Standing on the Shoulders of Giants by BERNARD TRAFFORD

We’ve all heard that expression, sometimes lengthened to “dwarfs (or pigmies) standing on the shoulders of giants”: the Latin goes nanos gigantum humeris insidentes.
I employed the mighty research power of Google and Wikipedian (!) to discover that the saying is attributed to Bernard of Chartres in the 12th Century. Good to see another Bernard showing strongly, then, and not merely in the race for America’s Democratic nomination!
Bernard was apparently describing the modern scholars of his day (the 12th Century) whose ability to philosophise and conjecture was built on the knowledge passed down from the ancient scholars of Greece and Rome. That’s a wonderful metaphor, one too often overlooked in more recent centuries. So often we convince ourselves that we are moving forward by such great leaps that we discount the point from which we jumped off.

I was reminded just this week of how much astonishing scholarship and creativity lies in our history. My school was somewhat taken over, and certainly amazed, by a production of Much Ado about Nothing, an appropriate choice for celebrating Shakespeare’s quatercentenary, but a play I confess I didn’t know. Now I’ve enjoyed it, twice, the play indeed lives out its title. It’s a pretty flimsy plot of misunderstandings and intrigues between lovers, not even as complex as that of A Midsummer Night’s Dream: yet the language and the emotion seem to me to rank amongst the Bard’s finest work.
Much Ado about Nothing
Critics and directors often claim that there are only really two stories in all plays and opera (some say only one): if that’s true, it’s what you do with it that counts. That’s certainly true of Much Ado. That doesn’t mean it’s without substance: on the contrary, the very substance of the play depends not on plot and action but on the glorious language expressing humour, love, hate, devotion, loss, heartbreak – the whole gamut of human experience. Wiser people than me can, I’m sure, trace the influence of Shakespeare’s writing in general and that play in particular on generation after generation of later poets and writers.
This evening I missed the last performance in order to attend the opening of the Laing Gallery’s exhibition of ten Leonardo drawings, on loan from the Royal Collection. There were amazing drawings of domestic cats interspersed with lions and an imaginary dragon: furious horses, men and a lion, all studies for his large paintings. And, amid these glories, the intimate study of a face that became St Anne in Leonardo’s famous Madonna and Child with St Anne.
Oh dear! I’ve overused the words glories and glorious! But I can’t help it. When I witness such masterpieces, 400 and 500 years old and more, I am left in awe. We can appreciate their beauty for what it is. We can also understand how much they have influenced the work of those creative geniuses who followed them.
Above all, though, it seems to me that, as the human race so often appears to be hurtling towards mayhem and destruction, always of its own making, we can occasionally pause, stand aside and look back, remembering how we have got here. Even on his deathbed, the great composer Beethoven, clasping a score of Handel’s oratorio Messiah, is said to have exclaimed, “He is the master of us all!” Funny: you might have expected him to say it of Johann Sebastian Bach rather than Handel.
There is a wise saying that you can’t see where you are going until you know where you’ve come from. Actually, it’s a misquotation from George Santayana: “Those who are unaware of history are destined to repeat it.” That’s not necessarily true: but bearing history (and past mistakes above all) in mind certainly improves the sense of direction.
What a privilege it was for me to experience centuries-old masterworks not once but twice this week: they certainly helped me to reset my bearings.


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