Otto Steinmayer: Classic Ground

Learning life's whys and hows through literature

[New Straits Times, 2 September 1992]


Tempus loquendi, tempus tacendi. For the past year now I have been writing Classic Ground, trying in short space to convey some of the delight I feel in the poetry, drama, and prose of the ancient Greeks and Romans, whose study I have made my profession, and of others. It is time to move on, and this is my last piece in this series. I owe you, readers, for the success I have enjoyed. Fauzi has also played a good part with his cartoons. I am grateful for your appreciation, and I decline to spin things out to the point that I become routine, and you become bored. As for me, other work clamours to be done.

For the third time we come back again to the question of what is a classic. The exhibits of the past year have allowed you to shape some answer to that. One feature of classic literature we have not been able to discuss is the language. Human beings may have found speech 200,000 years ago. That is a long time, and the Greeks and Romans were only a hundredth closer to the source of language than we are. Yet perhaps because of the facts of their lives, with no technology to create an image of the world that obscures its real face, they had a more intimate feeling for the roots of language than we do today.

Modern languages, and especially English, seem over-rich, gummy with too many associations and metaphors. In Greek or Latin and other old languages it is more difficult to say something you cannot mean. Their words are too transparent, too close to simplicity. For this reason, ancient literature often appears too plain.

Likewise, the classical poet (I believe in any culture) is master of his imagination (Gk. phantasia, "the power of visualizing things"). The romantic poet we got used to in the past 200 years often allows his imagination to master him. The classical poet uses his imagination in the service of a whole poetic ideal. For the romantic poet the imagination is poetry, in my opinion a limited view, since the imagination is only one of the faculties of the human mind. Antiquity prized wholeness.

We could talk further about the differences between classical Eastern and Western poetry. One poem by the Tang poet Wang Wei illuminates one point where Greece and China parted:

Luan Rapids

Brisk gusts in the autumn rain;
Rushing on, the stream pours over rocks.
Leaping waves naturally splash each other:
White egrets are startled, then descend again. [trans. Yu]

A scene from nature, a subject for any poet in the world. But note that besides the implicit metaphor of lines 3-4 (the waves appear to the poet's eye like startled water-birds; or perhaps it is not a metaphor), there is no human presence in the poem. A Greek or Roman would never have erased himself so completely from the landscape. No Indian poet too could have written these lines.

We have passed over a great part of the ancient world: much literture, and science, mathematics, medicine, philosophy. Latin literature also, since it seems to be a special taste, more formal and less spontaneous than Greek. We could spend endless time on these matters.

But let me leave you with a tale by which one ancient writer tried to explain the why of literature. Plutarch lived around the turn of the 1st c. A.D. He was an oustanding scholar, and in the last decades of his life served as priest at Delphi, Apollo's great shrine and oracle.
Plutarch is most famous in modern times as the author of the Parallel Lives of Greeks and Romans. Shakespeare used them. Plutarch also wrote several dozen short essays collected together under the title Moralia, because many of them have to do with how to act and what to believe.

One essays is entitled "The Daimon of Sokrates." It is more than a philosophical dialogue, but in many ways the first Western short-story, and is so translated by the American writer Guy Davenport. Plutarch set his story in a house in Thebes on the eve of a coup by several citizens against the Spartan colonial regime. It takes its title from the daimon or inner voice that warned Sokrates to avoid an action or speech, whose nature the conspirators discuss.

When the Spartans had moved in, they sacriligeously opened the tomb of Alkmene, mother of Hercules, the Theban hero. Inside the Spartans found no remains, but a stone (which proved the truth of the myth that the gods had brought Alkmene to heaven alive), other bits and pieces, and, surprisingly, a bronze tablet inscribed in Egyptian letters. The Spartan king, being informed of this, had copies made and sent to the Pharaoh Nektanebis with a request for an interpretation.

The philosopher Simmias, among the Theban conspirators, talks about the decipherment of the document:

"I remember that Agetoridas [the Spartan envoy] turned up with orders from the Pharaoh that the scholar Khonouphis was to translate the document. Khonouphis was three days at dictionaries and ancient books and rendered the pages into Greek. It gave orders and instructions for a contest in honor of the Muses... The inscription went on, purporting to have been taken down by divine inspiration. The Greeks, it said, must learn to live in peace and leisure by laying their arms aside and solving all disputes through philosophy..."

Simmias ties this in with another oracle. It had been prophesied to the Delians that the troubles of Greece would be over "when the altar of Apollo at Delphi was doubled." This altar referred was a perfect cube; and the Delians tried making each side twice as long, and were puzzled to find that they got a cube of eight times the volume. The Delians came to Plato, who was well known as a mathematician, for the correct solution, which involves deriving the cube-root of 2 through geometrical means. Plato, remembering the Egyptian, Simmias relates, said:

"The oracle was chiding the Greeks for their ignorance of learning in general. It was intelligence that brought about peace, and intelligence is trained in the gymnasium, where one can learn how to find two mean proportionals... But the god...was not interested in their doubling the cube of the altar but in turning from war to the kind of education by which their energy flowed not into death but into music, geometry, medicine, poetry, and the law..."

To the Greeks, literature was part of a single mousikÍ, "music," what belonged to the province of the Muses. They saw the arts and sciences as a natural part of their lives, and as great pleasures. Hardly ever did it occur to them to justify their use and value. Plutarch's is one of the few passages. The aim of the Muses' skills---in this Plutarch agrees with Dr Johnson 1600 years later---is "the enlargement of our sensibility." Our modern age is in love most with technique, which teaches how every desire may be gratified without a word on the why, or even whether a thing is worth desiring. But the aim of art, says one Indian critic, "is not (merely) to discover the nature of reality but to secure for us the highest experience of life."

With this experience that only the Muses can give us, we become aware of ourselves and of the dangers of thoughtlessness. The literature of the ancient world shows how human beings first became conscious to life, and cries to us in its freshness that there is more to existence than the frenzied passions of consumption, ambition, greed, and empty doctrine, the means by which this world of expediency would like to drive us back into unconsciousness and a state of being mere kept animals on the earth. In modern poetry, William Carlos Williams expressed it best:

My heart rouses / thinking to bring you news / of something /
that concerns you / and concerns many men. Look at /
what passes for the new./
You will not find it there but in / despised poems. /
It is difficult /
to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there. [Asphodel, That Greeny Flower, book 1]

"The Daimon of Sokrates" appears in Eclogues: eight stories by Guy Davenport. North Point Press, 1981.