Silent Lessons of Classical History

Posted on November 01, 2012, 1:42 pm
6 mins


A young man in the street with a big blower was working on the fallen leaves. The blower was making lots of noise, and I thought of the rustling sound of the shuffled leaves under my shoes and felt a great nostalgia.

It used to be like that, not that long ago: Autumn was a quiet time of retrospection and introspection. The road before and behind was covered with a thousand fallen leaves and one was left in the middle of this penetrating quiet, allowed to focus on the present moment crackling beneath one’s feet. But now the roads cannot be cleared fast enough, through the noise and haste of our time.

Yet, I have found quiet places that have brought me great pleasure, and I would like to share some with you.

The silent eloquence of barbarians or Primitive diplomacy

I have visited the Greek exhibition at the Portland Art Museum again. Again the head of the barbarian (or the Gaul) captured my attention. And all of the sudden I thought that I might face none other than Caratacus himself. As a matter of fact he was not a Gaul—an inhabitant of what is now France—but who then would have paid attention to that kind of subtlety in speaking of barbarians? The very word “barbarian” came from a Greek imitation of how the foreign tongue sounded to Greek ears: bur bur bur bur. It was thus apt that so-called primitive peoples could be monolithically described with one monosyllabic term or another. (cf. Goth.)

Caratacus was born in what is now England and fought against the Roman invasion. He resisted them for almost a decade, mixing guerrilla and open warfare, but was unsuccessful in the latter. After his final defeat, he fled to the territory of Queen Cartimandua. She captured him and handed him over to the Romans. She hoped that this diplomatic extradition would curry favor with Rome and secure a peace for herself and her people. She hoped in vain.


A mug shot en face.


A mug shot en profile.


Caratacus was taken to Rome and there sentenced to death. Before his execution, he made a speech that persuaded the emperor Claudius to spare him. Caratacus posed a question addressed to the masters of the (ancient) world: “Why did you, who have so many palaces, look upon our poor huts with envy?”

It is hard to not appreciate the confrontation of intelligence between Caratacus and Claudius—the eloquent barbarian and the famously stammering emperor. (The Stoic Seneca said that Claudius’ voice belonged to no terrestrial creature.) It is hard to not long for this sort of diplomacy between bitter, blood-spattered rivals, which could happen in times (we are told) more crude than ours.

A portrait inn oil and graphite on paper by Marianne Pulfer…without its lovely frame

The exhibition that observes itself or Something that pleased me in October

It was a small collection of work by Marianne Pulfer presented at the Grover Thurston gallery—elegant paintings tastefully framed, adorned with a great sense of humor, executed in warm, vibrant colors reminiscent of the autumn foliage. I visited Pulfer’s individuals twice. They play in front of visitors in an unchoreographed dance, making acrobatic  figures and pirouettes. They hide their faces with masks, stick them outside the frames, or cover them with a skirt. Only a boy wearing a yellow fez reveals his face. His eyes are fixed on the silently moving theatrical dance.

Is he the choreographer after all?

Early music in the near future or The barbarian in autumn

It is obscure for the majority, fascinating for those who enjoy early music as much as I do. I am holding my breath and anticipating the sound of the music from the Tudor period, for Jordi Savall i Bernadet is coming to Seattle in November. Savall is an eminent figure in Western early music. He is credited with reviving the viol (viola da gamba) as a stage instrument and his repertory ranges from Medieval to Renaissance and Baroque music.

I imagine the Saturday evening (the 10th of November), the filled but quiet hall (Town Hall), and the lecture about the old musical instruments and the sounds that they produce. Their shapes are so different, their names sound so exotic, and their stories attract me. They invite me to again explore the sound of the past—the sounds of autumn that approach silence, where we still hear the eloquent barbarian, nostalgic for his cold hut.