Point of Departure - Summer 2010

Lost Classics


An address delivered in 2009 to graduates in classics at UC Berkeley

By Daniel Mendelsohn


Thirty years ago, on a warm day in the middle of May of 1979, at the end of my freshman year at college, I picked up the telephone in my apartment in Charlottesville, Virginia, and called my grandfather in Miami Beach, Florida, to announce that I’d decided to major in classics.

The news did not go over well.

“Classics what?” said my bemused grandfather, a man whose formal education had ended in 1914, when Austria-Hungary entered World War I; a man who, by the time he was 19, as I was on that May day, had lived through a world war, lost a father, crossed an ocean, exchanged Europe for America, one civilization for another; had, from nothing, made a life. “It’s books? Music? Classical what?” he repeated.

“No, grandpa,” I said, clearing my throat, my fingers, gripping the plastic receiver, starting to sweat. “Classical literature. “The Classics … You know, like Greek and Latin.” There was only a confused silence on the other end, and so I blurted, rather helplessly, “Plato!”

There was a fumbling noise on the other end of the line, and when the conversation resumed, it was not my grandfather but his wife who spoke—a lady who had been born and raised as what we Jews call a Litvak, a word whose nuances, savoring richly of a world as lost, in its way, as that of Sappho and Sophocles, are inadequately conveyed by the neutral adjective “Lithuanian”; it was, now, my grandfather’s wife who spoke vigorously, incredulously, into the phone on hearing that I was going to be majoring in Latin and Greek.

“Greek! Latin!” she spat. “What good it will do you, Greek and Latin? They are dead, the Greeks, the Romans—all dead, for a thousand years they are dead! A thousand years! I have been to Greece, been to Athens! And I can tell you—they are dead! What good did it do them, their literature, their art?! Plato? What good will he do for you? I have been to the grave of Plato, and I can tell you: he has been dead for a thousand years! Trust me, find something else to study, you’ll make a living at least, you’ll be happier!”

She took a deep breath and wearily ended with a sentence that—as she could not possibly guess, that May afternoon 30 years ago—would give me the title of a book I would write one day, a book about her vanished world, and how it vanished. “Plato, the Greeks,” she muttered. “In a thousand years, it will all be lost.”

Of course I didn’t listen, and of course it is impossible to know, now, whether I’d be happier today if I had pursued some other course of studies; much less whether it will all matter in a thousand years.

I know that today I am supposed to refute my step-grandmother’s sour evaluation of our discipline, and in the face of it to assert, triumphantly, the worth, the relevance, and the usefulness of the field to which we have devoted ourselves, one that, to people of my grandfather’s vintage and provenance (and, as we know, to many others), seemed to have no worth, no relevance; no value, certainly, in finding recent graduates a job: to assert its enduring values, to make the claim that it represents something that has not, in fact, been “lost.”

But I wonder if there might be some bittersweet benefit in dwelling, if only for a quarter hour, not on what has survived—on whatever it is that makes “the classics” classic, which is to say, so outstanding of their kind, classis, that they must, somehow, persist, endure—but on what has been lost—if for no other reason, perhaps, than to make us appreciate what has not; which will, I can assure you now, be the point of another, happier story I will be telling you, a story that another old Jewish lady once told me about the Greeks; and somewhere between the pessimism of the one old woman, and the optimism of the other, there may lie the answer to the question that hovers over occasions like this one, which is this: what can it mean to devote oneself to a discipline that likes to think that it is timeless, that it has cheated the centuries, the millennia?

The millennia. A thousand years! my step-grandmother had cried, trying to convey the impossible, crushing remoteness of the Greeks to whom I planned to devote my university study. But as you and I know, a thousand years doesn’t even get you to the Greeks, isn’t even halfway from here to Plato. Still, let’s take that “thousand years”–that “mere” thousand years, I almost said–since May 15, 1009, and see how little is left, how little has survived to make it into the history books and the annals, into Google, into the memory that the mind of this present has preserved of that past. And even as we note the occasional name or date or event–the birth of the Japanese emperor Go-Suzaku that winter, say, or the death of the ineffectual Pope John XVIII during the warm Roman summer of that year; the destruction, on October 18th of that year, of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem by the armies of the caliph Al-Hakim b’Amr Allah; a certain entry that was made, on the 14th of February, 1009, in the chronicle known as the Annals of Quedlinburg, that entry constituting the first known reference in world history to the country of Lithuania—even as we note those naked facts, which indeed have endured for a thousand years, we have to wonder whether their survival serves, if anything, simply to remind us of nearly everything else that did not survive between 1009 and 2009. Who knows, after all, the stories behind the facts that have come down to us—the facts that, to many of us, represent “history”? Who remembers the names, let alone the lives, of the emperor’s midwife, of the pope’s undertaker, of the soldier in caliph’s army who lifted the first pike against the masonry of the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre (of which nothing would remain, we are told, but bedrock); of the scribe who set his brush in the pot and slowly wrote the word Litua for the first time in history?

So much of what we think of as “history” is, really, nothing more than bare bones, lying bleached on a slab, from which the sinews, the cartilage, the secret places inside, the skin and lashes and smell, have been stripped away. These textures have been stripped not only from what we used to call “hard” history—the great events, the births and deaths and battles, the emperors and popes and Crusaders. Think (to bring that distant year of 1009 closer in spirit to us classicists) of the Byzantine monk who, in some forgotten scriptorium the stones and mortar of which are now probably part of a wall on a Turkish farm, carefully copied out by hand the one copy that was available, in the year 1009, of the ancient school edition of the seven canonical plays of Aeschylus (including of course the Oresteia, a work about how a civilization might make itself)—think how he copied an edition that was, indeed, already old when it reached Byzantium, only to be copied out, in this year of 1009, by this monk, a man whose name will never be known, nor anything else about him save for the fact that his will be the only copy to survive, a copy that, four centuries later—just before Byzantium itself joins the long roster of empires that have crumbled and vanished, of civilizations that unmake themselves—will be brought by the great bibliophile and humanist Giovanni Aurispa to Florence, where, in another five centuries, it will be given the unlovely name of Mediceus Laurentianus 32.9, and eventually will become the basis for all the work that has ever been done by those, including many people sitting here today, interested in Aeschylus, in the Oresteia, in tragedies about the making and unmaking of civilizations.

So yes, we have the texts. But what of the monk? His name, his life? What of the armies of other anonymous and unknowable monks and scribes whose life’s work was the transmission of the texts from which we derive our livings? To say nothing of the cooks who cooked the food for the monks and the sempstresses who made their clothing and the stable boys who shod the horses that bore the couriers carrying the finished manuscripts to still other monasteries and scriptoria, to be copied in turn; to those other monastic establishments with their own monks, of course, but also their own cooks and sempstresses and stable boys. Of them, too, nothing can be known; of them, too, there is no “history” left.

So all of that has been lost, the limitless rich textures of all the lives that went into producing the texts that we read, pleased to think that we are interested in human history. And that was “just” a thousand years ago—not a particularly vast stretch of time, compared to the expanses of time we classicists regularly trade in when talking about the periods that are meaningful to us; about, say, 1500 B.C., about the Minoans and their vanished palaces, their perfumes and undulating décors and oiled hair and their bull-dances and music, all of which were reduced to rubble and dust and bones a thousand and a half years before the thousand years that had to elapse until the unnamed and unknowable midwife held up the future Go-Suzaku to the delighted courtiers, whose names will never be known, in Kyoto in December of 1009; before a vanished monk wrote the word Litua on a piece of vellum made from a skin that had been a lamb that a young shepherd, utterly lost to history but a human life, a life nonetheless, had tended, once, on a hillside in the Hartz mountains of Germany outside the town of Quedlinburg.

When we study literatures and culture, we should remember that we are, in the end, studying human lives like those; and yet the span of a single human life is nothing to all that time; it is the pebble under your foot as you approach the Parthenon or the Pantheon for the first time when you go to Athens or Rome on your junior year abroad, and the Parthenon and the Pantheon are the thousand years, and the pebble that you tread on and don’t even notice is the 22 years that you, who are graduating today, have been alive.

And if we jumped another thousand years—the extra millennium that would land us, finally, squarely, in Classical Antiquity? How infinitely much more has been lost between 9 A.D. and now than between 1009 and now? Nine A.D., a year that, as we know well, was filled with so much we recognize as “history”—not least, the establishment of the River Rhine as the boundary between the Latin and Germanic worlds, between, for a time, “civilization” and “barbarism”—and yet so much that continues to elude us. It is, for instance, the year in which the great poet Ovid, exiled from Rome on the orders of the emperor Augustus, was making his horrible journey toward Tomis, and oblivion. Yet as much as we know about Ovid, we still don’t know, with total certainty, why he was exiled—just as, more to my point this afternoon, we cannot know, say, the identities of the people who accompanied him away from the center of European civilization to its barbarous margins, cannot know the route he took, the people who owned the inns in which he stayed along the way, the faces and voices that must have made an impression on that great artistic consciousness and yet of whom no trace remains, those he found when he reached the outpost where he would spend the rest of his life. Nine A.D.

In that year, a thousand and a thousand years ago, Ovid was exiled, perhaps because of what he calls “a poem and a mistake,” and while we do not know for certain which was the poem and what was the mistake (or indeed whether the poem was the mistake), we do know that, in stark contrast to the case of Ovid, the work of another great poet, recently dead, was in that very same year of 9 A.D. enjoying official preference: the Aeneid, a poem whose interest in the question of what it means to be among the few survivors of an entire civilization that has been destroyed makes it very modern reading indeed.

And to jump a thousand years before that? We would land in a moment so remote that we still can’t refrain from calling it the “Dark Ages” of Greece, however enlightened we are, these days, about the year 991 B.C., in comparison to generations of scholars who came before us; and if we use the term “dark” to describe what we do know, it is almost unbearable to contemplate everything that has slipped away between now and then, the truly dark, the truly lost. Now, a thousand years before a thousand years before the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre was reduced to its foundations, which took place a thousand years ago, we are in the era of the dim beginnings of things.

Not the least of those beginnings was the beginnings of all our literature. For somewhere in this murk, an inchoate stew like the primeval ooze that the banished poet Ovid described at the beginning of his great epic, Metamorphoses, in this murk the vague memories of cataclysms and triumphs and exterminations already half a century old in 991 B.C., a blurry reminiscence of a great war between East and West, Greeks and barbarians, are inspiring tellers of tales and singers of songs, and those songs will furnish the matter for everything that follows for the next three millennia: will give us the Trojan prince who, a thousand years in the future from that May day in 991 B. C., will become the hero of Vergil’s Aeneid, just starting to circulate in the year 9 A.D.; will furnish for Aeschylus, who will not be born for another 500 years, the characters of a troubled warlord and bitter queen, Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, whom that still-unborn poet would one day imagine into a play the last surviving copies of which a certain Signor Aurispa, 25 centuries in the future from that day in 991 B. C., would smuggle to safety, and, half a millennium after that, to us.

All those lives, too, are vanished: the singers and the audiences, the soot-stained warlords and slimy cowherds, the slave who brought the warlord his haunch of mutton, the steward who beat the slave, the unknowable artisan who crafted the instrument on which the bard accompanied himself, all gathered around a fire to hear a poem about a war fought over a beautiful girl.

And even to think of the poem and everything it has produced over time is to be reminded, inevitably, of all the songs and stories and poems that didn’t make it to the safe shore of “classic”: the nine books of Sappho’s lyrics, of which a single poem remains; the 75 lost plays of Aeschylus, the 116 vanished works of Sophocles, the 70 of Euripides; Aristotle’s early dialogues, the banished Ovid’s lost verse drama, Medea, the love elegies of Cornelius Gallus, the bosom friend of Vergil, which once comprised four whole books and of which 10 lines now survive; so much else. To be a classicist, to really be a classicist, is to bear the responsibility of being as aware of what we have lost as we are of what has survived to be studied by us.

And now, having perhaps learned a small lesson about what a thousand years erases, let us dare think of another thousand years—but this time not scrolling back in time, but catapulting far into the future, to the unimaginably distant 15th of May, 3009. For by now it should be clear that today, this beautiful day and everything in it will, most likely, be utterly forgotten, too; as lost as if it had never been, unless some of you are lucky enough to be a Vergil, an Aeschylus, a Homer—a “classic”; provided, of course, that your work survives a hundred decades of accidents, of fires, of rats, of moisture, computer viruses, of viruses and corruptions we cannot even think of because the technologies they will ruin are as unimaginable to us today as the iPhone was to the monk who spent months making a single copy of Aeshcylus’s Oresteia; of carelessness, malice, and bad luck. And of the rest of us? Nothing will remain, as we have seen so clearly. The people, of course, me and you, your excited relatives and eager friends, the workers who set up these chairs and who will break them down (already unthought of by most of us, lost to our memory, just minutes after we leave here); your professors and TA’s and siblings and aunts and cousins and your parents, all will have disappeared–as, indeed, will 20 generations of your descendants, they too equally forgotten, equally vanished from the memory of the world, of time, along with their professors and relatives and friends, people whose most distant ancestor won’t be born for another hundred years from now.

So surely no one will remember us as we are today—let alone the weather, the flowers on your mother’s blouse, the faint scent of eucalyptus in the air; the breeze which makes you long for something distant, something you can’t quite identify, the secret thoughts you think as you sit there in your summery clothes, the forgivable, not-so-secret thought that some of you are thinking, right now, that as soon as this speech is over you will be that much closer to graduation proper and the rest of your life—the life that, I am sorry to have to remind you, in a thousand years from now, no one will likely know about, that will be as if it had never been.

So maybe my bitter step-grandmother—a woman who, one day in the summer of 1941, was told to go to the right, while her husband and daughter went to the left, which is why she survived to scold me 35 years later; a woman who thus surely earned her bitterness about words like culture, like civilization—maybe that poor traumatized Lithuanian lady was right: maybe it all gets lost, maybe it’s all for nothing, our studies, our comedies and histories and tragedies, our Plato.

But of course I cannot repay the generosity of those who invited me here today by ending with that unhappy thought; and so I will leave you with another story. Before I tell you this final story, which is about what you probably came here today to hear about, and which I have studiously ignored thus far, which is to say about what lasts, what survives, what endures—I would remind you that the word endures has the Latin word durus in it: “hard.” As we know, a lot that has endured from the distant past has endured, as it were, by accident: to the garbage dumps and mummy wrappings of Egypt we owe much, if not always much of great aesthetic distinction, if the truth be told. But even granting that, it must be the case that some aspects of civilization have endured because they have real value—not in some abstract, notional, theoretical way, value for publications and promotions and tenure, but solid, meaningful value to the very human beings, the ordinary people whose forgotten lives make up 99 percent of the past that we study when, often naively, we study the past, unaware sometimes that we are studying just the tiny fraction of experience that has not been lost.

Why do I think this? Because of the story the second old Jewish woman told me. She, too, was a survivor; I had been interviewing her for the book I wrote about the Holocaust, and by the time I had the brief conversation I am about to tell you about, I knew of some of the things she had suffered, and I can tell you that they were the kind of things that strip all sentimentality away, that do not leave you with any mushy illusions about the value of Western culture, of “civilization” and its traditions. I just want you to know that before I tell you what she told me, which was this:

We had spent a long day together, talking about sad things—talking, in fact, about the erasure of a culture, the unmaking of a civilization, as total and final as what Vergil described in Book 2 of the Aeneid; there are, after all, as many Jews left today in the city this lady had lived in as there are Trojans in Troy. We were tired, night was falling. Because I didn’t want to leave her with sad thoughts that night, any more than I want to leave you with sad thoughts today, I tried to lead the conversation to a happier time.

“So what happened when the war was over?” I asked softly. “What was the first thing that happened, once things started to be normal again?”

The old lady, whose real name had disappeared in the war along with her parents, her house, and nearly everything else she had known, was now called Mrs. Begley. When I asked her this question Mrs. Begley looked at me; her weary expression had kindled every so slightly.

“You know, it’s a funny thing,” she told me. “When the Germans first came, in ’41, the first thing they did was close the theaters.”

“The theaters?” I echoed, a bit confused, not dreaming where this could be leading. I didn’t know which theaters she meant; I thought, briefly, of the great Beaux Arts Pantheon of an opera house in Lwów, with its Muse-drawn chariots and gilded victories, a mirage of civilization, the 19th century’s dream of itself. She had told me, once, that she had seen Carmen there, when she was a newlywed.

But she wasn’t talking, now, about operas in Lwów or about the 1930s; she was talking about theaters in Kraków, where she and her husband and child ended up once the war was over.

“Yes,” she said, sharply, as if it ought to have been obvious to me that the first thing you’d do, if you were about to end a civilization, would be to put an end to playgoing, “the theaters. The first thing they did was close the theaters. And I’ll tell you something, because I remember it quite clearly: the first thing that happened, after the war was over and things got a little normal–the first thing was that the actors and theater people who were still alive got together and put on, in Polish, a production of Sophocles’ Antigone.”

So that was the story, and here is what I think it means:

A lot of life gets lost—almost everything, in fact. That much, my poor step-grandmother knew, a woman whose own life disappeared into the abyss. But as Mrs. Begley knew, some of what remains means something—something very real, to real people, to people whose knowledge of suffering is derived from more than a book or a night at the movies. And so, I would ask you this: when you think of what it means to be a classicist, don’t think only about your deconstructive readings of Homer, or post-structuralist approaches to Plautus, or Freudian readings of the Euripidean romances, or Marxist interpretations of the Peloponnesian War, the iconography of red-figure vases or the prosopography of the late Roman Republic. Think about Mrs. Begley; think about the people in Kraków, who, when they had very good reasons to believe that civilization had ended, felt that the first thing they needed to do was to put on a play by Sophocles.

That, in the end, is the meaning of the tradition you have been studying, and for which you, the newest generation of classicists, are now responsible.

So go, and have some fun today; and then, later, do something to earn that.

Daniel Mendelsohn writes frequently for The New York Review of Books and other publications. His books include The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million.

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