Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Friday, March 12, 2010

things lost and found on the march

I’m back from England and full of ideas. I was not able to do what I went to London primarily to do — let me just say that the Jesuit Archive in London is a stern and jealous guardian of the documents in its care — but I had a productive time anyway. There are different ways to be productive, and one of them involves sheer thinking — and in the past week I had many opportunities to think, many provocations of thought.

For instance: I couldn't help meditating on our recent discussion of fragility as I was visiting the great manuscript room of the British Library. I always visit that room when I’m in London, and I never cease to marvel at what it holds. My first thought is, invariably: what a miracle that these things survived. The Codex Sinaiticus — are you kidding me? The only manuscript of Beowulf? And of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the other works of that magnificent unknown poet?

But then I think: what is missing? What has been lost? How do we know that there aren’t poems still greater than Beowulf and Sir Gawain that didn't make it? Thus Thomasina Coverly’s outcry in Tom Stoppard’s much-praised — and rightly soArcadia:

Oh, Septimus! — can you bear it? All the lost plays of the Athenians! Two hundred at least by Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides — thousands of poems — Artistotle's own library brought to Egypt by the noodle's ancestors! How can we sleep for grief?

Her tutor Septimus Hodge gives a noble answer:

By counting our stock. Seven plays from Aeschylus, seven from Sophocles, and nineteen from Euripedes, my lady! You should no more grieve for the rest than for a buckle lost from your first shoe, or for your lesson book which will be lost when you are old. We shed as we pick up, like travelers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it. The missing plays of Sophocles will turn up piece by piece, or be written again in another language. Ancient cures for diseases will reveal themselves once more. Mathematical discoveries glimpsed and lost to view will have their time again. You do not suppose, my lady, that if all Archimedes had been hiding in the great library of Alexandria, we would be at a loss for corkscrew?

Noble, yes, but of course completely untrue — except for the good advice to count our stock. Many things of value have indeed been lost “on the march” and cannot be recovered or re-produced. And whether future productions — especially those that take only digital form — will be more or less persistent than their predecessors remains to be seen.

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