That Old Black Magic

In some ways the classical world of Greece and Rome seems very remote from ours: there were no automobiles, no planes, no television, no weapons (in the modern sense) of mass destruction. There was even no America. In other ways it seems surprisingly close. That is so in part because the art and literature of that time have never, like those of Egypt or Mesopotamia, sunk out of sight and needed to be rediscovered and laboriously deciphered; partly because an unbroken tradition of thought links us to that world, while we have no such link to the great civilizations of Asia or of the Americas. Not least, we often find the expression of sensibilities and interests which we recognize as intelligible to us and, in many ways, akin to our own.

All human creatures face certain fundamental problems. We know that we shall all die. Before we die, we are uneasily aware that we are at the mercy of accident and chance. We may be reduced to poverty; we may lose our health, lose our sight, become immobile or terminally ill; our loved ones may sicken and die. Pascal, with his terrible clarity, evokes the picture of a gang of slaves, chained together, toiling in the quarry; every day some are killed in the sight of the others: “It is an image of the life of man.”

How, then, to live in such a world? How to be a rational creature, respecting oneself and respected by others, rising above animal terrors, transcending abjection, misery, and despair? All through literature, from The Epic of Gilgamesh, in Mesopotamia of the second millennium BCE, and the Iliad of Homer, somewhere about 700 BCE, the first work of what we may call Western literature, we find attempts to deal with pain and death. Old King Priam, kneeling heartbroken at the feet of the hero who has killed his son, is told of the universality of human doom: all men die, even the great Achilles himself; only the gods live at ease forever, and they have allotted to all humankind more or less of suffering.

Those we love are torn away from us, and in the end we shall die ourselves. Where do the dead go? Where are they now? How can we communicate with them? How can we tap the greater knowledge that they must surely possess, delivered as they are from the narrow limits of flesh and blood? Both Homeric poems deal with this obsessive concern. In the Iliad, the ghost of his friend Patroclus comes back to tell the grieving Achilles that, once buried, the dead are forever cut off from the world of the living; in the Odyssey, Odysseus himself visits the world of the dead and speaks with his departed friends. The Gilgamesh epic explores the same questions. In another, not entirely unrelated, tradition, King Saul goes to Endor; there a witch calls up for him the ghost of Samuel, whose prophecies bring the king naught for his comfort.

In …

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $94.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

One-Week Access — $4.99

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.