Like Tiresias, who lived both as a man and a woman, I have lived two ways. First, as a student taught that there was a canon, and that it had no women or people of color in it. There were no Godless Asians, either, preaching that there is no prime mover, since neither women nor people of color nor Godless Asians can read or write. Second, I have lived as a grownup observing from afar the Afro pomo homo — what do they call it? — project of beating the dead white men to death.
I can see the face of Dr. Baizer, as we speak, making eye contact with me, the lone female in the seminar, in 1968, to announce that Jane Austen, the one female of the entire canon, was a minor and miniaturist writer, as she did not write about war. Twenty-five years later Eddie Said said, au contraire, Jane Austen is the very billy club with which British imperialists cold-cocked smart little Palestinian boys like Eddie, being eddimicated at the American School and Victoria College in Cairo ca. 1947-51.
There is a long argument somewhere, in one of the literary journals I used to read — the TLS, the LRB, the NYRB — a long and persuasive discussion about why, for example, Islamic culture failed to produce capitalism, the Protestant reformation, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution — all the anomalous glories of western civ. It was pretty interesting, and as I recall, its rhetorical stasis point was, no Aristotle. No scientific method based on thesis, antithesis, synthesis. At some point, Islamic science and mathematics — which as you will recall, invented the numbers you use and astronomy and medieval medicine — stopped competing with the argumentative Greeks’ notion that things have causes and effects, and the disputatious rhetoric of scientific method could cut these out of the morass of superstition, false witness, false evidence, to produce replicable results. One old genocide scholar, pondering the expulsion from Spain of the Moors and the Jews by Isabella la Catolica in 1492 — the end of the Caliphate all the Islamists are trying to re-establish — pointedly noted that no academic institution of any accomplishment had been established in Spain since. One wonders if the Islamists’ implicit argument is true, that progressive Islamic culture, like the Spanish, also ended with the Caliphate.
No Aristotle? Don’t seem to have harmed the Chinese none. Chinese medicine, based on chi and no prime mover and no scientific method, is marvelously diagnostic and effective for ailments much more invasive western medicine cannot touch. A friend of mine with some physical problem and a big secret — multiple personality disorder — got up on the gurney of a gifted acupuncturist. The acupuncturist held her hands over my friend, and said, after about three minutes, There’s another energy here. I can’t treat you. But we have somebody who can.
The sadness of the idea that native Americans had not invented the wheel nor had beasts of burden (aside from women); that eyeless-in-Gaza Sphinx feeling I used to get gazing at the empty desert of pre-colonial African literature, never passes. Whether Aristotle gave syphilis to Montezuma or vice versa is something they’re still fighting about, also sadder than bears thinking about too much. I remember encountering, in New York City, at the Museum of African Art, a small mimetic 14th century Ife sculpture of a woman’s face and thinking, but there was a Renaissance in Africa. Where are the documents? Buried in the sand with Ozymandias? Sliced and bogarted by Elgin for the British Museum, or by Andre Malraux from Angkor Wat for auction? There, at least, in Europe, the third world antiquities would have a chance of surviving. As the Cleopatra-era chair at the Cairo Museum, popping pearl inlays before your eyes in the drafty glass case, or the karyatids of the Acropolis, melting in modern Athens’ carbon monoxide, and the beheaded apsaras of Angkor Wat, squeezed by boa-constrictor banyan roots, barely did.
For 20 years, a view of the Khmer Rouge genocide as the rage of illiterates held sway simply because no one had found their meticulous documents, and, oh yes! They were in Khmer. For four centuries, the documents of the Dutch founders of Manhattan lay hidden and untranslated somewhere upstate, much obscuring the libertarian and capitalist legacy which made New York City, for one brief shining moment, ca. Jackson Pollock drip paintings, 1947-Sept. 11, 2001, the capital of the world. This, the idea that Africa’s Canterbury Tales and the Incas’ World According to King Ruang, are buried somewhere in an urn under the shifting desert sands, to be recovered, perhaps only in our dreams, as were the Nag Hammadi scrolls, half of which were burned for firewood, is of course the essential problem with the canon. As with the genocide of the Jews, the People of the Word, by the Nazis, the People of the Meticulous Records, the canon rests on literacy and the preservation of paper.
It also rests on some pretty damn good ideas. That you don’t have to reinvent the wheel in every generation, for example, and the possibility that women and slaves have souls — the latter notion noticeably absent in Islamist and Chinese culture. I am thinking about Seneca, and the accidents of cultural transmission — how and why he got to Shakespeare, and Montaigne, and the Renaissance, and thence to us. According to the intarnets, Seneca wrote in Latin and other Stoics did not. Educated Renaissance Euros like Montaigne, on whose invention of autobiography (pace, St. Augustine) and interiority much of the rise of individual human rights and modernity, and the French language itself, depend, spoke only Latin until he was six years old. He could read Seneca and not others who wrote in Greek. By the same token — of Latin speakers, like Montaigne, translating into European idiom the Roman canon — Shakespeare got his English translation of Seneca in the early 17th century. There is an argument that Shakespeare’s splendid vision of man, to which modernity owes its representative forms of government — What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculties! — rests firmly in the humanism of the pagan philosophers.
So. While the Afro pomo homos play video games, homeschool their children, and labor to reinvent communitarianism and civil obligation as Rome burns? Let’s you and me go into the back yard. Cultivate our cabbages. Sit in the sunshine with the undertoads. Then get out and do some voter registration.
Roll on, Seneca. Power to the people.
(c)Jeannette Smyth, 2012-2017, all rights reserved.