Monday, September 17, 2007

column 17; lasting literature

So today was a day to consider the history of civilization. A day like any other. It's the little things we think about every day that we don't bring up that I try and make a point of talking about. Like civilization and the history of it all and everything.

I figure that in two hundred years people will still be around. Maybe I'm optimistic, but, hey, we've been around for a whopping 200,000 years, and civilized for roughly 10,000 of them. Figuring that humanity is now doing it's utmost to destroy itself again we may go into a thousand year recession or so, but let's pretend that we make it. The point is: in 2200 people will still be reading Homer.

Homer will not be in poor company. Cervantes will still hold the test of time. Twain, Shakespeare, and Dante will be with him. Literature, after about 300 years, gets to retain the claim that it's passed the test of time, and more power to it. Of course there's lots of literature that was going to pass the test, but due to circumstances beyond the literature's control (the West's two greatest libraries being destroyed) didn't make it. Of course for the people of 2207 authors like Steinbeck and, I'm just guessing here, Borges, and others, will now be classics. Something to consider when perusing the best-seller's charts.

What is clear is that literature can age well. Other writing, not so much. If I want to study medicine I'm not picking up Galen and Harvey. As pleased as I am that William Harvey discovered the circulatory system and the properties of the heart and blood (as well as divining that studying the mechanisms of eels would provide evidence for the bodies of humans) I'm hoping that my primary care physician is reading some more up-to-date texts. Generally science doesn't age well. Copernicus' astronomy was revolutionary, but no longer a fun or exciting read. And the pun was intended.

The whole idea was spurred by my considerations of psychology. Psychology is an extremely young study. Freud's 'General Introduction to Psycho-Analysis' came out in 1900. It's a little over 100 years old. Alchemy had a longer run than that. Sociology, Anthropology, all the 'Social Sciences' are from the last century. Will our biographies be the same amusement as Sir Isaac Newton's? Newton was a great Physicist, but also was an alchemist. Most people try and avoid talking about the latter. But what will happen with us with our future biographers? 'John Doe Scientist: Brilliant Geneticist, Won the Nobel Prize, Also Psychologist *snicker snicker*'.

And then there's religion. Setting aside Science and Social Science, religions don't always age well. Manicheaism? All the rage in 2- and 300s. Voted World's Most Popular Religion, known from Britain through India and China, and Egypt. There's another one: The Egyptians. The Egyptian religion and civilization lasted from about 3150 BC- 31 AD. 3,181 years isn't bad. Christianity? A meagre 1,800 years. The Chinese Empire is traced back to the year 1675 BC reliably, and probably extends down to 2070. And India had composed the Vedas by 1000 BC.

And other superfluous dates and figures. The point is just 'cause we're in the right now, and looking high and mighty doesn't mean that it's going to last. As Eddie Izzard states, we are the new Roman Empire, and we all remember what happened to them.

They collapsed.

In 476 AD.

But, hey, we still read Virgil. The literature lives on. May our works be so lucky.

No comments: