Arcadia, Redux

A particular passage struck me on a return visit to “Arcadia.” When a pupil mourns the ancient Library of Alexandria (“Can you bear it? All the lost plays of the Athenians! … How can we sleep for grief?”), her tutor gives this response:

“We shed as we pick up, like travelers 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.” In other words, we move through life picking up the leftovers of those before us, struggling to carry our meager arms’ worth, but always dropping bits for those to come. This, the living dialogue between past and present, is “Arcadia’s” most vibrant and moving theme. (It’s also fodder for the time-split poster.)

Tom Stoppard’s belief that “nothing can be lost” is a comforting sentiment repeated in Siddhartha Mukherjee’s “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer.” In an interview on “Fresh Air,” Mukherjee says, “One of the themes in the book is that the past, particularly in medicine and science, is always conversing with the future.” He goes on to say that understanding the history of cancer, indeed, treating it as a biographical subject, can direct us into a new and hopeful future.

The tutor in “Arcadia” is similarly optimistic: “The plays of Sophocles will turn up piece by piece, or be written in another language. Ancient cures for diseases will reveal themselves once more.”

Perhaps some nugget of wisdom, burned in the Library of Alexandria, is the final straw in defeating this “emperor of all maladies.” As scientists continue “the march,” searching, excavating, maybe the needed information is something from time long past. Maybe it’s along the path of life and study, waiting for us to reach it, waiting to be picked up.

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