Life and the Dream of Life

“Unter allen Völkerschaften haben die
Griechen den Traum des Lebens am
Schönsten geträumt.”


November 14th.

HERE I am, dear old fellow, on the classical shores of the Ægean, and my life’s dream seems to be unfolding to a reality ! We have selected the spot for our excavation, have made ourselves comfortable in our improvised quarters, and shall soon make the world ring with our discoveries. You have doubtless heard of the great things found at Assos, — archaic centaurs, bronze tablets bearing decrees of the Assians to Caligula, sphinxes, bulls. My pulse quickens to an hundred and forty (remember, I am not scientific), when I reflect upon what the future may have in store for us. A vision of a beautiful statue, the highest expression of a Greek ideal, is before my eyes. I dream of her ! I worship her ! She is the embodiment of all that will turn men, in this striving, bustling, mercenary age, — this age of the vulgar and prosaic, — to the contemplation of noble ideals.

Horace, how fortunate we were in giving our young lives so solidly to the study of Greek while in school and college ! I am reaping the advantage of my classical training every day. I hear, by the way, that those Philistines, the scientists, — wretched dumb beings, armed with kilogrammes and clocks, — are attacking the study of Greek again. May their profane attempts be covered with confusion ! If all the scientific men in the world were as liberal as you are, we should have nothing to fear. Fear! Fear begone! Those who raise their hands at Greek will be struck by a fire from heaven.

From our camp we catch a distant view of Mount Ida. The morning sun strikes it, and as I lie, half awake, I seem to see the clouds in the east form a procession of Greek priests; they worship, and amid the incense I behold my statue arise in all the transcendence of the perfect! The mists roll through the stern ravines like flying centaurs ; and then our Greek boy summons us to breakfast.

NEW YORK, November 14th.

Something tells me, Philip, that you are writing to me at this instant, and although my scientific sense informs me that night with us is day with you, I shall give myself up to the impression, and have a chat.

My duties as house physician in the hospital are very arduous, and the tender within me has not been sufficiently conquered to make me a good working machine. The boiler, my heart, thumps too much for the true action of the piston-rod, my arm. How great the work is before me, and how poorly I am fitted for it! There are grand discoveries to be made which will be of inestimable value to humanity. H― has been trying, to-day, some experiments on a cheap substitute for quinine. He gave it to an old impecunious invalid, to whom quinine has become a daily necessity. “ Doctor,” said the old man, “ quinine may save me, but it will kill my family. It takes bread from their mouths.” I fear that the cheap substitute is, in truth, a cheap affair. Science, however, will make a valuable synthesis some day, and we shall then have the drug in plenty.

A beautiful girl was brought to the hospital lately, suffering from a strange disease which is now raging in certain quarters of the city. How dreadful it is ! And we are so helpless through ignorance ! This girl has the form and profile of a Greek statue. She is the eldest of three sisters, and has supported them by her exertions as a teacher. I saw them leaving the hospital to-day, crossing the court-yard in the falling snow ; and the inexorableness of fate seemed to find expression in their figures. Greek tragedy, and its old theme, the inexorableness of fate! Yes, but science may yet illumine the stage with a gleam of sunshine. The patient, apparently, has the disease lightly, and I have a theory that I can check its progress. Oh, if I only knew more of science, of physics and chemistry ! I am handicapped by ignorance. Horace, we enjoyed our study of Greek together. It was the study of poetry and philosophy, and I value the training it gave ; but as a future physician, had I the right to devote so many precious years to it alone, and to neglect science ? However, I will not pain you by striking at your ideal. Life is at a white heat now with me. I lie awake during the early hours of the morning, combating symptoms of disease with all my little array of facts; grouping these facts together, and asking myself, Will local faradization do this ? Will powerful electrolysis in certain tissues do that ? — until the hospital nurse arouses me with a disturbed look upon her face.

January 20th.

Your letter, Horace, was gloomy. It aroused both my sympathies and my ire. She will recover, — I am ready to swear to it; and there will be a wedding some day. Charming romance, I see thy beginning ! Don’t let that narrow H― corrupt you. His tirades against too great attention to Greek studies in education jar upon my ears, even on these classic shores. I send you by this mail a complete answer to all the arguments of his ilk. The philosophical faculty of the University of Berlin have put on record the results of their experience with students from the realschule who have been admitted into the university without a knowledge of Greek. With one voice — and mark you, the professors of science are most earnest in the matter — they denounce the attainments of these students, and say that their intellectual fibre is far inferior to that of students who have taken the classical courses in the gymnasia. Read it, and give it to H―to ponder over. Hurrah for Greek ! When we received the news from Berlin we made obeisance toward Hellas.

To-day we unearthed the foundations of what was apparently a gymnasium. This discovery proves that our hypothesis is correct, and that we are really upon the site of an ancient city. We have found a curious bas-relief, a beautiful archaic thing. Our artist has made a drawing of it, which is really apostolic. I will send you a photograph. But, after all, photographs are brutal things, — so coldly scientific. I wish you could see the tender drawing. We came upon the bas-relief just as the new moon became visible in the waning daylight, and we felt how the Greeks could worship perfection. I withdrew from my companions, and read a chapter of Homer aloud. The rocks and the ravines, over which and through which sandaled Greeks had trod, echoed the Greek words, and I felt inspired. We had a Greek banquet later in the evening. Imagine us reclining upon wheelbarrows, improvised κλϊναϊ, and drinking some wine from a Greek vintage, which Herr Schlieborn brought with him when he joined our party. Our Greek boy sang a song in modern Greek, and we took the unclassical ring of it out of our ears by reciting a chorus from Antigone. After the banquet we invoked the stars to direct us in our excavations. There is one bright particular planet which rises over the hills (science has a name for it, doubtless). It is eloquent to me with bright auguries, and its spear-like reflection in the gulf points toward the scene of our explorations.

November 20th.

I cannot sleep. A long investigation, together with the routine business of the day, have worked upon my nervous system, and I must commune with you. My experiments have apparently checked the progress of the disease in my patient. She is very grateful for the hope I give her; and the thanks of the three sisters are extremely touching. I must save her! But alas ! Empiricism must be my reliance, with a small pinch of science. I must make researches upon absorption spectra, — upon the influences of temperature and of currents of electricity. I should know enough to decide what analyses should be made by a competent chemist. I should have sufficient technical skill to make the necessary rude apparatus to test my hypotheses. I should have a command of French and German to enable me, in the short time at my disposal, to go over the mass of literature bearing upon the points at issue. Unfortunately, I never got this knowledge of modern languages. Above all, my scientific instinct should have been cultivated sufficiently to give me an insight in science comparable to yours in literature.

I did not intend to write this, but the struggle for life is ever before me. The curtain of my window is up, and I look over the great city, with its myriads of bright lights, and seem to feel the throbbing of life in thousands of hearts. I know what work there is to do, if I only had the skill. My patient evidently studies me ; I see a look in her fine eyes that says, " I must not doubt his ability to save me.” There is a fine sense, what in a man might be called chivalry, which she exercises toward me. She has seen many cases of this disease which afflicts her ; but she cheerfully submits to my treatment. Her nature is strangely self-reliant: feelin the sickness coming on, she made all her preparations for entrance to the hospital, even to the necessary arrangements in regard to her clothing; and apportioned her little savings so that her sisters might not be put to inconvenience. Now she waits calmly and patiently for the result. Have I not found your Greek ideal in New York ?

January 22d.

Success has crowned our efforts! We have unearthed a mosaic pavement, and have also found remains of porticoes and colonnades, together with numerous inscriptions. I believe that we shall yet find a temple erected to the deity of this city. There is a suggestion of a fine female figure on a remnant of a basrelief discovered a few days since, which leads me to think that we shall light upon a large statue of a goddess. The arm that was sculptured on the fragment was exquisite. We enjoy our life. It is laborious, but the quest is exciting. I drink in the intellectual pleasure of it to the utmost. It is a continual banquet. I wish you were removed as far as I am from the distracting influences of modern life. After all, is not this scientific investigation overestimated ? Don’t you remember that antistrophe in Antigone ? —

“ By learning and fair science crowned,
Behold him now full fraught with wisdom’s lore
The laws of nature anxious to explore,
With depth of thought profound :
But naught, alas! can human wisdom see
In the dark bosom of futurity;
The power of wisdom may a while prevail,
A while suspend a mortal’s fleeting breath;
But never can her fruitless arts avail
To conquer fate, or stop the hand of death.”

And Goethe says somewhere, —

“Mikroscope und Fernröhre verwirren eigentlich den reinen Menschensinn.”

I believe in getting upon the high mental plane of the Greeks, and looking at the woes of life with the perfection of composure.

I shall cable my discoveries to the Academy as soon as the wires beyond Athens are repaired. We are uncomfortable at present, owing to the detention of our supplies. The steamer which was to have brought them is a poor affair. (I can hear H―’s rasping voice exclaim, “ Ah ! You Greeks have to depend upon science ultimately! ”)

November 28th.

We have spent a weary week fighting disease. H― has had a theory that the disinfectants upon which we relied were of no use. He is a thorough skeptic, you well know. We have therefore tried many experiments, and have found that he is right. Germs seem to flourish in what was thought a bath of poison for them. Down fell what I have always considered a chief reliance. The disease seems to be a form of blood poisoning (to speak in common parlance), and I have begun to study the absorption spectra of the blood. Unfortunately, I am not used to investigations in light, and I spend much time on false tracks. I have had a wild theory in regard to the effect of electrolysis in the arteries combined with a system of subcutaneous injections ; but my knowledge of electricity is small, and I find I rediscover old and well-observed phenomena. I am like a general who begins a campaign against a mysterious foe with no mobilization of resources. H―called my attention to-day to the recent report of the philosophical faculty of Berlin, in which the admission of students from the real schools to the university is deprecated. It seems that even the scientific professors believe that the training of the gymnasia has been shown to be superior to that obtained in the polytechnic schools. This report is certainly a strong argument for the classics. H―, however, says that it is a very illogical report. He sums up his arguments as follows : It is claimed that the experience of the last ten years in the University of Berlin proves that the real school students are inferior in intellectual grasp, even in scientific studies and investigations. Suppose that this is so: would any living physiologist dare to base wide conclusions upon observations upon a few thousand students, during the comparatively few years of a university curriculum ? The classical students represent the fostering care of centuries. They are of the privileged class, and show the effect of heredity. The report says that the number of realschool students who are desirous of obtaining the benefits of the university is far in excess of the students who have graduated from the gymnasia, and there is danger to the high stand taken by German universities in the classical studies. Granted. Shall the university give its broad instruction to those only who have a taste and capacity for Greek, and refuse to influence the instruction in science in the real schools ? Is an argument drawn from the experience of a German university with élèves of technical real schools of value to us in America ? The Roman republic was not a success ; therefore, the American republic will prove a failure.

H―says that he lost four years of the most enthusiastic period of his life in school and college by being compelled to study Greek; and he says that there are twenty-five men like himself in every college class, who have no philological tastes and yet would make their mark in some branch of modern study. “ Is it not despotic,” he exclaims, “ to compel these men to give lip service when the heart might work at its best! ”

I am in doubt concerning this question. I feel my lack of scientific training, however, sadly. My patient does not improve. We have many talks together ; for she has moments of freedom from pain. She has been a great worker among the poor. Her minister called to see me, and spoke of her with tears in his eyes. “ You have a valuable life to save, doctor,” he said. “ She is as good as she is beautiful. To her we owe the organization of the charity work in our little parish. She is the counselor of many who are striving to maintain themselves against the evil influences in this great city. She is a Greek statue vivified, and endowed with the noble attributes that should accompany perfection of shape.” I am ready to believe the minister, and to my feeble knowledge, to my untrained hands, is entrusted this responsibility. Not to me alone, but to me so far as I pretend to be a doctor.

January 24th.

At last our supplies have arrived. These wretched people have not mobilized their resources as we have in America. Think of steaming only eight miles an hour, and taking a week to repair telegraphic connections ! Our excavations are going deeper, and to-morrow I hope we shall strike something. . . .

Hurrah! Hurrah! The morning has arrived. At ten o’clock I heard a shout from my chief assistant, and, hastening to the spot, I saw him uncovering a beautiful, transcendent form. I trembled with ecstasy as I gazed. A head finer than that of the Venus di Milo appeared half buried in the earth. The marble is stained, but the face divine looks forth from the dross of centuries. What a living force is perfection ! The face seemed to say, I am unearthed at the ripe moment to lead the world, with its unclean tendencies, back to the fount from which the Greeks drew their inspiration. With reverent hands we drew the statue from its bed. What grace, what loveliness, was revealed! We all felt purer and nobler as we gazed. To look was devotion. The statue was tenderly placed against the hard, unyielding rocks which had coldly held it for centuries, and we stood about in silence, while the cloud shadows appeared and disappeared on the slopes of the distant hills. Twice given to the world ! What a thought! The sculptor, imbued with the purest ideals, gave thee to the world, and the choicest spirits of that age of intellectual greatness felt that thou expressed the highest moral sense. Thou wast worshiped as a visible type of perfection, in the days when art lived daily with men. Then came brutes, fierce marauders, — Goths and Vandals. Art fled, shrieking, through polluted colonnades. Thy form was reverently concealed till art should find its own again. Forgive me, Horace, for this rhapsody. I could not help it. Tomorrow I shall be calmer.

January 21st.

The end has come. It was very sudden. H― and I worked night and day, and thought that we had mastered the strange disease ; but a change came in the night, and she is no more! Greater knowledge might have saved her. But she has not died in vain. H― and I stood at her bedside, and vowed to devote our lives to investigation. When the allurements of the world shall tempt us, her beautiful spirit will lead us on in the laborious path of scientific research.

I rejoice in hearing of your successful explorations. Do not think that I consider your investigations less valuable than mine, — I trust that I am not so illiberal, — but I feel that I am not so well fitted for my work as you are for yours. Our early training, both at school and in college, gave you the advantage ; for we studied little but the classics. To deal with the study of ancient life you needed accurate and longcontinued preparation, which you received. For my profession I needed severe discipline in scientific studies, which I did not receive. If the teaching in Greek is superior to that in science in the early years of a boy’s life, should the universities strive to raise the standard of the classics, and not lend at the same time a helping hand to scientific studies ? I trust our close friendship will continue as firm as of old, although our paths diverge. H― and I go into the infected district to-morrow to study the dread disease of which our patient died. We intend to establish a branch hospital, and to make as complete investigations as the state of our knowledge permits.

February 20th.

I write to you, my dear Horace, from Athens, having arrived here much in the condition of the shipwrecked messengers announcing Xerxes’ disaster. The plague broke out in Asia Minor, and, advancing along the shores of the Ægean, drove us from our exploration. We chartered a vessel, and placing our statue on board set sail for Greece. On the third day a tempest arose, and drove us upon the rocks of a small island. The bark foundered with our beautiful statue, — Aἴ! Aἴ! —and we barely escaped with our lives. Courage ! we shall return to our exploration when the doctors shall tell us that danger from the plague is over. I will answer your budget of letters soon. They have remained unopened on account of the pressure of events. We shall spend some time in Athens deciphering the inscriptions which we have discovered. I find myself well equipped for the work in hand, and we shall soon retrieve our late disaster. I must drop a tear, however, for the lost.

John Trowbridge.