The Ancient Modern
The Old Learning / Joshua Alan Sturgill
Stories, only. Rumours of old scholars starving, wasted with chronic disease, persevering solely on the strength of their devotion to mathematics or language or history. Their minds sharpened by determination not to die until the work is done. They live alone. A rented attic or spare room, barely heated. It may be 1909. Harsh winter in some Old World city of narrow, winding streets. Years stretch out behind them like abandoned locomotive tracks, quietly rusting, overgrown.
But then: a knock at the door. Louder. And as if in a trance the scholar hears it. No one has knocked for so long. Money gone, fame faded. Pension and memory. The work continues without reward. But down the stairs the old scholar descends, step by arthritic step, to answer.
Out of all proportion to this saddened corner of the city stands a tall man at the door, fashionably, even regally, dressed. The tall man has read an old manuscript, a translation, a commentary by the scholar and has come looking for him.
After months of search, decades perhaps, careful questions, looking into records and reminiscences, he has located the scholar — still alive! — and anticipated this meeting. Removing his hat, the tall man bows, extends a hand. Such an honor! A remarkable moment. The mathematician, the philologist, the historian, he can barely believe his eyes. His work has not gone unnoticed; he has been read and understood. The lonely work has not been in vain.
Stories, only. And for every story like this, how much learning, how much cultivation, how much mind, simply fades in attic rooms and dies. The visionary fails to warn of the coming disaster. The theorist cannot make the masses understand. The psychologist unlocks a secret of our anxiety, but we are too anxious to listen. Prophets unrecognized in a world flush with entertainment. True medicines not accepted in a world of surgery and pills.
The body lies cold and undiscovered for several days. Charts and books and manuscripts, personal effects, their value misunderstood, are burned. The fire flares up brightly around the books; it illuminates the chair and table where the scholar labored so many years, and briefly raises the temperature of the empty room a few degrees.