Otto Steinmayer: Classic Ground

The alternative to prettified words

[New Straits Times, 18 March 1992]


Why is it that so many people, otherwise fluent, perhaps precise, and entertaining babblers, clam up entirely when faced with pencil and paper? I'm sure that ancient Greeks were much the same as their descendants, still famous for being unstoppable talkers. But the earliest prose we have from them is remarkably dry.

The assemblies of the many city-states hammered out policy with loud and passionate argument. Then when it came time to draft the decree, that was literally to be "carved in stone," they fell back to a respectable dustiness, the ancestor of all present official prose, something like this:

Passed by the council and the people. A treaty to be established between the Athenians and the Eleusinians on the following terms. Ambassadors to be exchanged twice yearly. Reciprocal right of participation in festivals for the citizens of each city... &c. &c.

The purpose of writing is to record petty facts likely to be forgotten (those clay tablets with tax rolls and inventories), to communicate with people at a distance in time or space, and most of all to make things public. For the first few centuries after Greeece got the alphabet from their Semitic neighbours around 800 B.C., most of the writing a literate person came across was carved in open spaces by markets or temples, laws on large stone slabs, and inscriptions on the bases of statues. Poetry and song passed easily from mouth to mouth. Nobody knows when Homer's poems finally got written down. Persons we meet in literature seem to have him at the tip of their tongues. They don't say, "wait a minute, let me look that up."

But human nature can't be repressed. People scribble things here and there. One important message survives on a little pot, one of our oldest pieces of Greek writing:

I belong to Hegesias. If you steal me, you'll go blind.

Sounds like the kind of thing a school-kid writes on his pencilbox. However childish it may be, at least there is some human emotion in the words, it's not just a label.

Around 500 B.C., maybe a little earlier, Greeks began to feel the urge to write books, an occupation that has since mushroomed into an enormous industry. Writing a book is a way of making things public, but what you make public in a book, available to everybody's inspection and criticism, is not laws or decrees that your audience has decided on already, rather your own ideas, what you personally think about something.

That's an advance. You, as a writer, feel you have information that is private to you, but you feel that other people would also be interested in knowing it. We've lost the very earliest books. They seem to have been on subjects that a writer could very confidently feel would interest other people, like the history of cities, collections of myths, and geneologies. Perhaps handbooks on practical subjects. The oldest piece of connected prose in Latin (admittedly hundreds of years after the Greek beginnings, but then the Romans took a while to catch up), is the elder Cato's treatise on farming. It reads like a cookbook, and a lot of it is a cookbook.

Make kneaded bread thus. Wash your hands and trough well. Put the meal into the trough, add water gradually, and knead throughly. When you have kneaded it well, mould it, and bake it under a cover.

Not something that you would read again and again for the fun of it, rather, the words of some expert who lives at a distance, or someone who itches to tell his ignorant neighbours the right way of doing things. Like the alamanac, you can keep it at home to consult, say when your sheep get the scab.

For words with some juice in them, people went to hear the poets reciting and people talking, telling stories at home of abroad.
However, strangely enough, the earliest prose that was felt worthy to be copied and handed down in Greece (and, by the way, in China) belongs to treatises on philosophy. At the end of the 6th century B.C. thinking people became disatisfied with the ancient poetical/mystical and tribal/mythical explanations of the world. They felt compelled to go out and investigate afresh. 

Philosophers who wanted wider appeal put their doctrines into poetry, which could be performed for and remembered by a mass audience.
But others, like Herakleitos, rejected poetry as a medium of instruction:

Homer deserves to be thrown out of the contest and whipped, and Arkhilokhos [another poet] likewise...

Herakleitos had two reasons for choosing prose over poetry for his record of investigations. In the first place he probably agreed with Lao Tzu in the Tao Te Ching: 

Good words are not beautiful. Beautiful words are not good.

Herakleitos and Lao Tzu (they have a lot in common) were well aware that words magically persuade the hearer of their truth through their own beauty. Herakleitos was trying to come towards a rational and abstract explanation of the way nature worked. Harsh and unadorned prose seemed a way of speaking closer to the truth. He compares himself to the oracle at Delphi:

The prophetess speaking with insane mouth things neither amusing, nor prettified, nor perfumed reaches with her voice a thousand years because of the god [or truth] in her. 

Herakleitos' book On Nature suffered the usual sad fate of ancient books. The work itself was lost along the way, at some point nobody bothered recopying the last existing text, and then the ants got it. From the 130 or so fragments that remain we can get only a dim picture of his philosophy. Herakleitos was interested to discover the agreements in the forces of nature. 

Opposition unites. From what draws apart results the most beautiful harmony. All things take place by strife... Invisible harmony is better than visible...

Conventional man separates all the qualities of nature in twos, praising some as "good," blaming others as "bad."

God is day and night, winter and summer, war and peace, fullness and hunger; he assumes different forms... The road up and down is one and the same...

Ancient critics called Herakleitos "dark" and "obscure." It's probably for this reason that he survives only in bits, since few people understood him, and they were not the ones doing the copying. But if a copy of a book can survive, this is one of its advantages, that it remains quietly on its shelf, or in its box, until it can reach and speak to the person who understands it.
To me [he says] one man is ten thousand, if he is the best. 

The comedian Aristophanes gives us a picture of Euripides at work on a tragedy. Euripides' equipment consists of a basket of rags and and a chipped mug---props for one of his poor heroes ---nothing of notebooks or pens. Poets then probably composed just like this, by ear and memory. Their words came out as they did from the demands of the metre and the tune. When we talk about the "style" of a prose writer, we are using an metaphor derived from the private and physical act of writing. "Style" is the stilus, the pointed iron stick used to scratch words on wax tablets. 

Herakleitos, rejecting the prettified words of poetry, found instead a style of his own as he recorded his thoughts on wax. His cryptic and unornamented sayings are the first personal voice in prose that has come down to us.
Some of these translations are from Arthur Fairbanks' The First Philosophers of Greece.