The Dusty Shelf of History
by Bryce Rogers (July 2012)
The past is a blind beast that devours all it meets; nothing escapes the oblivion of its maw without the greatest effort, and nothing is preserved perpetually. Works of genius—writings we call immortal—are merely nibbled and gnawed. There is no dispensation.
Sophocles, who recorded long ago “the turbid ebb and flow / Of human misery,” has, like rocks along the Aegean coast, been ravaged by the waves of time. In the flowering of Athens’ glory, he was hailed their greatest playwright, writing, according to one source, 123 plays. But these works—moving, magnificent tragedies—were sandcastles on the shores of time, and only seven have escaped the tide.
Shakespeare too—though writing in an age of print—has endured a similar fate. The greatest literary figure in history, he wrote at least two plays that no one will ever read. Their manuscripts, wherever they lay, have long ago crumbled into dust.
And still the beast, glutted with the glories of our past, proves insatiable.
The second half of Aristotle’s Poetics, Cicero’s Hortensius, Paul’s other epistles, Hemingway’s first novel—these are just a few of the works we’d love to read, lost forever though they are.
The rapacity of time, the loss of even the greatest works in the vast desert of days, makes the story Stephen Greenblatt tells in his latest work, The Swerve, all the more remarkable. Poggio Bracciolini, the subject of the book, was a relatively minor figure in a period that abounded with giants. He was a Renaissance humanist who became, at the height of his career, the apostolic scriptor to the pope—that is, he was a papal secretary responsible for the myriad details of composition and correspondence. Although his employment was highly remunerative—and brought him into contact with some of the luminaries of his day, particularly among the plastic arts—it is not for any accomplishment preformed in this capacity that Poggio is remembered. Instead, his name has been enrolled in the register of the past as a book hunter. At various points in his long career, Poggio travelled north, crossing the Alps and facing hardship, to explore the libraries of far-flung monasteries. He found, among other things, Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria—the most important work from antiquity on rhetoric—and some of Cicero’s lost dialogues. His greatest discovery, however, was made in 1417 when among the dusty shelves of an unknown monastery he alighted on a complete manuscript of Lucretius’ De rerum natura.
Most scholars believe the work was found in Fulda, a monastery in southern Germany; but wherever it was, we know that Poggio made great personal sacrifices to wrest these works from the teeth of time. We must imagine a cultivated Italian—one who’d spent most of his life amidst the sybaritic pomp of Rome—riding through the Black forest, weather-beaten, weary, with mud caked on his cloak; his only companion, a translator; his hope of success, unknown.
And Poggio endured spectacular failures. At one point, he spent four years in England, working as a private secretary—all for the chance to explore the island’s distant monasteries. All without success. For years in that northern altitude; away from the comforts of Rome; able to converse only, because of linguistic barriers, with the few who knew Latin—Poggio endured extreme hardship to shore these fragments against ruin.
Greenblatt, somewhat predictably, extracts as the moral from this tale—not mutability—but rather the gross ignorance of the Catholic Church and its intellectual depredations. As such, his claim is both naïve and foolish. He expects his readers to accept the age of Aquinas as a time of intellectual complacency. Moreover, he must somehow account for the fact that whatever heritage we possess of Latinity, we owe to centuries’ worth of anonymous scribes—those who carved and re-carved on the shifting shores of time that which the tide tried to wash away. Greenblatt thus has the difficult task of arguing that these nameless monks—like cells replicating a virus—dumbly copied texts that would be their doom.
But copy they did, for countless centuries – word by word. The Lucretius manuscript, upon its triumphant discovery, was immediately replicated—a process that took fifty days. Fifty days – fast two months – in the life of a nameless scribe: it’s incredible to consider. And it makes one realize that lives went into these books. Whatever survived – and we may only have fragments and shards – survived because successive generations gave their lives to save it. What we see in Poggio’s discovery is not the ignorance of the Church, but the fragility of art. The great delicacy of books. Sturdy as old tomes may sometimes seem, they can shatter like glass on the adamancy of time.
Books die. They die generally not because someone kills them, but because someone lets them. And like us, they are always dying. Lucretius, trumpets Greenblatt, was saved from our selbst verschuldete Unmündigkeit. But I think his work was just preserved.
And time still nibbles away.
Some books are lost forever—without a trace—but others suffer this fate in buildings meant for their preservation, their covers their own graves, their shelves their tombs.
For books must be read to live. It’s not enough for a book to exist—so many, after all, have dropped stillborn from the press. Yet by this criterion, Lucretius may not be much better off today than he was in the fifteenth century. Certainly, translations abound, copies are easily attainable, but who reads his work? It seems safe to assume more people read the Latin original in the reign of Queen Elizabeth than in the American century.
This, it may be objected, is a fault of education—or of the abundance of books. And I don’t disagree. But education is often the only way to save old books.
The Dead Sea Scrolls have been found, translated and published; but for how many are they still moldering away in caves? The texts from Nag Hammadi are still in danger of being swallowed up by the desert sands. Shakespeare’s published works amount to a thick volume, even without the lost plays—yet few read what survives, let alone his greatest works. Oedipus Rex may be regularly assigned in college classrooms, but that reduces Sophocles’ living dramas to one.
For nearly two millennia his works were laboriously copied, studied, and read; but they languish only now—in print.
Milton said, “a good book is the precious lifeblood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.” Many are more; they represent the actual lifeblood of hundreds of anonymous figures who gave their lives—who gave vast quantities of the all-too-limited time we have—to stave off the beast a little longer. These men sought by their actions to hand on something of immense value—for us to enjoy, yes—but for us to do likewise.
Poggio found De rerum natura on a dusty shelf, and on a dusty shelf it remains. The classics are not recovered, but must always be recovered. The barbarians are still at the gates, and time’s gullet knows no surfeit. Poggio’s actions were not a onetime occurrence. They comprise the type for all teachers and professors—those who salvage books once again from the teeth of time.
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