As late as 1959--just four years before his first retrospective at Pasadena in 1963, and only nine years before the artist's death as an octogenarian in 1968--the first substantial book fully devoted to the art of Marcel Duchamp was published. Robert Lebel, the author of that enthusiastic study, drew associations between With Hidden Noise and magical bull-roarers of the Australian aborigines. From the view-point of a field anthropologist, however, Lebel in part seems to have confounded the noise-making bull-roarer and the churinga, an ordinarily silent, solid, single piece of inscribed wood or stone. In spite of references in his text to the academic literature, for the average reader the result is a muddling of the issue. Nevertheless, one annotation--a quote from Emile Durkheim--is worth repeating here, for its elucidation of the proverbial magical efficacy of markings: themselves the churingas are like any other wooden or stone objects. All that distinguishes them is the totemic sign engraved or drawn on them. This sign and it alone gives them their sacred character. According to Spencer and Gillen, the churinga may serve as the residence of an ancestor's soul and the presence of this soul bestows its properties on it.

[ Lebel, Marcel Duchamp, p. 39. See: Emile Durkheim, Les formes l-mentaires de la Vie religieuse, (1912, English tr. 1915), p. 172. ]

The authors Spencer and Gillen referred to by Durkheim are Sir Baldwin Spencer, an Australian anthropologist who directed the National Museum of Victoria at Melbourne, and Francis James Gillen, who worked for the Australian Telegraph Service, stationed at Alice Springs--virtually in the center of the vast Outback expanse of the ancient desert continent. Spencer and Gillen collaborated to produce one of the most extraordinary field studies ever made of the aboriginal culture, concentrating their attentions on the Arunta and Warramunga peoples of Central Australia. Their work proved

an almost unique instance of an art in which the symbolism of motifs has been studied in detail and in situ by ethnologists. In most of Central Australia, each clan preserves in a secret cult center carved plaques of wood or schist called tjurunga [churinga] which are periodically rubbed with red ochre and fat while the meanings of the motifs are explained to the newly initiated. The explanation takes the form of a narrative sung while the singer's finger follows the successive elements of the incised design, each of which suggest an incident in the myth. The classical accounts of these objects given by Spencer and Gillen enable us to detect a systematic symbolism based upon themes which, at first sight, seem purely geometric....It is evident that no explicit language is involved; but the symbolism of the motifs presents a number of analogies...

[ Jean Guiart, The Arts of the South Pacific, translated by Anthony Christie, Thames and Hudson, London (1962), p. 127 f. ]

Over and above the magnificent pictorial and sculptural pieces that--for Western eyes--stand out as impresive, individual works of art, the native Australian's greatest aesthetic achievement is the totally integrated idea of a "dreamtime" in which the creative imagination is continuously conjoined with the (otherwise) most ordinary phenomena of daily life. While in our Western culture decorated artifacts might be regarded as isolated, material objects meant to delight our refined perceptions, in the dreamtime of the Australian aborigine, past and future interweave with the present while the imaginative mind integrates all aesthetic expression: oral poetry and song, dance, bodily decoration, flora, fauna and features of the landscape, ritual and speculative philosophy, and so forth, to form one grand, on-going opera of collective, vital, conceptual art.

[ See, Jennifer Isaacs, Australian Dreaming: 40,000 years of Aboriginal History, Lansdowne Press, Sydney (1980). ]

The native peoples of Australia are now recognized by many as having been victims of extermination by ruthless, genocidal policies. Their lands have been thoroughly usurped, and virtually all knowledge of their way of life lost forever. Yet, before the advent of European settlers, they managed to live on the island continent for an astounding period of some forty thousand years. Archaic campfire sites have yielded rocks containing magnetic material which altered its polarity when heated, providing an accurate dating reference when compared with context stones with different magnetic orientations, and incidentally confirming several historical shifts in the magnetic polarity of the Earth. Scribed and decorated rockfaces from the Mojave Desert in southeastern California may be just as old, but the nature of the peoples who left these marks was already long lost to memory before the tribe we call the Mojave arrived, followed by the Spanish, the Mexicans, the U.S. cavalry, railroads, Route 66, and Interstate 15.

Sometimes, however, in Australia the magic markings on the walls of caves and in other sacred sites can be read and interpreted with reasonable accuracy because, as in the Kakidu region of the Northern Territories, they have been used right down to the present. But the last representatives of the old generation embodying this immensely ancient continuity are now dying, apparently without any possibility for perpetuating a living transmission of that intricate secret lore.

Now white man got learning.
He got university school.
He can read.
But me only read little bit.
White people got computer, but Aboriginal, me...
I just write in cave.
Law written in cave.
That painting is law.

[ Big Bill Neidjie, Stephen Davis, Allan Fox, Kakidu Man: Australia's Bill Neidjie, Resource Managers, Darwin (1986), p. 29 f. Also, C. D. Rowley, The Destruction of Aboriginal Society, Penguin Books (1972). ]


Ancient man-made magic markings have also been found at other sites around the globe, among which the most famous perhaps are the mesolithic wall paintings in limestone caves of the Dordogne region in southern France and in northern Spain. Despite the beauty and power of this prehistoric art, now widely appreciated, we tend to forget just how recently these works have come to be accepted as art at all.

The turning-point came in Spain in 1879, with the chance discovery of cave art at Altamira, the first decorated Paleolithic sanctuary to be recognized. This was due to a little girl called Maria, whose grandfather Don Marcelino de Sautuola was an archaeologist in the Santander region and had spent three years digging in a cave pointed out to him by local hunters. He took his granddaughter with him to the cave one day, and she was the first person to make out the magnificent 14,000-year-old Magdalenian figures of bison on the ceiling.

Official salon-based art of the last century was restricted by its Western historical preconceptions--tempered though these were by a certain admiration for Pharaonic Egypt or the refinement of China. It could hardly be expected to take to its heart what were believed to be infantile scrawlings. How could those antediluvian ancestors, whom Darwin had said were descended from monkeys and who were imagined as half-naked, covered in hair or rolled up in bear-skins with armholes cut in them, have any claim to be considered proper artists? The report published by Don Marcelino passed almost unnoticed. It took another twenty years and some lively polemics before the scholar Emile Carthailac, who had for long refused to recognize the authenticity of the paintings, pronounced his famous mea culpa. He visited Altamira in 1902 and gave the young Abb Breuil the task of making the first records of it...but it was Leroi-Gourhan who first undertook statistical study of the evolution of Paleolithic art, using new research disciplines and analysing the layout of the ensembles of organized cave decoration--thus confirming the existence of "decorated sanctuaries" distinct from the dwellings of the hunters. His magisterial work gave the study of prehistoric art a new orientation, free of ethnographic parallels and instead seen in the light of metaphysical, religious and symbolic preoccupations. The cave was a sacred place....

[ Mario Ruspoli, The Cave of Lascaux: The Final Photographs, Abrams, New York (1987), pp. 78-80. ]

The caves at Lascaux had been sealed for approximately fifteen thousand years before they were rediscovered only in 1940. But the delicate chemistry of the caves was upset once exposed to increased temperature and humidity, and higher carbon dioxide levels from the perspiration and exhaled breath of awestruck tourists. Painted surfaces began to deteriorate, attacked first by a "green disease" of microorganisms, and then a "white disease" causing formation of opaque calcite crystals, so the cave has been resealed. A nearby quarry, however, has been refitted with a display of some artfully-crafted erzatz Lascaux art to serve as an aesthetic placebo for pop fans of the mesolithic. Pressures from more tourists and ever more severe environmental threats also have plagued efforts to conserve the megalithic monuments of Stonehenge on the Salisbury plains of England.There, imaginative archaeological showmen are exhibiting (nearby the ancient site) a styrofoam replica, sarcastically dubbed "Foamhenge."


Rock painting or engraving has been preserved in many sites around the globe. For example, the rock art at Tassili in the Sahara Desert records wild animals such as giraffe and other beasts long since vanished from that locale, activities of the hunt, the herding of domestic stock, and the sacred dance. Several different styles were employed, by different peoples, over a span of probably thousands of years, beginning perhaps ten or twelve thousand years ago when the Sahara was still grassland and savanna. Since the art is in cliffside recesses or protected by rock outcroppings, but not sealed in caves, work has been continued probably down to recent times. And in Namibia, at a site called the Apollo 11 Cave excavated by Eric Wendt from 1968 to 1972, radiocarbon dating showed paintings--perhaps by the ancestors of contemporary native people--to be between 25,000 and 27,500 years old, and thus reckoned to be among the oldest of such sites in Africa.

[ Laurens van der Post and Jane Taylor, Testament to the Bushmen, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England (1985), p. 31. ]


insert on underwater caves

Jean de Heinzelin excavated an African site of around 6,500 B.C. called Ishango--on the shores of Lake Edward near the headwaters of the Nile. There he discovered an intriguing piece of evidence that pointed toward a new theory of paleolithic numerical notation systems.

The most fascinating and most suggestive of all the artifacts at Ishango is not a harpoon point but a bone tool handle with a small fragment of quartz still its head....It may have been used for engraving or tattooing, or even for writing of some kind. Even more interesting, however, are its markings: groups of notches arranged in three distinct columns.

[ Jean de Heinzelin, "Ishango," Scientific American, Volume 206 (June, 1962), p. 113; quoted in Alexander Marshack, The Roots of Civilization: The Cognitive Beginnings of Man's First Art, Symbol and Notation, McGraw-Hill, New York (1972), p. 22. ]

Alexander Marshack later analyzed a multitude of much older paleolithic artifacts, confirming the insights he first developed by comparing the sequence of marks on the Ishango bone with lunar periodicities. Among the most significant of these is a "batn" of antler bone from the Late Magdelenian period covered with exceedingly complex, very fine engraving. It was found at Cueto de la Mina, a cave site near Oviedo in northern Spain, in 1916--coincidentally the same year in which Duchamp mass-produced With Hidden Noise. Markings on the batn include two ibex heads and several plant forms associated with respective groupings of marks, demonstrating the use of a calendrical system, with precise observational lunar phrasing, spanning a period of almost nine months. This is the same period of time it cost Duchamp to assemble the edition of three brass-bracketed balls of twine--in his case from Easter to December, in the year 1916. The span of nine lunations also obviously suggests the period of gestation for a human fetus. According to Marshack, he came to realize that the batôn was

a unique example, the one composition in all Europe that validated the many hypotheses, theories, conjectures, and findings I had pieced together so laboriously in an analysis of hundreds of other examples....[The batôn] apparently serves as a "Rosetta Stone," explaining the general intent, breaking the code, and serving as a verification for the notational-symbolic complexity of Upper Paleolithic marking....On this bone from the site of Cueto de la Mina we seem to have an example indicating the integrated beginnings of arithmetic, astronomy, writing, abstracted symbolism, and notation. There is also the implication that these cultural skills were related to the economic and ritual-religious life of the hunting groups.

[ Marshack, pp. 213, 216, 218. See pp. 212 ff. The original data on the batn was published by Ricardo Vega del Sella, "El Paleoltico de la Cueto de la Mina," Comissin de Investigationes Paleontolgicas y Prehistricas, Memoire 13 (Madrid, 1916), Plate XXXIX: 2a, b, and Plate XL. Marshack reports that he first saw the batn in "a small, little-known collection of Upper Paleolithic materials at the Museo de Ciencias Naturales, Madrid."]


This material suggests an august and venerable ancestry for Marcel Duchamp's exercise with cryptic notations in the painted and engraved markings on With Hidden Noise. As Duchamp composed his cypher principally with painted alphabetic letters, we should next inquire into the origins of alphabetic markings, attempting to establish just what this business of writing is all about, in and of itself.

Because of our particular interest in the alphabetic progenitors of Duchamp's written letters, we shall bypass discussion of early pictographic inscriptions, as from China or Egypt; neither shall we dwell upon the cuneiform writing of early Elam, Sumer and Susa, for those systems were syllabaries, and not technically alphabetic. This might seem like a petty distinction, and some scholars--including those engaged in the otherwise salutory effort to remind modern academics of the Ancient Model of history and of its roots in Asia and Africa--have been reluctant to appreciate the genuine nature of the innovation and slow to grasp its extensive and profound consequences. Even so, it is worth noting that the earliest writing on those hand-held clay tablets from Mesopotamia was employed, not as we might fantasize thus to immortalize the lyric expression of some lover's passion, but rather to record surplusses of production for the purpose of computing tax levies, or to record inventories of arms and men for defending the interests of the increasingly hieratic city state, and later for waging its programmed wars of conquest and exploitation.


Only in the language of ancient Greece, however, do we find fully alphabetic inscriptions, the true ancestors of Duchamp's letters on With Hidden Noise. According to scholars of epigraphy who have examined the early evidence for written Greek, the very first examples of alphabetic inscriptions date from the late eighth century B.C. Prevailing academic opinion awards the premier honor to a late geometric style oinochoe or wine jug. The piece was actually unearthed in the Dipylon cemetery near Athens, but it had been brought there from the Greek colony of Cumae on the coast of Italy just north of the modern city of Naples. Probably the first Greek colonists in Italy had landed on the nearby island of Ischia, then called Pithekoussa, or "Monkey Island," which provided a valuable source of tin, one of the requisite components of bronze. From there, possibly for purposes of trading, the Greeks established a beachhead at Cumae on the mainland, later to become home to the Cumaean Sibyl of classical tradition whom Michelangelo depicted in the 'vaulty, voluminous Sistine Chapel. The poetic metaphor of her darkly oracular writings, spelt and scattered on windblown leaves, supplies a vivid parable of the earnest and widespread dissemination of alphabetic script that signalled at least the beginning of the end of cultural dominance by oral transmission.

The inscription from Cumae runs around the shoulder of the wine jug in retrograde (right-to-left) direction, as did the Phoenecian script from which its forms were borrowed. Surprisingly, the Greek inscription--in contrast with the usual dreary tax records and bloody accounts of warfare in earlier Semitic writings-- was composed in metered verse. The absolutely revolutionary innovation--the bruiting of an old secret--is the appearance of written vowels. Although vowels are necessarily sounded in all spoken languages, the long- established convention in Semitic writing omits their notation, or alternatively indicates vowels just in certain circumstances, and then only by diacritical markings. This ancient practice retained to the present day in Arabic--excepting the text of the Qur'an. In fact, the vowels in Hebrew taken together constituted the sacred, secret name of God in mystical lore, that we now render as IAOUE, or "Yahweh."

Have we not already stumbled on the secret? Was the name not spelt out by the seven vowels of the threshhold, cut with three times nine holy nicks and read sunwise?

JIEVOAO, the earlier seven-letter form, recalls the many guesses at the "Blessed Name of the Holy One of Israel" made by scholars, priests and magicians in the old days. This was the name which only the High Priest was allowed to utter, once a year and under his breath, when he visited the Holy of Holies, and which might not be committed to writing.

[ Graves, The White Goddess, pp. 285-287. ]

Semitic languages are based on a system of triliteral roots and (with the exception of alif = A) only the consonants are actually written, so the reader must infer the appropriate vowels according to the context. In contrast, the new Greek practice required all words to be fully spelled out, vowels and all. Furthermore, the convention of a left-to-right direction in writing Greek came to be established in the seventh century B.C. resulting in a mirror reversal of the Semitic reading; therefore Greek culture, for example, translated the traditional secret Semitic divine utterance as EUOAI!, which became the holy and terrifying cry of Dionysiac maenads.

This innovative notation of vowels led to a new and profoundly different way of using language because, even in written form, Semitic languages still depended upon strictly standard phrasing--epithets and other rigidly conventional expressions--as means of establishing the prescribed, traditional contexts which could then promise a fair degree of accuracy of communication. However, for the first time in history, with Greek it became possible to write down, quite precisely, wholly original ideas, and to specify new, fresh thoughts in imaginative contexts, such as did never before exist. This could only be possible when vowels were no longer left to be inferred, unmarked and implicit, but came to be explicit and, thus, indicated precisely.

Greek poetry, unlike much of Semitic, is metered: that is, the rhythm is created by a pattern of syllables which, by precise rules, are either long or short. It is a quantitative rather than, as in English poetry, a stressed rhythm....At root then Greek meter is a function of the sequence of consonant and vowel, so that it is the value of the vowel, in itself and in relationship to a consonant, which determines whether a syllable is long or short. It follows that the one thing to which an adequate written record of such a line could never be indifferent is the sequence of the vowels.

[ Robert K. Logan, The Alphabet Effect: The Impact of the Phonetic Alphabet on the Development of Western Civilization, William Morrow, New York (1986), p. 29. ]

The earliest extant inscription on the Cumaean wine jug is made up of one complete dactylic hexameter line, plus the beginnings of a second, before that finally trails off with some false starts at finishing the poetic dedication.

The writer's hand, though firm, is unpracticed in the use of a script, but undeniably the writer himself is in complete possession of the already centuries-old technique of oral verse-making. This gulf between the poetic accomplishment of the line and the child-like hand which scratched it is initially the most striking feature of the Dipylon inscription and perhaps an important clue. Could it be that the author was a wandering minstrel, an Homeric aoidos, who had only recently learned the Phoenician abecedarium in the form in which, in his own lifetime, these signs had been adopted for recording the sounds of Greek?

[ Kevin Robb, "Poetic Sources of the Greek Alphabet: Rhythm and Abecedarium from Phoenecian to Greek," in Communication Arts in the Ancient World, edited by Eric A. Havelock and Jackson P. Hershbell, (Communications Arts Books), Hastings House, New York (1978), p. 25. The oinochoe (wine jug) is illustrated, described in detail, and its inscription is analyzed by L. H. Jeffery, The Local Scripts of Archaic Greece: A Study of the Greek Alphabet and its Development from the Eighth to the Fifth Centuries B.C. (Oxford Monographs on Classical Archaeology), Oxford, at the Clarendon Press (1961), p. 61, Plate 1. ]

The form of address suggests that it was scratched in the pot as a dedication, the trophy oinochoe (and the wine it once contained!) claimed as the prize in a contest of free-style dance (in contrast to the more formal choric style). Translated, the hexameter reads:

Who now of all dancers sports most playfully...

[ Eric A. Havelock, "The Preliteracy of the Greeks," The Literate Revolution in Greece and Its Cultural Consequences, Princeton University Press (1982), p. 193. ]

The grammar and phrasing are in a style appropriate for oral proclamation; the wording "who now..." would probably have been followed by an apodosis "let him...take a bow," or "...claim the prize of victory," or a similar phrase completing the dedication. Havelock imaginatively reconstructs the scene as it might have occurred after the dancing contest, which was a familiar feature of oral cultures:

Maybe the announcement is entrusted to a herald. In the twenty-third book of the Iliad, as prizes are competed for in the funeral games of Patroclus, the donor (Achilles) is the main announcer, but a herald has a part to play also. The inscription, however, was solicited by the winner. Either he happened to be alphabetically skilled himself or he commissioned somebody who was--the more likely alternative, for I do not think that accomplished dancers in this era, when mousike was supreme and when its mastery was the mark of cultivation, were likely to bother with the alphabet. That would be left to artisans. But he knows that his victory can be memorialized in inscribed signs which still carry a flavor of the miraculous in this unlettered culture....The value of the pot has risen. It is not just like any other pot. This one can speak.

[ Havelock, Literate Revolution, p. 194. He adds "a warning: evidence for writing is one thing, evidence for literacy is something else." ]


But let us consider another telling fragment, probably the second oldest surviving piece of evidence (of the hard, objective kind so adored by science) for alphabetic writing. The language is also Greek, written in a poetic or metrical form, again as a graffito scratched on the surface: before on a wine jug, this time on a ceramic wine cup. This piece, called a skyphos of the Aegean "bird-bowl" type, must be very close in date to the wine jug just described (before 700 B.C.), only the cup was actually found on the island of Ischia, or Pithecoussa. Three lines make up the inscription:

The first is a halting iambus: "Of Nestor I am the well-drunk drinking cup." The next two revert to the familiar hexameter: "Whoso drinks this drinking cup straightaway him / Desire shall seize of fair-crowned Aphrodite." The first asserts ownership; it is like the stamp of a signature: "property of Nestor," to discourage theft....But on this cup the writing breaks into grandiloquent hexameters with a Homeric ring to them, and though they open with the same generic phrasing, "whoso shall, etc.," appropriate to an oral announcement, we have to ask to whom they may be addressed. A dedication can hardly be the explanation, for the verse seems to celebrate the dedication of the drinker rather than the deity. The speaker is no longer the object, now mentioned in the third person; he is therefore most probably the owner. The generic "Whoso drinks" cannot be himself, but must refer to others to whom he is addressing an oral invitation: "Drink of this cup (which is my cup) and you will have a certain experience."

[ Havelock, Literate Revolution, p. 195. See also Jefferies, p. 235, and Plate 47. ]

Now the translation and interpretation of these inscriptions has proceeded with great care, the task having attracted extremely close scrutiny from epigraphers. Their importance should be clear, if only because this material provides the very first material documentation--in the form of its own crucial invention of alphabetic writing--about the nature and concerns of that Greek civilization which many in the Western world imagine to be the wellspring of our present society's fundamental ideas, values and beliefs. Therefore, we might try to translate the subject matter so as to understand the inscription in a truly contemporary sense. The simple term "dance" seems inadequate, for the province of Terpsichore has shrivelled in terms of relative cultural importance over two and a half millennia. Perhaps closest to what the Greek word atalotata implied, suggesting the spirit of popular dance and music within a particular social and cultural ambience, would be a counterpart like the modern phrase "rock 'n' roll."

Similarly, the idea of "wine" in the eighth century BC carried with it a load of associational baggage: it was the new drug of choice for society at that time. To provide sufficient grapes for making wine, vines had to be cultivated in a yard--a vineyard--not even an open field would do (threat of foxes, etc., pace Aesop). That is to say, winemaking required highly-developed, intensive careful farming techniques then as today; not much wine was ever made from wild grapes. Before wine became generally available, the early ancients may have enjoyed mead fermented from honey, or beer, which we know both the Egyptians and the cultures of Mesopotamia made in quantities.

Alcohol was not the only source of widely-indulged, socially tolerated intoxicants. Some Athenian regulations in archaic times sought to control admixtures to the wine of datura, a very powerful hallucinogen. As the quality of wine improved and its supply became more plentiful, wine from grapes apparently came to be preferred to the toxic, potentially lethal effects of datura. The wine itself was apparently quite strong, and was usually mixed with water. Later on, in classical times, municipal ordinances appear in the standard form: no loud parties after midnight, etc. And even before the Greeks laced their wine with datura, they also used Soma, or the amanita muscaria mushroom--and other psychotropics as well, including the claviceps purpurea, or ergot fungus--not casually, but ritually, in sacred celebrations such as those connected with the Eleusinian Mysteries.

Bibliographical note:

This topic of the socially constructive and historically significant use of psychotropic substances is fraught with deliberately conjured contradictions that have raised an ominous cacaphony from pharmacology coerced into chanting with the chorus of commerce, a ruckus of hypocritical medical disinformation, spiked by sour notes from the corruption and repression of scientific knowledge, the craven whining of academic cowardice, the ballyhoo of religious intolerance, with screeching selfrighteousness and pounding populist moralizing, all coralled to sing a supper song for crass political expedience. Accordingly, to preserve a semblance of harmony here, we are moved to mention in the body of our text (even though some titles were cited in earlier footnotes), a few of the more illuminating studies relevant to the topic in this immediate context. See, for example:

Graves, Robert, "Centaurs Food," in Food For Centaurs, Doubleday, Garden City, New York (1960), and also various passages in The White Goddess, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York (Amended and enlarged edition 1966).

McKenna, Terrence, Food of the Gods: The Search for the Original Tree of Knowledge, a Radical History of Plants, Drugs, and Human Evolution, Bantam Books, New York (1992).

Schultes, Richard Evans, and Albert Hofmann, Plants of the Gods: Origins of Hallucinogenic Use, McGraw- Hill, New York (1979).

Wasson, R. Gordon, Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality, Ethnomycologi-cal Studies No. 1), Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York (1968).

Wasson, R. Gordon, Carl A. P. Ruck, and Albert Hofmann, The Road to Eleusis: Unveiling the Secret of the Mysteries, (Ethnmomycological Studies, No. 4), Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York (1978). Wasson, R. Gordon, Stella Kramrisch, Jonathan Ott, and Carl A. P. Ruck, Persephone's Quest: Entheogens and the Origins of Religion, Yale University Press, New Haven (1986).

Weil, Andrew, The Marriage of the Sun and the Moon: A Quest for Unity in Consciousness, Houghton Mifflin, Boston (1980).

Also consulted was, Michael Aldrich, "Soma Dionysos," unpublished paper, State University of New York at Buffalo (1965).


Eric Havelock, imaginatively reconstructing one of Plato's parties, goes on in his text to portray a scene which, given the epoch and the material, is no mere irresponsible flight of fancy, but part of a strategy designed to elucidate just what the letters and the words and the poetry might actually have meant to an ancient Greek.

Rather than suggest a religious motif, a less elevated explanation is more plausible. Drinking cups were made for drinking out of, if I may be permitted the obvious. You drank not in seclusion, but at the symposium, that regular social feature of Greek life. You drank not to some abstract god of love, as in Plato, but to the friend or favorite, the kalos sitting or reclining opposite you at the table. But you also did not just drink. The symposium was the occasion utilized by an oral culture for the performance and recitation of private poetry, encomia, love songs, invective, self-revelation, personal stuff, most of it sung to the lyre. Can we imagine the elderly owner of this cup, after taking a swig, passing it to the boy across the table? He says to him, "A great cup, isn't it? Here, please drink out of it. My man, Execestides made it. He's a good worker. But do you know what I did? After he made it, I got him to write down what the cup does to you. Can't read it myself, but you can see it there. Shall I tell you what it says?" Leaning over, with a slight leer, "Whoso drinks of this cup shall be seized of desire. Here boy, drink up, and I'll sing you more of it." It is to be accepted, I think, as a fact that Aphrodite's activities were not confined to the heterosexual.

[ Havelock, Literate Revolution, p. 195. ]

In order to clarify this point--not that it tokens the revelation of any great secret--we offer the following eloquent commentary by Joseph Campbell, expanding on what such a vision of Love might have entailed...explicitly, that Love personified and deified as Eros who, for the Greeks was "the informing god of all things."

Love brings everything to flower, each in terms of its own potential, and so is the true pedagogue of the open, free society. "For," as Agathon declared in his banquet speech, immortalized in Plato's account of the grandest drinking party in the history of the world, "all serve him of their own free will, and where there is love as well as obedience, there, as the laws which are the lords of the city say, is justice."

Professor Warner Fite of Princeton years ago pricked the bubble of a late Victorian version of Plato's ideal of love by pointing out to a generation ignorant of Greek that Professor Jowett's translation (which was the one that all were then reading in school) renders orthos paiderastein, "the right kind of pederasty," as "true love." So that all then knew--as most had already guessed--that boy-love, pederasty or sodomy, which in most of the published moral codes of the world counts as a heinous offense against nature, was for Plato's model company the one true way to spirituality and the sublimation of mere nature into fine discourse, poetry, science, excellence, and the perfect city state.

In such primitive rites of initiation as those of the natives of Australia, pederasty plays a role in the translation of boys away from Mother to the secret knowledges of manhood: but they are then led by further rites back to the village and to marriage....But in the high circle of the lions of Athens, during a great period of the late fifth- and early fourth-century Greece, 450-350 B.C., the pedagogical atmosphere became, as it were, embalmed.

[ Joseph Campbell, The Masks of God, Volume II, p. 227 f. ]


As read in newspapers an magazines, heard on the radio, and seen on television, agents of the corporate media often assist in bruiting a reactionary call to contemporary educators and politicians for teaching's "return to the basics." The "Three R's," (reading, 'riting and 'rithmetic) are promoted as tokens of a sentimental and naive striving to fulfill a real social need (the sane, well-balanced education of the young) by an unexamined reverie supposed to recapture a past (one-room school houses, blackboards, recitations, apples, rulers) that either never existed, or was even more ephemeral than the wafting aroma of Marcel Proust's madeleine, which we might assume, anyway, he did at least once actually smell.

But never mind...suppose we take the "3-R reactionaries" at their literal words to discover what might be implied by a return to the basics--to the epigraphically-established, historical bedrock of our literate, Western, alphabetic culture--thereby to derive guidelines for improving present-day education. Based on what those first alphabetic letters seem to say, the content of the curriculum would include sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll--or, toning down the translation to a more specific and conventional reading: socially condoned pederasty (in the event a phrase like "institutionalized homosexual child abuse" is considered too inflamatory), wine (and a menu of other psychotropics including kannabis--a Greek word), plus dance parties. The Irish rock star Bono from the group U-2 put it nicely when a TV interviewer asked whether the music were radical or revolutionary:

It's about sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll--really the most conservative subjects in the whole history of human culture.

[ Bono, on "West 57th Street," CBS-TV, February 5, 1988. ]

A reasonable and intellectually mature perspective ought to derive something more from this lesson. We know the original advent of the ABC's signaled a historical revolution, from an oral to a literate culture, when verbal information no longer had to be transmitted in the form of stylized poetry to assist memorization. In archaic Greece (from perhaps the late eighth down to the seventh and--since the revolution required some time to take full effect--to the sixth century BC), the alphabet led directly to the emergence of prose writing and to the encouragement of abstract thought and language. Information could then be organized logically and systematically instead of having to conform to stock phrases and formulae which would be woven into a narrative story line, as demanded by mnemonic considerations and the previous system of transmission by oral poetry.

Under the influence of alphabetic literacy, Greek writers created the vocabulary of abstract thought that is still in use to this day, notions such as body, matter, essence, space, translation, time, motion, permanence, change, flux, quality, quantity, combination and ratio. These terms and concepts became the language of philosophy. A rational approach to analyzing problems logically and finding solutions to them developed. Ideas such as truth, beauty, justice and reason took on new meanings and became the subject of a new type of discourse.

[ Logan, The Alphabet Effect, p. 105. ]

Greece most certainly was not the locus for the first appearance of all these notions as functions of mind, but in other languages and cultures, the pristine concepts and elegant methods of rationality are never so clearly objectified as a function of the transmitting medium itself. Furthermore, the appearance of this powerfully abstract means of cultural communication, for the first time in global history, exerted a unique effect upon art. No wonder art historians treat the evolution of Greek sculpture from archaic through classic phases as a model recension for studying the history of style. In the formative period of Classical civilization, not only did abstractions such as "beauty" acquire new communicability, but art came to be thought of as a vehicle for expressing qualities which were themselves supposed to be not of this world, but sublime and apart. Paradoxically, the power of art permitted the representation of increasingly mundane subjects rendered with ever more technically perfect skills so as to appear, not "real" but "realistic," as depictions or illustrations of Life but somehow nevertheless distinct from it, in short, as (capital A) Art.


Teaching the basic Three Rs or ABCs today should be guided by the same respect for intellectual honesty that, in its best moments, characterizes the last thousand years (or so) of the university tradition in Western civilization. This entails fostering respect for academic ethics--acknowledging scholarly work already accomplished--with a clear eye for the truth of the matter. Of course, thoughtful people realize that a proposed Return To The Basics is sometimes not to be taken seriously, as when it rationalizes the authoritarian indoctrination of children, or provides a mere blind for know-nothing politics, or a deceitful excuse for the stingy, dimwitted reluctance to invest in genuine education. But there is more to it.

The endemic problem can be stated succinctly, even though it has been thickly over-glazed with layers of political and economic disingenuousness. In the United States of America, for two decades following the 1960s, at all levels, education has been savaged. An exaggerated reaction to the student protest movement and a paranoid urge to control domestic dissent about America's involvement in Vietnam provided public cover for socially and economically undermining education. The government, particularly during the Nixon and the Reagan administrations--and more recently under that of George Bush-- plainly has not wanted smart students becoming transformed into an aware and active citizenry capable of taking responsible action in the real world. But just mention the magic words "national security" or "defense," as well-funded academic scientists sardonically testify, and money for a project grant has been right there, together with the exploitation of state-subsidized educational personnel and resources in the conduct of research primarily benefitting private corporations.

Even with these qualifications in mind, a strong case can be made for teaching the "basics," including a course in the ABCs. As a genuinely radical proposition--in the literal sense of going to the roots of the matter--such a course might teach pupils how to construct letters of the alphabet, as would-be architects once used to study Roman lettering. Despite often deadly, authoritarian instructional methods, copious merit might yet be seen to reside in formal training of hand and eye, at least for students who show potential for genuine academic work. With inspired presentation, exercises in lettering can teach students essential graphic techniques along with principles of control and discipline, a sense of proportion and balance, and quite simply how to draw a straight line: even, level and unconfused.

David Lance Goines, the graphic artist creator of many familiar contemporary posters, has also composed a beautifully printed text addressing this topic from a fresh point of view. The publisher of the Goines book, David R. Godine of Boston, has issued two other handsome volumes on the Greek and Roman alphabets, with rich excurses on their respective cultural contexts. An abundance of good information is also available in more general studies of writing, along with ample resources for a lively, inspired approach to instruction in the Basic ABCs, if that were what we actually wanted.

[ David Lance Goines, A Constructed Roman Alphabet: A Geometric Analysis of the Greek and Roman Capitals and of the Arabic Numerals, David R. Godine, Boston (1982). Alexander and Nicholas Humez, Alpha to Omega: The Life and Times of the Greek Alphabet, David R. Godine, Boston (1981); and A.B.C. Et Cetera: The Life and Time of the Roman Alphabet (1985). See also, I. J. Gelb, A Study of Writing, University of Chicago Press (Second edition, 1963); and Jack Goody, The Logic of Writing and the Organization of Society, (Studies in Literacy, Family, Culture and the State), Cambridge University Press (1986). A standard work, although the author's view differs from Havelock's, is by David Diringer, The Alphabet: a Key to the History of Mankind, Hutchinson, London (3rd edition, 1968). ]

True enough, these are not values likely to be treasured by callow students of law, medicine, or business--but doesn't that reveal a key part of the larger problem? Do we expect the present generation of children to learn about control and discipline, or proportion and balance, only abstractly via rhetorical metaphors? Although critics of ethics in government and business complain that schools bypass the philosophical topic, it would seem that the graphic equivalent of the straight and narrow ought to be taught first, if only to provide the ethical lesson with an anchor in real, concrete experience. And the success of Sesame Street at an elementary level of learning suggests that alphabetic instruction might also continue at higher--and deeper-- levels of education. People will use these letters and numbers for the rest of their lives, so why stop when it gets interesting?

On the subject of 'rithmetic: consider the importance of learning how to count. How interesting the study of numbers might have been if one of our teachers--at one level or another--could have explained why there are 60 minutes marked off on that clock face in every school room--except that not one teacher in a thousand knows the answer, although it is really no secret. Probably not one teacher in--how many thousands?--could offer even a good guess as to why there are 24 hours in a day. Increasing use of technology (the use of computers and calculators in schools, the metric system) may actually serve to put practical wisdom in the common language even further at risk. A return to basics in the sense of investigating interesting and pertinent questions of the above kind, rather than disarmingly modifying the behavior of students to prepare them for white- or pink- collar slavery as future human robots, promises to be refreshingly salutary.

Many of us were put off learning about mathematics because it was misrepresented as the study of boring and mechanistic computational techniques. In our presently biassed and overbalanced culture, we rarely discover an understanding of number lore that embraces history, art and psychology, together with an appreciation for the concepts of elegance and rigor. Students know intuitively when their teachers are playing with respect for the rules, even when the teachers themselves may not be aware of their own contradictions. The matter is simple and fundamental: today, neither the true nature of arithmetic nor the real basics of language and logic are taught very well in schools at ANY level. From such failures, of course, a host of problems--practical, theoretical, linguistic, logical and psychological--inevitably ensue.

Commerce and politics seditiously distort institutionalized education, with the ostensible intent of producing efficient and hard-working (i.e., law-abiding, tax-paying) citizens. The process of physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual development of the individual is constrained to stop right there, transforming a generation of young, healthy, vital individuals into a cynical and suffering population of organic servomechanisms. Skepticism, free inquiry, imagination, dissent, innovation--all these honored and traditional academic proclivities get tagged with the bad rap of "trouble-making attitudes" by all tyrants who shoot their way to power and by the legion of bureaucratic hatchet men, or the merely deluded who march under their cloak. In such circumstances the joy and freedom, the discovery and creativity of true scholarship are especially vulnerable to being systematically undermined as the greater game of gathering wisdom is traded away for venal and sublunary compensations.

We leave the education of the young to serious high-minded persons. This fits them only for tragedy. High- minded seriousness is confused with responsibility. In fact, it is irresponsible, failing as it does to respond to the other side of human nature.

[ James Keys, Only Two Can Play This Game, p. 87. ]

In the same way that many coaches in professional athletics continue to "stress the fundamentals," high-level instruction in the "Three R's" would provide for continuous self-reference: polishing and honing the generic intellectual tools used for studying whatever specific subjects. Before modern institutions of advanced learning offered up the Liberal Arts for sacrifice to Mammon and the demons of expedience, content such as we have outlined used to form an integral and distinguished part of the curriculum. But the once-august Trivium has been knavishly portrayed as trivial, with predictable consequences of perversion and corruption for the common language. The real world provides cruel lessons as the annihilation of indigenous peoples is called "progress," and the ravaging of habitat becomes "development," and or when a president of the United States cannot recognize real Freedom Fighters, such as the Tibetan refugees, but instead perversely applies that term to a murderous band of piratical torturers in Central America (and elsewhere) in shameless affronts to both human dignity and international law, or when a horrendous and unreliable, offensive nuclear weapon is touted in Newspeak as the "Peacekeeper."

Within the context of modern public education, the letters and the numbers may provide a basic symbolic framework for the study of certain material known as "Tarot" and "Qabala." Under such rubrics, for centuries (and possibly for millennia) ordinary people have been assisted in the tricky task of self- observation by a body of empirical knowledge based on manifold real experience, generalized and rendered as a coherent system, functioning on--or close to--the archetypal level of consciousness. The status of this discipline--which hopes to reveal the essential nature, the structure, and the principal modes of functioning of the human psyche--has been greatly, sometimes deliberately confused. With wise and compassionate bridge-building between the esoteric and the exoteric traditions, objective instruction could come once again to grace the curriculum of both school and university.