Why tell stories that are really … old?

So where is Hannibal in this blog so far, you ask? After all, the book, whatever its final title will be, will have his name on the cover, and he is the main character.

Well, let’s just say that in talking about my book I’ve become a bit shy about crashing in the door with the word Hannibal–as opposed to, say, life, success and failure, triumph and disaster. I try to take my cues from the audience. If I think I might get some blank stares–or, worse, ‘Hannibal, as in Lecter?’–I say that I’m basing it on a true story that happened long ago and leave it at that.

This doesn’t always work. There was this dinner party, for instance, where some of the people at the table loved history (as evident from the bookshelf) and were begging to hear why and how Hannibal in particular fits the theme so well. Then there was another person, of the blank-stare sort. I did an awkward verbal dance–first throwing some red meat to the history types, but feeling guilty about leaving the other one out; then doing a sort of inspirational self-help pitch using the modern examples that appear in the book, such as Lance Armstrong.

So, before we get into the man–the man–and the time and the story, here is what I’d like to say about the classics in general: If you don’t know them and love them, it’s your loss. When I went to college, it had just become fashionable to dismiss all these DWMs (dead white males). What utter nonsense! We don’t study them because they’re dead, white or male. We study them because they made us who and what we in the West are. To live fully in our world, you need to know what, say, a photon is, what DNA is, what a balance sheet is, and so on. You also need to have heard of Alexander and Hannibal and Caesar. You need to have at least a general sense that, for example, Plutarch wrote things that profoundly influenced our founding fathers, who read him again and again to distill his timeless lessons and shape our republic. Harry Truman, who never even went to college, spent his nights on a Missouri farm reading about Hannibal. We’ve started losing our familiarity with our heritage only in the past generation.

So yes, I love the classics and I appreciate people who appreciate the classics. J.K. Rowling is just one example that’s already come up. In that same speech I quoted from, she jokes:

I cannot remember telling my parents that I was studying Classics; they might well have found out for the first time on graduation day. Of all subjects on this planet, I think they would have been hard put to name one less useful than Greek mythology when it came to securing the keys to an executive bathroom.

Well, she’s got keys to a lot more now. A lot of bathrooms (I’m guessing, I haven’t used them). And much, much more: soul. Here she goes:

One of the many things I learned at the end of that Classics corridor down which I ventured at the age of 18, in search of something I could not then define, was this, written by the Greek author Plutarch: What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality.

And since she did not add it, I will: Knowing the classics (whether you read them in the original or take the shortcut through a modern storyteller such as … well, if you’re desperate, yours truly) will help you achieve things inwardly that change your outer reality.

Here is how Rowling signed off:

And tomorrow, I hope that even if you remember not a single word of mine, you remember those of Seneca, another of those old Romans I met when I fled down the Classics corridor, in retreat from career ladders, in search of ancient wisdom: As is a tale, so is life: not how long it is, but how good it is, is what matters.

And here is how I will sign off for now: Having put in a good word for DWMs, dead white males, I will stipulate a) that Hannibal was indeed male, b) that rumors of his death are not exaggerated, but c) that determining whether or not he was “white” is much more interesting than you may now think.

Much more about all that in the coming posts. Stay tuned, and don’t be shy leaving about your comments.

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One thought on “Why tell stories that are really … old?

  1. “What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality”. I imagine this principle works both ways; what we loose inwardly will equally change outer reality.

    “We’ve started losing our familiarity with our heritage only in the past generation.”
    You can never love the unknown. This loss of familiarity with our heritage: cultural, philosophical and Natural (our debt to soil) has decreased or diverted the possibility of Love. We feel less for the above and stand to loose.

    It reminds me of the tarot card of the heedless fool.

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