I understand how far away from me you are
Cicero, in section 120 of his Orator, memorably wrote that not to know what happened before you were born is to remain a child forever.
Nescire autem quid ante quam natus sis acciderit, id est semper esse puerum. Quid enim est aetas hominis, nisi ea memoria rerum veterum cum superiorum aetate contexitur?But the neat interweaving of one’s own memories with the text of the past, if it seemed possible for Cicero, does not seem so for us.
[To be ignorant of what happened before you were born is to be ever a child. For what is man's lifetime unless the memory of past events is woven with those of earlier times?]
Petrarch, one who was acutely aware of the pathos there is in our vain efforts ever to fully connect with the past, saw the vast deserts of time that separated him from his best friends, the classical authors he loved. He even wrote letters to those authors. They were published in the twenty-fourth book of his correspondence, or at least whatever of it survived the flames to which, in a dark mood one day, he consigned the vast bulk of his literary production. He tells us why in the prefatory epistle to the edition of his correspondence, which is addressed to Socrates. He first chose to write to Cicero, as if to a friend of his own time, with the same familiarity and intimacy we owe to our closest friends, to chastise him for his disastrous political decisions (only friends have the right to tell it like it is).
Petrarch later wrote a letter to Homer, in fact a reply to a letter Homer had addressed to him (P. had put one of his friends up to it). He begins it by expressing a concern about the ‘lack of a common language’ that made it so difficult to write the letter. This goes further than the plain fact that Homer wrote in Greek, a language of which Petrarch was, to his shame, almost entirely ignorant. It speaks of the estrangement of the past, and of our inability to converse with the fundamentally alien idioms of ancient literature.
Later in the same letter, Petrarch writes:
Multa dixi quasi ad praesentem; sed iam ab illa vehementissima imaginatione rediens, quam longe absis intelligo, vereorque ne tam multa in tenebris aegre legas, nisi quia multa mihi etiam scripsisse te video.The classical definition of letter writing held that its aim was to make absent people present, and to conjure the illusion of oral communication through the written word (‘absentis ad absentem sermo’). Homer is, for Petrarch, already a presence, although far away; he is writing to a dead man – but his fear is not that his letter cannot reach its addressee; it is that his addressee will not understand, or care to understand his anxieties. The lack of a common language may be an unbreachable barrier. What we understand of Homer may not mean anything to Homer.
[For a long while I have been talking to you just as if you were present; but now the strong illusion fades away, and I realise how far you are from me. There comes over me a fear that you will scarcely care, down in the shades, to read the many things that I have written here. Yet I remember that you wrote freely to me.
trans. James Harvey Robinson]
There is a wonderfully poignant moment in Werner Herzog’s The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser. Kaspar, played Bruno S., holds a baby in his arms, and a tear rolls down his cheek as he softly speaks the words: ‘Mutter, ich bin von allem abgetan’ (‘Mother, I am so far away from everything’). Kaspar, who has been brought up in isolation from language and society, identifies with the child in its pre-linguistic state; but he does have language, however fragmentary and partial, and so he may speak of an imaginary anxiety no child in fact possesses: that of being ‘not at home’ with language, of feeling the pain of distance not just from others but from what we are accustomed to call one’s self. He is the split subject suspended just at that point of traumatic entry into the symbolic order, unable to become properly socialized because he is forever unable fully to inhabit language. Language is a prison house, true, but what must it be to be the one locked outside of it, to catch a glimpse of shadows through the bars?
It is a brilliant film, but – incidentally – I do wish the distributors had not jettisoned the original title: ‘Every man for himself and God against all’ (Jeder für sich und Gott gegen alle).
Distance is foundational to the self. At the mirror stage of development, the speechless infant has not emerged into selfhood. It is only in entering the symbolic order, in being torn away from the maternal embrace and thrown into language, that we become what we are, across the unbridgeable chasm that divides us from ourselves.
Just as absence is central to the lover’s discourse, and to speak of love the lover must be distant, far away, anywhere but here, so too to read a text, or rather, for the essential misprision that makes the texts of the past readable for us, there must be a rupture. To write something new is to see the old as something distant and other; otherwise there is nothing new, only an infinite complex of words and symbols existing in an eternal present, transparent as glass.
Today we prefer a historicizing approach to the past – the sort of philological method which in fact began with the humanists, the stirrings of which we perceive in Petrarch. We want to understand the past on its own terms, to be the archeologists of culture, to use the tools of philology and diachronic inquiry to reveal language and history. But we also want it to mean something for us. We want to bring text to reader, not reader to text; we want it to fit the procrustean bed of our understanding. How we do this, how we interleave the memories of history with our own memories – that is the question of interpretation, and the meaning of meaning.