Glanum? Ambrussum? Vaison-la-Romaine? Somewhere in Provence, in any case. RT has a distant but distinct memory of seeing an ancient Greek city while on vacation back in the mid-1970s. The site was small and gorgeous, oval-shaped ruins of marble sited among pine trees, not far from the sea. What made the experience especially memorable was the guide’s report of the city’s population, as high as one or two thousand people, if RT recalls correctly. And all of them sheltered in a space about half the size of a football field.
Now, RT, car-less as he often has been in his life, is doing a great deal of walking these days. It takes him about 45 minutes to walk into town by the legal but indirect route. He is actually fairly lucky, since a bike path constitutes part of the trek. At least on this section, he doesn’t have to worry about getting hit by a car. Still, there is something distinctly humbling about walking along the path, which lacks shade trees, park benches, and water fountains, while cars zoom past on the other side of the grass border. His almost daily excursions make him wonder what life would be like if we still lived in pre-industrial communities. Or, to put it another way, could we get rid of cars?
Here are some facts: ancient Rome at its height (population 1 million) occupied about 5 and ½ sq. miles; Manhattan could hold six cities that size. Nearly all Romans lived in concrete and brick apartment buildings (called insulae), some of them nine stories high; apartments of 1,000 sq. ft. (about the size of a modern 1-bedroom apartment) housed families of five or six people. Most of these apartments offered running water. Romans went to great lengths (pardon the pun) via their aqueducts to ensure water quality—and their diet in many ways appears superior to ours. Those who survived into their teens (infant and child mortality were very high), often lived to be 60.
So far, things sound pretty good. Now back to walking: horses were expensive, and carriages for the rich. Though vehicles could be hired for transport (some featuring primitive odometers), nearly everyone walked everywhere.
RT will let readers draw their own conclusions. What remains with him is the memory of a beautiful city in Provence, built to human scale; human-powered; and healthy, communal, and intimate in a way hard to imagine in our own lives. It’s a beautiful day; let’s walk to the store.
Status Update: RT’s mom is doing fairly well as she continues to struggle with lung disease. Living in a nursing home is always difficult, but his mom has more or a less adjusted to the challenges. During his most recent visit with her, she told him, “Write another book!”
RT is of course struggling with his own issues as the drama of his mother’s health plays out. Recently, he was looking over the Wikipedia entry on the five stages of grief and was struck by how much they resemble the emotions we experience as we fall in love. RT has been vouchsafed few moments of insight over the last several months, so he felt he should share his flash in the pan:
The Five Stages of Falling in Love
Denial: “Are you kidding me? I’m not in love with them! I don’t know their name. We’ve never met. They’re not even a blip on the radar.”
Anger: “Who are you? How can you tell me we’re in love? I don’t like anything about you. In fact, I can’t stand the way you look, the way you smell, your personal habits. Go away! Get out!”
Bargaining: “I know we shouldn’t have kissed. It’s my fault. I smiled and made small talk and then, well, we got romantic for a moment. Look, the whole thing is a mistake, so let’s forget about it. We’ll wipe the slate clean and start over as friends.”
Depression: “Oh my god, we just slept together. We’re really in love. We can’t get out of it. We’re stuck!”
Acceptance: “OK, so we’re in love. Now what do we do?”
Love is like gravity; it is universal and its action continuous. People are always falling in love. There’s no way to stop it. When I recently shared my insight with a friend, they suggested that it applies only to inappropriate relationships. But all love relationships are inappropriate at some level. Nobody is ever really prepared for love or its consequences. At the same time, love is the force that makes us get out of bed in the morning. But now RT is waxing philosophical…
Photo: Tala Birell-Edmund Lowe in Let’s Fall in Love. Publicity still, 1933. WikiCmns; Dr. Macro. Public Domain.
The Muse has been fickle of late. RT is continuing onward with his writing/reworking of his mother’s childhood memoir, A Daughter’s Song and Dance, which has been making surprisingly good progress of late, subject to the odd bad signal or two on his emotional railway. But then, a couple of days ago, one of RT’s friends demanded to know how Gilgamesh is coming. Then someone else asked the same thing a little while later. Well, RT doesn’t receive too many requests for status reports on his years-long project to turn the ancient story into English verse, so he allowed as how he was honored by the questions. But the report itself was rather brief: no progress in the last several months, mainly as a result of the memoir showing signs of falling together into a coherent story.
Where does the strength come from to finish the race? This quote, from Chariots of Fire, RT believes, has haunted him over the years of his struggle with absent-mindedness, and now he has to admit that he has been feeling nostalgia for the decades of his 20s and 30s. The past is with us always, but we can never return to it. Songs that were once brand new on the radio are now being covered as classics by emerging artists, all of them born after RT’s graduation from college, in hopes of attracting more attention to the current hip generation.
I could talk about the unbearable lightness of being, but that would only make matters worse. And seriously considering why RT never became a mega-phenom like, say, Don Henley, is only going to poison his pen. In the midst of this bluesy moment, maybe better help is available from another old classic, the novel Dune. RT has borne with him these unmentionably numerous decades the image of holding back your hand, waiting for the right moment to reach out and grasp the long-desired object. Mastering this art, the art of using time wisely, is one of the chief signs of adulthood. Life isn’t about success; it’s about getting what you need.
Some things are leaving; some are waiting patiently. Knowing where they are and when to engage them is a part of what makes a person greathearted. We’re still in the game. RT
Photo: Don Henley. Author: Steve Alexander. WikiCmns; CC 2.0 attribution/share alike.
This post has been a long time in the making. Empires of the Word, a historical survey of the relationship between language, politics, and culture by Nicholas Ostler, is rich but slow reading, more reference work than language thriller.
Make no mistake: this is first-rate scholarship, beautifully written and illustrated, vast in knowledge and replete with examples. Everything is here, from the emergence of mankind’s first written tradition (in Mesopotamia), to the exfoliation of Sanskrit in southeast Asia, to the verbal conquests of European languages in the modern era. Charts, maps, timelines, and writing samples accompany the detailed essays on each language and period. And important questions are addressed: Why is it that military conquest is sufficient to spread a language in some areas but not in others? Why did Latin turn into the Romance languages in Europe but Greek not leave descendant vernaculars behind it in the far-flung regions of Alexander’s conquest? What might be the fate of English, the current global lingua franca?
The difficulty here, inevitably, is the mass of detail that must be presented; and the author’s prose, entertaining certainly, tended to wear on this reader after a while. RT thinks that most people will have trouble reading through EoftW at a single sitting; rather like Robert Graves’ The White Goddess, this books demands memory and effort of its audience as they proceed through its lengthy argument. Language and writing are complex phenomena, not easily reduced to rules; and their ubiquity tends to hide inherent difficulties. Everyone speaks, right? How hard can it be?
At this juncture, RT is pretty much convinced that the missing piece in the language puzzle is its internal value to people; we surely rely on it for communication, but its origins may lie further back, in our emerging consciousness. Language creates community not just between individuals, but within each of us as well. Words are messengers traveling both ways, from rational to first mind, and back again. It is this earlier emergence of thought that made exterior communication possible. RT sees he has more reading in front of him as he explores this idea.
Empires of the Word is a keeper, but readers should prepare themselves by setting aside a block of rainy afternoons, attended by pots of mint tea, to travel down its meandering waters. They will see some amazing things and make landings on unexpected and challenging shores.
Food is a tricky thing. When we see a feast laid out before us, we naturally want to dive in and enjoy. But we might not be ready for the repast. Items that look familiar–chicken, say–turn out to be goose or some other unexpected dish; How are the courses seasoned–with salt, pepper, cumin, humor, anger, or fantasy? And do we really have to eat it all now? Couldn’t we put aside the caviar, or at least the foie gras, for later?
RT has been munching his way gradually through The Art of the Personal Essay (ed. Philip Lopate). It is a rich, rich meal, with a wide variety of authors and subjects: Max Beerbohm, Mary McCarthy (on American Communism in the 1930s), Michel de Montaigne (on love), Robert Louis Stevenson (on marriage); and Virginia Woolf (on the streets of London at night), among others.
There is much to satisfy a bored palate here–and much to challenge even an enthusiastic digestion. So far, RT’s favorite piece is Mary McCarthy’s “My Confession,” a droll, cutting, learned, and at times diffident essay on the social realities of being an American intellectual in the 30s and facing up to the realities of Communism in Russia. To what shall RT compare it? A Parisian Steak et Frites, perhaps: filling, substantial, and with enough spice to keep the reader turning the pages. This essay reminds RT of how hard it can be to fight a social/political trend (especially as a young person) and how much America has changed during the intervening decades. It’s hard to imagine any wealthy society today giving itself over to the political and cultural debates of the Depression. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine intellectuals having anywhere near the clout they had at that time.
And RT had forgotten what it’s like to read Montaigne, whose essay, “An Apology for Raymond Sebond” is widely regarded as the masterpiece of the greatest essayist who ever lived. This essay, which epitomizes MM’s technique, is a plea for tolerance and a learned questioning of philosophical certainty (& touches on RS only briefly). MM wanders, let’s his ideas take him where they will, and peppers his words liberally with classical quotations. There’s no question here: we’re looking at roast beef with potatoes and endives. Bring a very hungry stomach and probably several days to make your way through Montaigne’s writing. You will emerge a better person than when you started.
As Lopate points out in his introduction, there is a contrarian streak in essayists, a thoughtfulness, a self-deprecating humor, and a need to challenge the certainties and hysteria of the moment. The essay can therefore be looked on as the wisest of literary forms, the one that most clearly reflects our experience (both personal and historic) and the desire to make things better. It is the product of a the most constructive kind of a leisure, a leisure that is increasingly hard to find: an isolation and an eloquence turned to account (or an accounting of a life). A good essay challenges us in the gut, And yet it also sustains us. Maybe the advent of blogging will help turn the tide and spread the life of culture and the mind farther afield than possible before.
Thank you, Mr. Lopate! RT
Image: A portrait of Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (1533–1592). WikiCmns; Public Domain.
Jargon is one of those necessary and mysterious things: necessary because any group of people united by common interests will eventually evolve its own terminology for the interest(s) that has brought together its members, mysterious because the use of jargon prevents those outside the group from understanding what is being said. (And RT himself remembers being shut out of more than one football conversation.)
It’s no use blaming this or that group of jargonists for indulging in their special lingo; we are all guilty of creating and participating in jargon. Just consider the varieties: professional talk, sports talk, wine tasting descriptors, scientific terminology, and, last but not least, native languages used for private conversation.
RT offers two observations on the phenomenon:
1) Poetry. Poetry is the opposite of jargon. Whereas jargon is the creation of a group and signals membership in the group, poetry possesses a universality that opens its words to all speakers of a language. Poetry is all about accessibility; its beauty and clarity are two of its primary characteristics, and these encourage reading. Poets will use rare words and expressions on occasion, but the context almost always supplies the meaning, and the word adds to the richness of the language.
2) Duplicate/unnecessary terminology. RT presents the following symbol ¶ for consideration. Is it a pilcrow or a paragraph sign? It can also be called a paraph, alinea, or Blind P. And what exactly are its uses? Poetry intrudes itself here once again: we are leaving the realm of correctness and entering that of delight. We begin to talk about preferences among users–or even schools of use.
On the other hand, RT is pretty sure that when plain meaning is the chief consideration, the term used should be that one understood by the broadest possible audience: in this case, RT would recommend the use of the term paragraph mark. But then, RT’s poetic, anti-jargon, instincts are showing themselves again. That isn’t to say, of course, that in the right place in the right line, he might not have recourse to the term alinea. It’s a beautiful word, after all.
What is worth bearing in mind through all this is the precision that jargon can confer on communication. There are times when it helps to distinguish between the hyphen and the hyphen-minus, the guillemet and the guillemot. And when jargon is correctly used and the text beautifully copy-edited, reading becomes that much more of a pleasure (as any hardened reader can tell you).
Photograph: Denis Diderot plaque – 3 rue de lEstrapade, Paris. WikiCmns; CC 2.0 generic; author, Monceau from San Antonio.
Believe it or not, eating is work. This fact of digestive exertion was recently impressed on RT when he ate not one, but two, breakfasts at a local grill. Hunger can build up, and after a hearty meal, one may find oneself engaged in a postprandial walk or other strategy, as seems appropriate.
The French have known this for ages. One of the signs of health and worthiness among its kings, for instance, was the ability to eat extraordinary quantities of food at a sitting: Le Roi Soleil, Louis XIV himself, was known to consume up to five courses, each consisting of two to five items, at a single meal. The menu was diverse, including deep-sea oysters, chestnut soup with truffles, wild duck, rabbit stew, salmon, iced cheese, and fruit.
Lesser mortals, however, will need to avail themselves of help when indulging at the dining table. And the French answer to such problems is the digestif, an after-dinner alcoholic drink such as brandy, eaux de vie, and various bitter or sweet liqueurs meant to help digestion.
So what does all this mean for the writer of essays? The writer needs to bear in mind that his or her essay should be helping the process of analysis and enjoyment throughout the piece. Some ways of doing this: 1) organize your writing so that your argument and other thoughts are clear; 2) use deliberate contrast in style and tone to help keep your readers alert and on track; 3) withhold some parts of your argument so the reader can make the connections by him or herself; 4) use humor–especially at the beginning–to relax the reader; 5) make the stakes clear–explain why the essay and its subject deserve further consideration and even a second or third reading. This last item is best saved for the essay’s conclusion.
Readers should finish an essay smacking their lips, savoring the bite of good calvados on the tongue… RT
Poster: Quinquina Dubonnet, Jules Cheret (1895); WikiCmns; Public Domain.