Saturday, 7 June 2008

Aristotle. No, wait, bear with me...

Right, so, Aristotle (if that's not too sudden an opening). A gent from back in the day when one could bash out reputable tomes on both politics and poetics without being thought an intellectual dilly-dallier, or a purveyor of tat and nonsense.

It turns out that some careless bugger, when packing the great Aristotlish (I can't spell Aristotelian) time capsule, only put in the first part of his two volume page-turner, The Poetics, and as a result, we, the semi- (possibly demi-, potentially hemi-) glorious future, only received the book on tragedy, leaving comedy as mysteriously absent as a House of Commons expenses receipt. This presumably explains why Renaissance comedies aren't always very funny.

Perchance the force of the human mind has become diluted over the years, for such great men of letters, and indeed words, sentences and entire paragraphs, are now as rare as an uninterrupted sortie on the district line. Not many folk are equipped to turn on their laptop on a long train journey and polish up an epoch-defining treatise on two wildly different subjects (such as, perhaps, Glastonbury and Sun, Etiquette and Youth, or Hip-hop and Music. Cripes, that made me sound old and grumpy). The closest I can think of is Bill Bryson, who, despite his evident splendour, doesn't strike me as a hemlock-swigging scion wearing a nightie. If he leapt out of a bath shouting 'eureka' (yes, I know that was Archimedes. At least it begins with 'A'), he'd probably stop to grab a towel.

Part of the problem with becoming wantonly polymathemical is that anybody now claiming to be an expert needs to have a name followed by more letters than you'd find on Christmas Eve in the Post Office Santa Claus room. You have to toil until you're older than Christopher Lee (who was eleventy-four at the last count) to reach a sufficiently remarkable degree of knowledge and wisdom to write something of utter, subject-redefining genius. You know, like The Very Hungry Caterpillar. By the end of all that, you might have become the world's leading expert on eighteenth century teapots, or the reactions of water voles to reality television, but you'll have emptied your mind of any extraneous gubbins, like how to tie your shoelaces, or the reason nobody seems to accept groats as currency any more. If you try to skip earning your long, dreary spurs, then the moment you open your mouth or start your column in the Observer, a panoply of doctors, professors and other irate intellectuals will charge down upon you, rather like than bit in The Lion King when the old lion gets nailed by the herd of buffalo. Frankly, I'd prefer the buffalo to a stampeding studio of Newsnight Review guests. Have you ever been struck by a copy of Das Kapital hurled in anger? Neither have I, but I'm willing to bet that even the paperback could cause some serious damage.

Of course, Aristotle's mighty endeavours may also have been made a little easier because folks back then were mostly concerned with things like wine cellars and not being murdered by barbarians, so when somebody set aside time to scrawl down their deep thoughts, then like a groundskeeper at a sporting stadium, they pretty much had the field to themselves.

Also he was a bright chap, which I am told helps greatly in such matters.

In fact, on the whole these classical types were a bit on the clever side. I mean, they could speak ancient Greek fluently, and that's no mean feat (though from what I hear, their English was a bit ropey). I studied Greek for a year, and all I can remember is that there was once a farmer called Dikaiopolis, who had a dog. While admitting their cleverness, I must admit that every so often I wish I'd been born a few thousand years earlier. Sure, I'd be writing this by scratching a wooden stick on a wax tablet, but my old laptop wasn't much better. Any mild inconveniences, like the lack of toothpaste or sliced bread*, would be made up for by the ease of coming up with a seriously good bit of knowledge that nobody else has yet thought of. I mean, don't you ever read about some chap inventing the triangle and then think, 'well, that's a bit obvious – it's just three like-minded lines getting together for a good time'?

Even more depressingly, standards are going to change so that in another thousand years, give or take a century or two, we're all going to look like buffoons. Everyone will be wooshing about on their organic jet-packs, browsing the internet through their ear and telepathically saying things like,

'What fools those twenty-first century bods were. Would you believe they didn't even know how many dimensions the universe existed in, or how to talk to cats?'

Smug devils, eh? Still, even they won't know how to cure the common cold. After many years of research, the official advice of medical science is still 'oh, buy a box of tissues, eat an orange and stop complaining.'


* What was their yardstick for 'a jolly good idea' back then? 'Best thing since old Dikaipolois tried strapping a wheel and a handle to a bucket and called it a 'wheel barrow'?' 'Best thing since those strapping Italian lads toddled over with good wine'?


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