by Josephine Balmer
A tiny scrap of barely legible papyrus, now preserved in an Oxford library, has endured the long centuries since its inscription…
It is always a hugely exciting time when the hard work of several years is distilled into a written text. For this celebratory post on the publication of The Paths of Survival, as in the book, I’d like to begin at the end with a tattered piece of papyrus in the collection of an Oxford University library. Oxyrhynchus Papyrus 2256 contains nearly 90 scraps of papyrus. Of these, number 55 constitutes four, barely legible half-lines of Aeschylus’ lost play Myrmidons. Part of its text could read ‘kata skoton’ or ‘into darkness’ – a snatch, maybe, of the lover’s lament Achilles murmurs over Patroclus’ dead body. Here is the homoerotic passion which later rendered Myrmidons such a difficult and controversial work, probably sealing its demise (and a link, too, to the copy my fictional scribe is making, centuries earlier, in ‘Blot’ and then its disposal on the rubbish piles of Oxyrynchus in ‘The Pagan’s Tip’) .
It is, of course, heart-breaking that, along with a handful or so of similar fragments, this is all we have left of Aeschylus’ tragic masterpiece. It is also a warning that our own cultures might be far more fragile than we think. Yet in each small miracle of survival, there is always something to celebrate. For somehow, by judgement or by error but mostly through happenstance, something of the written text, of literary culture, however damaged, however minuscule, has managed to escape all those centuries of ignorance, war, persecution and destruction. Like the lined faces of the old, each crease and blemish tells a unique story of experience and endurance. Proof that words can – and do – thrive where all else is lost.
(Sackler Library, Oxford, Present Day)
Still I am drawn to it like breath to glass.
That ache of absence, wrench of nothingness,
stark lacunae we all must someday face.
I imagine its letters freshly seared;
a scribe sighing over ebbing taper,
impatient to earn night’s coming pleasures
as light seeped out of Alexandria.
But in these hushed corners of Oxford
Library afternoons, milky with dust,
the air is weighted down by accruing loss
and this displaced scrap of frayed papyrus
whose mutilated words can just be read,
one final, half-sentence: Into darkness…
Prophetic. Patient. Hanging by a thread.