Monthly Archives: March 2012

Someone once said to me that learning a language involves acting the part of a native speaker. The language in question was Russian, and its seductive appeal can only be strengthened by prior reading of Pushkin and Dostoeyevsky, even in translation. My own experience is that this second skin becomes second nature and then vanishes altogether. Whatever drew us to spend time learning a whole language makes us perceive its strange new world rosily. The glow fades and the pathos of distance turns out to have been an optical illusion. People are just people, possibly in circumstances quite different from those we were used to before we met them. The parallel question is how the earnest outsider is perceived by the natives. Perhaps when he thinks he is joining them most authentically, he seems all the more exotic and other to them, a person who only exists as a larger-than-life parody of a misapprehension. What would lead the natives to even suspect that misapprehension is an introjection — of them?


The latest issue of the New York Review has a piece by Freeman Dyson on crackpot science, in which he makes a dig at string theory and gives the undoubted eccentrics full credit for creative flair and sincerity. There’s also one on Brazil’s Indian Policy, a depressing read which reminded me of a review elsewhere of a new book by Daniel Everett, a missionary turned linguist cum ethnographer who has studied the Pirahã tribe in the Amazon and is opposed to the predominant theory of Noam Chomsky that all languages are hardwired in the brain as “universal grammar”. Instead he argues it is an “invention”. This perspective is similar to the Chicago School which describes language as being governed by very simple rules, with the rest little more than collocation. Far from reducing the grandeur of language, this leaves it free to be the vehicle of culture rather than mere variations on a given theme. Like saying homosexuality is a splendid daring adoption become second nature, not inborn and immutable, there are political gains and losses. For Chomsky the innateness of language fits with his view of the dignity of man as universal and inalienable; but this doesn’t do justice to the wilful quirkiness we delight in, especially in languages we don’t yet know very well. I haven’t read either of Everett’s books, but my impression is he thinks the Pirahã have important insights into life that we lack. They are constantly smiling and laughing, even though they tend to die of malaria by their mid-forties without any help at all from the white man. Their language has no syntax to grasp the remote past or future. Chomsky doubtless thinks of Everett as a crackpot, or at best a careless amateur.

Someone warned me blogging can be addictive, a thought that surprised me at first. There is surely a strong tendency for the thing to fizzle out and die, especially if hardly anyone is reading it. But this shows signs of becoming a digest of whatever caught my eye in the LRB or the New York Review. Against that current, I was fascinated by Ian McEwan’s piece in the Guardian a few days ago on the place of originality in science and literature. Both stand on the shoulders of giants, or to use another metaphor, both are essentially collective dialogues. Yet the joyous sense of creation, even if it is as a conduit for the Muses or the Zeitgeist, that frenzied birth of splendid coherence, is almost divine. McEwan’s examples are taken especially from physics, and he gives an indirect sense of the beauty of several great discoveries that only really make sense with an awful lot more background. That difficulty of understanding he attributes to our origin on a roughly Euclidean savannah in Africa, which would reduce Kant’s Copernican revolution to a just-so story from evolutionary psychology.

The personal computer is a sorry tool. A tool should lie easy in the hand, though it may take years to master. The great trick with computers is the interface, and to some extent it must conceal what’s going on inside: we don’t want to be bothered with that, we want to write, administer, communicate, gather information or be entertained. But the cost lies in the ugliness of the tools blissful indifference demands. There are two aspects to this. The software often tries to do too much, for instance, bringing together editing and graphical design seems like a benefit, but the tasks would probably be done better separately; both also require skills that the computer itself cannot teach. Secondly, when things don’t work there’s often no way to fix them, and error messages are confusing because they don’t offer real choices. Knowledge means learning whether “OK” or “Cancel” will make the irritating boxes go away sooner. The alternative to putting up with this lumbering, clunky thing is to fix your own bike — Linux. That means encountering ballbearings, and other unattractive, greasy things, sooner or later. But people don’t usually go back. Enthusiasts justify their preference because of freedom, control and efficiency. I’d say this freedom relates to aesthetics in two ways. First, design isn’t corrupted by marketing, so applications aren’t overloaded with features or tied to something else. Secondly, fixing things reveals the spare beauty of what’s under the bonnet. Seeing it brings intrinsic satisfactions as well as greater control. Everything is interface till you reach the microprocessor at the heart of the onion, which is just a box to crunch bits and bytes. The onion is a human creation like any other, as ugly as bad taste allows, as fine as art can make it. Perhaps like the classics, it’s not for everyone, but it’s important some pursue this knowledge. The result is the Linux desktop probably now passes the “granny test” and the main commercial alternative doesn’t, though in both cases there’s bound to be a need for occasional support. sapere aude!

Reading ancient texts becomes harder as we lose knowledge of the familiar context their authors assume, what every schoolboy knows and what shapes them without their knowing it, as we too are shaped by other things. That might be a verbal echo of another, lost text, or the actual meaning of a word — dictionaries of dead languages are digests of the writings in them that have survived, a circularity not always virtuous enough. It is a way of life, the Lebenswelt of the poet’s circle. It is a culture’s view of itself and of human nature. It is the idle talk and slang of the piazza. Literature is often almost their only remaining trace, apart from the odd rubbish tip or casual graffitti. The attempt to understand it is therefore also a way of recovering knowledge of other ways of thinking and being. To do so means weighing every word, a task made more testing still by the imperfect preservation of those very words, copied and recopied over millennia by scribes set in their own ways. Finally we must listen to those ancient voices with fresh ears and in each generation make them our contemporaries again. Virgil and Du Fu are no good to anyone behind a glass case.

I’m only a beginner with it, but these are some of my impressions so far. The language is very terse and spare, so the reader has to go a long way to meet the author. That’s always true — at least, every author hopes for such readers — but in this case it’s often impossible to make any sense at all of the text without entering headlong into the dark thicket. Grammatical persons and tenses, for instance, tend to be left implicit. Putting the sense together depends on a set of stereotyped associations and symbols, often quite elaborate. The art of the poet lies to a great extent in the freshness and life he can bring to these much handled old stones. As I see it, that’s what makes this body of work “classical”. The character of the language encouraged the formation of a symbolic lexicon that, by becoming somewhat rigid, allowed the growth of a stable literary tradition. In the case of Roman poetry, something similar happens in its relation to Greek myth and literature; the language can be dense as well as allusive, but in almost the opposite way, exploiting the grammatical exuberance of Latin to loosen word order and so permit expressive juxtapositions (Horace’s “callida iunctura”) and a general lapidary quality, but also great lyricism. In both cases, the tradition had high points — the end of the Republic and the reign of Augustus, and the Tang Dynasty — but the Chinese classical idiom seems to have been more durable as a living vehicle than the Roman. It is also inseparable from calligraphy and painting, an aspect that depends on the physicality of the writing system. Not only are the characters themselves an enduring symbolic code, but their rhythm derives from the fluid strokes of the brush. We do not even know how the classical language was pronounced, but its poets still sing.

Mary Beard, in a recent piece in the New York Review, takes an optimistic view of the future of the classics despite some striking figures. It seems only 300 people now take classical Greek at A-level (I’m not sure whether this figure includes Scotland). As long as classical culture continues to be valued at a remove, for instance in translation, very few people need acquire the skills to access the source directly, and the flame will still burn on.
My own Greek and Latin are so rusty as to be barely serviceable, and that scant competence feels to me like a basic element of literacy. I too am one of those who depend on the few who know it properly, but it’s laziness that stops me being one of them. Would it make any difference if I did — for instance if I took myself through Antigone, which I thought the other day would make a better example than Medea, but have never read because the Greek is hard, but knowing Greek, I feel it’s pointless to read it in another language? That is, would it make any difference to anyone other than me? I’m currently studying classical Chinese poetry using the wonderful book by Archie Barnes; et pereat mundus!