Fragments Against Our Ruin (1/3)

Imagine that you know nothing about the ancient world, and that all you have to go on as you try to reconstruct it is this collection:

    • Three lines of the Odyssey (1.32–34)
    • One line of Ennius (Annales 3.137 Vahlen)
    • A fragment of Praxilla, a lyric poet from the fifth century BC, quoted by Zenobius in the second century AD
    • A clay rooftile on which two women left their footprints and eleven inscribed words, five in Oscan and six in Latin, including their names
    • A child’s toy
    • Half a line of Ovid’s Metamorphoses (15.165)
    • A misquotation of a mistranslation of Aeschylus
    • A sentence about studying classics written by a professor in the 21st century AD
    • Fourteen lines from The Epic of Gilgamesh

If this was all you had, could you reimagine the ancient world, or the academic discipline that studies it? All the ancient texts are in translation except for eleven words in two ancient languages scratched into a rooftile. The longest continuous text is translated from an epic poem written in Akkadian sometime in the second millennium BC. All the translations are from poetry, and all of them deal in one way or another with mortality. Two of the ancient texts come from works that survive only in fragments—they’re fragments of fragments.

Part of the oddness of this list can be explained by its origin. It comes from a post on the Society for Classical Studies’ blog, and the items are answers to a question posed to nine professional classical scholars by another member of the guild, the brilliant Latinist Nandini Pandey. Pandey was prompted by Richard Feynman’s question to his undergraduate introductory physics course:

If, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence was passed on to the next generation of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words?

Feynman chose a concise statement of the atomic hypothesis; from that, he argued, followed everything that modern physicists do. (Like most of us, Feynman assumed the inevitability of his kind—but wouldn’t we be just as likely to end up with a world full of Epicurean philosophers?) Pandey wondered what a similar sentence for classical studies would look like. “What would we choose to pass on to posterity from a field that’s already built on scraps of the past? And what would the texts and objects we chose to preserve say about us and our mindset during this pandemic?”

Here I’m reminded of one of my own teachers. If he had a choice, he said, between the Parthenon and H. W. Smyth’s Greek Grammar as the sole surviving evidence for Greek civilization, he would dynamite the Parthenon. (I might now substitute the new Cambridge Grammar of Classical Greek, which is beginning to replace Smyth on my shelf of go-to books.) That choice is as cranky and eccentric as the man who made it, but behind it lies a coherent vision of classics as classical philology and of what is fundamental to it.

Seen against my old professor’s choice, the list is striking for several things: its lack of deference to the classical canon and classical languages, its privileging of poetry, its emphasis on fragments, and its constant reference to our present situation. We get Homer, Aeschylus (sort of), and Ovid; one of the respondents smuggled a line of Horace into her framing message, and another did the same with a line of Lucretius—but that’s not much. We don’t get the great prose genres: no philosophy or history; no Plato or Aristotle, no Thucydides or Herodotus, no Cicero or Livy. Except for the few words of Latin and Oscan on the Pietrabbondante rooftile, all the texts are translated into English. Pandey’s description of academic classics as “build on scraps of the past” may have disposed the respondents to come up with scraps of their own, but I suspect they might have done so even without the hint. Several items on the list also dwell on being death-bound humans in a world we don’t control. This COVID-tide certainly encourages thoughts of mortality and human limitation, and that, along with Pandey’s mention of the pandemic in her prompt, may be enough to account for this focus.

Classics isn’t physics, and I doubt that any single sentence or object could be foundational in the way the atomic hypothesis is or be expanded into everything that the field now encompasses.  Pandey doesn’t derive any single cataclysmic sentence from the professors’ responses, and it’s hard to do so (especially given that one respondent answered not with ancient text or object, but with an expository sentence about studying classics, and another seems to have done no more than submit a link to his candidate statement on the SCS election page). It’s better to see this list as a kind of core drilled down into the academic discipline of classics, and to look at the choices as reflections of the interests and understandings of the scholars who made them sometime in AD 2020. Reflected in it I see changes that have come over the field since the middle of the twentieth century, and in my next post, I will look at those changes and why they happened.