Brillionaire’s Club

“Right next to this we find the sacred library [of Alexandria] on which is inscribed “The Healer of the Soul”; and next-door to it are the statues of the gods of Egypt….”

ἑξῆς δ’ ὑπάρχειν τὴν ἱερὰν βιβλιοθήκην, ἐφ’ ἧς ἐπιγεγράφθαι Ψυχῆς ἰατρεῖον, συνεχεῖς δὲ ταύτῃ τῶν κατ’ Αἴγυπτον θεῶν ἁπάντων εἰκόνας,

Diodorus Siculus 1.49

Early on in my first year at my current University, a graduate student was mulling over possible thesis topics and expressed an interest in one of my favorite distractions, fragmentary mythography. This student was specifically interested in the intersection between history and myth and the link between genealogy and epic formed most clearly in anecdotal evidence and early Greek records. This was a time for the fragments of the Greek Historians. (Sound the Jacoby Klaxon!)

Even though it was not that long ago (ok, closer to two decades than one) when I started, the informational landscape has utterly transformed since I entered my PhD program. When I was shopping for graduate school, I was told to ask about the library and to make sure they carried certain journals. It used to be that when I made a request for an Interlibrary Loan article or book, I would fill out a form (by hand) and then go to a dark window in the corner of the library weeks later to retrieve my request in an impersonal manila envelope, as if I were retrieving something forbidden, illicit.

(And, as I think of it, it was a whole lot easier to make many drug transactions than it was to get certain journals when I started graduate school.)

Today, ILL is slick, fast, and rarely demands that I leave the safe, enervating confines of my own office. Where twenty years ago a student would have had to sit down with a tightly printed, nearly inscrutable volume of Jacoby’s Fragments of the Greek Historians, two years ago my student and I emailed the librarian, found out the there was a digital version available through Brill, and made a request for the library to negotiate access.

It took an excruciating week. But when it came in? Well, it was glorious. Jacoby online presents all the fragments, translated, with notes! The online world of Classical Studies can turn a desk jockey anywhere into a world-class scholar by delivering bibliographies through the arcane but indispensable L’Annee Philologique and all the starting details you need with Brill’s New Pauly (now in English, fools. No German for you! And don’t give me that look, no less a leading light than Richard Porson allegedly quipped that “Life is too short to learn German.”)

Jacoby 2

this is just beautiful.

You can be transformed by this access, if you have the right library. But I knew from just a few months earlier, that this conditional makes a world of difference. Brandeis is not a wealthy University, but it is wealthy enough to drop a few grand extra so 3-5 people can benefit from a database 99.5% of the population has never heard of.

“There are those who accumulate books not from eagerness to use them, but from the desire to have them, and they possess them not as a bulwark to their minds, but as an ornament for their bedrooms.

Sunt enim qui libros, ut cetera, non utendi studio cumulent, sed habendi libidine, neque tam ut ingenii presidium, quam ut thalami ornamentum.

Petrarch, Epistles 3.18

Sometimes it is really easy to forget how much the information age has changed our access to the ancient world. The only scholarly text I saw before I picked up a copy of Cicero’s Pro Caelio at the Brandeis campus bookstore in 1998 was a dog-eared copy of Fordyce’s Catullus (that in-depth, but tragically incomplete commentary). I remember handling my first Loeb in the Classics section at the now defunct Borders (Books and Music); the first Latin text I actually owned was a bilingual edition of Catullus special-ordered from that same Borders by my high school girlfriend.

If you lived in certain regions, Greek and Latin texts were hard to find even if you could afford them. When I was in college and bar-tending in a seaside town in Maine, I noticed a patron reading Horace at the bar. I casually asked him where he was a professor, and he was like “Heavens, no, I am a stockbroker! The University is the death of the Arts.” (Really.) After a conversation filled with “o fons bandusiae” and the like, he asked me how often I frequented Schoenhof’s foreign language bookstore in Cambridge. When I said never, he had a heart attack. Ok, he only feigned a heart attack. But he did give me a 20 dollar tip and bid me to get there post haste.

For thousands of years, access to the texts bequeathed to us by antiquity was dictated by geography and class. You could be born into a family with a private library (rare) or endowed with the resources to send you to an institution which had one (less rare, but still, you know, 1% stuff) or you could happen to be near an institution that just happened to possess a Homer or a Vergil. (Assuming, of course, you’d get to look at it.) Or, of course, you could be lucky enough like Richard Bentley to get a tutoring gig for a family so well-endowed that the notes you made from their library helped launch and sustain your career.

Very few public libraries that aren’t also University libraries house Greek and Latin texts to this day. I read whatever was at the library when I was a kid. Every Stephen King book was there, so that’s what I read. When I wanted to read Frank Herbert, God Emperor of Dune was the book they stocked, so that’s the one I started with (and my favorite to this day). On the rare occasions we trekked to the largest library I had ever seen (the Portland Public Library), it was to browse and admire. It was, let’s say, simply too far to go to get a book just to return it.

Part of the radical legacy of the late Renaissance, the rise of the printing Press, and the Enlightenment is the democritization of material once so carefully cloistered. The spirit of access is clear in the creation of the French Budé editions of Greek and Latin texts and the Loeb Classical Library in the United States. These bilingual editions were (and remain) far more affordable than most scholarly editions and more readily available.

Thanks to Perseus, The Latin Library, Lacus Curtius, Theoi.com, the Suda Online, and Dickinson College Commentaries and the hundred other sites I am forgetting, even the casual student of antiquity has nearly instant access to more Greek and Roman texts and translations from a cell phone than Poggio, Petrarch, or Erasmus saw in their entire lifetimes. And forward-thinking institution like the Center for Hellenic studies publish their scholarly texts for free online when they are released.

(Full disclosure: I have a book coming out with CHS this year with Elton Barker. We selected CHS as a venue for the book in part because of their open access policy.)

Social media can break down boundaries between the Oxford Don and the Brazilian high school student in ways I think would have shocked William Gibson in 1985. But there are other stories behind this obvious social gain: the quality of the texts are curbed (we still have trouble sharing critical texts with functioning critical apparatus), the quality of some sources is unclear, and these sites often lack the funds and expertise to ensure they are accessible for the visually impaired. And, the newest and latest material is almost always pay-walled: the neoliberal publishing market has found ways to cloister some of our most useful contributions.

“For I seriously need both the Greek books—which I have an idea about—and the Latin ones”

nam et Graecis iis libris quos suspicor et Latinis quos scio illum reliquisse mihi vehementer opus est. Cicero, Letters to Atticus 1.20

Spending time in libraries ain’t what it used to be. Don’t get me wrong, free public libraries remain one of the most essential democratic institutions in our country and we should celebrate them and their librarians. But modern libraries reflect their use and function like any other place, with real estate. More and more space is given over to computers through de-accession and that terrible three word phrase, off site storage.

Again, don’t get me wrong. This is not to be a luddite’s rant against the computer or a bibliomaniacal fetish piece. The reason I lament the absence of books is that the computer terminals are only as good as what they have access to. In a way, computers are like books: you can’t judge the contents of either by the cover. And when the contents work, it can be transformative. I have never been a Classicist without the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae. For some years, I used a purchased CD-ROM of the TLG-E; for a few, we negotiated through our library at UTSA a single computer subscription. (For others, well, let’s just say some people know how to put the ILL back in illicit. This is an essential tool for modern philology and everyone should have access to it, for free.)

If we were to re-imagine the current world of Classical Studies as one particular site, it would be a platform with different identity levels controlling access. If you have high speed internet access, you can get free public domain Latin and Greek texts with translations, the Suda Online, and random uncurated website, articles, all mediated by google and requiring time intensive labor to sift through. There are some e-books and pdfs, but many of them are teases and there’s always a threat of piggybacking malware. If you have entry-level professional organization or second tier public school access, you might get the Loeb Classical Library, and more articles through JSTOR.

But if you are at the top of the access food chain, if you’re a Brillionaire, you have L’Annee Philologique, Brill’s New Pauly, Brill’s Jacoby, the Oxford Classical Dictionary, the Encyclopedia of Ancient Greek Latin and Linguistics, and more. So much more that you don’t know about it all and you just don’t care. This is what one might call eff you level access.

At my last institution, the University of Texas at San Antonio, I could get most articles I needed, but had access to very few databases. To use L’Annee Philologique, I had to go to UT Austin and ask for computer access. But they gave it to me because of my status (Professor) and my geography (TXShare, with some hurdles, allowed for people from public libraries to use the University library).

So, while we have democritized a lot of the past in some ways, we have created new boundaries in others. Who you are, where you live, and what you do still dictates the level of access you receive to the embarrassment of research riches at our fingertips. If you have no affiliation, you get the surface level, search engine mediated access. If you are lucky enough to be at a top tier institution, you have everything, but likely don’t know about it and, until you lose that status, won’t know that your work may be dependent on one bundling plan or some administrator’s choice. If you live too far or don’t have whatever relationship it is you need to get some special status, you are left on the outside looking in

And let’s not prevaricate here. Open access is about equity and inclusion. As long as we live in a world where historical and structural racism, gender bias, ableism, and classism influence where a person is born and the lives they lead, then any system which limits access to information based on geography or class will be at its foundation racist, sexist, ableist, and classist.

“I am not ignorant in the meantime (notwithstanding this which I have said) how barbarously and basely, for the most part, our ruder gentry esteem of libraries and books, how they neglect and contemn so great a treasure, so inestimable a benefitRobert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy 2.2.4

“Money is the cause of many of mortals’ evils

πολλῶν τὰ χρήματ᾿ αἴτι ᾿ ἀνθρώποις κακῶν #Euripides

The information access problem is tied in part to the labyrinthine economy of the neo-liberal university system. At its base is a heinous labor scam most of us in the academy are complicit in and which most of us are too busy to notice, too tired to fight, or too weak to resist. Almost all of the databases I mentioned above were produced through free (or nearly free) labor by scholars working to get or keep their jobs. (And this overlooks the unmentioned and often unpaid labor of students, administrators and family members along the way.).

I myself have written entries for at least one of the publications mentioned above: I received a 30% off promise for 2000 words. My university does not have access to an article I have never seen in its native form. And this is all a greater part of what is the bait-and-switch of academic publishing. What a perversion that we labor for years to produce books we cannot actually afford and which almost none of our friends or colleagues could afford to purchase!

(Another part of the story that needs to be told is how this economic system makes it possible for predatory publishers to take advantaged of those already marginalized by charging them fees to get work published…)

As the university has engaged in increasingly high-stakes brinksmanship, raising its perceived rankings value by pumping up the publication stats of its professors, non-profit and for-profit presses have joined the game by furnishing both a venue and a market for these intellectual markets. Young academics are trained not to write ‘trade’ books (that is, books that make money); instead, to secure the too often elusive promise of a job we write books for which we receive no compensation and for which we are often expected to pay for our own indexing (and in some cases, copy editing).

Articles are little different: peer review requires free labor from editors, referees, and the authors themselves. Some editors do get paid (more on this soon), but rarely is there more than an annual drink or meal for an editorial board and referees can at times receive a few hundred dollars for reading a book and a digital wink-and-a-smile for reading an article. The authors themselves, after scores, if not hundreds of hours of work, are compensated with 5% less existential angst and the chance that 1 of the 5 people who read their article might cite them. And the exclusivity can keep some people out of disciplines altogether: think of some of the nearly criminal tales dogging papyrology lately or how few people actually can get decent training in paleography. Where you are and where you started still guides most of our academic journey.

The scandal behind the publication heist is that most of this labor is subsidized by Universities themselves. Full-time faculty are expected to do research and service (and all the work I mentioned above falls into this category.) But many schools also provide funds to student and graduate student workers to assist in the publication cycle; others task administrative assistants or actual journal employees to the job. Untold millions of dollars are provided by public and private universities to support the publication of academic research. Then this subsidized research is repackaged and sold back to their over-extended libraries in an over-priced bundle. This is a cartel-level scam.

(This is why employees of universities in some countries (e.g. the UK) are required to publish open access material. Such a requirement might work for public institutions in the US and is already operable for work funding by certain federal initiatives, but it would be difficult to enforce universally.)

Problems with the cost of journal subscriptions are not new—giants like Elsevier gobble up journals, ‘bundle’ them together, and extort institutions. But this parasitic crisis is not going to end. We don’t face this problem with journals and database subscriptions alone—as textbook publishers go full on digital to keep their revenues rolling in, students and authors are getting screwed.

Give up the books and pay attention to only your own affairs”

ἄφες δὲ τὰ βιβλία καὶ μόνα ἐργάζου τὰ σαυτοῦ. Lucian, On the Ignorant Book-Collector 27

I know that there is another side to the story. I got to hear first-hand from the acquisitions editor for Brill Classics why their subscription costs so much. There are multiple people working full time to support the online databases for the New Pauly and the Jacoby. Editing, formatting, and tech support takes time and costs money. I would not want to take any stance that they should not be paid fair, livable wages. The costs of articles in other disciplines are even higher: in the sciences where editors need to worry about positive result bias, misused data, an undisclosed conflicts of interest, publishing can be labor intensive.

(To be clear, I am using Brill as a metonym here: there are far worse offenders.)

And I think that it is hard for us to think about the full economic cost of online resources. Databases need servers. Servers need bandwidth, energy, and, and maintenance. The more use they get, the more they cost. And, something we probably all live in daily denial about, this use has environmental and social costs: google searches have carbon footprints. Computers don’t run on love and hope; they run on electricity and much of this is still driven by coal.

Other economic pressures shape this system too. Some publications are supported by professional organizations. Companies like JSTOR buy rights to these publications from the organizations—these deals look really good to the editorial boards. Imagine this: you and your friends write something for free every year and you don’t have the expertise or the infrastructure to digitize it. You also depend on subscription fees and individual library purchases to break even in the printing of the work. Suddenly, a friendly digital giant comes along and offers you, I don’t know, $20,000 dollars a year for the rights to digitize and distribute your journal. You take this and use it to pay the editor, lower membership fees, fund journal production costs, and even create scholarships for students. This is a win-win-win!

Except, the FDG turns around, bundles the journal, and extorts Universities and libraries all over the world. Your organization’s 20K can easily turn into 200K for them while many of your friends and colleagues without institutional access can’t get to your work. (And some estimates put the gross receipts of one article in the sciences to be $5000.00 for the publisher.) This hypothetical is not uncommon. But I am not trying to impugn any single person or organization by telling the story. Like many trends, this is the aggregate result of individuals and small groups making rational decisions in isolation. Objection to the systematic exploitation of academic labor should not lead us to condemn or dismiss colleagues who are also being exploited by this system.

University presses do similar things with books and subscriptions. And, again, we can’t blame them because they are also part of an economic system that is suffering from public divestment and new informational paradigms. Things will probably get worse: education is facing an eighth year of lower enrollments, even more severe public funding cuts—many politically manufactured crises like that at the University of Alaska, or cynical attacks on functional schools like that at the University of Tulsa—and the late capitalist land-grab of corporate takeovers: Starbucks and Amazon are talking college partnerships and credentialing now, but how long until they just open their own schools or acquire financially troubled institutions in WSJ approved experiments in innovation and public-private synergy?!

If knowledge is a public good and publication makes knowledge available, is it too much of a twisted syllogism to insist that publication be treated as a public good?

Nosse bonos libros non minima pars est bonae eruditionis.

“To know good books is not the least part of sound erudition”

motto over Bishop Cosin’s library at Durham, Henry L. Thompson, Henry George Liddell: A Memoir

When I was finishing my PhD I lucked into one of those tutoring jobs that form the stuff of legends. A high school student wanted to learn Greek from scratch. The student’s home had its own elevator to the penthouse where it overlooked central park. For two years I happily went there once or twice a week and worked through all of Hanson and Quinn, Plato’s Ion and much of Herodotus Book 1. During the second year, the student’s mother asked me if I had seen the old books she had been giving her husband for birthdays and holidays. They were late Renaissance era texts of Homer, Pindar, and more. I trembled as I asked if I needed gloves to handle them—of course, not, why would I? These were just gifts to be presented and seen on the shelves.

If schools continue to lose funding and presses pursue what meager profit is left—or worse, cease supporting the tools and databases we have already created—we run the risk of returning to the plutocratic exclusivity of the finest resources for the rarest few. Don’t consider just the students at less well endowed and funded schools who cannot test-drive the Brill-iant cadillacs like the New Pauly. What about unaffiliated scholars or students and readers from outside countries with ‘world-class’ universities? Our scholarly production is already an exclusive country club with gilded chains on the windows and doors.

Internet publishing
Ultimately, we need a public funding system to support research and publishing that makes it available for everyone. Since this is highly unlikely in our current political reality, what can we do? Some of us break the rules individually, you know, engage in a little ‘innovation’ and ‘creative disruption’. We can handout articles as if they are candy; we can give people advice on how to find those pirated TLGs. I know that academia.edu is another profiteering algorithm machine, but it and sites like it allow us to share our work with anyone with an email address.

Those of us who have secure positions can choose which venues we send our work in; we can support open access publication for our junior colleagues. We can ask our schools to host our work; we can choose to publish only in open access journals and venues, but this also means that when we judge people for employment and tenure, we need to re-evaluate the value of journal prestige.

Perhaps there is more we can do institutionally. Why can’t universities share their access more widely? At the very least they can use their informational footprint to sponsor our work and help shift the perspective on access. In our professional organizations we can make open access a clearly articulated mandate and we can raise money to support databases and journals that are subscription fee (and I am happy to hear that the TLG has a plan to do so. It is too bad it has not happened faster).

Again, there are projects that need to be done—like the digitization of the Lexicon Iconcographicum Mythologicae Classicae—which we should make sure are done for everyone and we should not only seek to support the scholars who do this work financially, but we should support their work ethically by counting open access and publicly facing work as equal to if not greater than traditional journal articles when it comes to hiring, tenure, and promotion.It is and will be personally and professionally difficult to disentangle this elegant cage we have helped make for ourselves. But the first step is acknowledging that it is there, that we have contributed to it, and that some of us have benefited from keeping many others in the dark. When you’re in it, the Club is a fine and rare place to be. But with the disappearance of full-time jobs, the increase casualization of labor in the Academy, and the fetishization of the gig-economy, more of us will be on the outside looking in.

“I confess indeed that I am obsessed with studying literature. Let this fact shame others who do not know how to make use of their books so that they can’t provide anything from their reading to common profit or to make their benefit clear in sight.

Ego vero fateor me his studiis esse deditum: ceteros pudeat, si qui se ita litteris abdiderunt, ut nihil possint ex his neque ad communem adferre fructum neque in aspectum lucemque proferre: Cicero, Pro Archa 13

Engagement/Responses/Improvements

Here’s a survey about open access issues in Classics and the UK from 2008.

We can create our own publishing paradigms

Public libraries may be able to provide structure and scaffolding for more equitable access

Counting Matters: The National Latin Exam and the Politics of Record Keeping

Dani Bostick teaches high school Latin and an occasional micro-section of ancient Greek in a Virginia public school. She has published several collections of Latin mottoes online and has a strong presence as an activist for survivors of sexual violence on Twitter.

2019 has been the year of the Equity and Diversity Statement in Classics. The American Classical League released two statements this year. The March statement affirmed, “We embrace ‘all people who have an interest in the ancient world from all levels of instruction, stages of life, and backgrounds.’ Then, in May, after criticism of problematic promotional materials, the American Classical League released a statement condemning racist and white supremacist ideas and listing proposed actions to make “Classics for Everyone” a reality.

In April, also in response to criticism that exam questions sanitize slavery and sexual violence, the National Latin Exam Committee also released a statement promising to create “exams with inclusive, affirming questions and passages,” and added, “We are grateful for those who have raised concerns about diversity, inclusion, and equity and welcome future dialogue regarding ways the NLE can support these values.”

Statements must be the starting point for meaningful action, not just reactive public relations moments in response to public criticism. The first meaningful action should be answering a simple question: Who takes Latin? Without this information, it is impossible to implement and measure the effectiveness of solutions for making our field more inclusive and diverse. 

Unfortunately, the only information we have on the demographics of our field at the secondary level is the College Board data on Advanced Placement program participation. In 2018, only 6,409 students took the AP Latin exam; in 2019, only 6,117. We know from this data that only 3.5% of students who take the AP Latin exam are black. We also know that this percentage has not changed since 1999. While these data confirms what many of us know to be true about under-representation in Latin, they only tell us who is taking AP Latin. We do not have information about who is taking Latin outside of AP Latin programs. 

There is a better source for data. In 2018, 143,952 students of all levels registered for the National Latin Exam. If NLE collected information about race and ethnicity, we would have a much clearer picture of the current state of Latin. The NLE already collects information about the types of schools participating in their exam. Including a separate question for teachers about racial/ethnic enrollment at the school could also provide information about under-representation in the field. Instead, despite statements about diversity, the ACL-sponsored NLE is not including any questions related to race and ethnicity on their 2020 exam. 

As professional organizations and Classics programs at post-secondary institutions look towards the Future of Classics, the NLE would provide a valuable service to the field by collecting and publicizing this information. In response to my most recent request, I was told that the NLE Committee is concerned that answering a question about demographics would cause students of color to do poorly on the exam. This phenomenon is called a stereotype threat, and I agree that this is a problem in Classics. According to research by Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson, stereotype threat is a condition of “being at risk of confirming, as a self-characteristic, a negative stereotype about one’s social group.”  

As a practical solution to this concern, the question could be moved to a pre-registration day or to the end of the exam. Moving the exam question to the end, or refusing to ask the question altogether, does not eliminate stereotype threat in the context of the exam or the field as a whole. Which scenario would trigger more anxiety about prejudice and stereotypes: Answering a question about one’s identity or surveying the testing room as the only person of color in a nearly all-white space? Steele and Aronson affirm that the stress of being the “sole representative of a social category” can inhibit memory during academic tasks. 

There are many ways to mitigate and even eliminate stereotype threat that do not involve a ban on questions related to race and ethnicity on exams. For example, according to 2014 research from Toni Schmader and William Hall, increasing diversity can reduce stereotype threat. They wrote, “The impact of broader representation in educational and organizational environments is that group-based stereotypes begin to break down.” Ideally, a Latin student should be able to indicate a minority race or ethnicity on an NLE demographic question and feel pride instead of anxiety. Data will not make this scenario a reality, but it will make it possible to set goals with measurable outcomes. 

The NLE’s refusal to collect data in the name of marginalized students does not protect these students; rather, it perpetuates systemic injustice by hiding under-representation in the field. Who benefits from not collecting data? Gary Orfield of the Civil Rights Project of UCLA explained in a book chapter on the importance of data, “Those in power may fear the consequences of data and probably are not prepared to take action to alleviate group problems because data and tools for the assessment of progress are essential parts of serious reform strategies… Denial of problems and refusal to collect or publish data on sensitive issues are typical responses of those wanting to preserve the status quo.” Not collecting data is a deliberate, political decision to maintain the status quo. 

As long as the composition of the field is a secret, field-level conversations about diversity and will be theoretical at best and opportunistic at worst. With data, genuine commitment to equity and diversity can become measurable results.

Calls to Action: 

  1. The NLE should collect demographic data on the 2020 exam, and publicize that data in its 2020 report. If the answer sheet has been set, these data can be collected on a supplemental sheet for paper test-takers and can be added to the computer-based exam for other test-takers.
  2. As a sponsor of the NLE, the ACL should encourage the NLE to collect and release this data as a service to the field.
  3. The ACL should also continue their own efforts to “gather information about the demographics of Latin and Greek students nationwide,” as they wrote in their May 2019 statement.
  4. Professional associations that seek to foster classical studies throughout the country and through the collegiate level (e.g. SCS, CAMWS) should encourage and support the efforts of the NLE and use their data to help support diversity, equity, and inclusion in education, outreach, and publication.
  5. Teachers should collect data on their own programs and take steps to make their classrooms more inclusive if they do not mirror the demographics of their schools. 

 

Image result for us census 1820
US Census 1820, from census.gov

The Ninth Gate: Movie Hell

There are no good movies about books and bibliomaniacs. Occasionally, some lover of the written word will be featured as a character in a film, but the delight in books as aesthetic objects or repositories of wisdom or even simply as a source of pleasure is relegated to the triviality of being merely incidental to the plot. (In Beauty and the Beast, Belle could have easily been an enthusiast for anything other than books; indeed, their stories really serve only as a counterpoint to the boredom of her quiet and provincial life.) Of course, the truly bookish movie would likely be a total failure. Undoubtedly the topic lacks sufficiently broad commercial appeal to make it palatable for studio executives, and those who already have a pronounced proclivity for books would just as soon read a book about books rather than watch a film.

It was with this understanding that Joel convinced me to watch one of the most execrable films in our apparently infinite treasury of media products, The Ninth Gate. Though he live-Tweeted my reactions to the movie, I nevertheless thought it worthwhile to set down some more articulate and continuous thoughts on the movie and its relation to reading culture more generally.

The plot is straightforward enough, and even for one paying as little attention as I did, it is entirely predictable after a few minutes. Totally lacking in energy or commitment to the project, Johnny Depp plays the rare book collector (detective and evaluator?) Dean Corso. He is hired by the ultra-wealthy Satan enthusiast Boris Balkan to determine the authenticity of his copy of The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows, a manual written in the 17th century by Aristide Torchia or, as rumor has it, the devil himself. Though there are three copies remaining in the world, it is rumored that only one is authentic – that is, only one of them has the power to summon the devil himself.

Each of these books possesses nine engravings supposedly crafted by Aristide Torchia, but Corso learns in comparing them that three of the engravings in each copy are not only different from the corresponding engravings in the other copies, but are in fact the work of Lucifer. As you might expect, the owners of these copies are mysteriously murdered as Corso pursues his line of inquiry, and Corso himself is nearly killed a few times, saved only by a combination of stout plot armor and the intervention of a mysterious (and obviously supernatural) green eyed woman. No surprise, Balkan had the owners of the other copies murdered, and attempted after collecting the nine true engravings to summon the devil and pledge his loyalty to the dark lord, only to accidentally burn himself to death. Corso then locates the last authentic engraving and goes to carry out the ritual himself.

As a film, it’s a total flop. If Balkan were going to resort to murder anyway, why not just murder the owners of the texts in the first place? The pacing is horrible, and the fights are worse than what a few kids could stage with a cell phone camera and a YouTube account.

Corso’s growing obsession with the authentic book is the main thread of the thinly-worn plot, and it is in effect simply a re-tooling of the Faust tale. He is an expert book collector, and in the opening minutes of the movie we see that he is able to score extremely rare editions of coveted works with little effort. While Faust summoned the devil out of boredom with the earthly disciplines he had mastered and in order to pursue more knowledge, Corso becomes obsessed with the rarest book in the world, and the attainment of the goal leads him to the devil.

What this suggests about bibliomaniacs and book culture is clear enough. In an age where science has created weapons which could annihilate all of human civilization within minutes, the dread specter of occult knowledge still has a tenacious grip on the collective mind. There’s something about all of those old tomes bound in leather, with mysteriously horrific engravings and (most mysterious of all) their impenetrable arcana locked in the secret vault of a dead language.

I suspect that the cultural associations of Latin have much to do with its frequent recurrence in movies like this. Indeed, we may only think that the devil speaks Latin because he did such a damn good job of it in Marlowe’s Tragedy of Dr. Faustus. Perhaps it makes sense that, in an age when learned doctors were apparently eager to summon the devil, and when all learned doctors knew Latin, that the devil might find it expedient for his business prospects to trudge through a grammar or two. Nevertheless, the idea that Latin is uniquely suited to spells and incantations is in fact entirely arbitrary, a sheer historical accident. One would expect that the devil exists in a kind of supralinguistic state, but even then, there is no reason for him or his demonic posse to speak and respond to Latin beyond the fact that Latin was widely employed by the Catholic Church. I strongly suspect that in places which were under not just the spiritual but also the linguistic influence of the Greek Orthodox Church there is no strongly pronounced association between demonic communication and the Latin language. The sole merit of the movie is that the production team had the decency to use grammatically functional Latin, and not the strange medley of Latin-like words which one sees most frequently either on screen or inked to someone’s skin.

Yet, as I think over the movie, it occurs to me that it really isn’t about bibliomania. Corso hardly seems like an enthusiastic intellectual, and did not appear to do much reading beyond the strict requirements of his job. Moreover, Hollywood apparently conceives of rare books as things which are regularly manhandled by any interested party. Throughout the movie, Corso carries the book with him everywhere (even through the rain), and it is rarely handled without a lit cigarette and/or drink in hand. Even reasonably rare but uninteresting books put together by second-rate hacks are guarded more carefully than this in archival rooms, but the book possibly written by the devil himself can be carted around like the latest James Patterson you picked up at the airport. (Then again, they may be rough equivalents.)

And so, you have here a movie that isn’t really about books or book lovers, and certainly has no appeal for anyone who is into cinema. I only made it through because Joel put me to it and seemed to be amused by my criticisms, and his cat kept me more or less distracted for the last horrific hour. Maybe one day Hollywood will give us a movie about bibliomania, but for now we just have to settle for the devil. I’d rather read anyway.

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Spoken Latin and the Politics of Bland Triviality

An opinion piece written by Ian Mosley appeared today in the Christian Humanist outlet Mere Orthodoxy. While not as wildly offensive as a number of other essays written in a similar mode, it nevertheless represents a kind of apparently gentle conservatism that bills itself as essentially reasonable because it is somehow wholly dispassionate and above the fray of politics. In particular, I was struck by this paragraph describing the experience of a spoken Latin conventiculum:

At these events, politics is usually a non-issue. Ardent left-wing activists happily read and discuss Augustine and Erasmus in the original Latin alongside trad-Catholic reactionaries. The medium of an ancient language is somewhat helpful here, because the hot-button buzzwords and slogans people most readily divide over are difficult to translate. It’s much easier to discuss things like family and favorite foods.

Putting aside the question of how the political views of the participants in these conventicula are so readily identified in an environment purportedly free of “hot-button” or political topics, the scene envisioned here is one of the vacuous insipidity characteristic of a morning talk show. While I didn’t learn Latin to talk about contemporary politics, I also didn’t learn Latin to talk about my favorite foods – a topic much better suited, in my own case, to the swear-enhanced superlatives of gritty colloquial English.

Mr. Mosley has also betrayed his own empty cynicism by writing that it is “buzzwords and slogans [over which] people most readily divide.” That is to say, the mode of expression itself, and not the horrific reality underlying it, is what divides people. The New York Times may consider hiring Mosley when David Brooks or Brett Stephens get tired of wiping their asses on broadsheet and handing it to the editor, because he has already mastered the art of the dispassionate and reasonable oracular pronouncement delivered by a man who clearly feels that nothing is at stake for him socially or politically. Politics is never a “non-issue.” In the most trivial sense, the groups of scholars and Latin teachers which make up many of these conventicula are subjected to constant threat of reduced funding or even elimination of classical language instruction at both secondary and post-secondary institutions for political reasons. My own Latin program received a severe blow this year thanks to a potent cocktail of budget restriction and the easy expendability of anachronistic irrelevance. But I will wait patiently for Victor Davis Hanson, or Brett Stephens, or even Ian Mosley to suggest that the decline was somehow related to identity politics or critical theory.

It is worth considering the subtext Mosley’s thesis here, though, because it is often repeated in conservative appeals for a more manly and muscular approach to the classics. Hanson and Heath are perhaps the chief exemplars of this, but I have even heard such apparently apolitical figures as Reginald Foster claim that a part of Latin’s attraction lies in its resistance to bullshitting and jargon. This is patently untrue. Medieval and scholastic Latin is replete with unintelligible jargon, mostly developed for expressing abstract philosophical ideas, and poorly suited to the rather clunky and concrete mode of Latin expression. One can already anticipate the counter-argument that Medieval Latin represents a degradation from Ciceronian purity – you don’t find jargon in classical Latin. There may be less of it, to be sure, but there is also far less abstract jargon in Chaucer’s English than in that of today.

It is also worth considering that the tradition of Latin theology (which I would assume is important to someone who cites Augustine with such unseasonable frequency) is not only dependent upon the development and importation of highfalutin philosophical jargon into Latin, but also helped to speed it on to the labyrinthine incomprehensibility of Scholasticism. Some of the more traditional fuddy-duddies have claimed that the reason why it is impossible to translate contemporary English “buzzwords and slogans” into Latin is because they don’t mean anything. But the problem is that they mean too much for Latin to handle. Much of the conceptual content behind the slogans and buzzwords here decried stems from centuries of history and philosophical thought which occurred subsequent to the point at which Latin ceased to be a living language. Modern Romance languages possess their jargon, slogans, and buzzwords for contemporary political and social issues because those languages evolved in tandem with the societies which employ them. Our politicians and social commentators can’t quite keep themselves from fucking up every day even while using the entire apparatus of their native language; I shudder to think of what they would be reduced to if all they had to work with was the thought available to Cicero.

Anyone who has walked through a Renaissance villa knows that the political reception and use of ancient literature is not some peculiarly modern phenomenon. The classics were not read simply for the extraction of ornamental mythic tales or decorous Latin tags. People read Livy, Sallust, and Tacitus for the intrigue and political conflict, and made use of that reading not just to understand the politics of their own time, but also to frame and develop their contemporary political narrative. Cosimo de Medici might return from exile and put an end to the pretense of Florentine liberty, but he could bill himself as a modern Camillus. Anyone who wanted to kill a political leader could paper over the ugliness of political assassination by commissioning a bust of Brutus or a painting of Harmodius and Aristogeiton. Yet I don’t recall that I saw much by way of classical reception focused on anyone’s favorite dinner.

People take the trouble to read Augustine and Erasmus in Latin because they were active figures who tried to influence their world by engaging that world in their writing. People still love to read Tacitus because he talked honestly (i.e. cynically) about the political history of his people; indeed, the main criticism leveled against him is that he simply wrote against tyrants when it was safe, and did little to oppose them in practice. But Apicius’ cookbook isn’t flying off the shelves (or really even in print) because no one learns dead languages just to idly toy around with artificial parlor talk.

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The Books In My Dreams

Tracing my finger along the shelf of my library, I stopped upon a recently purchased volume which grabbed my attention – an old Teubner edition of Arrian’s Anabasis of Alexander, which I had found at the bookstore for the inconceivably low price of three dollars. I drew it from the shelf, and in doing so revealed the face of a demon, whose glowing eyes transfixed me and branded my soul with a dread terror I will never forget. Its gaze possessed something more than the power of an ordinary dream, for I awoke with the sleep paralysis which used to afflict me so often in former days. Anyone who has experienced sleep paralysis knows the horror of waking from the visions of a nightmare to a terror even worse – the inability to move. Worse still, my eyes when I woke up were fixed on that terrible spot – the shelf from which I had drawn Arrian in my dream.

My thoughts as I lay there entirely deprived of the faculty of motion tended exactly where you might expect: to the conclusion that the book was haunted. Indeed, I convinced myself that the entire collection of books which I had purchased along with the Arrian must be haunted. Here, I should note that all of these books were acquired at rock-bottom prices at a Half Price Books store in Austin which had clearly received boxfuls of a classics professor’s old stash. Apparently unsure of their real market value, a regular trove of Teubners, OCT’s, and even assorted editions with commentaries from the 19th and early 20th century were effectively being given away at three to five dollars each. Naturally enough, I assumed that this vast treasury was only sitting there because this old classicist (the absence of bookplates or inscriptions left their identity unknown) had died, given that surely no living person who had accumulated such a store would willingly part with it in life. Now that I had my hands on so many of the books, I was the object of the dead classicist’s malicious envy, and would somehow be dragged to the grave myself by the influence of infernal operations which the living cannot understand. I resolved that night to get rid of the books.

Rational and sober reflection belong very much to the sunlit, prosaic boredom of the daytime. After so rashly resolving to abandon the books the night before, I decided to hazard my body (and for all that, who knows? – perhaps my soul) in holding on to the books for one more night. No further apparitions ever haunted that ethereal library of dreams, and so the fresh accession of scholarly treasures was to remain. But so, too, was the horror which that night had aroused in the depths of my soul.

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The haunted Teubner

There is no dearth of paeans to the book – the book as object, the book as experience, the book as a bulwark against barbarism and the decay of civilization. Books as books are alternatively objects of pure pleasure and escapism or the instruments of the most serious and scientific engagement with the world. Books lie at the heart of the world’s three major monotheistic religions; books feature in some paradoxical way as one of the chief activities for pleasure at the beach; and books are converted into instruments of torture to sap the love of learning out of children in school. Readers love books, and writers love books, and so it is perhaps not accidental that writers often write books about books. I confess that I will read any of these that come in my way. Generally, they wax lyrical in the most overblown and effusive strains about the book and the act of reading as somehow the most gratifying and essential part of human experience. It is all bullshit of course, but it is bullshit which has been so thoroughly filtered, so refined, so polished and carefully curated in the hands of other literary obsessives that I cannot help but hang on to every word of it.

Yet for all that I read there about childhood experiences with books, the thrill of libraries, or how wonderful it was to read to Borges, I don’t recall many authors discussing the centrality of books in their dreams. When I was a child, I would dream about toys which I hoped to get, and still vividly remember wishing for a voice-modifying tape recorder marketed as one of Macaulay Culkin’s tools from the Home Alone movies. As an adolescent, I would of course dream all the time about romance and sex. The ideal dreamscape consists of the attainment of desires which are simultaneously the deepest-rooted and the most unattainable. And so, it is odd enough that as an adult, I dream – I mean, really dream – about books.

My recurring bibliofantasy runs something like this: I walk into a bookstore (it varies between smaller local shops and large chains like Barnes and Noble) and stumble upon a section of thousands of Greek and Latin classics, usually Loebs, stacked from floor to ceiling. I begin to grab the books with a ravenous and not quite gentlemanly frenzy. Among the volumes are authors of whom I have never even heard. (Of course, even seasoned classicists are surely unfamiliar with a long list of minor authors, but here my mind is just inventing names which must appear vaguely Greek and legitimate enough to pass muster in the vague haze of a dream.) Invariably, at some point in the dream, it occurs to me that I am in a dream because it all seems too good to be true, and yet I suppress that doubt and plough on ahead in the warm embrace of my bibliomania. At some point I wake up, and of course, it hurts – it feels like a real loss.

But why should this appear to be such a fantasy? San Antonio is not a city famous for literacy, and so it is rare enough to find a decent book store well-stocked with works in English; even a touch of classicism here is a fantasy too far. Yet I could easily purchase any work I want online, or search through something like the TLG. What is lacking is the experience of the physical book combined with the utter serendipity of stumbling upon it in the store. Surely enough, people may find true love on matchmaking apps, but how many people could get invested in that as a narrative? All of the romance of life lies in chance and accident, and the ease of ordering up some rare volume from the other side of the world, while convenient, is surely lacking in the quality which will send a shiver down your spine and set the heart a-flutter.

Whenever I visit a new city, the most important tourist destination is the bookstore. Most recently, I was surprised to find that the bookstores of Venice far surpass those of Florence. Perhaps my expectations of finding a full multi-volume collection of all of Petrarch’s Latin works in every bookstore in Florence was wholly unreasonable, the product of those dreams.

My library now consists of thousands of books, and nothing could reasonably induce me to part with any of it. Books are the only things to which I am attached, and I would sooner go without a computer and internet access than part with the volumes I’ve collected over the past seventeen years or so. It was around that time when I began reading in earnest, seventeen years ago, that I first fell in love. Though she and I were friends for some years and came several times to the brink of a full-blown confession of our feelings, it was a romance which was never to be. To this day, I still have dreams about the fulfillment of the romance that never was, and which would now be utterly impossible. Yet, it is perhaps only in the ethereal world of dreams that one can experience a love whose month is ever May. In a curious inversion of Anselm’s argument, its perfection lies in its unreality. Sometimes I wake from the fantasy world in which thousands of lost classics loom over me, waiting to be read, and regret that it was all a dream – nothing but a dream. But as the song reminds us, so is life.

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A tiny fragment of my dreams.

A Reader’s Decline and Fall

Years ago, in the innocent haze of late youth, I lay in bed on a perfect, sun-lit spring afternoon, and drifted pleasantly to sleep as I read The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. You may be surprised that this is by way of a recommendation of the book, and not chiefly for its soporific qualities. Our memories are hardly continuous or sequenced narratives. Rather, they are dotted constellations of individual events, and this event stands forth as one of my most charming and pleasant recollections. As I fell asleep, setting aside that narrative of imperial corruption, I thought “this is life.”

Of all Dickens’ novels, my favorite apart from The Pickwick Papers (but is it even a novel?) is Our Mutual Friend. This aesthetic preference can no doubt be reduced to my fondness for the scenes in which Silas Wegg reads The Decline and Fall to Mr. Boffin:

Mr Boffin seemed a little unprepared for this conclusion, but assented, with the remark, ‘You know better what it ought to be than I do, Wegg,’ and again shook hands with him upon it.

‘Could you begin to night, Wegg?’ he then demanded.

‘Yes, sir,’ said Mr Wegg, careful to leave all the eagerness to him. ‘I see no difficulty if you wish it. You are provided with the needful implement—a book, sir?’

‘Bought him at a sale,’ said Mr Boffin. ‘Eight wollumes. Red and gold. Purple ribbon in every wollume, to keep the place where you leave off. Do you know him?’

‘The book’s name, sir?’ inquired Silas.

‘I thought you might have know’d him without it,’ said Mr Boffin slightly disappointed. ‘His name is Decline-And-Fall-Off-The-Rooshan-Empire.’ (Mr Boffin went over these stones slowly and with much caution.)

‘Ay indeed!’ said Mr Wegg, nodding his head with an air of friendly recognition.

‘You know him, Wegg?’

‘I haven’t been not to say right slap through him, very lately,’ Mr Wegg made answer, ‘having been otherways employed, Mr Boffin. But know him? Old familiar declining and falling off the Rooshan? Rather, sir! Ever since I was not so high as your stick. Ever since my eldest brother left our cottage to enlist into the army.’

Wegg and Boffin were familiar to me long before Gibbon was, and so I cannot help but wonder whether my general sense that this was an important book was set by casual reading as a teen.

My first experience of the book was an abridged Penguin Classics version which I held in my hands in the scene above. I saw a full (closely packed) set of the work for sale and purchased it in 2011, and made a few attempts at reading it through, but rarely found the time or hardihood to do it. Four summers ago, I cracked it open and gave it a fair amount of attention, but it was something of a struggle in my then-distracted state to get through all of it, but I at least finished. Last year, I found a deluxe version, edited by J.B. Bury with supplemental notes, maps, and indices (in seven volumes!) for only $50. A few weeks ago, I set out to read it, and – yes, dear reader – I gave it the heroic forced-march treatment, reading through all ~3,400 pages of it over the past three weeks. I don’t know why I decided to read through the book again, but it exercises over me something like the fascination of the ancient mariner’s eye, and I always find myself mysteriously drawn back to it.

The Decline and Fall is not fashionable today, and perhaps for good reason. Anyone who has read the book with a knowing eye can tell you that it is problematic in various ways. The treatment of various periods and figures is wildly uneven. Julian’s rise to power and brief tenure on the throne occupies a good chunk of a volume, while most of the Byzantine emperors after Heraclius are given the hyper epitome treatment in one chapter which does little more than provide the basic vice/virtue character sketch and the circumstances of their death. In some instances, the reasons for the imbalance are likely due to personal inclination (Gibbon’s fondness for Julian), but in others, it may simply reflect the availability of materials.

Gibbon’s style is also very much out of fashion. Clive James, though an omnivorous reader, nevertheless confessed that he could never read much of Gibbon because it was all style and too ‘rococo’. Indeed, it is interesting that Gibbon himself regularly inveighs against the rhetorical-sophistic prose of various ancient authors whom he himself suspects of being all style. But criticisms of Gibbon’s prose date back as far as Porson, who suggested that there was no better exercise for the young student than to turn a page of The Decline and Fall into English.

Yet, for all of that, I am an utterly unapologetic fan of Gibbon’s prose. Some of its quirks stem, I suspect, from the infusion of Gallic idiom dating to his years writing and thinking in French. His reckless abandon in the use of commas is pretty characteristic of 18th century English prose, and once can profitably compare Gibbon’s deployment of that workhorse of punctuation to Jane Austen’s. Perhaps the most admirable synthesis achieved by Gibbon is the admirable mixture of two classical modes: the sonorous periods of Cicero, and the pointed antitheses of Tacitus. Gibbon is not nearly as diffuse as Cicero, but his periods always manage to be perfectly balanced, and he cannot resist the temptation of a well-regulated tricolon. He hasn’t the clipped and telegraphic brevity of Tacitus, but he managed to imbibe that author’s utter cynicism, and he regularly employs that hallmark of Tacitean style, imputing in an entirely non-committal way the darkest designs and most sinister motives to almost every action.

For all of the care and attention which he has given his subject, he cannot but approach it with a sense of contempt and disgust. As he himself writes, “History is indeed little more than the register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind.” Yet he also indulges in a dangerous inclination to see a more distant past as a kind of idyllic utopia of good character and good government. Famously, he assigns the happiest period of the entire history of the world to the period under the adoptive and Antonine emperors. Throughout the history, later Italians and Greeks are conceived as semi-barbaric and wholly unworthy successors to their “manly” and “virtuous” ancestors.

The standard trope seems to be: perfection on a grand scale was achieved in the past through virtue, but it insensibly (Gibbonian style!) gave way to vice, and the declining state of the world reflected that; there is an inevitability to the collapse, but the decline can be slowed by virtuous (or effective) individuals. This explains why, for example, the western empire fell much sooner than the eastern: the west was overrun by barbarians, but the east was propped up by the heroics of Justinian and Belisarius, whose exploits helped the system to coast for a while longer. When scrutinized, this view is simplistic, but it does at any rate make for a fun and engaging narrative.

Gibbon’s original intent in writing The Decline and Fall was much more narrowly circumscribed by the limits of the city Rome itself, but it quickly expanded outward to include more or less everything with some bearing on any of the lands once controlled by the Romans. But Gibbon is only as good as his guides. For example, his narrative of the period between Commodus and Constantine is pretty faithful to the Historia Augusta, going so far as to incorporate the moral censures included in that work. (Of course, Gibbon did not know that it was an elaborate forgery.) Yet, once he reaches the end of the reign of Justinian, Gibbon goes off the rails a bit. His panoptic survey takes in a lot of eastern history, but for all of this, he relies on an admixture of Byzantine authors and later treatments by European scholars (since he did not know Arabic, Farsi, etc. himself). The separation from primary sources for the latter half of the work, combined with Gibbon’s manifest contempt for the Byzantine intellectual in general, result in a narrative that can be tedious, confusing, and in many instances requiring substantial correction. Added to this is the casual racism and contemptuous xenophobia of the 18th century Englishman. One can readily see why almost no one reads the work in full, and why abridgements generally summarize most of what happened following the reign of Justinian.

Yet, for all of the problems which the work manifests, it is nevertheless an incredible monument to heroic reading. In his Memoirs, Gibbon downplays the time which he spent reading and working in earnest in any given day, but surely this is just the awkward affectation of an English gentleman’s sprezzatura. A survey of Gibbon’s footnotes is enough to assure us that he was always reading. Everywhere we hear that one can read more about such and such a topic in x number of thick folio volumes or dense octavos. A.E. Housman once remarked that being a scholar involved countless hours reading what was not really worth reading, and this seems to have been the case with Gibbon. As noted before, he has more or less just synthesized what he read in various ancient and secondary sources. (Though it’s true that this is more or less what writing history is.)

We should not be surprised if we find the book riddled with faults, given that it spans a tremendous temporal and geographical expanse and was one of the first real attempts at a scholarly but engaging narrative history in English. That is, it may fall short by today’s standards of scholarship, but as a work of popular history, it still holds up pretty well. Gibbon was allowed the leisure to read and write so much because he was, though not rich, at least a gentleman of sufficient means, but one must bear in mind that he was also in modern parlance a college dropout. Having left Oxford during his brief conversion to Catholicism, he never returned to take his degree. Yet he certainly read more widely than many of the formally-trained scholars of his time and ours.

In sum, I know that Gibbon is problematic, and likely to become more and more unfashionable with time, but I find something entirely irresistible in his work. Perhaps the most shocking confession I could make to my friends and peers is that Gibbon’s collected works would be my “desert island book.” (Does that make it my favorite? I don’t even know.) Unlike most fanboys, I am not willfully ignorant of its faults, and I can definitely see why people hate The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. But goddammit, I love it.

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The only way to read a book like this.

The Future of the Past

In the final book of Liu Cixin’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy, Death’s End, when faced with an unstoppable extinction-level event, Cheng Xin and Ai AA go to the distant edge of the solar system to try to preserve some artifacts of human existence from the encroachment of two-dimensional space. When they reach the isolated moon bunker where many of the objects are stored, they come upon miles of inscriptions in the surface rock. Previous plans to preserve human knowledge had included etching human history and knowledge into the stone. Teams of scientists and data specialists could devise no method which ensured as long a future as the multilingual inscriptions in space.

Any system of encoding and preserving knowledge—whether we are talking of raw, binary data or language—relies upon two challenges for legibility in the future. The first is a ‘key’—some type of instruction that might indicate to readers unfamiliar with language or code how to make meaning out of signs. The second challenge is medium—how do the materials which encode the information respond to the passage of time and elements.

Encrypted digital data in every form faces the danger of significant loss under even the best of conditions; changing software and computational paradigms can make accessing extant data even more difficult. The decryption of preserved digital data relies on the end-user being able to access functional hardware and manipulate the same original data protocol. Despite the ability to extend human life centuries through hibernation and the technology to create space ships which traveled at the speed of light, the humans of Cixin’s universe can find no better way to preserve the past than cold, alien stone.

The survival of the past into the future is something of a motif in science fiction, thanks to its longue durée perspective. Just in the past year, I have read of the ‘classicist’ in Adrian Tchaikovksy’s Children of Time series, a figure whose knowledge of the past and ability to use ancient programs makes him central to the survival of the human race. In many cases, such as the works of Isaac Asimov, the Earth we know and the past we cherish is entirely forgotten or mostly unsalvageable. But for every novel that imagines the preservation of knowledge over time—like Neal Stephenson’s Anathem—we have the more stark reality to deal with of strange re-uses of our reconstructed past as in Ada Palmer’s Terra Incognota series or generations of lost knowledge over time, as in Walter Miller Jr.’s classic, A Canticle for Leibowitz.

“The prophecy which was given to the Thessalians was ordering them to consider “the hearing of a deaf man; the sight of the blind.”

ὁ μὲν γὰρ Θετταλοῖς περὶ Ἄρνης δοθεὶς χρησμὸς ἐκέλευε φράζειν: “κωφοῦ τ᾿ ἀκοὴν τυφλοῖό τε δέρξιν”  Plutarch, Obsolesence Of Oracles (Moralia 432)

A widely linked recent article alleges that the human race has around 30 years left, that by 2050 climate change will create a systems collapse that will end human civilization as we currently know it. Similar reports diverge at whether the extinction event that is the Anthropocene will also eradicate the human species or just result in a cruel, apocalyptic contraction. Even if we find the political will to radically change our behavior over the next few years, we are looking at the almost certain probability of widespread government collapses, severe famine and death in the ‘global south’, and widespread conflicts over resources.

For the sake of argument (and acceding to science), let’s say that we should be preparing for one of the worst-case scenarios. While it would be great if all of us consumed less, recycled more, and gave up internal combustion engines, the fact is that late-stage capitalism is an out of control freight train which no single government or group of governments appears to have the will or the resources to slow down. The vast majority of all world carbon pollution is perpetrated not by billions of human beings making bad decisions each day, but by the profit-driven interests of a hundred corporations. We are not going to stop this with anything short of massive collective and revolutionary action.

“What is worst from bygone days provides the best safeguard for the future.”

ὃ γάρ ἐστι χείριστον αὐτῶν ἐκ τοῦ παρεληλυθότος χρόνου, τοῦτο πρὸς τὰ μέλλοντα βέλτιστον ὑπάρχει, Demosthenes, Philippic 1.2

In the meantime, maybe some of us should be looking past that destructive horizon to what comes next. I don’t do this cynically—there is a part of me that thinks the neo-fascist maniacs who are creating concentration camps and clamoring for border control now are rehearsing for the inevitable migrations caused by climate change and attempting to habituate an American populace to the murder and carnage needed to survive in that apocalyptic contraction scenario. By pursuing an insane set of policies, the very actors who deny climate change is happening are actively bringing it about. Yes, I do suspect there are those who would rather dehumanize and slaughter other human beings rather than make difficult decisions and sacrifice a standard of living now.

(And, truth be told, a disturbing number of Americans seem ok with this).

“if you find good luck in the time that is left
Perhaps it will be solace for the things in the past”

εἰ καὶ τὰ λοιπὰ τῆς τύχης εὐδαίμονος
τύχοιτε, πρὸς τὰ πρόσθεν ἀρκέσειεν ἄν.

Euripides, Helen 698-699

My question is: what are we of learned societies doing to plan for the collapse of the social and political infrastructure that has produced the deepest learning for the broadest number of people in the history of humankind? For those who study the ancient world and the way that earlier societies have dealt with change, we must ask ourselves what is the future of the past and what ability do we still have to shape it.

Asking this question, of course, leads to a series of ancillary concerns which in themselves are likely useful to debate. With only a little scrutiny, it is clear that this coming challenge is unlike anything we have faced before (with the exception, perhaps, of the Late Bronze Age Collapse as some have imagined it). To the contrary of popular imagination, antiquity never fell: instead, it went through a period of transformations, stalled cultural developments, geographical shifts, and technological change under the influence of new religions, mass migrations, social senescence and, perhaps, even climate change.

Indeed, to think about the “future of the past” we need to consider the “past” of the past and its present status. We have spent nearly 700 years ‘reconstructing’ a past that never actually existed. Take, for instance, the textual wealth contained within the Loeb Classical Library: no figure or library ever possessed all of this collective knowledge in one place prior to the 20th century. In fact, I would be hard pressed to imagine that there were more than a handful of individuals in the ancient world who had access to 20% of it.

As Classicists we often can be found lamenting everything we don’t have, the imagined texts we have lost and whose titles alone give some indication of their promise. But we do not often enough stop to consider how remarkable it is that we have as much as we do and how much we have intervened and produced since the Renaissance to create what we now consider Classical knowledge. Contemplating and then gaming out how to preserve the past we have now can help us better understand the processes that occurred over the past 1000 years and the extent to which they have created a tremendously biased if not mostly fictionalized view of the past.

“It is undoubtedly foolish to be unhappy today simply because you may be unhappy in the future.”

est sine dubio stultum, quia quandoque sis futurus miser, esse iam miserum, Seneca EM 3.3

There are, then, important differences between earlier epochal shifts and this. First, the “loss” of antiquity that occurred from the building of the first Museion at Alexandria, through its multiple burnings, civil wars in Rome, sacks of the city, the ‘decline and fall’ of the empire, and the sack of Byzantium by Christian crusaders, was a slow attrition and loss by neglect. If there were more texts and art works available in 200 CE than there were in 1200 CE, it is because (1) of what we are counting as mattering and (2) a generally higher standard of living and access to resources to a non-religious leisure class in the earlier period.

An unvarnished examination of the recovery of Classical knowledge must acknowledge that the Renaissance was not a recuperation of all of antiquity, but a selective curation of its remains. What we face with the next possible civilizational collapse is the loss of the knowledge that has been reconstructed and the tremendous body of work we have produced since then. Where a 15th Century humanist had but a handful of manuscripts of Homer to worry about, we have dozens plus the papyri fragments, plus the commentaries, original and edited scholia introductions, monographs, articles, and edited texts with critical apparatus we have created over centuries.

And that’s just Homer. I am not saying that I am turning full doomsday prepper on you, but I am saying that we should take the threat of civilizational collapse seriously and that it is not just within our remit as academic classicists to make some plans for how the material of the past might survive to benefit future generations and to provide a record of what came before our era, but it is our responsibility to be having these conversations now.

“I think that it is clear to everyone that it is not in our nature to predict the future”

Οἶμαι γὰρ ἅπασιν εἶναι φανερὸν ὅτι τὰ μέλλοντα προγιγνώσκειν οὐ τῆς ἡμετέρας φύσεώς ἐστιν, Isocrates, Against the Sophists 13.2

If we don’t, none of the scenarios look great. In many cases, 12th century CE Byzantine manuscripts and papyri (still buried) have a far better chance of surviving than the rapidly degrading and poorly printed books of the past 50 years. If we are to imagine that someone else might make these plans, we must consider who will do it instead. Should we leave it up to silicon valley disrupters? What works would they choose to preserve? Should individual universities be responsible? Will governments and libraries do the work? Should we hope that religious organizations will do this again? What choices would modern Christian sects make?

(Sidebar: when I was in elementary school we viewed the full series of Tomes & Talismans during library time each week. The central characters were librarians with a bookmobile; the threat were an alien species in a post-apocalyptic earth who were trying to wipe out accumulated human knowledge. They were called “The Wipers”.)

I think that it is probably best for professional organizations across linguistic and geographical territory to start to have this conversation. Most of our current output is currently stored in digital form across myriad platforms, with little concern for data degradation or recuperability. Not only are our blogs, tweets, open access articles, and personal correspondence at risk, but the very texts we have worked so hard to preserve, establish, and edit, are mostly in cheap, glue-bound paper versions. And this does not even begin to touch the challenges presented by material culture in a changing climate. Should we continue to excavate when climate change and geo-political stability threaten anything not under the earth? How does the possibility of future collapse change museum studies?

We need to talk about what will be preserved, how we will preserve it, who makes these decisions, and what aid we can store up for the historians of the future. We need to talk about the overlapping responsibility of universities, professional organizations, and governments to work together to preserve what we have won. And we need to make sure that voices from different backgrounds and experiences are central to this conversation

“Prudently the god covers the outcome of the future in dark night”

prudens futuri temporis exitum
caliginosa nocte premit deus, Horace Ars Poetica 25

Years ago, I used to teach a course called “Classical Myth and Literature”, which I think was originally designed as a bridge between straight up myth courses and more focused literature in translation offerings. I used it as a means to trouble the definitions of both myth and literature. One of the final essay questions asked students to imagine a flight from planet earth under the threat of alien invasion and to explain the choice of preserving either the corpus of 1990s pop songs or early Greek poetry (usually, specifically the Homeric Hymns). It was a fascinating assignment because students had to justify their answers using examples from the corpora. And, let me tell you, the pop songs were preserved nearly as frequently as the Hymns.

We are at a unique albeit horrifying moment in history. Perhaps the younger among us or the less thoroughly institutionalized will find ways to fight or forestall coming events. Those of us who are committed for better or worse to the study of the past even as the present crumbles around us need to start having hard conversations now before it is too late.

“For, it is right, Athenians, to use prior events as a guide about what will happen in the future.”

χρὴ γάρ, ὦ Ἀθηναῖοι, τεκμηρίοις χρῆσθαι τοῖς πρότερον γενομένοις περὶ τῶν μελλόντων ἔσεσθαι, Andocides, On the Peace with Sparta 2

 

Tomes and Talismans (1986)
Tomes & Talismans Still Shots from IMDB