Mr. No Depth Perception Man

There is an old SNL skit of the aforementioned title, in which a hapless suburbanite can only see in 2-D. He makes terribly awkward comments about his guests, assuming that he does so without the offended party being aware. An excerpt:

Mr. No Depth Perception Man: I can’t believe Brenda’s dating this loser! You know what she’s after, right?! I bet he’s got money, or something! [the “loser” he’s talking about is 7-8 feet away, looking quite awkward at his comments].

[Embarrassed Guest who knows the “loser” tries to get him to be quiet].

Mr. No Depth Perception Man: What are you worried about? Relax! He can’t hear me–he’s way down there!

I thought of the sketch when reading Leo Deuel’s enlightening and eminently fair Memoirs of Heinrich Schliemann. The book intersperses Schliemann’s own writing with commentary and context from Deuel throughout. This is needed to get an accurate picture, because Schliemann is, alas, not a reliable narrator–much less reliable than most.

I say, “alas,” because I confess to liking Schliemann, despite his enormous faults. Most modern history films I have seen that discuss him focus almost entirely on those faults (which I will get to) and basically pass by his vast contribution to the study of the ancient world and archaeology itself. He possessed an enormous talent for languages and learned several of them. He did this through optimism, the ability to engage in drudgery, and enormous exertions of will and energy–truly the quintessential 19th century man.*

Such men are out of fashion in our day, but I admit that I am not terribly sad that they are mostly gone. Such people are charming but also exhausting. Their vices, though perhaps childlike in a way, are all the more infuriating for the fact that they seem completely blind to them.** Schliemmann lived in a two dimensional world.

For example . . .

To get permission for his ground-breaking (zing!) work at Troy, Schliemann had to promise to turn over all he found to a museum being planned in Instanbul. He ended up giving them very little. As to the famous, “Treasure of Priam,” he very intentionally hid it from the Turkish authorities. His escape with various relics from the past got his Turkish overseer in a lot of trouble. Schliemann was a bit bothered by this, but it never crossed his mind to think of the artifacts as belonging to anyone but himself. Since I don’t think we can assume that Schliemann was directly evil, I suppose this was an unfortunate byproduct of his enormous self-will.

Schliemann uncovered some spectacular finds but often misinterpreted their significance. His errors would be easily excusable as a mistake or misguided educated guess. In Schliemann’s case, his mistakes came from his enormous though unconscious self-regard. Almost incredibly, his main justification, for example, for his claim that he had uncovered Agamemmnon himself at Mycenae was that the death mask he uncovered, “looks just as I imagined [Agamemmnon].” For Schliemann, his own imagination was all the “evidence” he needed.

Perhaps Schliemann’s daughter might sum him up best, with this brief recollection:

My early years living with this explosive, dedicated, and tireless man of genius was a stern trial . . . . Throughout my own girlhood he would often get me up at 5:00 in the morning in winter to ride horseback five miles to go swim in the sea, as he himself did every day. He built us a palace to live in, but it contained not one stick of comfortable furniture. He worked and studied standing at a high bookkeeper’s desk. As a gentle hint, Mother made him a present of an armchair, but he banished it to the garden.

His concern with health was fanatical. When my younger brother was baptized, with many guests solemnly assembled in church, my father suddenly whisked out a thermometer and took the temperature of the holy water. There was a great commotion; the priest was outraged. It took my mother’s gentle intervention to reinvest the water with holiness.

Beneath these imperious traits Father was warmhearted and generous to a fault. He was humble, too, in his own way.

After reviewing his life, I am hard-pressed to find a great deal of “humility” in Schliemann. Schliemann did mature a bit with each passing archaeological dig, both in his methods, and–by the end he let others take credit for their own discoveries! Perhaps Schliemann also possessed a humility towards the past, a virtue of his that should return.

Some of Schliemmann’s comments about his Greek workers grabbed my eye. It bothered him that they would not work on Sundays, but this he understood to a degree. What he could not understand was their refusal to work on certain other days, such as the festival of certain saints.

I suggested a likeness of Schliemann to a certain short-lived SNL character. He absolutely had his own superstitions, though he proceeded through life entirely unaware of them. Chief among Schliemann’s suerstitions I already mentioned, namely the implicit trust in his own imagination. So strong was this trust that it led him to declare that some discoveries of others were in fact his own!

We cannot say that this was an example of cultural bias or prejudice. Schliemann nearly worshipped Greece, or at least his idea of it. He married a Greek woman and gave his two children ancient Greek names (Andromache and Agamemmnon). He lived in Athens for much of his later life. Rather, it was the customs, or beliefs, that he could not understand. He wrote in his diary that,

There have been, including today, three great and two lesser Greek church festivals, so that out of these 12 days I have had in reality only seven days of work. Poor as the people are, and as they would like to work, it is impossible to persuade them to do so on feast days, even if it be the day of some unimportant saint . . . . I try to persuade the poor creatures to set their superstition aside for higher wages.

Even a cursory look at Schilemann’s life reveals at least a few “superstitions” of his own. Naturally, it depends on how one should define such a thing. But surely uncritical assumption that we can define reality for ourselves fits any reasonable description of “superstition.”

I am reminded of a famous passage in Plato’s Phaedrus in which Socrates and Phaedrus are walking through the city and come upon the supposed site of ancient story involving the gods. Phaedrus asks if Socrates believes the story, and he replies,

The wise are doubtful, and I should be singular if, like them, I too doubted. . . . Now if one were skeptical [about all stories] and would fain reduce them one after another to the rules of probability, this sort of crude philosophy will take up a great deal of time. Now I have no leisure for such inquiries. Do you wish to know why? I must first know myself, as the Delphian inscription says; to be curious about that which is not my concern, while I am still in ignorance about myself, would be ridiculous. And therefore I bid farewell to all this; the common opinion is enough for me.

If we might take another example of the “common opinion . . . ”

A long standing tradition states that Joseph of Arimethea came to Britain as a missionary shortly after Christ’s resurrection. Other parts of the story indicate that Joseph obtained his wealth via trade in tin, and likely made many excursions to the island for his business. Some parts of the tale indicate that Jesus Himself traveled with Joseph (His uncle) as a young boy on an adventure, and still some other parts of the tale say that the Virgin Mother accompanied Joseph on his missionary journey to the island.

Most of us might be inclined to doubt the whole story, if not at least some of its parts. No doubt Schliemann would call it “superstition.” And yet, the belief of Britain being evangelized quite early in the first century A.D. dates back to St. Clement of Rome, and St. Irenaeus, Tertullian, St. Athanasius, St. Augustine and others all testify to this fact. A great deal more evidence for this “superstitious tradition” may exist than we previously thought–such is the conclusion of Lionel Lewis in his informative work on St. Joseph and the Glastonbury tradition. Not all details of the traditional story have the same level of evidence for their historicity, but still, much more exists than we might suppose.

Schliemann’s intensely narrow passion helped him ignite a whole era of discovery about the ancient world. Indeed, many before him might have regarded some kind of historical belief in a Trojan War as a superstition backed only by “tradition.” Alas for him that this narrowness of vision closed him off to world’s outside of his own.

The “common opinion” perhaps might be true in the case of St. Joseph of Arimethea, just as it was about the Trojan War–as further excavations at Schliemann’s site have only further confirmed at least a rudimentary historical context to Homer’s tale. I wonder if Schliemann could grant the same to Greek saints of the Church–even the “unimportant” ones.


*England “ruled the world” during Schliemann’s era, and it is perhaps no coincidence that it was England that gave him the most favorable reception to his work. Schliemann might be described almost as an incarnation of England itself in all of their virtues and faults of the Victorian era.

**One thinks of the great line uttered by Patton in the Patton movie where he states to General Bradley, “Hell, I know I’m a prima dona! I admit it! What I can’t stand about Monty [General Bernard Montgomery] is that he won’t admit it!”

Add to the Discussion

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s