The ancient city is also a living one. And it still has plenty to tell us, if we care to listen.
ATHENS — There is an ancient tradition relating to the art of memory, which legend says began with the poet Simonides of Ceos (556-468 B.C.E.). Simonides was giving a recitation in the dining hall of the house of Scopas, a Thessalian nobleman, when he was called outside because two strangers wanted to speak to him.When the poet exited, the strangers were nowhere to be found, and the dining hall suddenly and violently collapsed.
Scopas and his guests were crushed to death and disfigured beyond recognition. But Simonides was able to identify each of the corpses by remembering the precise place where they were sitting or lounging before the calamity.
ATHENS IN PIECES
This is the first in a series of dispatches by the author for The Stone, tracing the past of Athens. Each post will focus on a specific object or site from Greek antiquity for insight into contemporary life and politics.With this association of memory with place, or “topos,” the idea of mnemotechnics, or the art of memory, came into being. In order to recall something, one has to identify a locus either in the interior palace of one’s memory or by constructing an exterior, physical memory theater.
Various attempts to build such memory theaters punctuate antiquity. It is a practice picked up again in the Italian Renaissance and continued into the architecture of Elizabethan theater — like Shakespeare’s Globe — and beyond.The story of Simonides is somewhat grisly, but I would like to borrow the association of recollection and location it in order to build a tiny — and admittedly idiosyncratic — memory theater of Athens: a personal cabinet of memory spaces and places: treasures, oddities and curiosities.
Every city, every “polis,” is a necropolis, a city of the dead; but it just so happens that Athens is a particularly ancient graveyard with multiple, interconnected and entangled layers of life that has passed away.It is also a unique place because of the way in which its ghosts continue to haunt our present, often in unexpected and unimagined ways. And obviously, for those of us who have spent their time trying to teach philosophy, Athens is a magical city, for this is where what we still recognize as philosophia really began.
How do we make those ancient Athenian ghosts speak to us? How is it possible to revive what is dead? In a lecture given in Oxford in 1908, the famous German philologist Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorffsaid, “We know that ghosts cannot speak until they have drunk blood; and the spirits which we evoke demand the blood of our hearts. We give it to them gladly.” In order to revive the ancients, we have to give them a little of our lifeblood (although I hope reading these essays won’t be too bloody painful).
The consequence of Wilamowitz’s thought is that the blood that flows in the veins of these ancient ghosts is our own and that, therefore, when the ancients speak to us, they do not just tell us about themselves, but also about us. We always see antiquity in the image of ourselves and our age. But that image is not some Narcissus-like reflection; it is more of an oblique refraction that allows us to see ourselves in a novel way, and in a slightly alien manner. By looking into the deep past, we see ourselves, but perhaps not as we have seen ourselves before, turned inside out and upside down.This touches on the reason I decided to attempt this project and write these pieces. The world, especially that corner of it that we still call the West, has become a deafening place dominated by an ever-enlarging incoherence of information and the constant presence of verbal and physical violence.
Our countries are split, our houses are divided, and the fragile web of family and friendship withers under the black sun of big tech. Everything that passed as learning seems to have reached a boiling point. We simmer, we feel the heat, and we wonder what can be done.
Now, something that I have noticed here and there, talking to sundry folk over the past couple of years, is a renewed interest in antiquity: Greek, Roman, Babylonian, Chinese, Mayan, or whatever.
This is partly because the ancient past offers some kind of solace and escape from the seeming urgency of the present — and such consolation cannot be disregarded. Antiquity can be the source of immense pleasure, a word that feels almost scandalous to employ. For a time, we can be transported elsewhere, where life was formed by different forces and shaped with patterns slightly alien to our own.But also — and most importantly — the ancient past can give us a way of pushing back against what Wallace Stevens called “the pressure of reality,” of enlivening the leadenness of the present with the transforming force of the historical imagination.
As such, antiquity can provide us with breathing space, perhaps even an oxygen tank, where we can fill our lungs before plunging back into the blips, tweets, clicks, and endless breaking news updates that populate our days, and where we are “distracted from distraction by distraction,” as T.S. Eliot said. By looking into the past, we can see further and more clearly into the present.Having emphasized the connection between memory and location, let me tell you something about the place where I will be writing these essays, as it is rather grand.I have a desk and a lamp (and access to strong Greek coffee) in the Onassis Foundation Library, close to Hadrian’s Arch.
Out of the window, across the near constant hum of thick traffic on Syngrou Avenue, I can see the vast columns of the Temple of Olympian Zeus. Their tall Corinthian capitals shine in the cool winter sun. It is a mere slingshot distance from the Acropolis and a truly privileged spot in which to work. I am sitting across from the first printed edition of Homer’s Opera, which was published by Greek printers in Florence in 1488-89, and the “Etymologicum Magnum,” which was the first printed lexical encyclopedia in Greek, produced by Cretan printers in Venice in 1499.
There are many other dizzyingly beautiful treasures in this library, which was based on the personal collection of Konstantinos Sp. Staikos.I met with Mr. Staikos in the library last week. He is also an architect, and he designed the library in which we sat. He is a person of great erudition and carefully chosen words, and I could not help but be impressed. We talked for a long while about the history of libraries in the Hellenic world and their connection to the various philosophical schools of Athens and elsewhere.
My mind began to whir and spin with possibility. For a library is also a memory theater. Being inside this library is a little like being inside the head of Mr. Staikos, and I have spent the last week reading his many volumes on the history of libraries, where he offers detailed architectural reconstructions of their design, their function and even their holdings.