Archive for April 15th, 2011

Robert Harrison, Atlantis, Athens, and us: “The communication of the dead is tongued with fire”

Friday, April 15th, 2011

Robert Harrison, DJ for radio show "Entitled Opinions" (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Before I attended the Workcenter’s I Am America the other night, I stopped by Cubberley Auditorium, where Robert Harrison was speaking about the communication between the living and the dead.  How could one resist such an intriguing topic?

T.S. Eliot said that “The communication of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.” But the program was tamer: “the most ancient vocation of poetry – whether lyric or epic – is to keep open the channels of communication between the past and the present.”

Alas, because of the 8 p.m. curtain on the other side of campus, I didn’t get much farther than Rush Rehm‘s introduction (he called Robert “the most valuable humanist at the university”) before I had to dash.  But Robert kindly left me an intriguing scrap of what he’d said, inspired by Plato‘s Timaeus.

It begins with Critias telling Socrates an “old world story” that he had heard from his grandfather, who was over 90. The grandfather had heard it from his father, who had heard it from Solon the sage, who had heard it from an old priest during his visit to the Egyptian city of Sais.

...and Socrates told it to him.

“Athens, he declares, is even more ancient in its founding than the city of Sais, but the Greeks have no memory of its origins, due to the annihilations of its former civilizations.  These annihilations, brought on by periodic ‘declinations’ of the heavenly bodies, unleash ‘a great conflagration of things upon the earth.’ It was one of these conflagrations that destroyed Atlantis, an ancient civilization of which Solon’s Greek’s have no memory, even though it was their forefathers who thwarted the transoceanic Atlantean conquest of Europe.”

The old man concluded: “and so you have to begin all over again like children, and know nothing of what happened in ancient times, either among us or among yourselves.”

Then Harrison continued:  “Today we have the privilege of seeing this volcanic process at work up close, in technicolor, as it were, as the entire Christian-humanist civilization that slowly consolidated itself in the wake of Rome’s collapse unravels before our eyes.  It was said of President James Garfield that in moments of boredom or to amuse his friends he would take a pencil in each hand and compose sentences in Greek and Latin at the same time.


“If one considers that, as a student, Thomas Jefferson used to translate the Greek Bible into Latin, and vice versa, one realizes to what extent the ‘heavenly declinations’ have unleashed their fury upon the American presidency.

“It was not so long ago that a university professor in the classroom would typically leave Greek and Latin quotes untranslated. Then he began to provide a translation for the Greek but not for the Latin. Nowadays he must tell his students that there was once such a thing as the Greek and Latin tongues, that there was once a place called Athens, and so forth. Shortly the professor won’t know even that much. Oh he’ll know it, in a way, but he will not know what to make of it, and when you don’t know what to make of something you eventually forget about it.”