by Caroline Ball
Imagine yourself years from now, when by a freak coincidence all recordings of the Star Wars films have been lost. All that survives are brief extracts…from the prequels. Sounds horrifying? I’m only just getting started. Not only have you lost 90% of the original material, but no single surviving clip is longer than, let’s say, three minutes. These clips were preserved based on one person’s favourite scenes, which are mainly epic battles with absolutely no context. (Think Obi-Wan Kenobi in the arena versus the giant praying-mantis-lizard-thing, but making even less sense than it already does, and you’ll get the idea.) From the limited amount of actual dialogue that survives, some of it is very helpful for figuring out the plot (“You killed younglings!”) some of it rather more vague (“I have a bad feeling about this”), and some of it absolutely no help at all (“BEEP BEEP BOOP!”). There’s so much we don’t know: who’s attacking who? Why is everything suddenly on fire? Why does Anakin hate sand so much? And what about the droid attack on the Wookiees? The final hurdle is that the only surviving version of these clips is taken from “Backstroke of the West”, the terribly-dubbed bootleg version in which “Jedi Council” is repeatedly translated as “Presbyterian Church”. (If you’ve never seen it, you’re in for a treat – it’s hilariously bad, as well as being a rather good cautionary tale for anyone trying to translate into other languages.)
While this all sounds far-fetched, it’s not so very different from the situation of trying to study ancient fragmentary texts. The works of many Greek authors were only preserved on papyri, which over time have become damaged, and very hard to read, often with huge gaps in the fabric of the papyrus itself. The challenge is to try and decipher enough of the handwriting on them to work out what the original text was, but this is easier said than done when there are no spaces between words, and hardly any punctuation. By analysing the different styles of letter formation, it is sometimes possible to give a rough date to a papyrus, and to learn something about the scribe who wrote it. For instance, a very formal hand in a standard style, but with a couple of strangely-formed letters, could suggest that the scribe was still in training and had not quite mastered it yet. Or an extract of a classic work such as the Odyssey, poorly-written on the back of a set of accounts, could mean that it was produced as a school exercise. Sometimes, if enough writing is still legible, we can map this onto other fragments to reconstruct larger passages of a known work that was previously thought to be lost, or even bring new authors into the light. But how to read a papyrus is often highly disputed – at this scale, even differences of one letter can have huge implications. The poet Anacreon wrote a funny and bittersweet complaint about how his beloved wasn’t interested in him, because she preferred women. But if one letter of the source text is read differently, it becomes a joke so lewd that scandalised scholars of the 1950s refused to discuss it except in German or Latin.
Sensationalism aside, even once a text and translation can be extracted from a fragment, it is often hard to know what to make of it. The poet Sappho’s nine books are now reduced to tiny extracts, often missing so many words that although what is left is beautiful it makes precious little sense. For example, in Anne Carson’s translation: “and this…ruinous god…I swear did not love…but now because…and the reason neither…nothing much”, or even less helpfully: “they became…for not”. That’s the entire poem. That’s all the help we’re going to get. We’re left to fill in the blanks as we think best. Sometimes, conversely, we have too much text. In the first speech of Lysias, the word “good” has been inserted into the middle of a sentence where it really doesn’t fit, and our best guess is that an early reader wasn’t sure what “frugal” meant, and had to look it up. This fragment of their notes was then mistakenly copied out by later scribes as part of the text itself.
Which texts survive on papyri or parchment, and which are lost in the abyss of history, is often due to quite random chance of which books survived the perils of fire, flood, or misguided attempts at early archaeology. Those which are best preserved are often those which were chosen as the canonical authors to be taught in schools, which obviously biases what kind of subject-matter survives best. Our greatest help is actually other ancient authors, who quote texts they like in their own works. Athenaeus wrote a treatise called the Deipnosophists (“Dinner-Experts”), which is an important source for poetry, among other things. Some of the lines he quotes are interesting and beautiful, like Sappho’s “stand to face me beloved/and open out the grace of your eyes”. Others are much less helpful: “and gold chickpeas were growing on the banks”. Athenaeus does not see fit to record the context in which Sappho was writing this line, or any of the rest of the poem. He only wants to prove a point about chickpeas.
But for all the challenges of ancient texts, these fragments do give a thrilling glimpse of the richness of the literature that we have lost, and there is a wonder in reading the scribbled handwriting of people who lived and thought and loved 2000 years ago. Their notes and choices of which lines to preserve are sometimes helpful, sometimes bizarre – why did one writer decide that of all Sappho’s words, the one to immortalise should be “celery”? Fragmentary texts provide a hazy window back through layers of readership, in an inherited chain of diligent human thought and scholarship spanning the centuries. They pose difficult questions for us about what is lost or what is worth keeping, how to make judgements on the artistic merits of texts, what should be taught in schools, and what it means for a poem to be beautiful or valuable, that we’re still very much grappling with today. And they give us a fascinating reflection of ourselves, in the gaps between the ancient words that we fill with our own conjectures, our own shoddy attempts at poetry, and often our own preconceptions and prejudices about the ancient world. Lacking what Sappho actually said, we are left to dispute amongst ourselves what we feel she ought to have said, a game both dangerous and illuminating.