The Tears of Things

April 7, 2006

There is something poignant about old ruins, perhaps because they provide a salutary warning against hubris, the sin of pride, like the slave employed to whisper in Caesar’s ear as he rode in triumph through the streets of Rome: “And this, too, shall pass.”

So we go out of our way to visit the ruins of Persepolis, the Parthenon and Palenque, which have been deliberately left in their ruined state rather than restored to their former glory.

And there is another kind of ruin: the residue of a dead language. Our own vocabulary is heavily salted with Greek and Latin derivatives, not to mention the occasional contribution of Pahlevi from the great Achaemenian empire, which is less familiar to us only because Alexander the Greek won the last battle and history is written by the victors.

Then, besides stones and words, are the pathetic traces of a forgotten culture.

Born to Edwardian parents, I learned to read from the Victorian Edward Lear’s “Nonsense Rhymes,” published in 1871 and an essential component of Edwardian education:

The Owl and the Pussycat went to sea in a beautiful pea-green boat.

They took some money and plenty of honey wrapped up in a five-pound note.

The Owl looked up at the stars above and sang to a small guitar:

O lovely Pussy, O Pussy my love, what a beautiful Pussy you are

Nearly 80 years later, we visited Tanzania, union of the former Tanganyika and Zanzibar following independence in 1971, and complimented our Swahilispeaking guide on his excellent English.

He explained that he was the very last student to attend a public school still offering an education in the Oxford syllabus a year after independence, when such undesirable reminders of a colonial past were suppressed. To demonstrate his accomplishment, he recited all 33 lines of “The Owl and the Pussycat,” albeit to a Gilbert and Sullivan refrain.

I am not ashamed to say that I shed a tear on hearing this fragment of Edwardian culture from the lips of a former goatherd on the parched plains of East Africa, long after the British themselves had forgotten their heritage. I sighed because the Edwardians already knew that their elegant society was under sentence of death, producing a final burst of originality before World War I and 10 million dead on both sides foreshadowed the end of imperialism and the easy way of life it afforded the beneficiaries.

I sighed because our guide had been saddled with the cultural detritus of a ruined empire, and could never enjoy such benefits as it accorded, although admittedly it allowed him to converse with American tourists on linguistically equal terms. And I sighed because he was so proud of his accomplishment, achieved only by the happenstance that the British had taken over his country from the Germans in 1918, in that fit of absence of mind, which, as someone said, characterized so many of their acquisitions.

Had he been nearer my own age, he might have been quoting Goethe to German tourists.

As Virgil said more than 2,000 years ago, “Sunt lachrimae rerum” – these are the tears of things.

 

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