I’m thinking of changing the title of this blog to “irrelevant”, maybe even “irrelevant magazine” as a bit of a jibe at Relevant Magazine (“God, Life, and Progressive Culture — Classicists, stay out, you are not “progressive”, nor are you “relevant”!!).* This thought was brought on by one of the most heart-seizing paragraphs I have read as I observe the cultural illiteracy of the world around me. In the Afterword to her fantastic and beautiful novel Lavinia, Ursula K. LeGuin pens the following:
For a long time anybody in Europe and the Americas who had much education at all knew Aeneas’ story: his travels from Troy, his love affair with the African queen Dido, his visit to the underworld were shared, familiar references and story sources for poets, painters, opera composers. From the Middle Ages on, the so-called dead language Latin was, through its literature, intensely alive, active, and influential. That’s no longer true. During the last century, the teaching and learning of Latin began to wither away into a scholarly specialty. So, with the true death of his language, Vergil’s voice will be silenced at last. This is an awful pity, because he is one of the great poets of the world. (p. 273)
This is a paragraph of soul-wrenching sorrow. I am a Classicist, a lover of the Latin language, who fell for Publius Vergilius Maro at first sight. That first sight was not Arma virumque cano of Aeneid I but Book II:
Conticuere omnes intentique ora tenebant
inde toro pater Aeneas sic orsus ab alto:
Infandum, regina, iubes renouare dolorem . . .
They all fell silent and held their mouths, intent. Then father Aeneas thus rose from his high couch, “Queen, you command me to renew unspeakable sorrow . . .”
Book II recounts the fall of Troy, Trojan Horse and all (“I fear Greeks, even bearing gifts!”). How appropriate that I would fall for a poet through this tragic destruction and choose to immerse myself in a field that has been called “elitist” by scholarship committees, a field that has been swept aside into the dusty corner of irrelevancy, a field that is the very foundation of the ground upon which we stand, a field that a mere century ago (!!) people were at least moderately acquainted with.
But my Troy has fallen to the oh-so-relevant modernists and postmodernists. It is aflame as the gods of the age stand tall and proud over it, provoking the “elitist” comments and the comments of, “You know, if you were Chinese, classics would mean . . .” Well I’m not Chinese! So leave it alone! I am a Scots-Canadian, and these are my Classics, overproud PC fool!
Google “Canadian coat of arms”. What do you see in the top four quadrants? England, Scotland, Ireland, France. These are those who founded this nation. We are a Western nation. Our laws find their roots in the Forum Romanum (the Roman Forum, for all you non-elitist berks). Our democratic ideals find their roots in the ἀγορὰ Ἀθηνῶν (OK, so Greek text is wankerish of me — that’s the Athenian Agora). Our poetry, drama, art, stories, and so much more find their road, one way or another, back to the ancient poets, to Homer, Virgil, Hesiod, Ovid, Sophocles, Seneca, Euripides, Horace. And I think it’s overstating the case, but I saw a book once that claimed that all of philosophy is a footnote to Plato. And, though it be different today, the writing of history sprang forth from Herodotus, Livy, Thucydides, Tacitus.
All of this — beauty, wonder, grandeur, excellence, cleverness, the very foundations of what we think, what we say, what we do, what we write — has been swept aside to be the specialty of scholars in favour of “relevance”, in favour of . . . I don’t even know why the Classics were cast rudely aside. But they were.
And with that sounded the first death toll of Western culture.
Having abandoned our roots, we are rootless, drifting, dying. A plant with no roots has no nutrients. We shall wither and die. We just don’t realise it yet, because we are revelling in our decadence.
*That’s a lot of punctuation.