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If you could go back in time, what would you do?

For years now, I’ve had a fantasy about this. No heroics, no stock market games: what I would love is to rescue lost antiquities. Imagine – you go to the Library of Alexandria, before its destruction at the hands of ignorant Christian fundamentalists (or the caliph Omar, or Julius Caesar, or Donald Rumsfeld traveling to the past, or whoever it was), and there it is. Immediately I’m digging through the leaf catalog or whatever. Where is Ovid’s lost Medea? Oh Ovid, you are so dreamy, I cannot wait to read this!

What about the Proteus, the lost satyr-play from the Oresteia? Or any other satyr-play – we have none! And can the Oresteia really be the only complete set of three tragedies we have from the Greeks?

What about folk-songs, ballads, fairy tales? Lost to the wind. Even after people started writing them down (not early enough!), at least a hundred years went by before someone had the bright idea of recording the tune as well as the words. What I would give to wander the England or the America of four centuries ago with a tape recorder! Such mystery, such beauty – a window into our own souls as humans. Lost.

While wandering England, why not make a better transcription of MS Cotton Vitellius, before the fire? And what about other manuscripts which Cotton collected but which the flames consumed entirely? What about the ones the vikings turned to ashes, along with the monasteries which owned them? We have no English Callimachus to even tell us what we’re missing.

We still get the occasional lucky find – Huckleberry Finn in a trunk in someone’s attic; gnostic scriptures in clay jars in a cave at Nag Hammadi – but so much is lost forever. Dust in the wind. Gone, gone, gone.

I do not think it is an exaggeration to call the way we’ve allowed the museum and library in Baghdad to be sacked a crime against humanity. It’s permanent, it’s irrevocable. It’s going to affect everyone from now on, whether they know it or not. We and our children and theirs and theirs are poorer now – you could say the prodigal son has squandered a common patrimony of the world.

But hey, all this is worldly anyway, right? When we get to the kingdom of heaven, we won’t mourn the passing of dust, right? Right?

9 Responses to “Alas”

  1. Becky Says:

    book reco: to say nothing of the dog by connie willis. a troupe of people (in the future) who do this very thing. much hilarity and trick time-travel situations ensue.

  2. Book Man Says:

    If only we could go back in time. I wouldn’t have been so serious as a child.

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