Sunday Pages: "The World of the Huns"
"Fragments from the Author's Preface" by Otto J. Maenchen-Helfen
I’ve always been a book fetishist. Certain editions of certain books—the typefaces, the bindings, the covers; the smells even—resonate with me. Sometimes at used bookstores, and often at the annual library book fair, I will buy a volume I already own, because I find the physical object itself so appealing. I’ve also been known to buy a book, file it on my shelf, and not so much as crack the spine until years later.
One such book is The World of the Huns: Studies in Their History and Culture, by the wonderfully named Otto J. Maenchen-Helfen. This has been in my collection for decades. I can’t remember where or when I bought it, but it was ages ago, long before I started reading books about history. It is hardbound, with black binding, and embossed on the lower left corner of the cover, occupying about one-ninth of the space, is a gold etching of a Hun, Attila presumably, scimitar in hand. What I gleaned from the jacket—which I long ago discarded; I don’t like jackets on hardcover books; my library is a casual workplace—is that the Huns, the subject of the study, are something of a mystery.
Born in Vienna five years after Hitler, Maenchen-Helfen worked in the late twenties at the Marx-Engels Institute in Moscow. Starting in 1930, he spent three years in Berlin, returning to Austria in 1933, when the Nazis took power, and emigrating to the U.S. after the Anschluss. He looks a bit like Marcus, the museum director in Raiders of the Lost Ark. He was for many years a professor at Berkeley, and the Huns were his life’s passion project. The World of the Huns was published by the University of California Press in 1973, four years after his death; the preface was assembled from stray fragments of writing found among his papers.
Little is definitively known about Attila and his Huns. He had a three-decade run in the early/mid fifth century—after the fall of Rome as a great power but before the rise of Islam, when not much else was going on in Europe. The Huns just came riding across the steppes one day, the greatest cavalry the world had ever seen; they were brave, fierce, warlike, and, if they really did practice artificial cranial deformation as rumored, scary (and punk rock) as hell. The Byzantine emperor convinced him to bypass Constantinople and keep heading West, to Europe, which advice Attila took. They wrecked the joint. The Huns feature prominently in accounts from that period; early medieval church fathers were terrified of them, and so were the Germans. Attila is depicted as Satan, more or less. But after the head Hun bought it, the Huns kind of petered out. (There is a theory that modern Hungarians are descended from the Huns—Hungarian is radically different than most other European languages—but it’s probably bunk.) They came, they saw, they conquered, they vanished. Veni vidi vici evanui.
Maenchen-Helfen knew more about Huns than anyone before or since, and even he knew precious little. I finally opened the book a few weeks ago and read the preface—or, rather, the “fragments” of the preface. (Why, I couldn’t say. The impetus that draws us to a book that’s been on the shelf for decades is as unknowable as the force that authors our dreams.) It is delightful, in the way that prefaces to historical volumes very few casual readers give a shit about can be delightful. Nerdishly delightful, I suppose. Here is part of it:
In the history of the Western world the eighty years of Hun power were an episode. The Fathers assembled in council at Chalcedon showed a sublime indifference to the barbarian horsemen who, only a hundred miles away, were ravaging Thrace. They were right. A few years later, the head of Attila’s son was carried in triumphal procession through the main street of Constantinople. . . .
It is doubtful that Attila “made history.” The Huns “perished like the Avars”— “sginuli kak obry,” as the old Russian chroniclers used to say when they wrote about a people who had vanished forever.
It seems strange, therefore, that the Huns, even after fifteen hundred years, can stir up such emotion. Pious souls shudder when they think of Attila, the Scourge of God. . . . But some Turks and Hungarians are still singing loud paeans in praise of their great ancestor, pacifier of the world, and Gandhi all in one. They most passionate Hun fighters, however, are the [Ukrainian] Soviet historians. They curse the Huns as if they had ridden, looting and killing, through the Ukraine only the other day; some scholars in Kiev cannot get over the brutal destruction of the “first flowering of Slavic civilization.”
Interesting, the reminder in a 50-year-old book that Kyiv, not Moscow, is where Slavic civilization began—and that what Putin is now failing to do was easily accomplished by Attila almost sixteen centuries ago.
But it was the last part of the preface that really got me. Here, Maenchen-Helfen is modest, even self-deprecating, about his quixotic chosen profession:
Anatole France, in his Opinions of Jérôme Coignard, once told the wonderful story of the young Persian prince Zémire, who ordered his scholars to write the history of mankind, so that he would make fewer errors as a monarch enlightened by past experience. After twenty years, the wise men appeared before the prince, king by then, followed by a caravan of twelve camels each bearing 500 volumes. The king asked them for a shorter version, and they returned after another twenty years with three camel loads, and, when again rejected by the king, after ten more years with a single elephant load. After yet five further years a scholar appeared with a single book carried by a donkey. The king was on his death bed and sighed, “I shall die without knowing the history of mankind! Abridge, abridge!” “Sire,” replied the scholar, “I will sum it up for you in three words: They were born, they suffered, they died!”
In his way, the king, who did not want to hear it all, was right. But as long as men, stupidly perhaps, want to know “how it was,” there may be a place for studies like the present one. Dixi et salvani animam meam. . . .
The Latin phrase means “I have spoken and saved my soul,” and is famously used by Karl Marx in some or other critique. It’s a fancy way of expressing what Jennifer Lawrence says at the end of Don’t Look Up: “At least we tried.” In other words, his historian’s conscience is clear.
But distilling all of human history to “born/suffered/died,” as Maenchen-Helfen well knew, is insufficient. There is no context there, and therefore nothing to learn. Wisdom requires more than that: a caravan of camels, an elephant, and right now, at this precarious moment in U.S. history, a donkey.
The thirteenth episode of The Five 8, the live show I do with my friend LB on Friday nights, featured the authoritarianism scholar Ruth Ben-Ghiat and a rousing speech by Rosanna Arquette:
Photo credit: the bottom third of the book’s cover.