division in State Department, while not changing my overall view of him, are already starting to affect the image I had formed. He used to be a journalist. He has a PhD from the University of Chicago. He was the US ambassador to Greece. And his main field of interest was not the Middle East, but rather India where he worked for years, one of them being 1947 when India gained its independence. One of the newspaper articles I read about him described him as a Gandhian.

Writing history is not necessarily about being neutral or objective anymore (here we go with the post modernism again), but nevertheless these remain ideals most historians at least try to approach. We try to be fair. We try to portray history if not “as it was” (courtesy of good ol’ Leopold von Ranke), at least as close to how we perceive how it was as possible. We may not admit it anymore, but we still seek to describe something true, something real. In this respect all this extra information I have gained today may be helpful, because it can help fill gaps in my research. On the other hand, it might be distractive, because Talbot’s (or anyone else’s) belief in Gandhian ideals is irrelevant to my interpretation of the documents that are supposed to be the evidence for my arguments in my thesis.

I thought I knew Mr. Talbot. It turned out there was one very big detail I had missed. Perhaps the best way to deal with this is to accept that I don’t know him, and to leave it at that?


M.J. Nicholls said...

I find the same is true when you discover a writer you love is still alive. I thought postmodern prince John Barth had snuffed it, but recently saw a brand new book of his stories on Amazon.

The difference is I'm not too sure I want fresh work from an eighty-five-year-old man. Sometimes it feels as though they are writing from the past, not the present.

Cruella Collett said...

Yeah, I guess that was part of my reasoning why I didn't really want to contact him too - the man must be getting old and probably forgetful, right? Even if he didn't look that way - at all - in the interview I watched.

Jan Morrison said...

hard to say. some people don't get forgetful - they stay sharp to the very end. And some folks go off the beam early. I'd check him out - challenge your perceptions. The people who made history or witnessed it first hand are gold because they are on their last legs...

Cruella Collett said...

I definitely think this one belongs to the former category. He sounded like his beam was just fine on the video clip (40 minutes worth of telling about things that happened more than 70 years ago should have revealed otherwise). I think I will ask my supervisor what she thinks. One problem is distance - there is no way I can fly over there to see him and I think I'd feel funny suggesting an email interview with a 95 year old. And as mentioned there are other issues regarding scope etc as well. But I will think about it.

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