It is rare to find someone with an interest in history and quotations, unless you restrict your search to the colleges and universities which litter our various lands, and the hidden recesses of libraries and archives within their deepest shadows. We tend to think of a historian – and often librarians too – as old worldish, as out of touch with reality, as wearing tweed jackets or skirts, proper shoes and peering art us over glasses which, in their absentminded state, these strange creatures have allowed to slide down from the bridge of their nose. Regardless of this impression, works on historical matters – be they fictional or based on deep and detailed research – tend to climb up the bestseller lists with increasing regularity, and are often discussed, even displayed, outside of polite society, academic circles and the like. History has grown with the times, and now brings people back to those eras when they claim everything was better, but when nothing was as we were taught in school: it is a time of revelation, as far as history is concerned, and national interests, so important for politicians and the leaders of the land following an event which would be of historical interest in decades or centuries to come, are being discarded in favour of facts based on what has been secreted in archives, or protected by various Acts of Parliament or the legislature limiting their distribution.
It is equally rare to find anyone who can pick out their own quotations from a book as, with the advancement of our technological possibilities, there are now so many web sites which gladly choose what we should read, in snippets, often out of context, and save us the trouble of reading an entire work and finding those few words, hidden amid many other ideas, which we consider worthy of separate preservation. The quotation, though, is a stalwart of good writing, often used by classical writers, such as Longfellow, to add depth and meaning to their own writings by showing a connection to other, older works of relevance. Or, of course, to demonstrate how well-read and educated they are. Today, fortunately, most who use quotations are kind enough to use them in the main language of their work, whereas the educated of the past, having had the pleasure of studying Greek and Latin as a normal part of their basic education, would quote in original, and then without any translation. It was assumed, perhaps rightly too, that those who read, those who specifically read these types of books, would also be educated to the same or similar standard, and have learned Latin and Greek through laborious hours of study, repetition and translation, and would have no need of a helpful translation in the footnotes, or the discarding of the original language.
My beef with quote machines, be they internet based or elsewhere, is that they so rarely cite source, making it easy for a misquote, a fake, a wished-for to appear and create an impression, a memory which is untrue or, at least, misleading. My favourite example of this form of treachery is not a quotation, but an internet meme or photographic representation which shows Abraham Lincoln reading a text message on his cell phone. The commentary underneath was that most people would claim the photograph to be a fake, and assert that someone had simply engineered the image, to which the reply is that this is highly unlikely as, during Lincoln’s life, there was no such software as Photoshop.
Being a letter writer and avid reading of books, I am also inclined to pick and choose, and take the cream of the crop from texts that I have found and enjoyed, and employ them as best I can within the body of my letters. My quotations, though, come from the books, and not from the internet, since the reading of books, the gathering of information through the hard work and research of others, as much as through your own, is a virtue, in my eyes. Sometimes my quotations are ones which enhance what I have written, which back up my ideas and support any claims that I have made, because it is always good to show that you are not only serious but also correct in your claims, and the right quotations can always be found to do just that. And then there are the quotations designed to make people think, such as this from Sappho, which was preserved by Athenaeus in Deipnosophistae:
There is a feminine being which keeps its babes safe beneath its bosom; they, though voiceless, raise a cry sonorous over the waves of the sea and across all the dry land, reaching what mortals they desire, and they may hear even when they are not there; but their sense of hearing is dull.
The problem with quotations is that so many are taken out of context, or are simply not understandable, which is why I love riddles such as the one posed here. If the complete thing is not there, or a certain level of understanding, then what has been written makes no sense at all. But Sappho is kind to us, and her answer to this riddle has also been preserved by Athenaeus in the same work, and she clears our distress with an answer:
The feminine being, then, is an epistle, the babes within her are the letters it carries around; they, though voiceless, talk to whom they desire when far away; yet if another happens to be standing near when it is read, he will not hear.
And there we have the most beautiful historical reference to social mores: a letter sent to someone speaks to them, but the words cannot be heard by those standing close by. A letter is an intimate thing, a personal presence designed for the edification of one person alone, unless they decide to share, even when that sharing may be disadvantageous to them, or to the person who insists on being allowed to read too. One of my favourite stories of an insistence concerns Caesar and Cato, where Caesar received a personal letter – written on a clay tablet – while sitting in the senate in Rome. Suspecting that there was an intrigue being planned, Cato demanded that he be allowed to read the letter’s contents, which Caesar, having read them, gladly allowed, much to Cato’s discomfort. The letter was an amorous, if not erotic, proposal to Caesar from Cato’s own sister Servilia. This wonderful story has survived the ravages of time, and was preserved by Plutarch in his book Brutus.
Since I am also a great fan of letter writing, which anyone who corresponds with me will discover very quickly, quotations and information about letter writing, about letters written throughout history, tend to grab my attention immediately. There have been several occasions when, out and about with nothing else on my mind but a good meal and a quiet moment of relaxation, I have passed by the display window of a second-hand bookstore, or seen a market stall in some flea market along the waterfront in Bremen or Camden Town, London, and spotted a collection of published letters from some famous, infamous, or barely known person, then let my hunger slip and purchased this tome rather than the meal. This is not something a person can do every day, of course, otherwise there would be nothing left on the bones but empty skin! In fact, collections of letters are not the only things which tend to make me forget my need to eat: I am also a collector of antique photographs, which are so individual that there is almost a religious desire to purchase them as quickly as possible, and not to wait until another day. Books are produced in large quantities, antique photography tends to be very singular and less likely to wait patiently until another day.
The fun thing about history is also the variety of accounts you can find of the same events, and hardly any of them the same. If you read battle accounts from a Union perspective, you’ll find that they differ in many aspects from the Separatist accounts of exactly the same events. Today we have the pleasure of seeing many historians delving into the archives, into sources which were once ignored or, when it comes to the political side of life, hidden away from the public eye. What I was taught about the British Empire, as one minor example, back in the Sixties and Seventies is markedly different to the information now available covering the same periods of history. I might add: the British come out smelling less of roses, and more like the dung used to grow them. I am sure it is exactly the same for many other nations.
I wrote to another friend of mine recently, tasking up on one of the minor but still important points in your profile, about his fear of being forgotten. Here it was not fear of being forgotten now, of having no contact with his loved ones or the outside world, but the fear that his name and life would simply disappear when he finally shuffles off this mortal coil. Your idea of being forgotten seems to be completely different, and one which arouses far more empathy in my breast than his. The idea of immortality, whilst fun and, for some, desirable, is something we can leave to one side. It is not us who create this level of enduring fame, but those who come after and judge us for our acts, for what we have done on this planet. If we concentrate on trying to be remembered as impressive, as good, as important, then we will fail to do anything impressive, good or important. What good is the blessing of an immortal name in the future, if we have a life of hell on earth here and now, and are simply forgotten by all those who we would wish to hold is closest to their hearts and minds?
What some people forget is that we, on the outside, can use our freedom of movement and association to continually make friends, to enhance our social experience, to enrich our lives. Others are not so lucky, for many reasons, and need to seek out new and innovative means of expanding their social contacts, their sources of normal pleasure and communication. Rather than fighting the system, or the reality of life, some take matters into their own hands, accepted that reality, and make the best of their situation wherever and whenever possible. For me, letter writing is one of the finest communication skills a person can have, and one of the simplest. Anyone who takes up letter writing, or dedicates a portion of their time and energy to putting words, thoughts down on paper and then sending them out into the unknown has accepted a challenge on a very personal level, but one which has been alive and active for centuries.
One of my favourite ideas on letter writing is the lengths some people would go to in order to ensure their letter was delivered on time, and to the right person. It was a part of Japanese culture that educated men and women included poetry within their letters, and also that a man, on leaving his lover after their pleasures, would write such a letter of thanks for delivery the same evening; the mistress, concubine, or even wife would wait for the delivery, and judge how successful the evening had been from his words. There are even wonderful references to letter writing, and to the delivery of letters in different versions of the Bible – because, as you know, there is not one single Bible, but many different ones according to the nature of the Christian religion being practiced – one of which, in the Syriac Bible, recounts the writing of two letters to the Babylonians by Baruch after the destruction of Jerusalem which have to be sent by special messengers, one by men and the other by an eagle which, to us, seems strange but was, apparently, quite normal back then, as we read in Hans-Josef Klauck’s Ancient Letters and the New Testament that:
Before sending it on its way, Baruch speaks a final word of exhortation to the eagle, challenging it with the example of three birds from Israel’s salvation history who successfully completed their missions: the dove of Noah, the ravens that fed Elijah and the legendary bird that Solomon sent as a messenger.
Not that we need pigeon post these days! And while Baruch was writing a few words of hope at the end of his life – he did not expect to live much longer, and these two letters were his religious testament to the world – we, on the other hand, have a few more years ahead of us during which time, if you so desire, we can explore as much the history of the world behind us, as the chances for our world ahead. We can exchange experiences and stories, even quotations found in the most unusual places and, perhaps, that feeling of being forgotten will recede and a written friendship, the power of the pen, will spring up across the ocean, from one side of the world to the other.