Posted in Book Stuff

*Ancient History and Meaning

In a moving (okay honestly it made me bawl) convocation speech, Daniel Mendelsohn spoke about ancient history, the classics, the holocaust, theatre, and time. It’s worth reading the whole and I’ll provide a link at the end, but here are some highlights:

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…Think…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 [of the seven canonical plays of Aeschylus] that was available, in the year 1009…

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…

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…

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…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 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 [a] second old Jewish woman told me. [Mrs. Begley], 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…

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?”…

“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…

“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…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.

And that is why I used the working title “Theatre of Consolation” for my second novel.

Excerpting this speech made me cry again. Read the full text–it is right here.

Juliusz Słowacki Theatre, built 1893, photo by Jan Mehlich (click to enlarge)


Lilian is the author of Web of Angels, a novel about a mom with DID (multiple personalities). She's also the author of the historical novels, The River Midnight and The Singing Fire, about secrets, friendship and motherhood in 19th century Poland and London.

3 thoughts on “*Ancient History and Meaning

  1. What a beautiful passage! I appreciate so much the distinction he makes between value as monetary worth or utility, and value as something valuable to us in a meaningful way. That’s a distinction we’re in danger of losing sight of and it matters so much.

    1. I agree Litlove–there is so much going on that erases the second meaning or shoves it so far into the background we lose sight of it. But we know how important it is as soon as someone like Mendelsohn reminds us.

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