Posted by: Steven Harris | August 3, 2008

Sumerian Punditry

Scholars recently managed to translate a cuneiform text from the ancient Sumerian city of Ur. It seems like one of the earliest cases of punditry. I present here the translation:

This tablet records the words of a public orator. The writer noted the words as carefully as possible. The speaker is my father. I am his son.

‘I want to speak to you, people, about this thing they call writing. In short, it is a bad thing. The practitioners of this poking at clay tablets would like us to begin storing our memories outside of our brains. We will no longer be in control of our thoughts. In order to share any ideas, thoughts, or poetry with another person, will we have to consult a piece of dirt, a rock, a silent tablet? Is this humanity? In order to be human beings, do we need to commune with rocks?

My son does not see it this way. He has begun learning this art of poking at clay tablets. It’s a very muddy pastime. He comes home with his hands covered in dirt. And yet, I see that he, my son, neglects his real learning. He has given up memorization and recitation of literature. He has a difficult time speaking out loud our great works of poetry. He says, “father, our writing methods will make memorization unnecessary, but it does not eliminate the possibility of culture. I believe it expands it.” I believe, however, he will become mute and ignorant or our true and great culture. All this in favor on an accountant’s recording of facts? Is this culture?

I do not think we should embrace this new technology so quickly. Why abandon something that has served us from the beginning of time? These new tablets are so impractical. They have such great heft when compared with human thoughts and memory. In order to carry an epic poem with me, I might wrench my arm out of its socket. And they are so fragile. If I fall down, I do not lose all my memories. Yet if I drop one of these writing tablets, it is shattered completely and holds no more memories.

My son proudly brought one of his tablets home the other day. “Father,” he said, “this is part of a poem I heard our local poet speak the other day.” I took the tablet to the square and showed it to the poet himself. He laughed when I said it was one of his poems. “This chicken scratching?” He held the tablet to his ear. “Does it speak? Does it recite?” He would have cast it to the ground and stomped upon it, but I held him from it, knowing my son would be disturbed by this. “You must know,” the poet said, “that this is the death of poetry!” I fear he is correct.’

OK! If you haven’t guessed, I’m kidding! Here are some similar present-day editorials:


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