By Callie Oettinger | Published: December 19, 2011
They tried to sift out the best from the mass of existing manuscripts, and to guide the reading of the people; they made lists of “best books,” the “four heroic poets,” the “nine historians,” the “ten lyric poets” the “ten orators,” etc.
Every time I open Will Durant’s The Life of Greece, a smile yanks at the corners of my lips.
I know he doesn’t bore me to sleep.
I know I’m in love with the way he shares history.
And yet. . .
Every time I open the book, I’m surprised, as if I’ve forgotten what I know.
He gets my brain going faster than a gallon of Red Bull and Carl Lewis sprinting through the 80s.
This morning he got me thinking about how we remember:
Thoughtful men felt that the creative inspiration of Greece was nearing exhaustion, and that the most lasting service they could render was to collect, shelter, edit, and expound the literary achievements of a bolder time. . . .
They wrote biographies of great writers and scientists; they gathered and saved the fragmentary data which are now all that we know concerning these men. They composed outlines of history, literature, drama, science, and philosophy; some of these “short cuts to knowledge” helped to preserve, some replaced and unwittingly obliterated the original works they summarized.
This morning he got me thinking about how we write:
It was above all an age of intellectuals and scholars. Writing became a profession instead of a devotion, and generated cliques and coteries whose appreciation of talent varied inversely as the square of its distance from themselves. Poets began to write for poets, and became artificial; scholars began to write for scholars, and became dull.
This morning he got me thinking about how we try to backtrack and correct:
Saddened by the degeneration of the Attic Greek into Orientalized “pidgin” Greek of their time, Hellenistic scholars compiled dictionaries and grammars, and the Library of Alexandria, in the manner of the French Academy, issued edicts on the correct usage of the ancient tongue. Without their learned and patient “ant industry” the wars, revolutions, and catastrophes of two thousand years would have destroyed even those “precious minims” which have been transmitted to us as the shipwrecked legacy of Greece.
Durant is my connector between the past and present. He talks Greece, I read 2011. In the quotes above, he talks Hellenic and I hear modern. He reminds me of the back and forth, the parallels, and the repeats of history.
This morning, with me head still lost between dreams and reality, he woke me with:
Normally the philosophy of one age is the literature of the next: the ideas and issues that in one generation are fought out on the field of research and speculation provide in the succeeding generation the background of drama, fiction and poetry. But in Greece the literature did not lag behind the philosophy; the poets were themselves philosophers, did their own thinking, and were in the intellectual vanguard of their time. That same conflict between conservatism and radicalism which agitated Greek religion, science, and philosophy found expression also in poetry and drama, even in the writing of history. Since excellence of artistic form was added, in Greek letters, to depth of speculative thought, the literature of the Golden Age reached heights never touched again until the days of Shakespeare and Montaigne.
He left my waking head asking, Where are we today?
More specific: Where are we with our war stories? How are they remembered, written and backtracked? What should be recommended reading? How do we find the gems? Who decides what is a gem?
More to come.