“The following day they did go to the Valle Giulia. They saw the stone coffins, the sarcophagi, adorned with statues and terracotta reliefs showing the ancient Etruscan dead living merrily, eating, drinking, carousing, embracing their women, and spreading the Etruscan gospel, which in their great wisdom they had never written down, never pausing long enough to develop a literature to express their cultural singularity. Yet their way was unmistakably carved on their statues’ faces: only the moment counts, and the beauty of the moment shall never pass.
Waldheim showed him wide-lipped vessels. It was from these that the ancient Italians drank their wine, as the inscription said: Foied vinom pipafo, cra carefo.
“Today I drink wine, tomorrow I won’t have any,” Waldheim translated. “Now, tell me, can there be anything as short and sweet? This sentence in its archaic splendor is as definitive, as impregnable as polygonal city walls, as the erections of the Cyclops. Foied vinom pipafo, cra carefo.”
“I don’t get it,” Mihály pretended. “I always thought the Greeks were terrified of death. The Greeks of Homer were never consoled much by an after-life, if my memory of Rohde’s book is correct. And the Etruscans who lived for the moment were even more afraid of death.”
“All that is true. These people were probably a great deal more afraid of death than we are. Civilization gives us such ready-made psychological templates that most of our lives we’re able to forget that one of these days we’re going to die. Eventually we’ll put it out of minds as we have God’s existence. This is civilization. But for ancient man, nothing was more immediate than death and the dead, whose shrouded after-life, destiny, vengeance, continually obsessed them. They were immensely afraid of death and the dead, except their psyches were much more ambivalent than ours. The great contraries lay closer to each other then. Death-fear and death-wish were more than just neighbors, and many times the fear was a wish and the wish a fear.”
Antal Szerb: Traveler and moonlight, 1937