CONJUNCTIONS:53, Fall 2009

The History of the History of Death
Paul La Farge



From “Postmortem of the Printed Word,” a symposium
held at the University of Melbourne, July 7–10, 2―


AROUND 490 BCE, HERMODORUS, an Ephesian, undertook to refute Heraclitus’s claim that “everything changes and nothing remains still” by writing a History of Death, in which “only those things that have ceased to change” would be recorded. Neanthes of Cyzicus says that Hermodorus had written the first book of his History when he died of a seizure. And Neanthes, says Athenaeus in his Deipnosophistae, had just managed to record the fact of Hermodorus’s death in his Annals when he himself fell ill and died. Georg Kaibel, who prepared the Teubner edition of the Deipnosophistae, makes the joking suggestion that the History might have done Athenaeus in also, inasmuch as he (Athenaeus) was trampled by a horse not long after the fifteenth and final volume of his great work was completed. As for Kaibel, the Neue Deutsche Biographie says that he died of stomach cancer, but Schulze, in his B. G. Teubner, remarks, “Teubner was much moved by the death of Kaibel, who fell to the floor one day in his office, still holding the last pages of a manuscript he had come to deliver.” It is possible, likely even, that the manuscript in question was his commentary on Athenaeus.
      Kaibel’s Deipnosophistae was the standard edition for half a century, and scholars were drawn to his mention of the History of Death like moths to a flame. So great was the number of late-nineteenth-century classicists who perished after running afoul of Hermodorus that, in the preface to his Ammianus Marcellinus, C. D. Yonge refers to the History as a “trap for bookworms,” a trap that he seems to have escaped—although it’s interesting to note that the 1911 edition of Yonge’s Marcellinus calls the work “The History of Neath,” and presumably the earlier edition, from which it was stereotyped, had the same misprint. W. Yorke was less fortunate: His Athenaeus was only half completed when he died, apparently of surprise at a bird that had flown through the window of his study and was found fluttering in the rafters, still unable to leave the room. Yorke’s friend and biographer, F. B. Stern, wrote in his Memories of Yorke that “he [Yorke] had just mentioned a work by Hermodorus, the name of which I shall not repeat here, as it is believed to bring ill-luck.” Stern lived into the twentieth century. Why Yorke had brought up the History of Death in the middle of his commentary, rather than at the end, is not known. Wyzantsky, who finished Yorke’s Athenaeus, is believed to have deleted the reference to Hermodorus, although the manuscript was lost in a fire that destroyed Wyzantsky’s Cambridge rooms while the scholar was out to dinner at the house of an unnamed friend.
      C. B. Gulick, who prepared the Loeb Deipnosophistae, does not mention Hermodorus, or Neanthes of Cyzicus. This omission—which was so striking that E. Harrison rebuked Gulick for it in The Classical Review—can perhaps be explained by the fact that Gulick and Wyzantsky had roomed together at Cambridge. Some say that they were lovers, although it is by no means necessary to suppose so; even as a friend Wyzantsky would have warned Gulick against writing about the History of Death. E. Harrison died shortly after his review article was published. He was struck by a falling weight.
      The Loeb Athenaeus likely saved many scholars from becoming aware of Hermodorus’s work; of the ones who nevertheless stumbled upon it, I will mention only two. Godfrey Sizer couldn’t avoid mentioning Hermodorus in his article on Neanthes for the Biographical Dictionary of Classical Historians, but he tried to protect himself with the remark “It has become an article of faith among classicists that even to mention the History of Death is to court misfortune; a risk that cannot be avoided here, although perhaps frank acknowledgment of the superstition will serve to dispel it.” Unfortunately for Sizer, this attempt at countermagic was in vain: A year after Volume 7 (Marcellinus–Pictor) of the Dictionary appeared, he was eaten by his own dog. Meanwhile, Miroslav Marcovich denied that Hermodorus wrote the History of Death at all; the work, he asserted, was most likely a scholar’s joke, invented by Kaibel or possibly by Athenaeus. Marcovich, whose edition of Heraclitus was a touchstone for scholars until recently, disappeared while hiking in the Peruvian Andes; it is believed that he ran afoul of the Sendero Luminoso, the Shining Path. Curiously, a tract entitled Historia de la Muerte was distributed to villages in the province of Cangallo, illustrating, with photographs, the various ways in which opponents of that organization had been murdered.
      Does a curse really hang over the History of Death? The question was taken up by Dick Gordon, the paranormalist and deep-sea diver, who wrote about it for the Fortean Times. Gordon was the first person to figure out that only writing about the History bears ill consequences; his energetic if not exhaustive search turned up no one who was harmed by reading the works mentioned above, a fact that you will doubtless be pleased to learn. Gordon’s article promised a sequel that was never written. His son Dale told me that Gordon had found Hermodorus’s manuscript in the Egyptian National Library in Cairo, just a few months before he died. (Gordon was asphyxiated while trapped in the hulk of a ship he believed to be the Alcoa Puritan, sunk by a German U-boat in the Gulf of Mexico, but which was later discovered to be the salvage ship Texaco Lost Cause.) But neither I nor anyone else was able to locate the supposed manuscript before the Egyptian National Library was itself destroyed, along with everything it contained, by a fire, the cause of which has not yet been determined, and probably never will be.
      Gordon’s explanation of the curse is woefully unsatisfying. He connects the History of Death to the continent of Atlantis, which—this was one of the many bees in Dick Gordon’s bonnet—according to him never sank at all but was dismantled, he doesn’t say how, by its own inhabitants, who took their secret knowledge to the Atlantic Ocean’s various shores, and kept it safe there, so says Gordon, indefinitely. Hermodorus, Gordon suggests, must have become aware of these facts, and mentioned them in his History as a case of truly noteworthy survival. The Atlanteans slew him to protect their secret, and presumably they slew Neanthes to be sure that Hermodorus hadn’t passed it along. Why they should have slain Athenaeus and Kaibel and E. Harrison and so on is a question for which Gordon has no answer.
      J. Peach gave a more somber interpretation of the curse in his Material History of the Written Support. (Was Peach afraid to write the word book, which had already acquired negative connotations?) He proposed that the History of Death partakes of a fatality that is diffusely present in all books and documents, a will to eliminate the reader, by violent means if necessary. Books, Peach wrote, before his appalling death in an Algiers hotel room, want a world without people, just as people yearn for a world without books. This led him to the dictum “Documents, far from being the record of history, are its motor; all historical events are brought about by the ineradicable enmity between human beings and the written word.” Peach’s disturbing hypothesis was read only by his editors: The entire print run of Material History of the Written Support was lost at sea on its way from the printer (in Singapore) to the distributor (in San Diego), a fact that Dick Gordon would doubtless have made much of, if only he had lived to see it.
      Since Peach, there has been no serious writing on the History of Death. The history of the History would not be complete, however, without some mention of the people who have tried to commit suicide by mentioning Hermodorus’s work: the graphic novelists, the punk rock bands, the teenagers who, in the last years of our old civilization, wrote History of Death on their jackets, their knapsacks, their blue and black jeans. None of them were successful, from which I conclude that the curse, if there is one, can be activated only by a work of scholarship. (As for the suicide of George Oshima, author of The Death of History, which won the last Pulitzer Prize to be awarded for nonfiction, it was probably a coincidence. Oshima doesn’t mention Hermodorus, nor is there any reason he should.)
      Even the memory of books is passing out of the public consciousness now, and scholars are becoming scarce, to the point where symposia like this one remind me a little of Nevil Shute’s book On the Beach, which was, if I remember correctly, set in the city where we are now assembled. No one is likely to write again about the History of Death. How many of you are familiar with the Loeb Deipnosophistae, or with Kaibel’s Teubner? Who here has read Neanthes’ Treatises on Rhetoric? As for the modern commentators on Hermodorus, their names will be unfamiliar to almost everyone, except Godfrey Sizer’s daughter Erin, who is now a graduate student in philology at Brown, and Dale Gordon, who is serving a fifteen-to-twenty-year sentence in the Dade County Correctional Center, after the Coast Guard seized ten kilograms of cocaine from his fishing boat; and Mme Hélène Marcovich, who still stands outside the headquarters of the Policía Investigativa in Lima, holding a candle and a sign with no words on it, only a photograph of her husband’s face.
      I met Mme Marcovich there one night, and told her that I had met her husband at various conventions in Europe and America. We had never been friends, but we had been out to dinner on several occasions, each time as part of a large group. Miroslav is part of a very large group now, Mme Marcovich said, and she told me about his disappearance, the months she had spent trying to find out what had happened to him, the likelihood that he had been murdered. All I want, she said, is for someone to find his body, so that I can know his story is truly over. I expressed my sorrow at the news, and we agreed to meet the next day in a café by the square, a place she often ate when the police office closed for lunch. We talked about her husband over patatas bravas. I said that I admired his work, which was true, although I found his annotations a little impatient and pedantic. She told me about the years Miroslav had spent on his Heraclitus, and how, during that time, she had felt like a widow, only to discover, when he disappeared in the Andes, that actual widowhood was something else entirely. Then she began to speak about Hermodorus and the History of Death, which at that point I had barely heard of. Apparently her husband, after dismissing the History as a joke, had turned up some evidence that the work really existed. Disbelief shaded quickly into obsession, as it often did with him, she said, and when he disappeared he was planning a history of the History from Neanthes’ Treatises to the present day. The book had an almost mystical importance for him, said Mme Marcovich. It stood for everything changeless in the world, and in particular it stood for books themselves, which, as Marcovich liked to say, look like rivers, in the sense that your eye flows across the page, but in fact are fixed and unchanging, like rivers of glass. The very existence of the History would in some sense have refuted Heraclitus’s claim that you can’t step in the same river twice—which was not, Mme Marcovich observed, something Heraclitus had ever said, but never mind. But of course what happened was that Miroslav disappeared, Mme Marcovich went on, leaving behind only a handful of notes for his unwritten project. Which leads me to think, she concluded, that Heraclitus was right after all, and that the only certainty is the certainty of loss. Then she excused herself: The detectives would be returning from their lunch break, and she wanted to be there when they went into the building.
      I think that is as good a place to stop as any. I love you, Peter; I love you all. Don’t forget me.