Like a Long-legged Fly Upon the Data Stream

source Eternally Cool

I remember helping my father-in-law repair some plumbing. Two pieces of old metal pipe had rusted together and firmly resisted all our cranking with enormous pipe wrenches.

“Let us remember the Gallic Wars,” he said in a waggish way, “and do as Caesar would do–march!”

We propped the stubborn pipe on the floor. He stood on one end and I stomped on the other. The pipes surrendered with a rusty screech and twisted apart.

I don’t know that anyone else has ever has used Caesar’s campaign dispatches as a plumber’s manual; and this afternoon of town-and-gown plumbing endeared my father-in-law to me forever. It endeared Caesar to me, too. His prose is keen, yet understated, unsentimental and yet still full of conviction.

Now I have not doubt at all that when Caesar stood on the northern shores of Gaul eyeing the white cliffs of Britannia, the data stream flowing into his campaign tent was enormous. He writes (in third person, as was the custom):

[…] yet he thought it would be of great service to him if he only entered the island, and saw into the character of the people, and got knowledge of their localities, harbors, and landing-places, all which were for the most part unknown to the Gauls. For neither does any one except merchants generally go thither, nor even to them was any portion of it known, except the sea-coast and those parts which are opposite to Gaul. Therefore, after having called up to him the merchants from all parts, he could learn neither what was the size of the island, nor what or how numerous were the nations which inhabited it, nor what system of war they followed, nor what customs they used, nor what harbors were convenient for a great number of large ships…He sends before him Caius Volusenus with a ship of war, to acquire a knowledge of these particulars before he in person should make a descent into the island, as he was convinced that this was a judicious measure…He orders him to visit as many states as he could […]

Caesar, Julius. Trans. W. A. McDevitte and W. S. Bohn. The Gallic Wars.

The 21st century is something altogether different, I hear again and again, for example in this video on the progression of information technology:


But it’s entirely misleading. There is a suspicious presupposition at work that says not only that we can have perfect knowledge, but that we should. Both of those notions are contestable. Still, it is a seductive message that traps many: “The twenty-first century demands that a literate person possess a wide range of abilities and competencies, many literacies,” says the U.S. National Council of the Teachers of English, in a position statement that reads like a manifesto. They say:

[…] Twenty-first century readers and writers need to

  • Develop proficiency with the tools of technology
  • Build relationships with others to pose and solve problems collaboratively and cross-culturally
  • Design and share information for global communities to meet a variety of purposes
  • Manage, analyze and synthesize multiple streams of simultaneous information
  • Create, critique, analyze, and evaluate multi-media texts
  • Attend to the ethical responsibilities required by these complex environments

I don’t see that those were “literacies” were any different for Caesar in the 1st century BCE.

There is, as I say, a lot of hullabaloo around new web technologies these days. I think maybe we need to go off and think for a bit, like Yeats imagines Caesar did:

The Long-legged Fly

That civilisation may not sink,
Its great battle lost,
Quiet the dog, tether the pony
To a distant post;
Our master Caesar is in the tent
Where the maps are spread,
His eyes fixed upon nothing,
A hand under his head.

Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
His mind moves upon silence.

That the topless towers be burnt
And men recall that face,
Move most gently if move you must
In this lonely place.
She thinks, part woman, three parts a child,
That nobody looks; her feet
Practise a tinker shuffle
Picked up on a street.

Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
Her mind moves upon silence.

That girls at puberty may find
The first Adam in their thought,
Shut the door of the Pope’s chapel,
Keep those children out.
There on that scaffolding reclines
Michael Angelo.
With no more sound than the mice make
His hand moves to and fro.

Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
His mind moves upon silence.

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