Póthos

Words that express concepts.

Póthos is a Greek word that expresses a desire of what is absent or unattainable. In Greek it refers to the unrest of unrequited lovers and the anguish of mourning, although different linguists refer to it as a sensation of longing in general, as it was perhaps the case for Macedonians.

For example, Irene Vallejo in her elegant essay “Infinity in a Reed” uses the word Póthos to illustrate the obsession of Alexander the Great to conquer the world. She describes how Alexander was restless, always seeking to go further in his conquests; he was not even 30 and he had already begun to fear the world would not be enough. Plutarch wrote about how Alexander founded seventy cities, many of them named Alexandria. When he was 25 he had defeated the largest army of his time and taken hold of the treasure of the Persian Empire. He could make real his most unbridled fantasies of success: in only eight years he had conquered Anatolia, Persia, Egypt, Central Asia, India; nonetheless, it was never enough. He kept going further through regions that no other Greek had walked before, moved by his endless desire for fame and admiration. He died soon after in Babylonia, when he was 32 having but only a shaky empire and without achieving his dream to possess the entire earth.

Nevertheless, Vallejo proposes an interesting thesis in her essay. She says that when Ptolemy I, Alexander’s loyal friend, took the task to erect the Great Library of Alexandria. The idea of creating a universal library was conceived in Alexander’s mind as such dream was as vast as his ambition. Gathering all the existing books could be a symbol, a mental and peaceful way of possessing the world.

The Great Library made true the finest part of Alexander’s dream, its universality, his unusual desire of fusion. In the Great Library, there were no borders; it was a mental territory where the words of the Greeks, Jews, Egyptians, Iranians and Indians could cohabit and offer an infinite spectrum of possibilities in the same space.

The golden age of the Great Library concurred with the reigns of Ptolemy I to IV. In fact, Ptolemy III built a second library outside the palace district. The Great Library was reserved for scholars, while the second library was the first public library actually open to everyone, rich and poor, elites and unprivileged, free people and slaves. Something that perhaps could be described as a Democratic Republic of Books.

Much has been written about the magnificent and expansive universe of books. I could not say more, but maybe just add that for me reading them represents a ritual, it creates an intimate communication, a vibrant silence that conveys independent ideas to the world that surrounds me. . . books enfold the magic of freedom.

My books (which do not know that I exist)
are so part of me as this gray-templed face with gray eyes
which I vainly search in windows
and run my concave hand over them.”
Jorge Luis Borges

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