In the In Our Time episode on Antarah ibn Shaddad, a pre-Islamic warrior poet, they mentioned the idea that by recording heroic acts one could be known forever—immortal through verse.
This struck me as enough motivation to write some more blog posts. It’s been a year and a half since I last wrote anything that the world could read (Aug 20, 2017). A lot has happened, and I’ll try to write some of it down soon. If for no other reason than to clarify it for myself.
This is the second time that an In Our Time episode has kicked me out of a motivational funk. During the run up to the Futures Forum2, I was almost crushed by my inability to navigate the bureaucracy at work. The episode about Beowulf had a comment that described the poem as being about glory and futility. I listened again the program to get this quote, and there’s something very powerful and coherent about Laura Ashe’s description of these ideas:
I found this idea enormously freeing. On the one hand it offered the release from responsibility of nihilism4 (nothing matters in the long term). On the other it gives permission to do everything in your power to achieve something. The combination feels like encouragement with a safety net. If nothing actually matters, then why not try to be glorious; it’s as valid as doing nothing. We can “extend our fame through deeds”5.
Perpetual existence through stories is an odd thing to strive for but it’s inexplicably compelling. Perhaps it’s my genes “telling” me to breed, but getting the mechanism for eternal life mixed up? (After all, we haven’t co-evolved with language for all that long. Alternatively, and completely contradicting that point: maybe immortality through telling stories might have emerged as a way to become a god?6)
With the internet I can spread my manuscripts all over the world a lot faster than a network of scribes and camels could. I can get the long tail of glory amongst niche nerds within my lifetime. Yet another benefit of writing as a way of getting glory.
I’m also getting back to this blog as a way to defend the open internet. The last ten years have dramatically de-weirded the internet, I’d like to re-weird it. As the feeder bar of dopamine hits is optimised further and further, it makes it hard for people to think about breaking that trend. Think of this as my minuscule stand against that tide of homogeneity.
Melvyn did his thing where he says something important and then says “well, I don’t know, it’s in your notes” and the assembled experts mumble agreement. ↩
The Futures Forum was a little conference, on a tropical island, that I helped organise. I’ve struggled with the grammar. Is it about the future? Is it about all the possible futures? I didn’t name it, and I don’t think that the person who did thought it through nearly as much as I did. ↩
I loved this section so much, here’s the full transcript:
I think some of the main themes, you might group as a set of three, so I’d say memory; glory; and, contrarily, futility. So the whole poem is about memory, commemoration, what our history is, why we should remember it, how we should remember it, that we should celebrate it. And then the sense is that this is a glorious past, a warrior past, of men of superlative courage and strength and brilliance, and Beowulf himself particularly says that the greatest thing for a man to do is to gain glory before his death. And the very last line of the poem he’s described as the man lofgeornost, the man most eager after fame and glory, but with that glory comes a pervasive sense of futility and loss because it is when Beowulf gives these pronouncements about how how you want dōmes ær dēaðe, you want glory before death, he says this because he says well, every man dies, and everything comes to an end, and all will be lost. And whenever something glorious happens in the poem we’re already told about it’s going to go wrong later. Before Beowulf has even saved Heorot from Grendel and Grendel’s mother, we’ve already been told that Heorot will one day be burnt to the ground because of internecine strife and these patterns come through again and again. So there’s a sense that we must remember this, we must remember the glories, but we also see that they are continually falling to destruction.↩
or at least in my uneducated understanding of nihilism. ↩
Later on in the program Andy Orchard extends Laura Ashe’s point:
there’s an exactly parallel bit in book ten of the Aeneid (467) stat sua cuique dies; breve et irreparabile tempus omnibus est vitæ; sed famam extendere factis, hoc virtutis opus— the last bit’s the most important: We’re all going to die but the brave person, you have to famam extendere factis, extend your fame by deeds and that’s the creed.
I could imagine this in a system of ancestor worship and oral histories, but it’s pure speculation as I know nothing about this stuff! ↩