Much of the food we buy in grocery stores is stamped with a date to indicate how fresh the food is. When our food gets too old, we throw it out, and we don’t feel guilty about doing so. “I can’t eat that — it’s expired.” So we go back to the store and try something new.
Clearly, food is not writing. Really old food is hard to find, and hardly edible, but really old texts abound. The world’s oldest known work of literature, the epic of Gilgamesh, was written on clay tablets and has since been copied and translated so it’s available to us to read now, over 3,000 years after it was written. And long before stories were written down, they were transmitted orally (for example, these stories from India).
In other words, writings never rot. But maybe they grow stale.
What does stale mean in terms of texts? Again, like food, maybe stale writing is just not tasty, not appealing. Corn chips that are soggy, and yogurt that is crisp, are not foods we’d expect others to eat. But as a culture, we keep publishing the really old texts, and teaching them as if they still have nutritive value for our students.
And I’m not really going to claim here that we should throw out all of the old texts. But I want to suggest that maybe we don’t need to revere the old texts just because they’re old. The reason that the stories in these old texts have survived is because, unlike an egg or a loaf of bread, these stories are ideas, and as such never live and never die. We take in freshly made things to nourish our bodies, and yet some of the ideas we still use to categorize, distinguish, and model our experiences and our world are thousands of years old.
For example, The Epic of Gilgamesh contains (in this translation of Tablet VII) a narrative that includes a character praying to a deity, a character describing a dream of an afterlife, and a character grieving over another character’s death. Many of our stories still have these things, and many contemporary people still do these things. Perhaps these things have lasted so long because they are a part of what could be called human nature. On the other hand, perhaps these are simply old ideas that have yet to be replaced by better ways of understanding reality and human experience.
So I don’t wish to throw these old texts onto the compost pile with the wilted lettuce — I don’t want to say these ideas are actually past their expiration dates. But maybe we could ask whether some of these ideas are past their “Best By” dates, and maybe we should try new ways of looking at and conceiving of the world.