OZYMANDIAS of EGYPT
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said:—Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter’d visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp’d on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock’d them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
—Percy Bysse Shelley (1818)
(Photo: Djoser’s Pyramid; Src: WikiCmns; License: Public Domain)
Yesterday, I finished (almost all of the) work on my version of Tablet VII of The Epic of Gilgamesh. This is bigger news than it may seem: weighing in at 342 lines (in my version), Tablet VII is the third tablet–out of 11–of the epic that I’ve finished and contains one of the best-known scenes in the story–Enkidu’s vision of the underworld. But as far as this post is concerned, what was most challenging for me about Tablet VII was filling in the many breaks in the text. To do this, I had to fall back on my skills in reconstructing a text.
Reconstructing a text, as I understand it, is a kind of editorial work. I’ve been a professional editor since the early ’90s, and I’ve found that, with some exceptions, working with Gilgamesh and rewriting (or reconstructing) a think-tank paper are based on the same rules:
1) Respect the author and the original materials. Authors are amazing. Usually, they have done a tremendous amount of research or bring decades of practical experience to the task of writing. They can face ridiculously short deadlines and find themselves writing at two in the morning–and all for little or no money. Things are worse, of course, when their text has been mutilated in transmission–for instance, your office wordprocessing program chewed their format or the clay tablets you’re working from were used as flooring (as in the case of Gilgamesh).
2) Find the gold. There’s more of it than you think, and at least some of it is lying right on the surface, waiting to be marked with a “Don’t Touch!” sign. Put the gold aside for the moment.
3) Determine the overall structure. An author’s structure, for whatever reason, seems to be the most vulnerable part of his or her work. Erstwhile editors may have told themselves that switching the lines and paragraphs/stanzas around doesn’t really constitute cheating…they have respected the author’s words. But the result is often a laundry list of ideas or scenes–and your job is to figure out how the information was originally structured.
4) Be alert for breaks and discontinuities. There is always missing material. Always.
5) On the first editorial pass, fix obvious problems only. You’re still reading for the author’s voice–and yes, even the most unseasoned author has a voice. It might consist of a single word dangling at the end of a sentence, but it’s there. Put that word aside and use it later.
6) It’s OK to pronounce a sentence or passage (or section) DOA. If the material in question has no relevance to the overall work that you can see, cut it. Be aware that these exercises in belly-button gazing could constitute up to half of the entire manuscript (or more, on rare occasions). If, on the other hand, the material contains important information, mark it for a full rewrite. Finally, don’t let the title and experience of the author overawe you–everyone gets tired and frustrated.
7) Do your own research. Remember all that missing material? You’re going to have to supply the missing pieces of the puzzle. The net is a perfectly good place to start, but don’t be surprised if you find yourself at the local library. Or the Library of Congress. The story behind the story can be more fun and worthwhile than the surface material.
8) It’s bulldozer time. This is the moment that puts you way ahead of the competition–you have to reassemble the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle, and here things that can’t be taught–taste, tact, common sense, enthusiasm, and respect for your editing–are crucial. You’re in a construction yard, but at the end of the process, it had better look and smell like the Queen’s rose garden.
9) After the manuscript is done, put it aside for a day. If you can, take a couple of days and go hiking or whatever. When you come back, read it until you know in your gut that that little, nagging editorial voice with its endless corrections isn’t telling you anything you need to listen to.
10) Publish it. Get your name all over it. Copyright, copyright, copyright, and then break out the bottle of champagne. Life is good.
Copyright 2011, The Rag Tree
Photo: Chinese dragons; Wikicommons; Public Domain.
abandoned, light-blinded hills—he’s gone
only a reluctant echo, no other word
an animal gleam and shadow remember his face
the sun’s eye opens in the mirror moss
Wang Wei (#5 in his River Sequence)
version, The Rag Tree
© 2011, The Rag Tree
Image design: the Rag Tree; Source: Pisanello, WikiC, Public Domain
Grammatical adventurers, take note: We have emerged from the moist and hazy landscape of morphology onto the invigorating veldt of syntax. Here we will encounter all manner of fantastical beasts: Wh-movements lumbering about, trumpeting and flapping their huge ears while parasitic gaps crawl over their hides, carving crevasses as they go; nanosyntaxes scurrying here and there among the verbiage; modifiers (dangling or otherwise) chopping away industriously at large clusters of overripe sentences, even the endangered purple expletive, snorting and stamping and waving its fabled horn of interjection about.
Cut, cut, CUT! Folks, this is the wrong script…we need to move to Renaissance Italy, or maybe it’s classical Greece…
Ok, I admit it: I’m a ham. Here is the real deal about syntax (or at least as far as I understand it)–
1) Syntax is the study of the way that words are combined to create a sentence. One way to understand this is to say that syntax is morphology taken to the next level. The big difference here is scope: whereas morphology deals with the meaning of individual words–the combination of a word’s root meaning and the meanings created by its affixes, syntax deals with the way that words combine in a sentence to create a more complex meaning. And since there are various classes of words and a seemingly infinite number of ways to combine them, the study of syntax has generated many schools of interpretation.
2) Here, in broad strokes, are some of the principle interpretations of the way that sentences are constructed:
a) Traditional Grammar. This approach takes as its starting point the belief that language and its structure directly reflects the underlying structure and logic of thought. Because the underlying structure is universal, there must be a single best way to build a sentence.
Because TG was developed initially in classical times and maintained into the early modern era in Europe, its analysis reflects European trends in philosophy and the relatively limited sentence structures of European language.
Traditional Grammar’s standard analysis of a sentence follows: Subject + Copula + Predicate.
b) Generative Grammar. This is the first of the modern schools. GG recognizes that there are a multiplicity of ways that sentences are put together in languages around the world. Only some languages, for instance, use the Subject-Verb-Object (SVO) order common in Europe. But, GG maintains, underneath the multitude of forms likes an inner language that all spoken languages follow. In other words, it is possible for people to understand each other, no matter what their native language might be. Noam Chomsky is the current (and longtime) champion of this school.
c) Non-Universal Grammar. OK, I’m really out on the proverbial limb here, since my understanding of this school is based on the reading of a single New Yorker article some years ago. Dan Everett, a linguist who has been living with the Piraha people in the Amazon jungle for upwards of 30 years, believe that Piraha, the language these people speak, demonstrates that language is not a uniform capability generated by all human brains. Our ability to speak (and think) is directly related to the number of concepts (i.e, words) we learn as children. That is, if you are introduced only to the numbers 1 and 2 when young, you will have difficulty understanding larger numbers as an adult. Since Chomsky has designated his approach to grammar “Universal,” Everett’s position could be called “Non-Universal.”
Gosh, golly, and gee! I began writing this post thinking that syntax is the combination and structuring of smaller units of meaning into larger “machines” that could catch the underlying currents of meaning–much in the way that a bird’s wings depend on air and its currents for flight. But it now seems to me that far from having a single, more-or-a-less universal feather-and-wing design, syntax may depend on a large variety of designs to capture meaning. Or it may be that the parts of syntax’s wings themselves generate the air and current. Whoa! RT
Image: Src: Wikicommons; License: Public Domain
Folks: I’m quite touched by the beautiful review of my chapbook, Amassunu, that fellow-blogger Earthquakes and Rattlesnakes has produced at my request. A first review–a milestone for each of us! Thx, Z!!!
& here is the link to her review: Amassunu.
Image–art: Modigliani, src: WikiCommons; License: Public Domain
I’ve just finished re-reading one of my favorite stories, Robert Aickman’s “Into the Wood,” which appears in a collection of his stories, The Wine Dark Sea, published in 1988.
Aickman (1914-1981), who was English, found the inspiration for his writing in gothic, horror, and ghost stories, but his work does not belong to any of these genres. He called his stories “strange,” and the difference here may be the depth and range of learning they build on. Be prepared for references to literary figures such as Strindberg and works such as Daudet’s Sapho. But this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the richness of Aickman’s voice.
Evil is this author’s subject, but not evil as it appears in modern folk-culture’s vampire-and-other-weird-creatures amusements. And Aickman’s writing is not political–he sees no solution in any of the current ideologies on offer. No–these writings are built on Aickman’s understanding of the true source of horror–identification with the monster. We are the monster.
How does one escape this iron-toothed trap? I won’t give you what I take to be Aickman’s answer, but only suggest that you read “Into the Wood” (or any of his other stories). One of the things that makes his work so delicious is the high literary art he commands–a voice at once formal and familiar, distant and whispered into our ear. He can weave the texture of Venice as easily as he can that of Sweden, and romance is never far from the surface of events–but this is the romance of escape into something richer, far more intricate and mesmerizing, than anything in ordinary experience, which the author satirizes in scenes surrealistic and grotesque. Do you have the courage to accept this kind of invitation into dreaming? Aickman asks, and Are you willing to pay the price?
Of “Into the Wood,” I will only say that it involves a brief stay at an old-fashioned (and high-class) residential hotel in Sweden. Don’t expect any hauntings or rivers of blood rushing down the corridors, and do expect to come away having increased your knowledge of art and culture (and the possibilities of imagination).
Because the core of Aickman’s talent is to bring us through the storm of fear into gardens of unexpected delight. RT
image: source: WikiCommons; license, Public Domain.
Fellow blogger Wordgathering has asked me a challenging question in response to my claim, “Writing isn’t about getting published; writing is about community”: Why bother getting published at all?
I’m going to do my best to try to answer this difficult question.
1) Imitation is the ultimate form of flattery. Everyone wants to hear their words repeated by someone else (with correct attribution, of course). So I would say that all writers hope to get published–to see their words in print together with their name blazoned boldly on the book cover or above the article.
2) Nothing succeeds like success. The payoffs for publication go way beyond payment. Most powerful of these, I think, is glamor: an author is understood to be important (and wise) enough to merit the special attention of having his or her words distributed to the public. He or she acquires a reputation for being successful, something that draws other people to them like bees to a flower.
3) The written word is powerful. What writer hasn’t hoped to influence public thinking about a topic? A well-written letter to the editor, a clever and pointed musical lyric, a magazine article or book about a controversial subject all can sway public opinion, sometimes with dramatic effect.
4) Only the powerful are allowed to speak. The powers that be in any society are aware of the considerations I’ve just pointed out, so they typically allow only those people who share their views access to a society’s ears. Say the wrong thing, embarrass the supreme leader, question authority, and you could find yourself in a world of trouble.
5) The intelligentsia sift their information sources carefully. With most of what we hear through the big media riddled with disinformation, the intelligentsia (i.e., those educated persons who are working peacefully and openly for a better society and world) does its best to screen out the distortions and find the most comprehensive and accurate information it can. In the case of the arts, those people with taste seek the most beautiful and moving works of art.
6) Why are you writing? All of this means that the writer faces a difficult choice: to work towards publication as soon as she or he can or to spend the considerable time and effort it requires to produce true and beautiful writing free of political distortion. It might seem that writers can straddle the fence, walk the tightwire, eat their cake and have it too–but let’s get real. When you are writing about topics that have broad social and political implications, there are few neutral positions available (and the ones that are tend to be boring).
7) A writer has only two obligations: to write as well as he or she can and to tell the truth. If you believe this, then you are writing for your community, whether it be the one that surrounds you, sympathetic souls on the other side of the world, or people who won’t be born for a thousand years. You may be published or not (or only in a minor way), but what counts are your words (not you) and the healing they bring. Many good people have died as a result of telling the truth as they see it.
With that sobering thought, ladies and gentlemen, pick up your pen, sit down at your keyboard, and write… RT
Photo: page from 14th century mss; src: WikiCmns; License: Public Domain
& thanks, Wordgathering, for your challenge (& I know that your question was, Why not just write? Put it down to poetic license ;))