Papyrus resists

Written on October 8, 2007 by Administrador de IE Blogs in Literature, Philosophy


Miguel Herrero de Jáuregui

“Time will tell” is the easiest opinion one can have about practically everything. Whenever one does not want to risk a thought on a fishy subject, it is advisable to stick to the judgement of Time. Apart from avoiding the dangers of reflection, appealing to Time has the glamourous flavour of cosmic justice. Old Chronos does not ask your name or place of birth, but only one question: What are you worth remembering for? As if History had an internal Darwinistic clock, people and facts, independently of their glory among contemporaries, are set by Time in their due place. So are books, so will be even blogs, perhaps.

Yet Time’s monarchy is not fair (classical political theory would call it tyranny). Take, for instance, the case of books. Of all the prose and poetry wrote by the ancients, only the few works which were thought worth being copied time and again throughout the centuries survived till the age of Gutemberg. The rest turned dust and ashes. And the transmission of ancient texts is so full of accidents, censorships, arbitrarities, burnt libraries and sunk ships that talking of balanced judgement of what should be preserved and what deserved oblivion seems pure mockery. N. Wilson’s Scribes and Sholars is a classical account of that process. And in the first of his fine best-sellers, Eco (with the immensurable help of Sir Sean Connery) put before everyone’s eyes the arbitrary destiny of ancient books. The third book of Aristotle’s Poetics on comedy is lost forever. Now, in the age of bits and bytes, anybody’s thoughts, no matter how dire they are, can be turned everlasting just with clicking on “save”. Is this justice? Is that fair?

Only some few chosen fighters keep resisting Time’s tyranny. Their name is papyri. Ancient books were written in papyrus rolls, which have survived only in extremely dry conditions. The burning sands of Egypt have given back to us most of these new texts from the remotest past: many poems of Sappho, for one, which were not copied by medieval monks for obvious reasons, are read and sung again thanks to the papyrus findings. Out of Egypt, accidents are needed, ancient tragedies which turn to be strokes of good luck for us: the sealed jars of Qumran, in Israel, were abandoned while fleeing from slaughter against their holders; the Derveni Papyrus, in Northern Greece, was going to be burnt in a funerary pyre, but it rolled out to the miraculous point were it would be far away from the fire not to burn and close enough to get dry and survive; the lava of Pompeii and Herculaneum, while destroying lives and cities, carbonized whole libraries and preserved them for modern scholars who patiently retrace ancient wisdom back from the ashes. Much has been discovered in Herculaneum, but there may be much more – tragedies, philosophy, new epics with old myths– waiting down there for us to dig, unroll and read: have a look at www.herculaneum.ox.ac.uk, where fighters against the tyrant  have joined the battle. There is yet hope. Time will not prevail.


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