Zygmunt Frankel



They're all over the place: in the mountains, on plains, in the desert, on the beaches, and in river beds: rocks and boulders, stones of all shapes and sizes, pebbles and gravel, much of it by now ground to sand. The one David had used to knock Goliath out with must still be lying somewhere, as well as others used for lesser stonings in those days.
Travelling around the Mediterranean, you run into ruins of one ancient city after another: Hittite, Greek, Hellenic, Roman, Byzanthine, Ottoman, often on top of each other, with the building blocks often recycled.
(Will the nice rectangular headstones from our cemeteries be used one day as convenient building blocks by future barbarians and civilizations?)
"These are very old stones," the guide says. Big deal. How many young ones has he seen?
Ancient ruined cities, all over the place, each with its temple, forum, agora, gymnasium, baths, paved streets, columns, houses, an occasional brothel, and preferably a port. You can almost see a king or a general passing there and saying:"This is a nice spot for a city." It's as if in those days everyone went around with a chisel in one hand and a hammer in another, and as soon as he saw a likely stone would start chipping away until it turned into a rectangular building block. When he finally died, Zeus or whoever would ask him: "Well, and what have you been doing with yourself down there?" And he would proudly reply: "Most of the eastern wall of the gymnasium, six columns of the temple, and fifty-seven bench seats for the forum."
Many believers in reincarnation claim to remember themselves in ancient Egypt or India, always as a prince or a princess, never chipping away at a stone under the sun. Maybe construction workers don't reincarnate.
They say that when one is young one travels to discover the world, and when older, to discover oneself. Something of the sort happened to me at the Acropolis in Athens. Knowing that the marble for the temple came from - what was it? - thirty-seven kilometers away, in spite of all the beauty of the finished product, I was glad that I had not been one of those who quarried those blocks in the hills, or dragged them to the capital, or worked on them on the site, in the dust and heat of the Greek summer. Looking at the huge circular blocks which, placed one on top of another, make up the columns, I laid aside the modern unit of man-hours and tried to calculate instead how many man-lives it took to build the temple; and also what other uses all this energy and expense might have been put to. Perhaps Athens could have lasted longer if instead of building the Acropolis they would have strengthened their walls or navy or army or something. Our cherished Acropolis could have been ancient Greece's poison.
(I tried not to speculate too heavily on that. There are facts and there is everything else. The everything else is no less important than the facts; it includes thinking about the facts and then making decisions which determine future facts; but the fact is that what they did was to build the Acropolis.)
As skulls and ribs are the skeletons of men, those ruins are the skeletons of civilizations. We stand in awe before them; those civilisations, and ours, have lasted so much longer than the lives of their citizens that we feel small, short- lived, and insignificant. We haven't been here when our own civilization started, and, with luck, we won't be here when it ends. We are little thin removable bookmarks between the pages.
One could almost envy the stones, which are practically immortal. They must see us as we see butterflies who live for a few hours or days and are gone. They must remember themselves at the creation of the world, under the waters of the Flood, and the only newcomers among them had been ejected by volcanoes or came down as meteorites, bringing with them interesting stories about the inside of the earth or the outer space to tell.
Is there any snobbery between plain stones, no two of them exactly alike, and the ones who had been carved into building blocks and columns? Do the former consider themselves wild and free, never disfigured by human hand, with, for a short-lived pet, a snake sunbathing on top of them, or a flower or a mushroom growing in their shade? Or do the building blocks see themselves as the rare chosen ones, invited to participate in human art and history, from paintings of bison and mammoth on the walls of prehistoric caves, through the pyramids and the Acropolis and Venus of Milo, to the Rosetta Stone? Do the cynical ones among them quote Spinoza to the effect that if a falling stone could think, it would think that it is falling of its own free will?
Or could it be that Spinoza was right and the stones don't think at all? Don't see or feel anything, don't know what's happening around them, can't tell Acropolis from a pile of boulders, don't know what time is?
Poor stones.

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1997 Zygmunt Frankel - All Rights Reserved.
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