As the orchestra is warming up and the actors are completing their pre-show gargling, there is doubtless time for an introduction. Just as every story needs a preface, a truly erudite narrative simply cannot do without an introduction. The introduction gives some pompous literary windbag the chance to rattle on at length about aspects of the structure and symbolism that no one cares about, least of all himself. Or, as in the present instance, an introduction gives the author a second chance to apologize for the inadequacies of the work, or pay a friend to do so instead. But here we shall end, as it is always ominous if the introductory material is of greater length than the story itself.
My prophetic soul
…we defy augury: there’s a special
providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now,
’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be
now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the
readiness is all: since no man has aught of what he
leaves, what is’t to leave betimes? (V.ii)
Three sparrows fall’n today, just one by the brick wall of the college and two in the gutter outside the pub, flying too low or too foolishly, or daring to defy the fast-moving cars…
I walked to the library slowly, as if shambling, for my heart is bound with iron bands like the faithful servant in that old tale. Yet it is not affection which so constricts my heart, but fever, though the voice is gone with which I might speak of it.
To bed! to bed! and drink hot tea with lemon and ginger, and rest! and rest! Even so, I cannot help but think of that essay of Woolf’s, all tremulous iterations of incipient illness.
When I contemplate the common lot of mortality, I must acknowledge that I have drawn a high prize in the lottery of life. The far greater part of the globe is overspread with barbarism and slavery; in the civilized world the most numerous class is condemned to ignorance and poverty; and the double fortune of my birth in a free and enlightened country, in an honourable and wealthy family, is the lucky chance of a unit against millions.
– Edward Gibbon (2003.24, p. 173)
Gibbon was also not dissatisfied when his profligate father died and left him at least some of the estate that had been entailed him. This is either callous or supremely realistic; I cannot quite tell which.
Part the Second
Gazing through the frilly lace curtains at the filigree of frost upon the desiccated vines in the xystus, Muriel frowned slightly. Shaking her head, she turned to Rosemund and said, ‘We leave today, as we planned; they said they’d come this afternoon to fetch us. I suppose we should get out the dust-cloths and pack away the books.’ Rosemund stifled a whimper and bowed her watery eyes; she hadn’t the faintest notion what Muriel meant, but she was sure she didn’t like it. Richard, Elspeth and Isobel were quieter than before, carefully eying the remains of their oatmeal and hoping, by a studied ignorance, to avoid any personal inconvenience. Young Herbert, of course, was oblivious and happily crumbled his toast into the saltcellar.
A view (7)
Sunday, afternoon, March.
The Nineteenth Part
‘Utopia can never exist, as well we know,’ she said, half-turning at the door to look at him for the last time, ‘and I will never see you again. I am sorry I cannot love you and, for your sake as well as mine, I think it best that we part now. I would not have you leave thinking ill of me. I have never used you, except to admire your friendship, savor your brilliance and the excellent companionship only you can provide. I understand the cosmos, but I do not, and cannot, understand anger. I have given you so much of myself, and my only sorrow is that I cannot give more.’ She turned her gaze downward, as though to suppress tears—she had no inclination to weep, but was fond of the effect of her supposed sensitivity on unwary observers—and gravely returned indoors.
He sat for a short while on the terrace wrinkling his evening attire before resolving to take the next train. Overcome at last by his own romanticism, with anguished steps he hurried inside to pack.
Now I pretend to read. I raise my book, till it almost covers my eyes. But I cannot read in the presence of horse-dealers and plumbers. I have no power to ingratiate myself. I do not admire that man; he does not admire me. Let me at least be honest. Let me denounce this piffling, trifling, self-satisfied world; these horse-hair seats; these coloured photographs of piers and parades. I could shriek aloud at the smug self-satisfaction, at the mediocrity of this world, which breeds horse-dealers with coral ornaments hanging from their watch-chains. There is that in me which will consume them entirely. My laughter shall make them twist in their seats; shall drive them howling before me. No; they are immortal. They triumph. They will make it impossible for me always to read Catullus in a third-class railway carriage. They will drive me in October to take refuge in one of the universities, where I shall become a don; and go with schoolmasters to Greece; and lecture on the ruins of the Parthenon. It would be better to breed horses and live in one of those red villas than to run in and out of the skulls of Sophocles and Euripides like a maggot, with a high-minded wife, one of those University women. That, however, will be my fate. I shall suffer. I am already at eighteen capable of such contempt that horse-breeders hate me. That is my triumph; I do not compromise. I am not timid.
(2000.23.1, p. 60f.)
The Historicity of Peasants
Have been reading Michael Rostovtzeff’s A Large Estate in Egypt in the Third Century B.C. A Study in Economic History (Madison, WI: 1922), a short book in which the notorious Russian historian gives the Zenon archive his attention. Of course, in 1922 the Zenon archive, with early Ptolemaic documents numbering in the thousands, was bigger news than it is today. Bigger news not least because most of the early finds (in Philadelphia) had been found by farmers digging for sebakh, who sold their finds to dealers, who in turn sold them to European collectors, at times tearing an individual papyri to pieces to sell it to multiple buyers (p. 8); bits and pieces of the archive found their way to Hamburg, London, and Cairo, as well as to private collections (9).1
The archive itself is of interest because it contains the notes and correspondence of a Ptolemaic bureaucrat responsible for the ten thousand aroura estate granted to Apollonius, the dioketes (government official) of Ptolemy Philadelphus (the second Ptolemaic king of Egypt).2 The papyri give a glimpse of local Egyptian government in the period, a glimpse made more useful by the lack of any corresponding (coherent) historical narrative. That’s all well and good, I suppose, but if you’re interested in the government of Ptolemaic Egypt, you’ll probably want a book more recent than Rostovtzeff’s.3 The reason I’m wading through A Large Estate… has very little to do with my interest (or lack thereof) in Ptolemaic government; rather, it’s because of passages like the following:
The relations of the peasants with the administration of the dôrea, as well as with the state officials are not very friendly. Strike after strike, complaints, requests, trials, are the order of the day [….] The cause of these quarrels is evident. The peasants were mostly new settlers in the Arsinoite. Moreover, the State constantly introduced new rules which the peasants interpreted as being directed against them. Finally, the peasants had to deal with a complicated system of officials and private agents who certianly did not work together very smoothly, and each one of whom never forgot his private interests. No doubt, in all these dealings the peasants were the sufferers. Nobody cared how much of the produce of the land the peasants could retain; the state agents were anxious to get the regular payments for the State in full; the agents of Apollonius tried to get as much as possible for their master and for themselves. No wonder that the peasants were cheated very often and that a suspicious, dull mood characterized their relations with the administration and the landholders, just as in Russia under the old régime and now under the bolsheviki (86).
Works of history, you see, are mirrors of the society that produces them. The fascinations they express are less often those of their subject than of the writer. The government of the Ptolemies probably cared very little for the opinions of the ‘peasants,’ so long as they cleared the fields and brought their grain to the treasury. The ‘peasant’ as the object of history is a modern invention, and A Large Estate… is a genre piece.4 It is also a warning. Perhaps the greatest difficulty in dealing with fragmentary evidence, such as papyri, is the desire to fill in the gaps, to read one’s own sense into the lacunae instead of leaving the patches blank. Try to get too deeply into what you’re studying, draw the parallels too close, and you’ll end up drawing the evidence from conclusions, instead of the other way around.5
- The fate of the Zenon papyri is staid, compared to that purchased through a German black market run in Egypt in the last half of the 20th century — but that’s perhaps a story for another time. [↩]
- The bureaucracy of Ptolomaic Egypt is best exemplified by the regulations for the oil monopoly found in P.Rev. col. 44f. (English translation available in the Loeb Select Papyri vol. II — tho’ not, so far as I can see, online). [↩]
- The Cambridge Ancient History2, vol. 7.1 would be a good starting point — and it has an extensive bibliography. [↩]
- Cf. Marx & Engels’ The Conditions of the Working-class in England. [↩]
- That said, A Large Estate… is still a good read (especially as a lesson in early 20th C. intellectual history) and still one of the better examples of scholarship on the subject of Ptolemaic Egypt. [↩]
Incomplete Associations (Greek)
The fragments of Sappho flutter like a silken ribbon caught in thorny centuries.
Herodotus is the sound of nodding asleep amid the low murmur of unuttered secrets and improbable truths.
The dialogues of Plato are a sly glance between clever friends.
Thucydides marshals his words, setting them in trim, ordered lines, bristling and iron-edged.
The plays of Euripides are reddening berries, seemingly sweet, yet tart to the tongue. Like a master’s black-figure vase are the plays of Aeschylus, stiff of form, archaic, and sublime of aesthetics. The plays of Sophocles are lightning, the bright spot left on the retina by the darkness of the world.†
Hesiod brags of prizes won, the blue-ribbon poem of a pedigree at the county-fair, coarse-woven and straw-capped.
Homer’s poems bind the world itself, perfect links in a chain begun when the beauty of words and the troubles of man first dashed together. The Iliad runs dark and rough, scraping whatever grasps it, leaving the mark indelible of rage. The Odyssey is of bright brass wound with a worn and fraying ribbon, the warm sheen of smooth words and well-told tales snared in thoughts of home.
† Nietzsche’s image of the Sophoclean hero, from Geburt der Tragödie.
raptores orbis, postquam cuncta vastantibus defuere terrae, mare scrutantur: si locuples hostis est, avari, si pauper, ambitiosi, quos non Oriens, non Occidens satiaverit: soli omnium opes atque inopiam pari adfectu concupiscunt. auferre trucidare rapere falsis nominibus imperium, atque ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant.
Ravagers of the world, having by their universal plunder exhausted the land, they rifle the deep. If the enemy be rich, they are rapacious; if he be poor, they lust for dominion; neither the east nor the west has been able to satisfy them. Alone among men they covet with equal eagerness poverty and riches. To robbery, slaughter, plunder, they give the lying name of empire; they make a desolation and call it peace.
– Tacitus, Agricola, 30.5-6.
Part the Fourth
Elspeth, half-hidden by delphiniums, peered gravely at the butter knife Richard was attempting to spirit away in the interior pocket of his much-worn jacket. ‘That’s wicked, Richard,’ she intoned. At this unexpected remonstrance, he started and the errant butter knife clattered onto the floor. The company looked up. The clock ticked in the hallway. Young Herbert watched a bird perched outside on the windowsill; sliding gracelessly out of his chair, he pressed his nose against the window. The bird flew away. ‘What has Richard done now, Elspeth?’ Isobel asked. ‘He tried to steal a butter knife,’ Elspeth calmly replied.
A man who gets few letters does not open one lightly. He hefts it for weight, reads the name of the sender on the envelope and the address, looks at the handwriting, and studies the postmark and the date.
– Steinbeck (East of Eden, p. 486)
I’ve been reading a lot of letters lately; not that the vast circle of my acquaintance (this, I trust you will notice, is intended ironically) has been spurred to take up pens, paper, and postage stamps by these ‘troubled [and troubling] times’ or some private demon. No, no, no—nothing of the sort. Rather, I have been reading collections of letters written on papyrus well more than a millenium ago.
Sarapion to his brothers Ptolemaeus and Apollonius, greeting. If you are well (it would be excellent). I myself am well. I have made a contract with the daughter of Hesperus and intend to marry her in the month of Mesore. Please send me half a chous of oil. I have written to let you know. Goodbye. Year 28, Epeiph 21. Come for the wedding-day, Apollonius. (Addressed: to Ptolemaeus and Apollonius)
– UPZ 66, 154 BC1
What I like about these letters is precisely their lack of interest. It is the rare letter in which one finds something out of the ordinary; instead, one reads of people going about their daily lives—getting married, having children, arguing with their parents, siblings, spouse, boss, worrying about food, worrying about clothes, the rent on their land, etc., etc. Occasionally, of course, one finds some spark of interest in the letters, one which sheds an unexpected light on the society of Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt.
Hilarion to his sister Alis very many greetings, likewise to my lady Berous and Apollonarion. Know that we are still in Alexandria. Do not be anxious; if they really go home, I will remain in Alexandria. I beg and entreat you, take care of the little one, and as soon as we receive our pay I will send it up to you. If by chance you bear a child, if it is a boy, let it be, if it is a girl, cast it out. You have said to Aphrodisias ‘Do not forget me.’ How can I forget you? I beg you not to be anxious. The 29th year of Caesar (Augustus), Pauni 23. (Addressed: Deliver to Alis from Hilarion)
P.Oxy. 744, 1 BC
There is, though, a moral issue involved in reading these letters. After all, reading other people’s mail is something that ‘is not done’ — not quite taboo (especially now, in the age of e-mail, when friends and family members can, with the possession of a single password, unlock the secrets of one’s correspondance), but close. There’s something more at stake, though, in digging these dead letters out of the sand and attempting to decipher them: the hunger for knowledge overtakes and overwhelms other aspects of human decency or, if that oxymoron displeases, the mos maiorum.
Horus to the most honoured Apion greeting. Regarding Lampon the mouse-catcher, I paid him on your account 8 drachmae as earnest money to catch mice in Toka. You will kindly send me this sum. I have also lent 8 drachmae to Dionysius, president of Nemerae, and he has not sent them back; this is to inform you. Goodbye. Pauni 24.
P.Oxy. 299, 1st C. AD
For we are not content with taking up with trembling hands the papyri found in rubbish dumps or buried in the basements of houses and temples. Our hunger for ‘facts’ goes beyond all this. We are avaracious, ravenous, insatiable when it comes to the desire for information. So tombs are thrown open, the cartonnage stripped from the mummified corpses of crocodiles and people, the plaster-stained papyri scanned with restless eyes—the body thus laid bare a curio, nothing more. We seize the private copies of the Iliad upon which the skull of its owner spent millennia, and are vexed when it crumbles into dust as we grasp it; we snatch from the long-since vanished lips the gold plates inscribed with Orphic hymns—paeans to immortality and life beyond the grave—and feel no qualm in the theft.
P.Oxy. 3919, 188 AD
That the ‘soul’ of the dead lives on is unlikely; that it should wreak revenge, doubly so. Yet it strikes me as one of the finest ironies, that in trying to decipher the lives of ancient peoples, we should so callously and so willingly go against their last wishes.2 I wonder, too, what it matters if the furnishings and household goods, the weapons and jewelry thus found (assembled, of course, under the name ‘artifact’) are broken up, reused, melted down or sold for profit, or if they end up tucked away in some museum, leagues away from their ‘final resting place.’ Institutionalize any monstrosity, as grave-robbing is, and it becomes socially acceptable.
Aurelius Dius to Aurelius Horion, my sweetest father, many greetings. I make obeisance for you every day before the gods of this place. Now do not be uneasy, father, about my studies; I am working hard and taking relaxation; I shall do finely. I salute my mother Timiea and my sister Tnepherous and my sister Philous, I salute also my brother Patermouthis and my sister Thermouthis, I salute also my brother Heracl[…] and my brother Kollouchis, I salute my father Melanus and my mother Timpesouris and her son. Gaia salutes you all. I pray for your health, father. (Addressed: Deliver to Aurelius Horion from his son Dius)
P.Oxy. 1296, 3rd C. AD
And yet without scruple, without regret, I continue to read these letters. It may be, then, that I have the makings of a soulless, bloodless, heartless academic in me;‡ it may be that I have no moral sense, no conscience, no shame. All of these are possible. I continue reading, though, not as a means to an end, but as an end unto itself—for it is not the mouse-catchers, the exposure of female infants, or the sums disputed in financial wranglings which draws me on from word to word, page to page. Not at all. It is the sound of one voice calling to another, the echo of living voices, which catches my attention, much as a shout from the sidewalk will startle me, or raise my curiosity. Having gone through the trouble to unearth these scraps, to steal them away from oblivion, the least we can do is listen.
P.Oxy. 4126, 3rd — 4th C. AD
Listen, that is, not in hopes of discerning the social counterpoint behind the words, but listen as one person should listen to another when they are in the same room; listen with more interest and sympathy than when we ask a bore a question, just to be polite. For we have more than feigned an interest here; we have robbed and plundered and overturned much we claim to hold sacred. We are implicated in our query, and if we do not stay for the answer, we would justly be condemned. Bid the past speak and one cannot expect a Demosthenes, a Cicero, a Pericles at every turn, for the Sarapions, the Dionysioses, the Apollonarions far outnumber those few and eloquent men who shaped the course of history. The voces populi are not much concerned with history, with the riots in Alexandria or the persecutions in Memphis—they want to tend their gardens, see their wives, raise their children, pay their mortgage. Even this general conclusion, though, robs them of the sole possession remaining to them: their individuality.
- Pictures of papyrus letters from the P.Oxy website. [↩]
- Most people (if such an entity exists) would be appalled to think some years hence an enterprising young man should dig up their dead grandmother, snatch up such jewels as she was buried with, wonder at the remnants of the coffin and try to make some sense of it. Yet when Schliemann dressed up his wife Sophia in the gold of ‘Spartan Helen’ he’d unearthed there at Hisarlik, this was merely evidence of eccentricity, not a desecration. [↩]
· alkaline · Bosporus · capillary · deviation · Euclid · frenetic · gargantuan · heretic · inumbrate · jovial · kernel · lucid · mutton · Niobe · omicron · pigeon · query · risible · suffrage · tremulous· undulate · venial · wrest · Xanthippe · yield · ziggurat ·
In a word, my work is digressive, and it is progressive too,—and at the same time.
This, Sir, is a very different story from that of the earth’s moving round her axis, in her diurnal rotation, with her progress in her elliptic orbit which brings about the year, and constitutes that variety and vicissitude of seasons we enjoy;—though I own it suggested the thought,—as I believe the greatest of our boasted improvements and discoveries have come from such trifling hints.
Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine;——they are the life, the soul of reading;—take them out of this book for instance,—you might as well take the book along with them;—one cold eternal winter would reign in every page of it; restore them to the writer;—he steps forth like a bridegroom,—bids All hail; brings in variety, and forbids the appetite to fail.
All the dexterity is in the good cookery and management of them, so as to be not only for the advantage of the reader, but also of the author, whose distress, in this matter, is truly pitiable: For, if he begins a digression,—from that moment, I observe, his whole work stands stock still;—and if he goes on with his main work,—then there is an end of his digression.
——This is vile work.—
The Life & Opinions of Tristram Shandy (I.22)
the false dichotomy
Something I’ve been thinking about lately, in pictures:1
Frauenkirche, Dresden, early 1945.
Frauenkirche, Dresden, February 1945.
Frauenkirche, Dresden, 12 September 2002
- Amusingly, from the Library of Congress rather than the Sächsische Landesbibliothek. [↩]
It was a strange dream. Of course, it was a strange sleep as well—dozing in the middle of the afternoon over Tristram Shandy and half-a-cup of tepid coffee, only to wake to the first signs of dawn at five in the morning. It was, I say, a strange dream. A restaurant in some unknown country, cheap wood-grain paneling on the wall and a sad-faced waitress who spoke only Italian as she delivered the overcooked food to the table. There were eight of us dining—eight people I have not seen in at least two years, seven of whom (myself excepted—for I knew them all from my schooling) had never met each other, though they conversed agreeably enough. We all spoke German, too, at the table—except when talking to the waitress, when we settled into sibilant cadences and sharp vowels. I doubt we could manage this in the waking world.
That was not the strangest thing, though, about the dream. The most unaccountable, the most puzzling, the oddest thing about this dream was that, no matter what language I spoke at the table or, afterwards, when walking along the paving stones towards the train station, I thought in English—there was no escaping it. No matter how much or how accurately I cloaked or masked myself in some new place, new language, new identity, the original self, expressed only in thoughts, remained.
I know this is not accurate; I know that, given enough time, new surroundings subsume the original self entirely—one speaks, one thinks, one dreams in that new language, exists almost entirely in that new world, though a chance word can snag upon the memory or, rather, the fact of one’s essential estrangement. The absence of this consummation (as much as the sheer perversity of dreaming about thinking) made the dream unsettling; it was no nightmare but, nonetheless, I was glad to wake.
Influential Books (ii)
As of Thursday evening, my list of influential books has expanded to include:
The addition gives me some pause, however, and it would be as well, I think, to give an account of this list, its whys and wherefores, its origins and impulses, else it lapse into a pompous and merely bibliographic obscurity. Before I can begin this inquiry, a few facts must be made plain. I am neither a scholar nor a critic of literature—nor am I a student thereof, save by aspiration. Harold Bloom, Stanley Fish, & co. have nothing to fear from me, for my readings remain unanalyzed, the prose unparsed, the poetry unconstrued. Nonetheless, I do have scruples; ‘one must,’ as D.H. Lawrence pointed out in a rare moment of lucidity, ‘discriminate.’ 1 These scruples (or prejudices) of mine are divisible into three points, which I shall, for your convenience, set out in a list:
- To read for improvement, to read for one’s cleverness, to read for edification are all a waste of time. One reads for nourishment, a book providing food for the brain as dinner does for the stomach.
- Just as the palate varies from person to person—here being a gourmand and there a mere consumer of comestibles—so, too, various readers are suited to different fare: to some Stephen King, to others Horace Walpole, the effect is much the same. (Note: however pleased one may be by one’s digestion (or comprehension), it is not a thing to boast of; to prefer Beckett to Bridget Jones is a sign of personal preference, not moral worth.)
- A book may safely age, and so it matters not a jot if one waits another year to read it; try it now, ’tis dust and ashes, wait a year, it is a feast, with table settings and all. Forced diets are rarely successful; or, if they have a momentary effect, it cannot be sustained. Gagging through all of Richardson’s Clarissa is a waste of time, for it is meant to divert the mind, not to numb it; reading Ulysses at seventeen seems to me silly, for one will not get the jokes—and glosses are no replacement for well-earned laughter.
A skeptical reader will say I see no value in education, which could be seen as a series of books which are always almost too difficult for the pupil’s comprehension. Not at all. I value education a great deal, it is one of the great processes of life; but like other great processes of life (including those not lofty enough to mention at the dinner table) I don’t feel any especial reverence for it. This is, and I acknowledge it, a result of my privilege; just as only the constipated can value a good sh*t, so too only those debarred from learning can know the true importance of an education.
‘What do I think of Rupert Birkin?’ repeated Gudrun. ‘I think he’s attractive—decidedly attractive. What I can’t stand about him is his way with other people—his way of treating any little fool as if she were his greatest consideration. One feels so awfully sold, oneself.’
‘Why does he do it?’ said Ursula.
‘Because he has no real critical faculty—of people, at all events,’ said Gudrun. ‘I tell you, he treats any little fool as he treats me or you—and it’s such an insult.’
‘Oh, it is,’ said Ursula. ‘One must discriminate.’
‘One must discriminate,’ repeated Gudrun. ‘But he’s a wonderful chap, in other respects—a marvellous personality. But you can’t trust him.’
‘Yes,’ said Ursula vaguely. She was always forced to assent to Gudrun’s pronouncements, even when she was not in accord altogether.
– D.H. Lawrence (Women in Love, ch. 1)[↩]