Otto Steinmayer:

Classic Ground

Fresh from the morning of the world.

[The News Straits Times, 7 Aug 1991]

ptolemy's malaya
WHEN people ask me what I do, one of those casual questions, I say, "By profession I'm a classicist; I teach in Universiti Malaya."

"Classics," they say, "that's nice. Shakespeare and those people." "No," I say, "I mean Latin and ancient Greek." After hearing that they usually change the topic.

I am not downcast at this indifference; I have met it in a lot more places than Malaysia. Greek and Roman language and literature are an arcane subject. I am not interested in dazzling other people with arcana, unlike wizards of the past and present.

Why study Latin and Greek? why talk about it? I have studied classics for most of my life, and I haven't found any justification for it on grounds of usefulness. My academic colleagues are just as stumped. Again and again they revive wheezy old arguments to try and convince the budget cutters to leave Latin and Greek in the curriculum of at least a few universities-that knowing Latin is good for lawyers and doctors; that it's a good tool for understanding derivations of English words; that it teaches you how to write and think. And so on.

But you can get all the etymology from the dictionary, and you can best get an English style by writing English. Winston Churchill claimed he wrote so well because as a boy his schoolmasters thought him too stupid to write Latin.

Other people like Alan Bloom claim that western students must be dragged back to study classical literature in order, bluntly, so they learn how to think like white men and uphold their cultural identity. Bloom would like to get American kids back to reading Plato and banish Confucius, Shankhara, Avicenna, and Hakuin---not to mention Du Fu and Lady Murasaki---back to the third world. What a paltry argument! another tired replay of the "yellow peril" (black peril, brown peril).

Enough of that. I say that classical learning is completely irrelevant to modern life, if by modern life you mean the life of the marketplace and politics. The conservatives may talk about the importance of Plato to western political theory, and ignore that Plato made a botch of reforming the tyrant Dionysius. Knowledge and thought now mean technique and the manipulation of natural or social power, and study of the ancients is not going to teach us anything new about that.

Above the entrance to the old library in Alexandria, Egypt, a great library even by modern standards, was written psyches iatreion, that literature is the "curing power of the soul." This is the only way that I have found to explain why I chose to give my life to literature, and I have trouble defining it further. The classics have made me see more, understand more, enjoy more; they have made my soul bigger, and, I think, more at peace.

Latin and Greek are dead, just as dead as classical Chinese or Sanskrit, except in so far as someone like me spends immense energy to learn them. The nations who spoke those languages have disappeared. Anyone who learns them now is the only heir to their literature and culture. He owes no allegiance to the government or race where they were born.

A classic is something that was written once for all. Each people has given the world some special perception of wisdom or beauty that was expressed nowhere else, at no other time. In the morning of the world people's thoughts were fresh, and still remain fresh while modernity bogs down deeper and deeper in convention.

A classicist's delight is to read a language completely different from anything that now exists, to visit a different world, and to converse with brilliant and humane persons of thousands of years ago through their writings.

"Converse"? with the dead? No other writing makes me argue so much with myself. The dead are a lively and exacting lot.

The ancients were not obsessed with dividing writing into classes. Everything written, from mathematics to drama, was literature to them, and the great privilege of the modern scholar is to be allowed to study anything. The classics are full of surprises. Our ancestors had sharp eyes and curiosity.

A year or so after I had moved out to Malaysia to teach I received a letter from my ever-loved advisor John Herington. He wrote, "I rejoice to find that you are after all on classic ground!" John had just been doing some work involving ancient Greek geography, and he found that the mathematician Claudius Ptolemy not only knew about the existence of our Tanah Melayu, but knew the mountains that run like a spine down the land.Ptolemy called Malaya the "Golden Peninsula" (Greek khersonesos = "mainland-island") from the alluvial gold panned from its rivers---where gold can still be found today---and traded abroad.

Ptolemy compiled his Geography in Alexandria during the 2nd century A.D. He must have gathered his information from ship's captains and travelers, and in a world that lacked compass, chronometer, and log, his data must have been pretty approximate, to use the kindest word. If you follow his coordinates and draw a map of the peninsula as he conceived it, you get a fat blob on the equator, not the slender pendant that actually exists above it, but recognizably the Malay peninsula.

There is an Arabic proverb: "Pick up a stone in the desert and you'll find either a scorpion or a Greek." Back in the first millenium the Greeks were as energetic and adventurous traders as the Chinese became later. More than a few merchants who knew some Homer coasted in their galleys to the shores of Kedah and Selangor to trade for gold dust and jungle produce, and returned to lay their ships' logs before the Egyptian scholar.

East and west were in close contact during ancient times, closer than anytime until the 17th century. Chinese silk and Malayan pepper were regularly for sale at Rome. The Greeks were even able to re-weave Chinese silk on the island of Cos and sell it back to the Chinese, who called it "barbarian silk." The Indian emperor "Porus" heard of the might of the Roman emperor Augustus and sent an embassy to him, which brought a gift of tigers and a letter written in Greek.

A folktale of Borneo tells the story of a hero's wanderings among fantastic islands until he arrives at the pusat ai' "the navel of the Ocean." The story echos the adventures of the Greek Odysseus, and the voyage of the Argonauts, who built the first ship and sailed after the Golden Fleece. On their end, the Greeks and Romans heard of phoenixes and orangutans. Stories too were traded from sphere to sphere.
Alexander the Great slashed and hacked his way as far as India, we all know. The author of the Sejarah Melayu traces the lineage of the Malacca sultans back to this mighty world conqueror.

The British brought classical learning in their baggage to Asia in later conquests. Future empire-builders soaked up the exploits of Caesar in Gaul and Xenophon in "barbarian" Persia, and thought their own adventuring a natural extension. Candidates for the Indian civil service were examined (after the model of the Chinese imperial examinations) in writing Greek verse like Homer's.

So in many ways, we all are on classic ground. The imperialist influence of antiquity is happily gone for good. Yet the literature remains as a pleasure for everyone on this planet, and I hope in future articles to talk about some of its worthiest and most beautiful productions.