Monday, October 24, 2016

`The Ash of Which Oblivion Is Made'

To be reminded of our forgetability is always bracing, a splash of cold water on the spirit. We judge ourselves so precious and essential to the ongoing health and fitness of the universe, a dose of reality is welcome. The hunger for recognition, fame and its modern mutation, celebrity, is insatiable, and writers are especially susceptible to its blandishments. Borges in “To a Minor Poet of the Greek Anthology” (trans. W.S. Merwin, Selected Poems, 1999) puts it like this:

“Where now is the memory
of the days that were yours on earth, and wove
joy with sorrow, and made a universe that was your own?

“The river of years has lost them
from its numbered current; you are a word in an index.”

As all of us, if fortunate, will someday be. Borges reminds us Callimachus and Simonides of Ceos were once living, breathing, complaining, lusting bags of vanity, just like you and me. At least they, or a few of their fragmented words, are remembered. Borges’ “minor poet,” whoever he may be (or not be, if Borges is writing a ficcione), is “the ash of which oblivion is made.” Is he real? Even Mike Gilleland at Laudator Temporis Acti can’t “find a likely candidate.”

[Ian Jackson writes: “The flowing water and the nightingales suggest Heraclitus. I suspect that Borges was not thinking of the original elegy on Heraclitus by Callimachus in The Greek Anthology, but of William Johnson Cory's famous rendition or paraphrase, `They told me Heraclitus, they told me you were dead . . .’

“Borges was better read in English literature than in Greek, and Cory’s lines appear in one of his bibles, The Oxford Book of English Verse. It is true that Callimachus is not a minor poet for a classicist, but to the world at large, he is genuinely obscure."]

1 comment:

Brian said...

Your post reminds me of the more prosaic four stages of life offered by Joseph Epstein: One - Who is Joseph Epstein?; Two: This is a job for Joseph Epstein; Three: What we need here is a younger Joseph Epstein; Four: Who is Joseph Epstein?

A slightly warmer splash of water.