The following is a salvaged memoir fragment written by an unknown potter from Epidaurus, a former Greek city on the Argolid Peninsula. The exact year of composition is unknown, yet estimates lie between 4 BC & 18 AD (based on political allusions).
Third Dusk in Argos
The last vestiges of our fire’s embers had started to fade again; so tindered crumpled papyrus and then olive wood chunks to keep the night warm (incandescence beneath a gleaming firmament). By this point we had long left Benedictus’ atrium; I cannot but think prosaic conversation with (alleged) ideologues is a greater sedative than Posca (that wine they infuse with opium). I can just about recall the conversation I had with Remus on Politics, and his insistence that the (recent) death of Agrippa Postumus was an instance of posthumous filicide on the part of Augustus, as opposed to the more obvious truism that Tiberius wanted no political outliers. Remus – the man seems to me maladjusted for his role as Scriba (clearly, they allow any brute who can string platitudes together into the treasury) – I wonder about the ratio of fools: sages. The ruins of the day flash before me in faint, intoxicated recollections.
As the flames of our hearth rose, my eyelids closed; overcome by lethargy, I felt myself falling with gradually reducing speed, until I found my feet atop a balcony. The Sun’s rays shone over the parapet, the outer wall darkening like a Gull’s pinion. Nostalgia imbued me, for I was back home in Epidaurus, overlooking the wide gulf as I did every morning as a boy. Turning my head after a few meagre steps, the front portier was a dead giveaway that the home in which I stood was not my own; marble archway accented by an ugly red gauze curtain, a figure of imperialism, lacking only that <golden eagle>. I longed to see my childhood dwelling and my noble stock, but instead turned my head back to the expansive gulf. Waters ebbed. Two steps more and I found myself amongst strong waves. Gazing back at the shore, my home island faded. Wasn’t there the high cadence of a tibia that pitched my ears and furrowed my brow? The shrieking placated only by that sweetest contralto… mater?
First light of fourth day
But clearly, I am a man of lower pleasures. For I am no Scribe like Remus, no Consul, no Praetor like Benedictus; indeed, I am far from the pre-eminence of these <great men>, for they consider virtuosity comparable to civic obedience – praise be to hegemony! They are designated the name Patricians, for indeed they are the neglectful, self-interested fathers of the state – and still they delude themselves with the dictum that they are essential, yet when has the paltry stroke of a stylus ever clothed the hoi polloi? Indeed, they trouble themselves to afford me a fleeting magnanimity, but behind my back they sneer, call me a vagrant – just another plebeian amongst the masses. I am a chimera to them, for I freely chose the life of a labourer; do they not realise that the fruits of labour are far more precious than the fruits of idleness? Ah, but are they not wise? Do they not discuss between themselves the essence of man and meditate upon metaphysics? Indeed, they do, yet their inquiry ceases there. A man can passionately dream of his Elysium, he can sleepwalk the trail of piety – yet upon waking, he is deranged to find that nothing of the phantasmagoria remains.
Final day before returning home – must sell the last of our wares. Market is roughly ninety stadia away, so we each took turns piloting the carriage and walking alongside it. Had Benedictus not provided a wagon, I likely would have forgone the expedition. Rough roads – at one point we shortcutted through a bridleway, shattered three pots and an amphora (and damnatory silence for the journey’s remainder).
Arrival in Agora
O the fabled Agora! Vibrant and spacious, but little else to write of. Completely void of the halcyon sophists, now predominantly pedlars and dye-merchants (this was no Athens) – the only gadflies I saw were the ones bothering the livestock. We constructed our stand near some marble pillars (so as to appear more grandiose) – and did our best to display what remained of our merchandises. Sold two amphoras to an old priest (received six drachmae and a pitiful blessing) – did not dare admit that I was a godless individual to such a man; by Zeus did he go on with his imperious lectures on the nature of humanity, intertwined with his own negative readings of Aristotle, “The Philosopher is unwise to suggest the soul can be cognisant of itself – a singular being cannot simultaneously be the subject and object of knowledge – this is a role only for our divines; and any attempt at metaphysical self-awareness is pure egotism!”. I nodded in the positive, offering no opportunity for tangents or asides – he soon left with his acquisitions. The last of the morning went, no further sales.
Caught the eye of a young man writing on a wax tablet; he approached in a pair of cancei that held his gaunt legs (a sickly child). I complimented his tunic and inquired about his pastime – “Ah, the alphabet… compulsory learning”, he replied, in between raspy breaths (already he showed more sapience than the priest). He was visiting Rome with his aunt and two brothers – the sons of some wealthy rhetorician from Hispania. He took some interest in one of our pitchers, ornamented by animal engravings: heavenly Pegasi adorning the rim, lowly apollonian bovine on the belly, and crowded swine around the foot. “Who decides the value of beasts over others?”, “It is simply just theological non-sense”, I replied, “these godly men require symbols by which they can view their deities, otherwise they would have nothing to consecrate or sacrifice”. “But why sacrifice?”, “I believe it is a flue for men’s many anxieties and the perennial lust for authority – men shall perpetually squabble amongst each other in the name of political power, yet their domination over all creatures non-human must be a constant.” We spoke further of nature – I discouraged his inclination towards vegetarianism; these days it is a practice only suited to renegades and ascetics. Upon his departure I wished him well, yet felt a deep envy – a youthful mind, in equal parts plastic and opinionated, they would likely call him an uninscribed tablet. Perhaps had I allowed myself to be moulded differently by my experiences, had my own tabula been etched with greater subtlety, I could have been a great dialectician, a Homeric poet, a great Physician like Hippocrates, who broke through the magical barrier of theurgy and brought upon the age of medicine; even the halieutics are of a greater calibre than those who deal in ceramics. The young man’s name escapes me: maybe <Secundus>, or was it <Seneca>?
This short story is based on the early fiction of Arno Schmidt – a German experimental writer perhaps best known for his weighty Zettel’s Traum (a Joycean stream-of-consciousness novel numbering over 1,300 pages, produced in a typescript format). Characteristic of these works is Schmidt’s idiosyncratic, theoretical approach to consciousness-processes (G. bewußtseinsprozess) (Phelan, 1972). The majority of this early fiction is written in a diary format, whereby Schmidt has license to record entire thought developments through the scrawlings of his protagonists – his prose is represented in a series of linked fragments which reflect the mind’s tendency to jump and leap around subjects, resulting in a “string of discrete units threaded together like pearls” (Schmidt, 1995). From midnight to midnight is not merely “one day”, Schmidt maintains, but rather “1440 minutes”, and the fragmentation in his stories reflects such a notion of temporality. Also apparent in this early fiction is the historicity of the stories: Enthymesis, for instance, chronicles a group of bematists (“step-measurers”) under Erastothenes of Cyrene attempting to calculate the Earth’s circumference – layered through this unorthodox framework are many philosophico-historical allusions which unceasingly keep the reader engaged in both the form and content of the story, and cement Schmidt as one of the great German writers of the twentieth century, and indeed, “one of the greatest readers of all time” (Orthofer, 2014).
Orthofer, M., 2014. Arno Schmidt: a centennial colloquy.
Phelan, T., 1972. Rationalist narrative in some works of Arno Schmidt.. University of Warwick.
Schmidt, A. and Woods, J., 2011. Collected novellas. Campaign: Dalkey Archive Press.Schmidt, A., 1995. Essays und Aufsätze 1. Haffmans Verlag, pp.163-168.