classic

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From the Twitter feed of Daniel Mendelsohn, I became aware of his 2009 Berkeley commencement address. After a pre-collegiate conversation with his mother about his desire to study the classics, he writes:

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."

Mendelsohn asks "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?" and uses Virgil's Aeneid to ruminate on the many losses along the way:

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.

Classicists, he writes, "bear the responsibility of being as aware of what we have lost as we are of what has survived to be studied by us." Mendelsohn later segues into discussing an "old Jewish woman [whom] I had been interviewing her for the book I wrote about the Holocaust:"

"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." [...] 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."

He concludes "that was the story, and here is what I think it means:"

A lot of life gets lost--almost everything, in fact. [But] 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.

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This page contains a single entry by cognitivedissident published on May 27, 2012 10:50 AM.

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