Category Archives: general

A tale of two texts

Text is like skin. There is one on the outer surface, the epidermis, and another, the dermis, lying underneath. The two layers may be perfectly connected and aligned, limpid and percolative, or they might get in another one’s way, blocking each other.

There is the text on the surface, on the hair side, so to speak, like the side of a piece of animal parchment. As you run your hand over it, you can feel the gentle bristle of where the hair used to be.

This text is superficial, lending itself to the easiest reading, always in contact with air, waterproof or porous, compelling us to engage with what lies beneath or leaving us indifferent. This is the text of the first interpretative act, the initial contact, the physical encounter, the bewitching foreplay.

The other text lies deep beneath the first one, occupying the flesh side of the parchment, smooth and creamy. It is the text of the connective tissue of meaning, never exposed, never vulnerable, but fertile in meaning, fed by the undercurrents of deep significance. This is the text that matters, protected by the integument of the first.

The second is also a trace of the first, the indelible vestige of a knocked-down temple. Shoshana Zuboff alludes to this when she writes about the problem of the two texts in the digital world: the text of our online presence, the tracks in the snow, the crumbs we leave behind; and the ghost-like text which remains after we’ve long gone, the illegible cipher of our former circumstance. Illegible by us, but not by those who built the online agora of our lonely steps. The first text may fade out, but the second is beyond our control, doomed to stand against us, scrawled in the strange cacography of our digital panopticon.

Just like skin, text can get bruised, bleed and lacerate.

The mighty pen

Everyone knows the pen is mightier than the sword. Yet, no monograph has been written on the various powers of the pen. Such a topic could be tackled like this:

The power to defame, malign and blacken: the poison pen, the dipping of the pen in gall.

The power to make unintentional mistakes, to get things wrong, there’s power in that: the slip of the pen.

The power of commitment, the ability to articulate thoughts and record them: putting pen to paper.

The power to preserve irrelevance: the pen pusher. Everyone knows one if they’re not one themselves.

The power to pursue ill-advised liaisons: the dipping of the nib in the office ink.

The power to allow situations to change before the ink is dry.

The power of superfluity, spilling much ink just because the ink is cheap and the pen-flow facile.

The power of thrust, creating ink slingers of topmost precision.

The power to kill insects. The Roman historian Suetonius tells how Emperor Domitian liked to spend hours alone in his study catching flies and stabbing them with a sharp pen, showing how one can practice neutralising adversaries even without spilling any ink, poison or gall.

Finally, the power to cause writer’s cramp from handling the pen too much like a sword.

 

 

 

 

Can writing save your life?

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Pliny the Elder writing his Natural History and dedicating it to Emperor Vespasian, Le Mans, Bibliothèque Municipale, 263, f. 10v

Writing has saved many mental lives, though it has also probably helped some lose theirs.

Writing dissident tracts during a totalitarian regime led to many deaths. Writing propagandist works during a totalitarian regime may have saved some lives. In those cases, it’s the quality of writing that seals the deal.

But has writing on its own actually saved anyone’s physical life?

If I say ancient calamity, you say … Vesuvius and Pompeii – arguably the most renowned disaster in ancient times and the world’s best-known archaeological site. We all know it.

We know about the effects of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD from the spectacular remains in Pompeii and Herculaneum. But the eruption itself comes to life in Pliny the Younger’s letters about the death of his uncle, Pliny the Elder. The breathtaking report of a breathtaking disaster. Literally.

Let me pause here for some unsolicited advice to forthcoming parents: avoid naming your children after your own name, especially if you’re famous. They might become famous themselves, and that will confuse later biographers and historians. Throughout the Middle Ages, the two Plinies, uncle and nephew, were thought to be one person. Pliny the Elder left us his monumental Natural History – the Wikipedia of ancient Rome -, while the younger Pliny bequeathed an impressive body of letters to us, including the famous 6.16 which describes the eruption.

Uncle Pliny learned about the eruption from his sister Plinia, the younger Pliny’s mother, whereupon the inquisitive naturalist expressed his desire to scrutinise the natural phenomenon more closely. Having ordered a galley – he had just been appointed fleet commander of the Roman navy -, he asked his nephew to join him. The latter refused.

But why?

When Mt Vesuvius blew up, the nephew was completing some homework in his uncle’s company. Neither uncle nor nephew understood how serious the situation was. For them, the eruption was like an eclipse – fascinating but harmless.

The nephew protested that he couldn’t go because he hadn’t finished his homework. His uncle had assigned him a written exercise, and he didn’t want to put it off.

Sometimes, FOMO doesn’t stand a chance against a good old Latin exercise.

The elder Pliny boarded the galley without his nephew, but just before setting sail, he had received an urgent message from friends across the Bay who were marooned and needed a ship to evacuate.

Pliny would never return from his ill-fated field trip, turned rescue mission.

On the other hand, a writing exercise saved the younger Pliny’s life. It saved both his life and the memory of his uncle’s last hours, for no other report of Pliny’s death survives.

Ratings

Ratings and truth are not the same and don’t always correlate.

If 100 people agree with a statement, that doesn’t make it true. They could all be wrong. In the realm of opinions, ratings may improve the probability rate, but they are not an indication of truth.

In the realm of facts and science, ratings establish truth and validity.

If 100 scientists agree with a theory based strictly on the scientific method, that theory is true and valid. The problem is that not everything scientists agree or disagree on is the result of the scientific method. The more a theory or an idea moves away from its grounding in fact, the more likely it is to be subject to disagreements, even within the same professional community. It may still enjoy the status of science, but that wouldn’t be the same thing.

Scientific paradigms shift when the gap between fact and theory becomes unbridgeable. Facts have nowhere to go, so the theory must leave. There is limited space in the room for too many theories. New theories are born all the time, but they settle into the property when the old ones have checked out.

But back to ratings. In our culture, ratings have been trying to usurp the sovereignty of truth and set themselves up as measures of credibility and value. You can’t be wrong if you follow a good crowd. And a good crowd usually has the numbers on its side. The bandwagon fallacy is one of the most resilient.

Everything gets rated because we feel everything needs to find its place in the pecking order. We rate movies just as we rate professors of history on rateyourlecturer.co.uk and Burgundy wines on Vivino. We give them a number, we assign them a value and find them a place.

It’s always easier to rate than to interpret, to count than to tell a compelling story.

The modesty imperative

It would be unbecoming for you to write a Wikipedia article about yourself. It would be inappropriate for a book editor to let you write a description of yourself on the back cover of the book you wrote, and they published.

It’s always more acceptable to let others do it for you and write stuff about you rather than do it yourself.

The trick is this: these people might not have anything to say or they might not matter. Why would anyone listen to them, even if they genuinely had something worth saying about you? And to find someone of consequence to say anything about you means you shouldn’t find yourself in a situation where you need their help.

This is the modesty imperative, and it is as crucial in publishing as the physical covers are for a book. It also has a fairly long pedigree. The ancient Roman poets Juvenal, Martial and Catullus used to refer to their own works self-deprecatingly as libelli or ‘little books’, although occasionally there was some measure of mock-modesty involved. That’s because the modesty imperative is never an honest business. No-one really wants to be modest when they promote themselves or their works. Although everyone expects everyone else to be. Hence everyone signs up to this strange Venetian carnival.

If the modesty imperative had traded at the Stock Exchange, its share value would never have been higher and stronger than it was in the Middle Ages. Far from the mock modesty of the ancient Roman tongue-in-check epigram or satire, the medieval literary modesty grew up to be what is known as a ‘topos’ or ‘commonplace’. This is basically a literary formula repeated across a certain genre. Because it’s contrived and expected, this kind of modesty is also false. But again, it’s expected, so authors brought up within the cloisters of Christian humility, make much of it in their writing, protesting their unworthiness, their unsuitability for the job and the fact that there are many others who are far better and more talented than they are.

You know you’ve left the medieval period behind when you find authors who become assertive and unashamedly proud of their own works – sometimes even aggressively bold (although some authors were like that in the Middle Ages, too). When an author is not ashamed to say ‘Yeah, I wrote this and I think it’s brilliant. You should read it!’

Our age hasn’t shed the heavy coat of the modesty imperative, it’s just made it a lot thinner and lighter. And I’m guessing we’ll never outgrow it because modesty is really at the heart of not just our literature, but of our social and political life as well.

Preaching to the choir

Anything goes? Not really. Anything may go, but not at any point. There is a time and place for everything, and a season for everything under heaven, to paraphrase the Ecclesiast.

Ancient rhetoric was equipped with three notions of testing the appropriateness of any speech. These were kairos, decorum and the audience. I say ancient rhetoric, but actually these three categories apply today, and I suppose they will always have force as long as humans use speech (or written text) to accuse or defend, exhort or dissuade, praise or blame.

Kairos commands the right moment. It defines the proper time for action, the moment when words become crossbow bolts on the lips of the speaker. The best speech will fail if it’s delivered at the wrong moment. Timing is everything, as any successful speaker will tell you. A moment too early or too late, and the words will miss their target, falling on deaf or overexcited ears. Or on no ears at all.

Decorum measures the circumstances, looking more widely at what words are used, the values they embody, the ideas they promote. It also tracks the suitability of an idea in the wider context in which it is used. A decorous speech is not necessarily one made in good taste, modest, or comme-il-faut, but one which matches the expectations.

Finally, ‘audience’ is, well, about the kind of audience a speech is designed for. There is no speech without an audience, and a speech without an intended audience is like a rock drifting through space, lost in its own deluded inertia.

What’s the point of preaching if it’s to the choir or to the already converted?

The painted ancient statue

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The graceful Peplos Kore, the statue of an ancient Greek girl, once stood on the Acropolis in Athens. It was lavishly painted. Here, a reconstruction by Swiss painter Émile Gilliéron in the 1900s. Copyright Greece Is

The transmission of ancient texts follows what may be called the painted ancient statue effect. It is a well-known fact that most statues of ancient Greece and Rome as well as those which were still being carved in the medieval West were not left blank as we see them today in museums, but were lavishly painted over in natural pigments which have since faded out.

The statue is there, but something is missing. The presence, intention and splendour of a world long vanished survive, but it’s just a trace. That world may never be experienced through its relics, however beautiful and exemplary they may be.

Ancient texts are like these statues. A few facts: the ancient world produced far more written works than the ones which have come down to us, to the effect that what survives today is a sample of the body of texts that used to circulate in the classical world; nearly all of the works which survived Late Antiquity (3rd-7th centuries AD) were reunited during the Renaissance and handed down to us, so that very few classical texts were lost during the Middle Ages.

Our literary access to the classical past is like looking at sculptures by Lysippus, Phidias or Praxiteles, all famous sculptors of ancient Greece, and imagining the world which could house such treasures and sustain the people who marvelled at their beauty. That road is partially blocked by our imperfect knowledge and faulty ability to see these sculptures arrayed in painted glory and the eyes that gazed upon them.