If you cannot attract someone’s attention in the first sentence, you might just as well go home and give up on all your life plans right from that moment onward: there is no hope for you; you have failed; you will be destitute for the rest of your natural-born life, have no friends and die alone as a spinster. This applies, as I am sure you can imagine, to many things, but in particular advertising. You have to get your message across quickly, either in words or visually, and then draw your potential customer further and further into the mire, until they no longer know which way is up, which way is down, but do know that they desperately need whatever it is you are selling. In literature you can expand this to the first paragraph, which needs to set the scene for a crime, a love story, or a massive tome of history covering generations, and make the rest of the words, piling on behind the first page and waiting, begging to be sampled, pleading to have a chance to work their magic and create images from the mind of the author in those of the reader, and turn their life away from reality into a new world. This is all something people learn the hard way, through trial and experiment but, at the same time, they already know it having been bombarded by countless advertising campaigns in their lives, seen the opening paragraphs and chapters to hundreds of books.
Writing is a craft, as anyone who is named after the goddess Athena must know since, long before she became goddess of wisdom – along with the Muses and her mother Metis – she was a goddess of war, of craft and weaving. It is said that she was released – born – from the head of her father Zeus by Hephaestus where she had been trapped after her mother, Metis, was eaten by Zeus for fear that she would give birth to a son stronger than him who would, in due course, kill him. She presented herself fully armoured for battle, uttering her battle cry, and probably let Hephaestus feel enough fear to fill his toga and back off. It was, in these times, Metis who was the goddess of wisdom; although anyone who lets themselves be raped by Zeus and then eaten by him too, can’t have been all that wise. Only in renaissance times was the additional wisdom epithet added, evening out the number of goddesses against the number of gods and working, although not quite reaching, equality. So, perhaps it is fair to say that like your namesake Athena, you came to wisdom a little later too, and made the most of it once you had a chance by evaluating yourself, putting yourself on show, and inviting all interested parties to put pen to paper and challenge your late come intellect.
But wisdom is the gathering and interpretation of knowledge. It is the fulfilment of a life of correct choices and mistakes. There is no one who can call themselves wise who has not also been mistaken, taken the wrong path, had to turn back several times or admit to errors, to failure. Wisdom is what you receive after the fact, after the stones have been cast, after the oracle has been read and its prophecy lived. Most of us are still at the stage of gathering countless small pieces of knowledge and trying to piece them together like a gigantic, life-size jigsaw puzzle. Will we behold the entire picture? Will all the pieces fall into place, as they should be, so that we can see and understand and, in our own way, claim the wisdom of knowing what is meant, or even the meaning of life? Can we appreciate the knowledge that other people have to offer, often in walks of life completely removed and foreign to our own, and sew them into the pattern we have already understood, making a far greater, almost all-encompassing picture?
Advertising is of course, not going to expand our knowledge of the world, other than to show us what those people who are susceptible to such things are being coerced into buying. Books, literature, a wealth of periodicals can bring us knowledge of what is fashionable in the world where words are read, where people take time to explore descriptions of mythical places, real places, other times. Letter writing brings us a vision of a completely different life, another world which is both real and attainable, but only to those prepared to devote time and energy to it. Letter writing brings us the view of a real person, meant exclusively for us alone, and almost in real time; something periodicals almost achieve, but literature cannot.
So what happens if you wish to live up to the (later) meaning of your name? That’s where the nine Muses come in, and that is where you are going to be thrown completely out of kilt, because the Muses encompass such old-world things as epic poetry, tragedy, astronomy and dance. In modern terms they are combined to give us one Muse, usually a woman, so well versed in literature and the arts, that a poet or writer – even a letter writer – might call upon her for inspiration. Less charitable people might just laugh at your name, and remind you that the goddess Athena was named as patroness of the city Athens, in Greece, an ancient city falling to pieces within a bankrupt country once built upon the selling power of the olive which, as we also know, was created by Athena after she beat Poseidon in the competition to become patron of these ancient and noble city.
All things of the past. Admittedly there are many people who call upon the past in their writings – as I do – in the thoughts, in the use of knowledge towards wisdom, but most of us live in the here and now and, while the past is fascinating and worth visiting now and then, even taking as an example for our own lives, we have moved on and the world is a different place. I know people who have fantastic conversations about these ancient times, who can put together a wonderful story based on facts as much as legends and myths, but they still live in the real world, where chariots and charging horses have been replaced where the Muses are generally unknown by name, and where the ancient cities which shaped civilisation – Athena is also goddess of civilisation – are portrayed on postcards and subjected to the occasional visit by National Geographic and the History Channel. Background knowledge is good, if not vital, to an understanding of our world today, how it came to be and where all our words and thoughts originated, but it cannot be equated with what we have in our daily lives any more. So perhaps you do not need to live up to your ancient name so much as to the possibilities which the world offers you for the future.
I often think that the loss of the works of Democritus in their entirety is the greatest intellectual tragedy to ensue from the collapse of the old classical civilisation.
So wrote Carlo Rovelli in his wonderful exploration of quantum gravity Reality Is Not What It Seems which is, of course, a very modern theme currently being explored in-depth, based upon the thoughts and works of such men as Democritus who lived thousands of years ago, and whose knowledge, compiled into wisdom, could have created a completely different future had they not been destroyed through the ravages of time and man. We, however, are working back to what Democritus knew, compiling our own knowledge base, our own fountain of wisdom, and creating a modern world of our choosing. So I think we can leave worries about you not living up to the ancient meaning of your name, and move on to the modern possibilities which lie open before you, even if we are taking advantage of some of those means of communication beloved of our ancestors which we, in a time of overriding technology and a need for ever greater speed, find work far better than anything else. Admittedly, writing letters and sending them through the post is not the quickest means of learning, of getting to know someone else, but it is a system which has been proven through the depths of time, from thousands of years ago right through to today. Our letters still make the same journey as they did in the times of the Roman Empire, of the Renaissance, of Victorian era writers, just a little bit quicker.
But speed is not everything, otherwise we would all have turned in our quills and reams of paper and succumbed to the mind-numbing monotony of the internet, of Facebook and WhatsApp and various other messaging services with their set templates and the need to use emojis and emoticons to express thoughts and feelings where the limited number of characters allowed, affordable in some cases, cuts us back both in our creativity of expression, and in our ability to voice the thoughts swelling up inside our heads. Where longing and love cannot be played out as they deserve, and intelligence, the powers of the intellect, disappear in a forced need to be short and to the point.
I was born in London, many decades ago – I like to say that it was not just in the last century that I was born, but in the last millennium – during a time when books and letter writing were still a thing, and where the television had not yet managed to exert its hold over the population. We were expected to write thank you letters – not notes – after opening our birthday and Christmas presents. Invitations to a party, to a gathering, a talk or debate came through the post. We had English lessons in school designed to assist us with formulating correct sentences according to the rules of the English language, with the proper method of writing a letter home, with quotations and civility. Books were there to be borrowed from the library, opened and read page for page, then returned and replaced with a new title. Telephones were on hand in case of emergency.
Perhaps I am one of those people who didn’t grow up, who decided to keep the best of the old and ignore the ease of the new. I could never accept this idea that the art of letter writing, of reading a book printed on paper, of talking to another person face-to-face had become old-fashioned and undesirable. When I went to a museum or an art gallery, it was to look at the exhibits, and not check my timeline to see whether anyone had uploaded a photograph of the very works of art I had all around me so that, keen to be one of the in people, I could simply Like it and move on. You, tucked away in your own closed society, can now see the advantages of what is, for me, normal. The question is, are you prepared to take advantage of this chance?
I do not doubt that many people have written to you, that you have a wealth of admirers – even with their very first letter – pestering your with details of the wonderful lives, making offers for the future where the future is as a pair. I don’t have any of that. I am content in the knowledge that we will probably never meet, that I will be here in Germany following my daily routines while you remain in the United States and begin your life anew. I am content with the idea that friendship can be built up through the written word – I have proven it many times – and be just as fulfilling as a non-platonic relationship. And I also have the knowledge that, living here, I can offer anyone who takes the chance, who accepts what is a massive challenge, and writes back to me, an insight into a different world which will stretch over many years, if not decades into the future. Friendship and letter writing, going hand in hand, are not just for a day like a puppy at Christmas, they are for life. And I don’t just writer about Greek goddesses and the ways of classical thinkers, of times past and the Golden Age of imagined childhood, but also about modern times; about living in Europe; about travelling across the world; about literature and history, loves and life.
“The only way to learn to paint […] is to take a studio, hire a model, and just fight it out for yourself.”
Anyone can take Somerset Maugham’s words – from Of Human Bondage – and translate them to something else such as, in this case, forming a friendship through letter writing. The only way to find out what else there is, to delve into the depths of another person’s mind and explore their knowledge, their experiences, their lifestyle, is to take a pen and paper, and fight / find it out for yourself.