The more things change

September 19, 2008

Be brief, be original, be intelligent, be polished. “Cultivate a slender muse” and “tread an unworn path.” Sounds like the kind of advice you’d get in a creative writing class today, right? Amazing, then, that this was written around the third century BCE by a poet named Callimachus. He lived in a city that was home to one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, but which could be considered to have had two if you count the thing that it is really remembered for today.

Alexandria in the Hellenistic period bears a striking resemblance to our modern world in some ways, primarily in the intellectual sphere. It was a cosmopolitan place, a melting pot that contained ingredients from numerous Middle Eastern, Asian and African societies. But don’t be fooled: the Greeks were still snobs and emphasized Greek culture, to the point that written works in other languages had to be translated to Greek before they would be housed in the library.

Ah, the library. It may be small by today’s standards, but at the time it was a huge deal. Everything had to be written by hand, so it wasn’t as if you could walk into your local bibliothekai and grab the latest copy of Apollonius’ Argonautica. And yet at its height, the library had over 700,000 works, mostly scrolls if memory serves. The library at my college just celebrated its 3 millionth acquisition, but we’re talking over two thousand extra years’ worth of writing to get to that point. Amazing.

Speaking of writing and amazement, listening to my professor talk about the intellectual scene at the time was almost eerie. To put it bluntly, writers were eager to show off how educated they were with fancy wordplay and allusions and satire. The fine art of literary criticism was apparently alive and well, and already there was an establishment of certain writers as the intelligentsia. Sure, Homer was still the paragon of Greek literature, but people like Callimachus were ready to move on and do their own thing. The elitism! The cliquishness! The fragile egos! Sound familiar?

Most incredible is the thought that even back then–again, we’re talking two thousand years and change–people were concerned about originality. They only had a few centuries of detritus accumulated, and it was already a problem. Reputations were already exerting their gravitational forces on other works and writers. And yet those writers persevered and managed to break new ground themselves.

There’s some hope for me yet!

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