Saturday, May 21, 2016

"On the enduring legacy of the Loeb Library"

PHILOLOGY: The bright ghosts of antiquity (John Talbot, The New Criterion). A long essay on the Loeb Classical Library, its evolution, and its influence. You should read it all, but I like the way it closes:
I have a little apocalyptic fantasy that involves the collection of Loebs in my local library. It’s a complete set, from Homer’s rosy-fingered dawn to the twilight of Ammianus Marcellinus. The very sight of it is reassuringly tidy: all the sprawling energies of a thousand years of Greek and Roman thought and song, distilled and compacted into these snug matching volumes, the Greek bound in olive drab, the Latin in scarlet. Run your fingers over the spines. Here are The Classics.

Then comes a nuclear holocaust. My local library, like others around the world, is mostly pulverized, but an accident involving molten rubber preserves the case of Loebs intact within a sealed airtight cavity beneath the rubble. Centuries elapse and deposit their layers of sediment. Above ground, the descendants of the survivors plod on, speaking a crude version of English, and when their vestigial civilization is at last stable enough to permit cultivation of the liberal arts, their curiosity turns to the prior civilization, ours, whose evident sophistication is attested only in the occasionally exposed ruin, or in fragments of excavated texts. Of this second category, a half-page of Danielle Steele, the corner of a Dunkin’ Donuts advert, and the odd shred of Paradise Regained are all scrutinized, edited, and interpreted with equal zeal. The fragments are exasperating: they imply a vast literature, and behind it a teeming culture, all tantalizingly out of reach.

Until one day when excavation unseals that underground cavity, and for the first time in so many centuries, sunlight falls on those green and red spines. The whole Loeb Classical Library, dedicated to preserving whatever could be salvaged from an even earlier lost civilization, has itself survived intact. The excavators fall upon the cache and discover not only the English (which they can mostly make out, though it appears to them as remote as Chaucer to us) but also, to their astonishment, on the facing pages, two strange, even more ancient languages, one with an unfamiliar alphabet. Amid a storm of speculations it is posited that the English is the key to the other two tongues, and in time a latter-day Champollion steps forward and reconstructs the grammar of Latin and Greek. His successors, pioneer scholars of the recovered ancient languages, are at first awestruck—what are these voices speaking out of the dust?—and then electrified, as they begin to read and assimilate Homer and Sophocles and Lucretius and Augustine. These voices must be emulated; the standards are daunting but stimulating; though ancient, they point the way to something new. Academies are organized for teaching the new languages; young souls (they will become poets and historians and scientists) are once again smitten by the songs of Sappho and Catullus, the grave brilliance of Thucydides and Tacitus, the searching effervescence of Plato’s Socrates and Aristotle’s dogged earthbound inquisitiveness. The post-apocalyptic world shrugs off its torpor, hums with ideas and energy and hope.

I suppose what I mean by all this is that it is good to know that the Loeb Classical Library is there, patiently waiting, in case any civilization (not least our own present one) should require a renaissance.
This little apocalyptic fantasy is really not too far from what actually happened in the nineteenth century. We carried on the tradition through the twentieth century and, falteringly, into the twenty-first. It remains to be seen whether the rising nihilism and barbarism of modern society (including academia) can be resisted enough to pass this legacy on to future generations.

Past posts on the Loeb Classical Library are here and here and links.