My list of Lost Media “Holy Grails” ended up being longer than I anticipated, so I spun off the last few entries into this standalone post.
It probably goes without saying, but there are far more lost works of the written word than any other medium due to the fact that we’ve known how to write for thousands of years, but have only been recording audio-video for a little over one hundred. This in turn makes ancient lost media more exciting to speculate about, considering almost anything has the potential to impact history in significant ways over that amount of time. It is estimated that 99% of all material that has ever been communicated via writing is now lost to us, but the true number is probably much higher. There are “known unknowns” which are lost manuscripts that are mentioned and/or quoted in other texts which do survive. But there are also an untold number of “unknown unknowns” which are manuscripts that are not mentioned in any surviving text, so we have no way to know they ever even existed. When it comes to the latter, we have no way of knowing the true volume of what we’ve lost access to.
Unfortunately I’ve seen a lot of ignorant statements regarding ancient lost media while casually researching the subject online. I’ve seen blog posts dismissing the lost Epic Cycle poems of the Greco-Roman world because “they weren’t ever popular anyway.” On a Reddit discussion about the burning of the Library of Alexandria, someone had the audacity to say “nothing of much values was lost” and “it’s not like there was a manual of how to get to the moon.” [Paraphrasing from memory of course.] It blows my mind how closed minded one must be to offhandedly dismiss a massive body of work when you don’t even know what was in it. It is that mistaken assumption which I want to address for the remainder of this introduction, just in case anyone reading shares similar sentiments.
In the first place, even if the observational treatises and mathematical formulas contained within the libraries of Alexandria or Baghdad would be primitive/already known by our 21st Century standards, the point is humanity probably had to waste centuries for other great minds to independently come to the same conclusions. Imagine if we, collectively, had access to Archimedes’ temporarily lost writing to work off of during the Middle Ages and Early Modern Period? It’s conceivable then that our understanding of math would be far more advanced today since we would not have had to waste so many years rebuilding out base knowledge again from scratch. Mathematicians would have had access to that knowledge to work from and could have focused on different problems as a result, so our understanding of the subject would have progressed further than it has. The same applies to any philosophy books we may have lost–they could have, given time, inspired future thinkers and ideologies that benefited us in untold ways and propelled our intellectual discourse to a higher level than it is today.
Focusing on fiction now, let’s assume that all works we lost were unpopular and subpar. Even if that’s true, these stories would still provide a valuable insight into the imagination of the ancient world, and perhaps tangential clues into their cultures and values. They would have provided a source of inspiration to humans over thousands of years, who might have reworked those stories into stronger adaptations, or written their own unique stories based on them. Perhaps Renaissance painters might have created a beautiful picture or sculpture based on an iconic scene in those stories which might now be considered a masterpiece in its own right. All of these endeavors, spurred on by that one origin point, now lost, would have enriched our cultural heritage exponentially.
Finally, just because a story isn’t immediately popular at the time of conception doesn’t mean it can’t find an audience at a later time. For a modern example, Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings took years to gain recognition but eventually had a huge influence on successive generations. Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life took decades to improve their reputations from mediocre efforts to their respective creators’ magnum opuses. To return to the ancient world again for a more pertinent case, Beowulf ‘s value as a story were largely ignored by audiences and scholars until JRR Tolkien praised its merits and cited it as an influence in his own writing. By allowing these works of art to become forgotten we’ve denied ourselves the ability to rediscover and finally appreciate overlooked would-be masterpieces unappreciated in their own time. I have no doubt the tastes and sensibilities of a 21st Century audience is different than that of the ancient Greco-Roman world, and we might have enjoyed several stories from that time which never found an audience among their contemporaries.
In short, we should not be so quick to dismiss the potential merits of what our culture has lost over centuries due to our collective greed and carelessness. The true magnitude of this tragedy is incalculable.
The vast majority of works from history are now lost to us, from mathematical analyses to philosophical monologues to music. These are some of the few which stimulated my imagination the most. Admittedly, this is a Western-centric list but I’m not very familiar with Eastern history yet.
Lost Books of the Bible (The Gospel of Eve)
A great many early Judeo-Christian books have been lost to time. Some, like The Book of the Wars of the Lord are referenced in the Old Testament. Others, like The Gospel of Judas or The Gospel of Peter, were written significantly later than their would-be peers from the New Testament. Most of the latter were rendered obscure even in ancient times due to early church leaders declaring them heretical. The early days of Christianity, before the ultimate acceptance of Catholicism and canonization of the Bible is an interesting mishmash of interpretations regarding Jesus. It’s fascinating to think how our world today would be different if, say, The Shepherd of Hermas had made the cut or if perhaps, Revelation did not. Imagine the butterfly effect if the church leaders had chosen The Gospel of Thomas as a complement to the Synoptic Gospels as opposed to John for example. For better or worse, the Bible is the most influential book of all time, so even minute additions or subtractions regarding this large body of disconnected books would have far reaching consequences on our history and culture. It’s also interesting to consider what the many different early Christian sects, like Arianism, Adoptionism or Gnosticism would have included or rejected in their Bibilical canon had they won the culture war.
With this extended introduction out of the way, the most thought-provoking of these apocryphal texts which I’m aware of is The Gospel of Eve. It was supposedly a Gnostic text and was criticized for allegedly encouraging free love among its adherents. Assuming that accusation is true, I don’t see why love should be considered sinful. Frankly, I believe the world would be a better place today if we followed a path similar to Eve as opposed to the asceticism and shame espoused by Augustine and the Catholics. If sex and physical pleasure were not demonized, we might have a healthier, happier outlook regarding ourselves and specifically romantic relationships. Maybe there’d be less self-loathing among religious types for feeling lust towards women and in turn, sexism might be less prevalent. We might not have so many priests who (denied the ability to take a partner or express physical intimacy) take out their sexual frustrations on nuns and children. What a world that would be.
Lost Historical Accounts (Ab Urbe Condita)
A lot of historical facts are lost to us, obviously. As a fan of Ancient Carthage, I certainly mourn the loss of Carthaginian history with the city’s wholesale destruction by the Romans. But, despite their victory in the Punic Wars and subsequent conquest over most of the known Western world, the Romans have some gaps in their historiography as well. Where some periods, such as the late Republic and early Empire are decently well-understood, several stretches of time during the early Republic and late Empire are far less documented. This is best illustrated by the missing volumes of Livy’s Ab Urbe Condita (From the Founding of the City) which relayed Rome’s story from Aeneas to Augustus. Only 35 out of 142 books survive. I shouldn’t have to explain the value in understanding our history, or how the butterfly effect could have changed everything. Politicians, storytellers and artists take inspiration from anecdotes of Greco-Roman history all the time; imagine how much richer our culture might be with this lost information intact?
Lost Epic Poetry (Titanomachy)
There were six other poems in the so-called Epic Cycle which told the entire story of the Trojan War. Of these, only the two attributed to Homer, the Iliad and Odyssey, survive. While there’s compelling evidence that the other six were not very popular even in their own time, that’s still quite a significant loss considering that the two we have formed a large bedrock of the Western literary canon. Perhaps the next most famous example is the four-poem Theban Cycle, which also survives only in fragments. Another incalculable casualty of time comes in the form of Hesiod’s Theogony and Catalogue of Women which would have laid out the genealogies for many of Greece’s mythological heroes and paramours. A more recent work is the Pharsalia, which was either unfinished or partially missing, and tells the story of the civil wars between Julius Caesar and the Republicans. The one single epic which interests me the most, however, is that which gives its name to this section–the Titanomachy, or War of the Gods. This epic told the story of the Olympians under the leadership of Zeus overthrowing the Titans, led by Chronus.
Lost Lyrical Poetry (Sappho of Lesbos)
Sappho of Lesbos is the perfect example of why we cannot and should not dismiss lost ancient literature wholesale as “unpopular” and/or “lost for a reason (IE not good.)” Her lyric poetry was well-regarded in its time, such that she was even given the nickname “the tenth muse.” While Sappho is said to have written “10,000 lines” of poetry in her lifetime, fewer than one tenth of that number remains for us to enjoy. Her sexuality is still a topic of dispute among historians, but correctly or not, she has been interpreted as a symbol of female homosexual love. (This is yet another example of art(ists) gaining new appreciation long after their time, as lesbians gain acceptance in mainstream society and this interpretation of Sappho is no longer considered scandalous.) The words Sapphic and lesbian are based on her legacy.
Lost Tragedies (Euripides)
There have been hundreds of lost Greek tragedies that we know of. Finding information about the contents of them online was harder than I expected, but based on what I was able to read, I’m most interested in the lost plays of Euripides. According to the article I’ve embedded directly above, he wrote an alternative play about Oedipus, with the focus on himself and Jocasta (his mother turned wife) as opposed to the man alone. Reframing this iconic story as that of a tragic romance between two people who never should have gotten together, yet whose love is still real nonetheless, sounds fascinating. It’s the perfect setup for some great interpersonal drama and moral ambiguity–the bedrock for most of my favorite stories. Euripides also wrote a play about the Trojan War hero Protesilaus where his wife is able to bring him back to life for a day. These two plays in particular sound like ancient counterparts of Vertigo and perhaps even Femina Ridens–in other words, right up my alley.
Lost Science (Aristarchus on Heliocentrism)
There was one lone voice of reason, well ahead of his time, who postulated not only that the Earth revolved around the Sun but that stars were similar to the Sun, just further away. His name was Aristarchus and all that survives of his essay on the subject is a brief mention from Archimedes. While some may argue “oh what’s the big deal, we figured that out anyway!” I would counter that this is a great example of what I discussed in the intro to this post. If this man had been listened to in his time, or soon after, the field of astronomy (and perhaps tangential subjects like religion) could have advanced much faster. Sure, his contemporaries didn’t get it but if the original text, with its persuasive scientific reasoning, had survived it may have convinced people in the centuries immediately following to reconsider. In any case, the existence of something like this begs the question–how many other great minds were far ahead of the curve in other subjects but ignored in their own time? Did any of them deduce some great Earth-shattering truth which also could have advanced society had they been more widely read?
There’s a good deal of modern lost literature such as F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Love of the Last Tycoon, JD Salinger’s unpublished works, and Truman Capote’s Answered Prayers. But none of them really struck a chord with me in the same way as this…
Lost Internet Sites (The IMDb Forums)
When IMDb officially destroyed its message boards I was devastated. I wanted to go back before the takedown and save some of the conversations I had contributed to, but they ended up pulling them even before the stated deadline. To this day, I consider this the most boneheaded move any website has ever made. No other film aggregate has such an exhaustive list of media available all in one place, much less the infrastructure to leave standalone reviews as well as ongoing conversations in the forums. Now where do you go if you want to discuss a classic film, old TV show or ask a question about an obscure movie you discovered? Yeah, there’s certain fan forums and subreddits but it’s not the same. (For one thing, Reddit archives threads after 6 months so if they don’t blow up over night, the conversation is over before it begins.) Older and more oblique media won’t have that online presence anyway, and are now even harder to talk about, or find relevant information for.*
To provide some context into why it was such a devastating loss, I had used the site for 12 years at the time of the “forum-excision.” I discovered IMDb for the first time in ~2005 when I rented a nostalgic favorite, Goodburger, from the local Blockbuster (remember those?) and fell in love with the film all over again. I wanted to talk about it with people and the IMDb forums came up in a Google search. Since then, anytime I watched a movie for the first time, I’d check the applicable forum and see what other people had to say about it. I had some great times reading people’s Pulp Fiction analyses, clowning around with the so-called “Wicked Kraken Alliance” on the Pirates of the Caribbean boards and speculating on the nature of lost media like The Day the Clown Cried. On the Seinfeld boards, we had this hilarious “one line per post story” going on, where we all collectively wrote an episode together about Kramer opening a bagel shop (Cosmo Kragels) out of his window with a bucket, pulley and tin can radio running down to the sidewalk. Taking part in the renewed interest and discussion surrounding It’s a Wonderful Life every December was a minor annual tradition for me as well.
Over the years, I had seen and contributed to some great discussions about Vertigo, Empire Strikes Back and Godfather II among others, all of which deeply enhanced my appreciation for each of those films. It was reading through the threads after seeing Vertigo the first time when I was 13 that convinced me to watch it again after a lackluster first impression. (Of course now, after repeated viewings, it’s my all-time favorite movie.) I first heard about the “Rocco betrayed Mike” theory on the Godfather II boards. I learned that Lawrence was actually raped at the hands of the Turks in Lawrence of Arabia. (My 13 year old psyche was too naive to understand the subtext the first time around.) It really bums me out that I never got to have those same kind of insightful conversations about the movies I’ve discovered since. I’d have loved to see what the (largely) intelligent people of IMDb had to say about Femina Ridens, The Lickerish Quartet, Lolita, The Cincinnati Kid, Big Hand for a Little Lady, Star Trek: The Next Generation and Belladonna of Sadness.
Perhaps most significantly of all, the IMDb forums inspired me to explore the best and worst which the medium of motion pictures has to offer. It was through IMDb’s Top 250 that I became intrigued by classic, revered films; I printed out that list when I was 13 and tried to track down as many of them as I could to watch. This pursuit to experience the “best films ever made” never really ended, it became an ongoing artistic curiosity. Conversely, the Bottom 100 introduced me to Mystery Science Theater 3000 which became one of my favorite shows. (That and trashy B-Grade schlock which I quickly learned to appreciate on its own merits.)
I remember seeing a lot of frustratingly dismissive or condescending articles online about the closure of the forums. These smug internet “journalists” said, among other things, that the message boards were antiquated because “people can just talk about movies on Facebook.” They’re clearly not film buffs and have no idea how hard it is to even find any ongoing discussions about certain non-mainstream media on social media sites.* Even if you do, the dialogue is always adversarial and shallow due to the different user base which populates Twitter or Facebook. And you’ll never find anything about any film that’s more than 10 years old–except maybe some SJWs demanding it be cancelled or censored. I thought Reddit might serve as a decent alternative but good luck finding any substantive observations about anything that isn’t a widely acknowledged classic. (IE, you’ll find threads about Casablanca, sure, but never for The Anonymous Venetian.) Worse, Reddit threads lock after six months, so unless you find those conversations right away you won’t be able to contribute and potentially fruitful discussions are artificially killed off before they can reach their natural conclusion.
This was a really sad day for the internet, and IMDb made itself almost entirely irrelevant due to this decision. Unfortunately, it’s far from the only case of a great website being neutered or lost entirely because the servers went down, the domain expired or a short-sighted redesign by the powers that be. Sure, alternatives exist in theory, but once an established community is uprooted it will never fully coalesce again; different sites have different users and subsequently different “cultures” so it’s never the same. I could list some other casualties like Geocities, but I don’t have as big of a connection with them. I know there’s several small websites which I’m sure nobody else remembers or could ever identify that I can’t find anymore. One example which comes to mind is this awesome Ouija board site that had user-submitted stories. They were very intriguing and I made my way through about half of them before losing track of the site. Any other Ouija sites I’ve found that had stories were nowhere near as plausible or chilling.
The idea that you can find anything online kinda pisses me off for this reason. I think it lulls people into a false sense of security, believing that all media which exists nowadays is safe because “if it’s online, it’s forever.” A lot of stuff, across genres and decades, has never been uploaded online and/or is extremely hard to find there. Hell, even if stuff is online now, that’s no guarantee of its longevity since servers can go down, websites can fail, and copyright notices can bully people who host content. If nobody backed any of it up while it was available, these events can be a massacre, killing Gigabytes worth of information. It always shocks me when I browse my YouTube “Favorites” and “Watch Later” lists and see all the newly deleted videos for example. The key is constant vigilance and constant backups same as it was in the pre-digital world. There ought to be some kind of committee dedicated to preserving all media if there isn’t already. There is the Library of Congress, the Paley Center for Media and more who might be able to take on the responsibility with some extra funding. There’s the massive data-center in Utah which, rather than spying on all of our personal data, could be put to good use backing up digital media and digital safety copies of analog media wholesale.
*ASIDE: I would like to share this last anecdote as a concrete example of why the IMDb forums were irreplaceable and saying “oh just talk about it on Facebook” doesn’t cut it. One board I had wanted to archive before it was too late was for Clarissa Explains It All. We had a great dialogue going on there with people like me, who genuinely love the show, coming together to talk about our memories and what it meant to us. Someone even wrote a brief fanfiction in the forum which included an adorable moment between Clarissa and her dad which I found to be true to their dynamic in the series. I’ve never found another website or group of people in real life whom I could discuss this particular show with. Any mentions on Reddit, for example, were limited to shallow “remember this?? #nostalgia!” Meanwhile none of my friends remember anything on Nick from before about 1999–which includes Clarissa as reruns were pulled as of ’97. It meant a lot to me to be able to find a group like that where I could share my niche interest and get meaningful feedback. In fact it was through those boards that I found a link to buy bootleg DVDs of the series.