Commentary on Seven Against Thebes (4)

(For those of you hungry for my wisdom and too impatient to read Krawczuk, I will from now on break out my commentary as a separate post following the chapter on which I am commenting).


Virtues of simplicity. Why scholars are boring. Hostility between
the productive and the idle. The importance of idleness for art.

When I told people that I was translating this book, explaining to them that it is a kind of miscellany of loose leaves -- almost Ming-style vignettes, if you will -- safety-pinned together by the story of Seven Against Thebes, some have suggested The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony by Roberto Calasso as a comparable work.

It isn't.

There is something about Calasso which makes it, to my mind, unreadable. It is, for one thing, too dense. The style is certainly beautiful, but simply too ornate for discussion of weighty topics. Weighty topics are best discussed plainly, lest one lose his thread in the jungle of erudite oratory. Ornate style is best for simple things: love, for example; texts wherein the message is simple enough ("I love you, baby, yeah yeah yeah") not to get lost in the labyrinth of verbal pyrotechnics; indeed, so embarrassingly simple that rhetorical devices are necessary to obscure its simplicity. Krawczuk's style is simple, conversational; this allows him to address difficult points with ease. But Calasso's style is most of the time to beautiful for ease.

And, second, Calasso's book is -- well -- trivial: the points he makes -- I do not hesitate calling them philosophical, as any serious reflection seems to me philosophical, philosophy, being after all, the love of wisdom -- are cute enough but without any reference at all to the pressing questions of life: love, friendship, betrayal, death. Weird, this: his subject being the Greeks, for crying out-loud, with their famously big themes, I did not find a single sentence in Calasso's book which made me ponder life. All his points seemed -- well, irrelevant to life.

Calasso's work seems to me in this regard of a kind with a very great deal -- indeed, nearly all -- of acclaimed Anglosaxon scholarly writing -- and most of the ambitious best Anglo-Saxon blogging: erudite, well turned, witty, and -- eminently not worth reading; an intelligent man's equivalent of that great English virtue: small talk. I suppose Calasso's work is the sort Joe Campbell referred to as typical of all scholarly work: much verbiage and evidence building up and up and up to -- nothing. To a kind of mouse flitting furtively out one's lips: a small, trivial pseudo-point.

Why scholars should write this way is not clear. It could be that they are shackled by some sort of professional prejudice against saying something important; perhaps doing so is considered crass: a kind of making waves, or worse, an attempt to court cheap popularity. Or perhaps scholars think their job is not to tackle the big questions, for which there are no immediate answers, but little ones which can be answered -- perhaps in the false belief that a myriad small answers thrown up together on a big pile will eventually reach the big questions, like ten million tiny bricks piled up in a kind of epistemological tower of Babel eventually meant to reach heaven.

Or it could be that scholars are simply dull people. After all, it is a matter of temperament, is it not: it takes a certain kind of man to be able to live one's life entirely as an intellectual adventure, in libraries, books, debates and lectures -- no life-threatening situations, no ambitions of love or power, no disreputable gambles -- certainly no gun smuggling, God forbid -- no hunger for distant lands or unattainable women; indeed, talking to many scholars one gets the idea: apparently, no hunger of any kind at all. To us they seem to have... low levels of hunger for life in their blood. They are -- colorless, gray.


Having ripped into Calasso, I now need to slap Krawczuk, too. He, too, is a scholar (poor fellow can't help it) and suffers as a result from a professional perversion: he sees everything in the light of his own discipline. Not being a classicist, I do not understand -- though will henceforth try to find out -- the precise nature of the historical debate between bios practicos and bios theoreticos; but that debate, as Krawczuk presents it, seems to me to be between men of action on the one hand ("men of action" defined as "sweaty brawn") and effete brains -- in other words, scholars -- on the other.

But the original argument between Amphion and Zethus, as it is presented in the myth, is different from the one Krawczuk presents. It is the argument between men of action on the one hand -- by which a broader category is meant here, one including scholars, who, after all, do practical stuff -- teach, write books and opinion pieces, consult; and, on the other hand, good for nothing idlers. After all, there is nothing theoretical about wondering about the hills with one's lyre (or was it luth?). Amphion is not an intellectual, Monsieur Krawczuk, he is a lazy bone.

Perhaps it takes a lazy bone like me to recognize one, and perhaps it is my professional perversion to see the world in the light of my line of work. It is entirely possible that Aleksander Krawczuk, a teacher and an author of numerous books, has never experienced what I experience with great frequency, and thus cannot speak to it: the accusation that he is doing nothing, that he is wasting his gifts, denying them to the human race, not carrying his weight, not making a contribution. People who tell me this are irked that I spend my days reading books, visiting museums or attending performances, viewing my collection, thinking, and writing for my own consumption. They are full of suggestions as to what I could do instead: teach Polish several hours a week, says one; write a book, says another; sail around the world, says the third. (My friends are not racked by an excess of imagination).

This is how I see the debate between Zethus and Amphion. From where I sit (usually with a book in my lap), the debate seems irreconcilable because it arises out of basic misunderstanding: Zethus cannot imagine that anyone might be happy not working; Amphion simply cannot see what the big deal about working is.

Now, the interesting thing here is that Zethus tells Amphion to work, while Amphion is happy to leave Zethus alone. Why should this be? Is it possible that Zethus is not really happy in his productive life and views Amphion's with envy? Is it possible that he secretly wishes he could live such a life, but knows full well he can't, and therefore does the next best thing: tries to deny it to others?


It isn't a matter of economic necessity: after all Zethus could also not bother with the damn wall and live quite well (he did for years on the mountain, even though he also worked and worked). Equally, many of those who urge me to do something -- anything -- do not need to do a damn thing in their lives: either because they have independent means, or well-earning husbands who wouldn't mind them being idle, or are already retired; yet they work, sometimes for pithy wages, often stupid, unremarkable jobs. Why?

Partly, perhaps it is the matter of moral unease, as most would suggest: the bourgeois ethos united with the biblical notion that God has condemned us to work in the sweat of our brow and we better do as God says; partly, perhaps lack of autotelic imagination; but partly it is a quarrel between the hunter-gatherers and the agriculturalists. Switching from hunting and gathering to agriculture may well have been attended by a behavioral mutation; hunter-gatherers are glad to stop when they have obtained the day's food; but agriculturalists can't stop working as long as the sun is up. (It doesn't mean they actually like the work, only that they just can't stop). Now, an old tale says that my people are descended from Central Asian nomads who conquered (and then herded) a Central European settled folk. Certainly my ancestors had no problem doing nothing productive at all -- unless you consider an annual pillaging expedition into Crimea or Moldavia -- "work". So perhaps it is the nomad gene in me that makes me so easily content doing nothing productive at all?

But it isn't like us idle folk are of no value. For one thing -- the main thing, really -- we are the main driving force of culture: not only does an amazing amount of really good literature come out of us: from Tsurezuregusa to Gattopardo; but also no one but us has the time to consume art, to become expert connoisseurs and to guide, with our finely trained senses, those who laboriously produce for our pleasure. The qualitative change in artistic production in the twentieth century is perhaps best accounted for by the disappearance of a true leisure class. Just look at who buys the stuff at the auctions today: they are all working people. From the point of view of the art, it makes no difference whether the buyer is paid thirty-six thousand a year or thirty-six million a year; what matters is that he labors 70 hour weeks and as a result, has no time to look at art, and therefore, when it comes to evaluating it, is basically illiterate.

So, dear friends, the idle us, like the drone-bees, have a noble calling in life: we make it more interesting. Remember that before you tell any one of us to do something. We are doing something even when it seems we aren't.


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