Tuesday, October 3, 2006

Words from Robert Fitzgerald

Why care about an old work in a dead language that no one reads, or at least no one of those who, glancing at their Rolex watches, guide us into the future? Well, I love the future myself and expect everything of it: better artists than Homer, better works of art than The Odyssey. The prospect of looking back at our planet from the moon seems to me to promise a marvelous enlargement of our views.¹ But let us hold fast to what is good, hoping that if we do anything any good those who come after us will pay us the same compliment. If the world was given to us to explore and master, here is a tale, a play, a song about that endeavor long ago, by no means neglecting self-mastery, which in a sense is the whole point. Electronic brains may help us to use our heads but will not excuse us from that duty, and as to our hearts -- cardiograms cannot diagnose what may be most ill about them, or confirm what may be best. The faithful woman and the versatile brave man, the wakeful intelligence open to inspiration or grace -- these are still exemplary for our kind, as they always were and always will be. Nor do I suppose that the pleasure of hearing a story in words has quite gone out. Even movies and TV make use of words. The Odyssey at all events was made for your pleasure, in Homer’s words and in mine.

¹ This enlargement has now occurred, making everyone realize with a new pang not only the beauty of our blue planet but, by contrast with lunar and extra-lunar desolations, its bounty and fantasy of life.
That's the final paragraph of Robert Fitzgerald’s 1962 postscript to his translation of The Odyssey. The footnote is from 1969.

I wish Fitzgerald had written "the versatile brave man and woman," as Penelope too is both versatile and brave (as Fitzgerald of course knew). Replace the Rolex watches with Blackberries, substitute "the Internet" for "movies and TV," and Fitzgerald’s words seem as timely now as when he wrote them. This paragraph is for me a good explanation of why one might value and learn from ancient works of the imagination.

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