Saturday morning quotes 2.16: Imagine the Dark Ages
Imagine everything you know about history is wrong. Imagine there never was an era called the ‘Middle Ages’ or the ‘Renaissance.’ Imagine these labels were invented by modern historians for the purpose of teaching and publishing, and who were probably wrong in their many baseless speculations as they branded these eras with absurd cultural characteristics that were atypical, based on scraps of surviving evidence.
Imagine hundreds of years from now, after the next ‘Dark Age’ renders all of our laboriously digitized archives useless, musicologists rediscovering Disco music. No one is exactly sure how it goes because there are no surviving sound recordings, only fragments of written charts indicating a single chord that sustains for 32 measures over a single bass note with endless repeat signs.
Imagine the myth of ‘Rap’ and the legend of ‘Hip Hop’ for which no charts survive at all, only stories of the angry stream-of-conscious profanity featuring words that occasionally rhymed, or else were modified to do so. Imagine the controversy among future scholars when they attempt to interpret this music; the correct performance practice involving trousers around the ankles, oratorical delivery based on sneering and leering, shooting people on and off-stage in order to gain reputation.
Perhaps cultural artifacts from some historical eras are best forgotten.
For all of us working in universities and particularly in the humanities (though not entirely—pure mathematicians face the same problem), the primary challenge of the next decade will be to explain why what we do is essential, not optional. We will need to put the case very clearly: A world in which no one has access to Homer or Dante in their original languages is a world that has lost more than the icing on the cake—but its very foundations. We will also need to explain that such studies can’t simply be put on hold and picked up later when the money begins flowing again. By then, the tradition and the skills that uphold our knowledge will have died. (It would take a new Renaissance to get them back.)
Mary Beard has done her bit to reinforce our real need to keep in touch with the cultural artifacts of our past, without which we are condemned to devolution. From a more recent article found in The New York Review of Books, Do the Classics Have a Future?
To put this as crisply as I can, the study of the classics is the study of what happens in the gap between antiquity and ourselves. It is not only the dialogue that we have with the culture of the classical world; it is also the dialogue that we have with those who have gone before us who were themselves in dialogue with the classical world (whether Dante, Raphael, William Shakespeare, Edward Gibbon, Pablo Picasso, Eugene O’Neill, or Terence Rattigan).
While we tend to value our cultural history and read the work of scholars like Mary Beard, the rest of the world seems infatuated with appearances, even lionizing inane public personalities possessing neither talent nor skill. Reserve your ticket on the express to the new Dark Ages.