Archive for December 7th, 2004

Of philology, bisexuals and camels

A lot has been said, at least in these parts, about some dumbass lawyers' threat to sue Warner Bros for implying that Alexander was bisexual, but I want to touch on a broader issue, and in a rather circuitous way.

In my second year at university, at a dinner party held at my Medieval Literature professor's house, a couple of fellow students and I were talking over drinks about the course we had just completed. I said that I had enjoyed it, but that I was planning to concentrate more on Renaissance Literature.

"I don't like the Renaissance," said the one classmate, holding her glass in a refined manner. "It's too self-conscious." (I've learnt that she now teaches at some Ivy League college.)

The other classmate, seizing upon the theatre-crowd jargon, added with a smile: "Yeah. And over-produced."

Despite the pretentiousness, there is some accuracy to the first charge. While the medievals did not think of themselves as living in a Middle Age, the humanists who came after did, however, think of themselves as being part of a Renaissance, and in fact, gave us the term themselves. The term "Renaissance" is actually falling out of favour, for it betrays an oversimplification of both the era in question, and the one that preceded it.

Whenever we refer to the cultural movement that began in Italy in the beginning of the fourteenth century as the Renaissance, we imply that it was a rebirth of classical learning after a long period of cultural and intellectual dormancy. This is to ignore, however, that the medievals themselves studied, albeit to a lesser extent, the classics of Rome and Greece – the latter only in Latin translation, of course – and it is also to ignore the extent to which the humanists in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries reinterpreted the classics themselves. They say that the humanists of the Renaissance attempted to Christianise the classics, but the medievals did this as well: the Aeneid was seen as an allegory in which Aeneas' journey to Latium represented the journey of the soul to the promised land. And with the help of Aquinas, the philosophy of Aristotle was interpreted to conform with Christian theology.

The main difference between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance lies in the way each era looked at the past as history. The medievals felt themselves to be direct descendants of ancient Rome, and to be part of its traditions. A common feature of medieval literature that deals with antiquity, such as Sir Orfeo and Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde, to name two English examples, was the tendency to portray ancient Greece and Rome as if they were the recent past, and unknowingly give them medieval characteristics. In the early fourteenth century, however, they began to look upon antiquity as historically distinct from the more recent past, and from the present.

It's this new historical approach that chiefly characterises the Renaissance, when the attempt was first made to understand the achievements of classical Rome, and then to emulate it in the present.

It started with Petrarch, who neglected the usual medieval education of the day and studied the classics of Roman antiquity on his own. He was the first to look back on classical antiquity with a view to resurrecting it. With him we first get the notion of antiquity as the peak in civilisation, which ended with the decline of the Middle Ages, as well as the hope that its glory could be achieved again in a Christianised form. Petrarch concerned himself almost exclusively with classical literature, and spent much time on his travels searching for manuscripts to copy down.

By the middle of the fifteenth century, the first printing presses with movable metal type were in use. This meant that authoritative texts were established, which would arrest the slow corruption of manuscripts through faulty copying. It also meant that all of Europe could refer to a single edition, against which comparisons could be made until a more reliable version of the text could be established. This gave birth to a philology that sought to establish the historical accuracy of a text, which in turn led to a more critical historical approach.

The results were significant and palpable. Lorenzo Valla was instrumental in re-establishing classical Latin, which had long since been replaced by its more vernacular medieval form, and he used his knowledge of the language and its etymologies not only to explain the institutions of antiquity, but also to upset the foundations of the present order. His Profession of the Religious discussed the true meaning of religious terms and demonstrated that the medieval sects were corrupting not only the language, but the terms of religion. Greater repercussions followed his Falsely-Believed and Forged Donation of Constantine, which used philology to prove that the Donation of Constantine was a forgery. A historical knowledge of Latin permitted Valla to argue that the document could not have been written any earlier than the eighth century AD. (For example, it uses a word for serf, which would not have existed in Constantine's time, since neither did serfs.) This undermined the Pope's attempt to increase his temporal power, and encouraged King Alphonso of Naples, to whom Valla was secretary, to attack the papal states.

From the humanists' historical approach to the classics, and from their efforts to invent the Renaissance, there emerged the principles of the modern notion of history as a study in itself. They began to see, as the medievals had not, that in order to understand a historical period, we must first recognise its distinctness from ours.

What am I getting at?

Greece is the only country that does not (generally) accept the pronunciation of Greek and Latin as put forward by Erasmus. A classicist here is aware of the pronunciation, and some probably believe that it's as historically accurate as possible, but it's not taught. Classical Greek is pronounced the same as Modern Greek.

When you consider how much the pronunciation of English as we find it in Chaucer has changed, you have to acknowledge that a similar change could occur over, say, 2,000 years.

But they don't.

Seferis once said that Erasmus' pronunciation was probably the correct one, but that using it implied a lack of continuity, as if it were a different language. I don't see how this can be true. No one thinks of Chaucer as anything but English simply because the words sound different. Nevertheless, Greeks are sensitive to the possibility that their heritage will be appropriated. When I was at the University of Toronto, the Classics Department voted to move the Modern Greek faculty out into another faculty, or to make it a faculty in itself. (I can't remember which.) My Modern Greek professor told me that one of his colleagues, a British professor of Classics, had wanted to vote no, but had been subtly threatened that he wouldn't get tenure, or something like that.

The change was not so significant, but I never understood why the Department thought it necessary.

It has always amazed me how little Greece offers the rest of the world in terms of classical scholarship. One could argue that it's because Greek scholars write in a language that very few people know, but that's not true. The younger ones all know English, and get their articles translated into whatever language is necessary for them to get published.

A few years ago, I was telling a class of mine that the main reason they found English a difficult language to learn is because of its enormous vocabulary. I tell all my students this, and despite the fact that I'm fluent in both languages, while they're just learning English, they argue that I'm wrong. They can't bear to hear that another language is "richer" than Greek. When I tell them that there is no real measure of this wealth, they don't listen. They tell me that there are so many Greek words in English, but this has nothing to do with it. Let's say telephone is a Greek word, and let's ignore for a moment that it may in fact have been coined by a Scotsman in Canada. The word exists in both languages, and so the count is still equal. Most Greek words in English existed in English before entering the Greek language. The apparatus itself was already in use in some countries before the word was first used in Greek.

One student argued that Greek was not an Indoeuropean language. I asked him if he was studying linguistics, and how he had come to know so much that he could disagree with his own professors. Of course, he wasn't studying linguistics, but he had read a book that proved it. He asked me if I wanted to borrow it. "Not really," I said.

He brought me some photocopied pages anyway. I took them home and read them. The ignorance in those pages was sad. The author argued that it was absurd to claim, for example, that the word psephus (ψήφος), which means "vote", could have an Indoeuropean root, because the civilisations it supposedly descended from did not have a democracy. But the word, even in Greek, meant "stone" first, since they were used to cast votes. Now, surely all civilisations could be expected to have a word for that?

I didn't study linguistics, and can't even claim to be a dilettante in the field, but this was astonishing. Wasn't there an editor involved in the publication of this book?

The response to Oliver Stone's portrayal of Alexander as bisexual has been embarrassing. Perhaps we can't expect lawyers and reporters to know much about ancient Greece, but they should do their homework if they're going to criticise someone's work.

Anyone willing to make the effort will find more books than he has time to read that discuss sexuality in ancient Greece. I won't bother going into it. Arrian, Plutarch and Curtius describe Alexander's relationship with Hephaestion in such a way that indicates they expected their readers to understand what the nature of it was.

This response makes the feeble claim that Alexander could not have had such inclinations because the historian Arrian wrote that "Not even to me does it seem possible that he turned out to be unlike any other human being without divine intervention." (Additional proof is that Plutarch said Alexander was a philosopher. Nevertheless, an extant couplet written by Plato describes his bliss while kissing another male.)

Alexander was not bisexual because he was "unlike any other human being"? This of course does not answer the question of what "any other human being" is like.

In "The Argentine Writer and Tradition" Borges wrote

Gibbon observes that in the Arabian book par excellence, in the Koran, there are no camels; I believe if there were any doubt as to the authenticity of the Koran, this absence of camels would be sufficient to prove it is an Arabian work. It was written by Mohammed, and Mohammed, as an Arab, had no reason to know that camels were especially Arabian; for him they were a part of reality, he had no reason to emphasise them; on the other hand, the first thing a falsifier, a tourist, an Arab nationalist would do is have a surfeit of camels, caravans of camels, on every page; But Mohammed, as an Arab, was unconcerned: he knew he could be an Arab without camels.

When it comes to ancient texts and bisexuality, we can simply take it for granted.

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