Pliny the Elder called it Lero. We call it St Marguerite Island, the largest of the four Lerins islands in the Bay of Cannes in southern France.
Where the myrtle grows high and the Aleppo pine bursts in vivid green, there lies the enchanted island, defaced and deformed every year by hoards of tourists and holiday makers, regaining it’s strength every night. St Marguerite is patient. The clematis is never in a hurry.
The gravel pathways crisscrossing the olive trees like the rhumblines of ancient sailing charts.
The Man in the Iron Mask breathing heavily in the bowels of the prison on the cusp of becoming the world’s most famous masked legend.
The golden coves known only by a handful of crabs.
The atavistic fear of the wind caught in the branches of the parasol pine.
Driftwood enbalmed in silky algae.
Mushrooms seeking the shade.
Silver dust settling on eucalyptus leaves.
Waves sparkling under the sun like legions of paparazzis clustered behind the red carpet.
The coy spectacle of island life opening its doors like the boudoir of a courtesan.
When Prometheus stole fire from the gods to offer it to men, he didn’t know that he had deprived the Olympians of something far more precious than the flame, which is the monopoly of illusion. If the gods can trick mankind into obedience, Prometheus offered mortals the possibility to trick themselves and each other into submission, and thus become like the gods. Homo deus indeed.
It was only a matter of time (and several mythological narratives) for mortals to join the realm of the immortals. It was through eating a magical herb, Ovid points out, that Glaucus the fisherman was admitted to the company of the gods by joining the divinities of the deep. In Dante’s Divine Comedy, Glaucus is an illustration of trasumanar, the human capacity to transcend its own humanity and accede to a higher plane of existence. Ovid and Dante were no transhumanists but they saw clearly the humans’ thirst for self-transcendence.
Prometheus, on the other hand, was a transhumanist avant la lettre. He understood that technology has the capacity to inspire dreams of power and self-transformation – the power to trascend one’s condition and deploy full mastery over oneself and others. A fiery illusion descending from the divine source of trickery.
The drama of ancient divinity, caught between the risk of being despoiled by mankind and the fear of losing its immortal prerogative is also a feature of the West’s late modern constitution. Prometheus has stolen fire from the gods, hoping to leave the Mount in total darkness. Glaucus finds new ways of transforming himself, imitating the decadent divinities who once served as both model and host for him. The metamorphosis of a modern myth has been accomplished.
The ancient European cultures were nourished by an obsession with the sea. The foundation myths of the Greeks and the Romans, their theogonies and a large part of their self-understanding focused on the sea.
The thalassobsession of the ancients, the matrix of the modern world. The sea represents both the highway of exchange and the byway of fear and death, the source of life and the risk of dissolution. The ancient ambivalence towards the Middle Sea was built into most Greco-Roman myths. Agamemnon’s armies made their wildest dreams of conquest come true through the intercession of the sea, but the victorious Greek were lost to the deep on their way back.
What role does the sea play in our culture today? A switchboard for mass tourism, the gentle, solar, tamed, instagrammable sea, an object of immanent admiration cut off from the tapestry of our being.
The myth of the sea was lost after the fall of Rome. It was given a new lease of life during Romanticism, but compared to the ancients, this kind of thalassobsession was manneristic at best, decadent at worst. We ride the waves but we’ve lost the sea.
In the Middle Ages, the obsession with land replaced the sea. The sea got modernised, a transport convenience, nothing more. In Dante, the last flickering of a metaphysics of the sea flares up and then dies forever.
One of the most significant transformations of modern society and a defining feature of modernity itself has been a shift in our understanding of the relationship between time and human betterment. For most of Western history, the past had always been the depository of valuable capital which the present was constantly seen to lack and which the future promised to unlock. Reformers always looked back to an age whose lost treasures would be brought back into a reformed past. The modern age removed this retrospective pose and colonised the future with novel items of its own paternity, which the past was not understood to have promoted. From ‘forward to the past’, the moderns moved ‘back to the future’.
One of the leading myths of our age is that of progress, the icon of a future ripe with answers to current questions, by virtue of constant renewal and its imagined deposits of salutary resources. Progress depends, fundamentally, on a tribal attitude of love for one group and hate for another. This dynamic is played out at the level of time and narrative. The more the future is glorified (and one can make anything of something which hasn’t turned into anything), the more the past is ignored. The triumph of sci-fi is the decline of history.
For an ancient politician or a medieval theologian, the way forward was an exploration of the past, the work of the historian capable of extracting examples and models to avoid. For a modernist thinker, the past is silent, while the future is noisy with possibilities. The way forward is about trust in what the future can reveal, a kind of faith which keeps the spirit open and excited. And at greater risk of disappointment.
It’s easy to think of books as existing outside time and space, on the unnameable plane in consciousness unlocked by the act of reading.
If reading escapes the constraints of time (who hasn’t at least once in their life wondered in amazement at how hours spent reading felt like mere minutes?) – writing has always had to meet the demands of time and space.
The history of writing is a sequence of negotiations between the written word and the imperatives of embodiment, which in turn answers to the requirements of time-space.
Under the aspect of time, writing has developed ways of accomplishing more more quickly. It’s what may be called the logochronic challenge. Under the aspect of space, writing – and the history of books as a whole – has sought ways to fit more in and with less.
Without subscribing to a linear view of the history of writing, it may be said that the farther one looks back in time, the more writing appears slow and uneconomical. A brief examination of medieval script reveals that slow-moving hands covering low-word-per-line-rate pages evolve, nearly imperceptibly, into fast styles of writing made up of letters and words covering the same page size in greater numbers. Writing gets faster, letters get slimmer, and more text can fill the same space. It’s an economic evolution comparable to the invention of transistors and nanotechnology.
It takes time to write and it takes time to read, not to mention the space that text requires in order to exist. This last point has been lost from view, as books become less rare, and thus less valuable, and texts quit the real physicality of books to settle for the illusory physicality of digital media. Time, as always, will tell whether we’ll ever have to address the problem of logochronics again.
Poets choose to compose rhyming verses for a variety of reasons, but few would ever consider rhyme as an instrument of survival. Rhyming couplets are easier to memorise than most other types of verse, but to think of rhyme as something meant to preserve the integrity of a poem is not quite common. And yet, this is what Dante thought when he invented one of the most complex rhyming patterns and allied it to an equally complex poetic structure in his Divine Comedy.
The epic poem was written in terza rima, a three-line rhyme scheme which carries the rhyme from one stanza to another like an unbroken chain. The pattern ABA BCB CDC DED EFE etc creates a bewitching effect, but also ensures that no line may be removed without destabilising the entire canto. This tripartite technique is wholly original, and it matches Dante’s other numerological concerns, the 3 of the Trinity, 100 cantos divided by three (34 for Inferno, and 33 for Purgatorio and Paradiso, each), plus internal correspondences and parallel cantos distributed across the poem.
Before the invention of print, texts were copied by hand, and errors of transcription were often made, involuntary alterations as well as omissions. It was a recognised issue built into the very fabric of the scribal culture which mobilised a great deal of effort, including the emergence of correctors which verified and emended the texts before they were published. It is the bread and butter of philologists, but a sad reality for the many ancient and medieval scribes.
Dante’s decision to create such an interlocking rhyming scheme for his poem minimised the corruptive effect of manual reproduction. The poema sacro (sacred poem, Paradiso 25) which he designed required an anti-oxydizing coating to ensure its integrity and survival. The omission of verses in the process of transcription was something, the scholars assure us, that Dante would not have conceded. So the terza rima created the last kind of textual protection for the 150 years or so before Gutenberg made things a lot easier for everybody.
Dante’s idea was very successful. Out of the surviving hundreds of manuscripts of the Comedy, none omits any verses at all. The chain held, the legno (the ship of Dante’s poem, Paradiso 2) was indeed watertight.
It’s a curious thing that although historians have always had historical sources at their disposal, the need to verify the truthfulness of a given source is a recent development in the history of history . Since the foundation of history as an intellectual endeavour (for Herodotus, the Greek word historia means inquiries) and a source of knowledge, historians have only intermittently questioned their sources, especially when the suspicions were too great for the sources to be taken at face value. But for most of Western historical writing, sources were indeed taken at face value – and in some circles, they still are.
One of the greatest achievements in historiography has been exactly this, the suspension of belief that a source is what it purports to be. Source criticism really took off when the seduction of sources softened its grasp. The lure of the surviving record (admittedly a tautology) has prompted many historians to jump to conclusions when historiographical distancing would have been a more salubrious measure.
Contemporary history writing, especially the kind which proceeds from academic research, knows the importance of exercising suspicion vis-a-vis the source material and is not afraid – or at least one hopes – to go against the grain of the record, exposing its weaknesses (contradictions, bias, willful deception). But to arrive at this mature stage of development, the science of history had to let go of the allurement, however strong it may have been, of the source as a presence against the backdrop of absence. For it’s always tempting to fall prey to what there is when most of what should have survived is no longer there – and to trust it blindly.
The moderns are allergic to hybrids, things which don’t belong completely to one category or another. One of the articles of faith of post-Enlightenment modernity is the separation of nature and culture, of things pertaining to science (necessary, true, real) and those created by humans (contingent, potentially false, artificial). The space between these two sets of notions is not admitted, hybridity is banned from the modern book and outlook.
If tolerance is defined by the acceptance of half-lings, beings on the edge of our self-imposed categories, then pre-modern societies were, counterintuitively, the most tolerant. Hybrids sitting between this world and another, between the eternal universe and the world of the humans, like the countless mixed creatures populating ancient and medieval imaginations and bestiaries – were not waiting for us to sort them into our own modern drawers, but were floating freely in a world of flux, which the poets and philosophers described as an ocean of being, nourishing the world and inhabiting every desire and fear. The simple fact that the English word ‘awe’ captures the interaction between fear and admiration, terror and desire, doesn’t make premodern societies contradictory or ‘weird’, but reflects a deep truth about our humanity, one that we have grown insensitive to.
The modern impulse to separate in fact destroys rather than creates, proliferating reductionisms instead of hybrids. Wishing to cleanse the world of ‘thirds’ that don’t conform to this or that category, it acts like a Procrustean bed which ends up mutilating the world in the name of order and rationality.
The surrealists had to merit to repopulate the terra vacua with all sorts of hybrids to the point that their art became a proclamation against the tenets of modernity. Against the certainties of the 18th and 19th centuries, they opposed a world of fertile ambiguities, where nothing really is anything but everything, where meaning is restored in a multiplicity of readings, none more qualified than another – in other words, the premodern flux where the real and unreal, sacred and profane, nature and culture are inextricably linked.
Theseus may have killed the Minotaur, but the guardian of the premodern Labyrinth is never quite dead.
The survival of texts and other cultural artefacts through time tends to increase as it approaches two extremes: maximum oblivion and maximum use. That a manuscript, a piece of pottery or a building survives through use is quite obvious. An artefact which is constantly in use doesn’t go away, it gets transmitted from generation to generation, and even if it suffers transformations, a scholar may recover its evolution through time and trace it back to its origin. On the other hand, one may not easily see how neglect can lead to survival.
And yet, the most forgotten objects tend to be those who are best preserved. This is particularly true of items which, though lost, do not suffer damage just by the mere passage of time. A manuscript kept in a dry area, a clay pot buried underground are more likely, once retrieved, to be preserved.
Many of the world’s greatest discoveries are objects long forgotten, whose disuse and incarceration ensured their pristine survival. The oldest European book complete with binding and covers is also the best preserved and least used. It is also one of the most neglected. Made in the 8th century, the Cuthbert Gospel was placed in a coffin in 698 and it remained there until 1104. As a relic, it was not meant to be used as a book, which in practical terms it meant neglect. Had it been used as a Gospel book, it would have long disappeared from use, like tens of thousands of such liturgical books which, after daily or weekly use, would have been replaced by newer and better copies. We owe the survival of books such as St Cuthbert’s Gospel to sacred oblivion. Disconnection from history doesn’t always mean death.
The European continent is a landmass, but European culture was born out of the Middle Sea, rising from its depths like a Greek goddess or an ancient sea monster, at once beautiful and monstruous. We are the heirs of a crashing wave, not of a patch of land. To claim a territorial right is a misplaced desire, since our patrimony is circumscribed by the shifting shorelines of the Mare Nostrum.
The Sea has always been there, but it’s never been the same. Nothing is more changing than the waters stirred by the gods, the melting pot of molten dreams, fluid loves and endless mythologies, metamorphing into everything and anything.
The ancient European myth is more concerned with water than with land. In the Odyssey, there is far more treacherous sea than reassuring land. The waters claim more lives than the worms of the earth are able to consume.
At the edge of the sea, the sea begins, our destinies are sealed, the hero is dissolved, the stranger becomes familiar and the familiar breaks down.
The sea is a circle, shaping our notions of time and space, the eternal return to a point we’ve always known but never grasped. We walk on the surface of the water, millions of messiahs in search of a home, of truth and redemption. Like Ovid’s Glaucus, we leave the earthly tent of human companionship to join the eternal realm of the deep, having been made, like Dante, consorto in mar de li altri dèi, a companion of the other sea gods (Paradiso 1).
Finally, we swim, rather than walk, through history, bathed by the life-giving water of our common Sea, crushed by its senseless violence, but never undone.