Tuesday, October 7, 2014

You Hold the Heavens In Your Head

When apparently the last eminent guest had long ago taken his place, again those three bugle-blasts rang out, and once more the swords leaped from their scabbards.  Who might this late comer be?  Nobody was interested to inquire.  Still, indolent eyes were turned toward the distant entrance, and we saw the silken gleam and the lifted sword of a guard of honor plowing through the remote crowds.  Then we saw that end of the house rising to its feet; saw it rise abreast the advancing guard all along like a wave.  This supreme honor had been offered to no one before.  There was an excited whisper at our table -- 'Mommsen!' -- and the whole house rose -- rose and shouted and stamped and clapped and banged the beer-mugs.  Just simply a storm!  Then the little man with his long hair and Emersonian face edged his way past us and took his seat.  I could have touched him with my hand -- Mommsen! -- think of it!

I would have walked a great many miles to get a sight of him, and here he was, without trouble, or tramp, or cost of any kind.  Here he was, clothed in a titanic deceptive modesty which made him look like other men.  Here he was, carrying the Roman world and all the Caesars in his hospitable skull, and doing it as easily as the other luminous vault, and the skull of the universe, carries the Milky Way and the constellations.

Theodor Mommsen
During the winter of 1891-1892, Mark Twain was in Berlin and attended a celebration for scientists Rudolf Virchow and Hermann von Helmholtz.  The passage above is Twain's description of what happened when Classics scholar Theodor Mommsen entered the room, and I was thinking of this story as I sat on the Tarmac of the Newark airport after a three day conference of Teachers of the Year in Princeton.  I had begun an article in The Classical Outlook on the comparison between Ulysses Grant's Memoirs and Caesar's Commentaries on the Gallic War.  A quotation from Twain prompted memory of the Mommsen story, and with it came the thrill of academic remembrance, of being able to make connections, to say "this is that."

And then the nagging thought came of whether any of this matters.  I had a moment of thrill as I read an academic article on an airplane, a moment unlikely to have been shared with another living soul, that is until I decided to blog about it.  So what?  I know many such moments, and while I am blessed to have family and friends with whom I can share them, I obviously do not share them all.  There are thoughts, connections, realizations that exist only in my head and that will go with me to the grave.

This is not a morbid meditation, for it prompted me to think that the same is true for the baggage handler on the ground, all the other passengers on board, and you.  Whoever you are, you carry infinity within the stone boundaries of your skull.  Memories and connections and ideas and speculations and questions and answers the smallest fraction of which will be known to none other than you form the vast cosmos of your experience.  Infinity is sitting next to me in 6-C reading a newspaper.  The universe is in the car ahead of you at the stoplight.

And we are tiny.  Oh, yes, we are small.  We are five feet tall on average, weigh a hundred odd pounds, and can fit the infinity house of our heads inside a baseball cap.  And there are millions, billions of us all over a planet that is but one point of light in the night sky.

What amazing, extraordinary creatures we are, what vastly interesting beings in a complex and fantastic world that beggars the description of any author!  Savoring this, tasting it, exploring it, plunging head first into it...this is life.  It is also why I am a teacher.


  1. Steve --
    I've weighed this heavily as well. I think all classroom teachers do. We want to know about utility. We want to know our teaching has purpose. Few of my students go on the pursue English as a major in college, yet I believe that my lessons are not in vain.
    Steve Jobs proved this in his Stanford address in 2005. He said, "I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can't capture, and I found it fascinating. None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography."
    The knowledge we acquire throughout life may seem monumental or trivial at the moment.Yet, only when we look back can we " connect the dots" and see what mattered. So learn as much as you can. Learn for the simple pleasure of living a full life. Learn to be enlightened. Who knows where it will take you?

  2. "Learn for the simple pleasure of living a full life." Great comment, Brian! I couldn't agree more. This is the true purpose of education, especially one built on the liberal arts. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!


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