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[BKARTS] WOID XVII-45. War of the Words



WOID XVII-45. War of the Words

Was it Aulus Gellius, Darling? At any rate some minor Latin author once
explained the true meaning of the word "Liberal", as opposed to the
common meaning in Antiquity.  As a rule a "liberal" was a free man
("homo liber"), someone with the time to read and think and practice the
liberal arts, unlike his slaves. In the alternative explanation a
liberal was someone freed by reading, not for reading. Aulus told the
story of a liberal who was shipwrecked somewhere and managed to survive
among the pirates, thanks to his reading knowledge which impressed the
pirates greatly, somewhat like Orpheus taming the beasts.

This kind of legend reappears periodically down to our own century. My
personal variant tells of how the great Russian poet Osip Mandelshtam,
who died in a Stalinist gulag, was last seen in a secret attic space in
some Siberian camp, swaddled and protected by the toughest of the
toughest prison gang members. I'd like to think he's there, still.

Who knows? But in the bloody wars of the Late Renaissance a gentleman
went off to combat with a small printed volume of Greek or Latin poetry,
printed perhaps by Aldus Manutius in Venice in a new compact format,
italic. The book had to be small enough to fit your breast pocket and
thick enough to stop a stray bullet or sword thrust. If he traveled
coach (as he usually did), and the service was slow and the latrines
overflowed as they usually did in the sixteenth century, our road
warrior could console himself with a few pages from the Iliad.

Who knew? The book as an offensive weapon's back. It seems our
government keeps track now of the books you read on your plane flight.
Of course bodice-ripping has been considered a subversive act since Bill
Clinton, but I'm talking here High Culture and Misdemeanors. Last month,
coming out of Miami, I left my bag on the TSA conveyor belt and had to
go back to find it. The perfectly pleasant officer asked me to identify
my bag, and of course I had to describe its contents to him. "Hegel's
Phenomenology of Mind," I told him, and half expected him to answer,
"Sir, that could be any bag here." Instead he checked, handed me my bag,
and then we had a nice dialectical back-and-forth, though I stopped
short of discussing Hegel's influence on Marxist thought.

You'd think a government that lost so much by taking on the cultural
traditions of the Middle East would think twice before invading the
Republic of Letters; literature has a way of forming bonds among people
- especially people the government works to keep apart, like security
officers and passengers. It's also an efficient response to governments
and airlines that follow the principle that the best way to control
people is to bore them to death and desperation. Until the twentieth
century a gentleman carried in his mind as well substantial portions of
classical verse. End up in a grungy jail or a nasty holding area, and
you could spend a pleasant afternoon with Ovid's Tristia and, who knows?
maintain your dignity. 

An Italian journalist who'd lived through Mussolini once wrote that
there is no censorship that a skilled writer can't get around. This is
true, as well, of skillful readers. Chances are, if I'm worried that
Noam Chomsky's going to set off bells at Security I'll bring on Tacitus
instead - in the original. Besides, when it comes to breaking down the
barriers between people any book will do.

About ten years ago I was flying out of Albuquerque. The couple next to
me were a very nice couple, dressed almost identically, reading the same
book, I forget the title, something about Jesus Christ, Investor.  So I
pulled out my own book and we read, side by side until my eyes got tired
and I put down my book with the title facing down. From the corner of my
eye I could see the lady discreetly close her own, discreetly lean
forward to focus on the spine of my book. Closer, and closer - remember
the final scene in For Whom the Bell Tolls?


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