The Tenth Muse

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He is known as the Boy Wrestler. His youthful body, though, seems much too elegant for the ring. Lithe, supple, perfectly poised, he has the frame of a distance runner. His skin once bore the brilliant sheen of bronze, but that was before the catastrophe.

On August 24, in the 79th year of the Christian era, a river of molten metal, heralded by a plume of volcanic ash, convulsed from the cone of Vesuvius. It slid along rutted riverbeds down the steep mountainside, and descended on the elegant seaside villa in whose colonnaded garden stood the Boy Wrestler, a seated Hermes, fawns, satyrs and marble busts of unsmiling antique worthies. In no time at all, it had swallowed the lot.

Antiquities hunters, tunnelling into this wasted landscape seventeen centuries later, discovered the wrestler in his tomb of petrified ash, pumice and mud. Age, and perhaps a lick of that liquid fire, has left him with a cindery patina that makes a dramatic frame for his eyes of pure white glass. The wrestler stares at the horizon with the unearthly gaze of a seer.

The National Archaeological Museum of Naples, a grand though rather unkempt seventeenth century pile in the city’s old quarter, is home to the wrestler and other finds from the same villa on the outskirts of Herculaneum boasting fine views of the sea. Custodian in Roman times of some 1800 papyrus scrolls housed in a custom built library, it is known to us as the Villa of the Papyri. When the villa’s riches were first retrieved it was the ninety bronzes and marble busts that delighted archaeologists and connoisseurs. Intense interest today fixes on its unparalleled trove of tightly rolled and carbonised papyrus scrolls.

Dating Aphrodite by Luke Slattery

The library of Alexandria, home to some 500,000 manuscripts, perished in flames; the library of Herculaneum survived its ordeal by fire. But only just. Many of the brittle carbonised papyri were damaged by earlier attempts to prise them open. According to the Oxford historian Oswyn Murray, who has studied the fragments, little is visible but the shine of the ink and the marks in the underlying fibres. State-of-the-art imaging technology is allowing scholars to digitise these fragile carbonised fragments and to begin, in earnest, the task of systematic translation that has eluded them for centuries. Those at the centre of the project believe they have in their hands the Dead Sea Scrolls of pagan antiquity – portals to a lost world.

Historians, meanwhile, have assembled an identikit of the villa’s probable owner. Lucius Calpurnius Piso, father-in-law of Julius Caesar, was a cultivated Roman aristocrat. And yet his collection in Naples – bronzes, marbles, scorched papyrus fragments – is an ardent homage to Greece; a culture that reached its climax four to five centuries earlier. It’s as if Piso’s native culture was invisible to him. He was living in a Hellenised past.

All but a dozen of the charred manuscripts retrieved from the Villa of the Papyri are in Greek; the sculptured marble busts that once lined the villas courtyards are of Greek sages, orators and poets. The Boy Wrestler was forged by Greek sculptors some time in the fourth century before Christ, while his most illustrious companion, a languid seated Hermes, was long regarded as the work of Alexander the Great’s personal sculptor Lysippus. Piso’s collection is indeed a portal to the psyche of first century Rome, and what it reveals is a deep and abiding nostalgia for Greece.

For educated Roman elites of the first century before Christ, Greek remained the natural language of literature and philosophy; the idiom of the interior life. So much so that during Piso’s lifetime we find the Roman orator Cicero defending his decision to issue a philosophical tract in his mother-tongue rather than in Greek: ‘I can never cease wondering what can be the origin of the exaggerated contempt for home products that is now fashionable.’

Nostos, in Greek, denotes a return home, while the suffix –algos suggests pain. The issue of this marriage is nostalgia, or home-sickness; and in our culture it has taken on tones of melancholy, pathos, even pathology. Yet there is nothing wan or melancholic about the full-blooded nostalgia known to the ancients, and certainly nothing weak-headed about the collection assembled at the Villa of the Papyri.

Everything about Piso’s luxurious seaside residence suggests it was a conduit for the ideas and tastes of the Greek world into the Roman intelligentsia. It was a source of energy and renewal: a live current.   A Hellenised aesthetic fed Roman philosophy, poetry, sculptural art and decoration. In the Christian Middle Ages this spring’s most vital currents pooled beneath the surface of things. But the old wisdom resurfaced in the fifteenth century to nourish the Italian Renaissance. The world begins again at this crux-moment in history, when the freshly discovered past inspired a systematic attempt to unveil nature’s secrets and a renewed sense of human limitlessness.

When the modernist aesthetic movement burst upon Europe at the dawn of the twentieth century it, too, found fresh sources of inspiration in antiquity. The triumvirate of literary modernism – James Joyce, TS Eliot and Ezra Pound – all drank at an antique spring. Many, Eliot confidently declared, would follow Joyce’s example in manipulating a ‘continuous parallel’ between contemporaneity and antiquity. ‘It is, I seriously believe, a step towards making the world possible in art,’ Eliot proclaimed.

These early modernists propelled their times forward like a trio of rowers, eyes fixed on what lay behind them. They found in antiquity the source of their renewal, in tradition their liberation.

Melancholic nostalgia – the past is always better – is a symptom of permanent uneasiness in one’s age. But the past need not be a stick with which to beat the present; it can enrich the present and propel us forward.

‘The past is a foreign country,’ mused the post-war British novelist LP Hartley, ‘They do things differently there.’ This phrase, from the opening of his brooding novel of lost innocence, The Go-Between, is often quoted, always with approval. It seems to evoke the strangeness, mystery, inscrutability of the past. And yet it’s untrue. The future is the foreign country into which we are being propelled by unseen forces; memory is our companionable home. The Greeks, according to the American classicist Bernard Knox, understood this well: they pictured themselves backing into the future, facing the past.

Plus à §a change.

In science fiction films such as Blade Runner, The Matrix, Minority Report, and I, Robot, the future even looks like the past. The Matrix, with its quasi-Biblical dreamscape, takes this to extravagant lengths. The other three are content with shabby domestic interiors and retro dress codes: future world detectives in pin-stripe suits and braces, Converse sneakers, bomber jackets. These films might animate futuristic and dystopic anxieties – man v machine, free will v determinism – but they work in a sort of future-past tense. The denizens of the city of Zion (The Matrix) seem to have strolled in from a swords and sandals epic; the detectives in Minority Report, a film which re-works the great Sophoclean theme of predestination, of fate foreseen, have seemingly stepped out of a film noir set.

Contemporary cinema, in tune with the nostalgia that permeates the culture’s music, its architecture, its design, is drawn moth-like to the flame of the past. Nostalgia shapes the mood of our late modern culture, even if it’s sold under the label of retro.

Retro, on the other hand, is a fashion. Nostalgia is a mood, a sentiment, a d
rive; a love of the past. Its historical association with melancholy seems, however, to strike the wrong note today. Language in this instance has failed to keep pace with culture. We lack a word to capture the amplitude of nostalgia, its ubiquity – and its dynamic potential. We need a name for good nostalgia: the nostalgia that conducts us to the past – is there a great literary work whose theme is not a search for lost time – and then releases us to return.

Nostalgia is the tenth Muse.

This is an edited extract from Luke Slattery’s Dating Aphrodite: Modern Adventures in the Ancient World (ABC Books) RRP $32.95.

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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