Today’s sharing from the Blue House of HYGEIA is an excerpt from Irene Vallejo’s ‘The infinity within a reed‘ (El infinito en un junco. La invención de los libros en el mundo antiguo) The invention of the book in the ancient world. At the moment, there is no English translation (!), so we will share in the coming days a few excerpts we will translate into English for you, good patrons and readers, so to behold an impression of Irene Vallejo’s story-telling talent and skillful scholarship. This one being the third excerpt. From the French translation of Anne Plantagenet, Editions de Belles Lettres, 2021.
He craves to be famous at all costs. He never displayed any particular skill, but defies the very idea of anonymity. In secret, he dreams that people recognize him in the street, whispering and pointing at him. An inner voice whispers that one day he will be notorious, like the Olympic champions or the actors that mesmerize the public.
He has decided that he will be doing something big; he just needs to find what.
One day, he conceives a plan. Unable to perform a feat, he should be remembered in history as a destructor. In his city lays one of the Seven Marvels of the World, that kings and travelers come to visit from far away lands. Upon a rocky promontory, surrounded by clouds, the temple of Artemis towers all Ephesus’ districts. Hundred twenty years were needed to build it. The peristyle is a forest of columns. Inside, among a wealth of gold and silver, stands the sacred image of the goddess that fell from the sky, surrounded by precious statues by Polykleitos and Phidias, and a plethora of riches.
On the night of July 21 365 B.C., while in far away Macedonia Alexander the Great is about to be born, he sneaks into the shadows and climbs the stairs that lead to the temple. The night watchmen are asleep. among their snoring, in silence he grasps a lamp, spills some oil and set ablaze the fabrics that decorate the inner walls. Soon, the flames reach the ceiling. At first, the fire progresses slowly, but as soon as it reaches the wooden beams, it’s dance swiftly broadens, as if the building dreamt of burning for centuries.
He watches, hypnotized, the flames rolling up roaring. Then, he exits the building, coughing, to see it illuminate the night. The watchmen arrest him without any resistance. He is thrown into a dungeon where he lies happy for a few hours, breathing the thick smoke that pours in from outside. He is tortured and confesses: he planed to set ablaze the most beautiful building in the world in order to become known in the entire world. Historians tell that all Asia Minor cities forbid, upon the threat of death, to revel his name, but they could not erase him from History. He is found in every encyclopedia, even the virtual ones. The writer, Marcel Schwob became his biographer in a chapter of his ‘Imaginary Lives’. Jean Paul Sartre also dedicated a short story to him. He gave his name to the psychological disorder of those who, simply to appear a few minutes on television or gains the most views on Instagram, are eager to do what ever monstrosity it takes to satiate their cravings. Exhibitionism at all costs is not exclusively a contemporary phenomenon.
His cursed name is Herostratos (Ἡρόστρατος). In his ill-fated reminiscence, the pathological desire for fame came to be called, ‘syndrome of Herostratos’.
The fire he set to achieve his aim reduced to ashes the papyrus scroll Herakleitos gifted the goddess. Ironically, the philosopher believed that in a cyclical manner fire destroys the universe, and he predicted in his life-work a final cosmic blaze. I don’t know for the universe, but books-which under all shapes burn too well-are accounted for a sad history of successive destruction by fire.