29 July 2011

Things Forgotten

Some kind of solitude is measured out in you
You think you know me but you haven’t got a clue
Hey Bulldog (The Beatles)
Many things are not working—please don’t tell me what they are. I have something to say, damn it. Listen to me. Words echoing down the corridors of time, deliberately preserved, accidentally preserved, partially preserved. But mostly lost. Since the beginning of writing—apparently a cobbled-together memory crutch to help keep track of sacks of grain and cart-axles—most of humankind’s words have been lost. Legends have it that this or that emperor or king ordered writings consigned to the flames—but that really wasn’t necessary. All that it took was for the educated classes, the scribes, those capable of writing, to just stop copying them. Worm, rot, fire, flood, the ordinary wear and tear of life take their toll, parchment and paper dissolve, and the words are lost. Where are the plays of Menander, the greatest comic playwright of the ancient world? Lost, except for scraps recovered from ancient garbage-heaps. Where are the works of Democritus, whose atomic theory perhaps foreshadowed the developments of science? According to ancient gossip Plato wanted to burn his books—but that wasn’t necessary. With the triumph of Christianity anti-science was in full swing, and Plato’s mystical ramblings were copied—while the works of Democritus were allowed to rot. Where are the works of the gloomy Etruscans, about which the emperor Claudius wrote, or the busy Phoenicians, who invented the alphabet? Mani’s religion stretched from Turkey to China—and where are his scriptures now? Even the favored few suffered. We have more plays from Euripides than any of his contemporaries, yet his popular Andromeda survives only in a single scene as parodied by Aristophanes. There are more copies of Paul’s letters than perhaps any writer of antiquity—but his (or is it Deutero-Paul’s?) letter to the Laodiceans is known only from a single reference.

Listen to me. I am living tradition, humankind’s memory. I am Herodotus, who hacked away at something that would someday be history, and Aristotle, who took a stab at something that would someday be science. I am Sun Tzu, who wrote of war, and Ovid, who wrote of love. I am Kālidāsa and Terence, Qoheleth and Mencius. I am the anonymous epitomizers, editors, and redactors who shaped and transmitted the material, the scribes who copied it, and the audiences for whom it came into being and continued to be transmitted, the owners who treasured the written words.

Listen to me, damn it. I’m humankind, and I have something to say. Living tradition is only part of the story; accidental preservation counts too. The letters home by Roman soldiers stationed in Britain before the empire’s retreat, preserved in unpromising soil. The inventory lists baked in Cretan clay. Astronomical observations dug out of the rocks. Someone’s ancient to-do list preserved in sand. A famous sage’s sayings preserved on bamboo and buried with its owner. A handful of characters badly scrawled by an apprentice scribe. A local official’s panicked letter to a distant and possibly uncaring monarch. An imposing monument commemorating a long-forgotten battle.

I have something to say—listen to me. I’m recovered texts, flashbacks from memories forgotten. Codices stuffed in jars and left undisturbed for a thousand years, libraries of clay tablets buried under fallen walls, words preserved in the writings of others, hymns in unremembered languages written on the walls of tombs, fragments found in unknown garbage dumps that bring dead words back to life. Accidental glimpses into past deeds, past thoughts, past ways of being.

A person’s memory is limited to a tiny slice of time; humankind’s memory extends much further, and continues to grow the further out we peer into time and space. The moment is fleeting; the future insubstantial; what we have is memory. Listen to it; it has something to say.

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