Following a catastrophic fire on 2nd September, the extent of the cultural loss at Brazil’s National Museum is becoming clear:
Folks, there’s nothing left from the Linguistics division. We lost all the indigenous languages collection: the recordings since 1958, the chants in all the languages for which there are no native speakers alive anymore, the Curt Niemuendaju archives: papers, photos, negatives, the original ethnic-historic-linguistic map localizing all the ethnic groups in Brazil, the only record that we had from 1945. The ethnological and archeological references of all ethnic groups in Brazil since the 16th century… An irreparable loss of our historic memory. It just hurts so much to see all in ashes.
—Cinda Gonda, translated by Diogo Almeida, about the fire at Brazil’s National Museum.
This is a very particular kind of loss. An entirely different thing from the death of a person, this is the death of the memory that entire groups of people even existed.
The fact that so many of these invaluable resources never had a back-up is galling. Writing in Wired, Emily Dreyfuss points out that many of Brazil’s indigenous tribes with dwindling populations had entrusted their cultural heritage to the museum. “The responsibility to protect what they share is a solemn one.”
Meanwhile, lesser cultural contributions that have been created in the digital space live on. There is something appalling in the fact that Donald Trump’s tweets and a hundred thousand Kardashian memes are archived forever, while entire languages have been erased.
Over the past few days, a couple of my favourite literary quotes have seemed particularly relevant. This one from Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, where the character Thomasina laments the knowledge lost when the Library of Alexandria was destroyed. Her tutor Septimus replies:
“We shed as we pick up, like travellers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it. The missing plays of Sophocles will turn up piece by piece, or be written again in another language. Ancient cures for diseases will reveal themselves once more. Mathematical discoveries glimpsed and lost to view will have their time again. You do not suppose, my lady, that if all of Archimedes had been hiding in the great library of Alexandria, we would be at a loss for a corkscrew?”
This has a certain comfort, but is about the loss of knowledge and ideas. That’s different from the loss of the very particular patterns of art and langauage, the shapes and sounds, the contours of a culture. They—alas!—will not be recreated when, a generation or a century or a millennium hence, someone rediscovers or reinvents the particular medicinal practices or engineering tricks used only by a now-extinct Amazonian tribe.
G.K. Chesterton speaks to this, in The Napoleon of Notting Hill. Two voices, ghosts maybe, waft over the battlefield after the city state of Notting Hill has been vanquished in battle.
Notting Hill has fallen; Notting Hill has died. But that is not the tremendous issue. Notting Hill has lived.”
And then later:
What could have happened to the world if Notting Hill had never been?”
The other voice replied—
“The same that would have happened to the world and all the starry systems if an apple-tree grew six apples instead of seven; something would have been eternally lost. There has never been anything in the world absolutely like Notting Hill. There will never be anything quite like it to the crack of doom. I cannot believe anything but that God loved it as He must surely love anything that is itself and unreplaceable. But even for that I do not care. If God, with all His thunders, hated it, I loved it.”
A while ago, I tried to translate this into secular, perhaps scientific language. Yes, good things not only come to an end, but soon they are completely forgotten. But they still existed, and are therefore part of the equation of the universe.
Back in March, Pornokitsch published my short story ‘01001001 01000011 01000101’ which was inspired in no small part by the quotes above, and speaks to this theme of backing up human knowledge.