Before I tell you this final story, which is about what you probably came here today to hear about, and which I have studiously ignored thus far, which is to say about what lasts, what survives, what endures — I would remind you that the word endures has the Latin word durus in it: "hard." As we know, a lot that has endured from the distant past has endured, as it were, by accident: to the garbage dumps and mummy wrappings of Egypt we owe much, if not always much of great aesthetic distinction, if the truth be told. But even granting that, it must be the case that some aspects of civilization have endured because they have real value — not in some abstract, notional, theoretical way, value for publications and promotions and tenure, but solid, meaningful value to the very human beings, the ordinary people whose forgotten lives make up 99% of the past that we study when, often naively, we study the past, unaware sometimes that we are studying just the tiny fraction of experience that has not been lost.
Why do I think this? Because of the story the second old Jewish woman told me. She, too, was a survivor; I had been interviewing her for the book I wrote about the Holocaust, and by the time I had the brief conversation I am about to tell you about, I knew of some of the things she had suffered, and I can tell you that they were the kind of things that strip all sentimentality away, that do not leave you with any mushy illusions about the value of Western culture, of "civilization" and its traditions. I just want you to know that before I tell you what she told me, which was this:
We had spent a long day together, talking about sad things — talking, in fact, about the erasure of a culture, the unmaking of a civilization, as total and final as what Vergil described in Book 2 of the Aeneid; there are, after all, as many Jews left today in the city this lady had lived in as there are Trojans in Troy. We were tired, night was falling. Because I didn't want to leave her with sad thoughts that night, any more than I want to leave you with sad thoughts today, I tried to lead the conversation to a happier time.
"So what happened when the war was over?" I asked softly. "What was the first thing that happened, once things started to be normal again?"
The old lady, whose real name had disappeared in the war along with her parents, her house, and nearly everything else she had known, was now called Mrs. Begley. When I asked her this question Mrs. Begley looked at me; her weary expression had kindled, every so slightly.
"You know, it's a funny thing," she told me. "When the Germans first came, in '41, the first thing they did was close the theaters."
"The theaters?," I echoed, a bit confused, not dreaming where this could be leading. I didn't know which theaters she meant; I thought, briefly, of the great Beaux Arts Pantheon of an opera house in Lwów, with its Muse-drawn chariots and gilded victories, a mirage of civilization, the 19th century's dream of itself. She had told me, once, that she had seen Carmen there, when she was a newlywed.
But she wasn't talking, now, about operas in Lwów, or about the 1930s; she was talking about theaters in Kraków, where she and her husband and child ended up once the war was over.
"Yes," she said, sharply, as if it ought to have been obvious to me that the first thing you'd do, if you were about to end a civilization, would be to put an end to playgoing, "the theaters. The first thing they did was close the theaters. And I'll tell you something, because I remember it quite clearly: the first thing that happened, after the war was over and things got a little normal — the first thing was that the actors and theater people who were still alive got together and put on, in Polish, a production of Sophocles' Antigone."
So that was the story, and here is what I think it means:
A lot of life gets lost — most everything, in fact. That much, my poor step-grandmother knew, a woman whose own life disappeared into the abyss. But as Mrs. Begley knew, some of what remains means something — something very real, to real people, to people whose knowledge of suffering is derived from more than a book or a night at the movies. And so, I would ask you this: when you think of what it means to be a classicist, don't think only about your deconstructive readings of Homer, or post-structuralist approaches to Plautus, or Freudian readings of the Euripidean romances, or Marxist interpretations of the Peloponnesian War, the iconography of red-figure vases or the prosopography of the late Roman Republic. Think about Mrs. Begley; think about the people in Kraków, who, when they had very good reasons to believe that civilization had ended, felt that the first thing they needed to do was to put on a play by Sophocles.
That, in the end, is the meaning of the tradition you have been studying, and for which you, the newest generation of Classicists, are now responsible.
So go, and have some fun today; and then, later, do something to earn that.
Monday, June 01, 2009
From Daniel Mendelsohn's Berkley Commencement Address
Here, towards the end: