Buried Life

David Swanson (dcs2e@darwin.clas.virginia.edu)
Wed, 25 Jan 1995 03:56:54 GMT

Buried Life
Cinerary Urn
Prose: 988 words

Along the desolate though fertile plateau standing just in sight of
the glistening Tyrrhenian Sea, beside each of the widely-spaced tiny
stone towns which appear medieval, but separated from the towns by
fields of waving grain, and isolated in the shadows of the umbrella
pines, lie the other, the second towns, the towns of the other state of
human being, the death towns, the Etruscan necropolises, the cities of
tumuli bubbling from the earth, the weird pock-marked land which is now
what it was intended to be, but which speaks to us of something
unbelievably dead, something we never quite manage to hear it say.
Descend into a tumulus, and you will not find a random pile of bones.
Nor will you find a single grand sarcophagus surrounded by some
person's most treasured and useless possessions. You will find an
arrangement, perhaps around the edge of the circular space, of
beautifully and simply sculpted cinerary urns. Examine one of these
urns. It is a rectangular box with a battle scene sculpted on the
front, a myth perhaps, or the story of this man's death. What matters
in this scene we can perceive with certainty: it is chaos. Friends and
enemies are confused, swords pierce swords, arms and capes or wings
struggle undecidedly, shields serve no purpose, weapons can be
anything, and one is as likely to kill oneself as another. This is the
hardness of life, but of a thrilling and desirable life. This is the
terrible hurt and suffering of the living, the daily effort demanded by
a brutal world one loves.
Above the box, on a larger scale, reposes the soul of the man inside,
his lower body shrunken and shriveled away in its uselessness, his
consciousness, his head and heart, enlarged by philosophical
reflection. On one elbow he rests, this banqueter. He has just eaten
his evening meal, and the sun has yet to set - the patera umbilicata
is yet in his hand. This soul is reflecting peacefully on the day's
events depicted below him. The creatures engaged in the battle,
himself included, have become curious specimens for this soul to study.
He observes his actions from above, perceiving them more clearly but
with less interest, finding them in fact a touch ridiculous. It is not
only of fighting that he is thinking, but of all the crazy activities
in the living Etruria, of life in the inhabited town up above, across
the field and beyond the stream, the fragile town laughing and
vanishing on the next sun-struck ridge. He thinks of farming and of
hunting, of talking and singing, of governing, worshipping, crying, and
sculpting. He has a new perspective on human behavior, but he does not
want it. This restful wisdom comes to him unbidden. He cannot be, as
he would choose, a living man taking his evening rest from the labor of
battle, for he is aware that when morning comes he will not return to
the fight. The absence of tomorrow has destroyed even yesterday.
Hence the sadness in the eyes of this stone soul gazing up at you from
atop his ashes. Hence that something more than sadness there, that
jarring absence in this face and torso of some major ingredient in the
breath of life.
When this urn became a resident of the tumulus, the Etruscan language
was understood, and it was spoken, shouted, screamed, and sung. The
Romans had yet to conquer. History had yet to begin. Etruscan life in
all the joyful color preserved in its paintings and urns, in all the
strength and skill of its architecture, was not only known: it was
felt, it was lived. It was still possible to be Etruscan in fleeting
acts which would project no records of themselves to the distant
future. This was before Etruria died. Or at least we think of it as
having died. But did it? Scoop the dust from the inside of the urn
and study the DNA. You will find it related to the DNA of living
Central Italians. You will discover that the population of several
isolated villages may be nearly entirely Etruscan. The unique
physiognomy of Umbrians and Tuscans, the startling beauty of the girls
and boys bicycling from town to town with large eyes, full smiles,
clear voices : where do these come from if not from the dust inside the
urn? And what of the vibrant, violent nature of these people? Where
there is continuity of facial features, might there not be continuity
of character as well? Where there is continuity of land, will not
traces of human culture endure longer than a mere hunk of terra-cotta?
We bring the urn to the United States, to the University of Virginia,
where we display it in a museum between a piece of something Roman and
a fragment of something Greek. It is not made from our soil. It holds
no arrowheads or information about people we have known. There is
nothing Monacan about the battle scene, nothing Virginian about the
expression on the face. It has no connection to the few possible
descendants of our early forebears, a people quite unlike the
Etruscans, a people living here after even the Etruscans' conquerors
had been conquered. And yet the urn is pleasing to us. We do not need
to know its past or to understand its symbolism. We do not need to
know the people who made it or the people living today who may be
closest to them. There are universals in human nature beyond survival
and reproduction. The human face expresses itself in the same basic
forms everywhere. The human eye glides over an artwork in a
predictable way. The human spirit reacts to the mystery of esthetic
beauty in a naturally human manner. And nowhere is death absent - ever
- from human life, or the idea of life ever entirely absent from the
idea of death.


We are born, so to speak, provisionally, it doesn't matter where. It
is only gradually that we compose within ourselves our true place of
origin so that we may be born there retrospectively and each day more
definitely. - Rilke