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paper… David G Terrell July 2009, revisited November, 2010 My first exposure to the ancient Greeks was being steered to read Edith Hamilton’s The Greek Way as a bookish young man. Written in 1930, this book--as droll and trite as it sounds--set me on a path to illumination. Ms. Hamilton’s passion for this old civilization never waned and her emotion came through to me, in her prose-and stuck. She fired my imagination and the enjoyment thereof took me through many other wonderful tales by wonderful authors, Tolkein, Dickens, Verne, Wells, Lawrence… sigh. Greek Drama grew out of two credos that seem to define, to me, everything that characterizes "Greek". The first comes from Protagoras: "Man is the measure of all things." The second is from Anaxagoras: "All things were in confusion until Mind came and set them in order." This amazing focus on knowing oneself in the light of reality, reason and beauty… and having no ready, cheap substance upon which to write and disseminate ideas led to the use of dialogue. I was intrigued, reading Plato’s Symposium, to see Socrates talk everyone under the table until dawn, arguing "that the true artist in tragedy would be an artist in comedy also." Here is was, the next day dawning, and his remaining listeners, including Aristophanes, "had to assent, being drowsy and not quite up to the argument." Dialogue--the Greeks seemed intoxicated with it. They raised it to an art form--a duel of wits in which the conflict of ideas, being well and truly thrashed about, might just reveal the truth. And when I consider the possibility that the extant record is probably a fraction of the whole--and probably not the best--I shake my head at the loss of it. As I’ve read the Greek plays, through my years, I’ve been struck at the way Greeks liked facts; simple unembroidered facts. Such as this elegant, metaphor-free description: "As flakes of snow fall thick of a winter’s day, and the crests of the high hills are covered, and the farthest headlands and the meadow grass and the rich tillage of men. Over the inlets and the shore of the gray sea fast it falls and only the on-sweeping waves can ward it off." – Iliad I’m also impressed with their economy of words. Have you read Thucydides’ single sentence describing the fate of the Greek captives at Syracuse? "Having done what men could, they suffered what men must." How much verbiage would an English-speaking author have used to embody the fate of the Athenians who sailed for glory to Sicily only to die at hard labor in the quarries of Syracuse?
2 David Terrell: My, how the Greeks could have used paper
And when Clytemnestra learns that her son is out to kill her, all she says is: "I stand here on the height of misery." Which can still rip a tear from this old warrior. What a world of difference from English writers who tell a whole picture in profuse detail, as if we would never have seen the tragedy except for them. The Greek writer gives only a glimpse, giving us a suggestion and quickening the imagination--but, letting us work out the pathos on our own. Aristophanes’ comedy may be some sort of an Athenian comic paper set somewhere between Peanuts and Doonesbury--a "talking picture" of the follies and foibles of the day. The tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides may have been intended to illuminate the dark confusion that is every human’s life. Maybe. But I feel the nature and purpose of Greek drama was to lead the viewer to experience the reality, reason, unreason and, especially, the beauty of life--allowing us to laugh through tears and to charge pain with exaltation--and perhaps even to think along particular, desired paths--but, the work of imagination was left up to the viewer and I’m grateful for it. Imagine how much more they could have told us, but for the lack of an inexpensive, durable media for transmitting it down the ages. David G Terrell Herndon, Virginia
Hamilton, Edith. The Greek Way. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1930.
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