RT is feeling good about his progress on publishing his mom’s memoirs, A Daughter’s Song and Dance. Not that the process isn’t a bit humbling. This is a 270-page book we’re talking about, and even discovering how to convert a MS Word file into a JPG can take some time, not to mention learning the basics of book design. Still, book production for ADS&D is going fairly smoothly, and RT is posting a sample page to give folks a feeling for what the finished product will look like. RT is proud of this particular page, and notes that the photo is a Dorothy Lange public domain image available on Wikipedia. Anyway, he hopes the effort satisfies. He’s currently setting chapters 17 and 18 (out of 24 total chapters).
Book Page Image © 2014, The Rag Tree
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.
Who was Nancy Blair? RT can tell you from his genealogy research, finding information on women before WWII is the veritable search for a needle in a haystack. The fine image of NB above, along with its accompanying information, gives the question a certain urgency: Nancy Blair was the state supervisor of South Carolina’s WPA Library Project. As such, she was involved in literacy efforts (aimed at improving one of those perennially underperforming statistics in the United States).
Photo: Nancy Blair, state supervisor of the South Carolina WPA Library Project, inspecting a model of a bookmobile. Author: WPA, South Carolina. Source: South Carolina State Library, South Carolina Public Library History, 1930 – 1945 collection. WikiCmns; Public Domain.
Of late, and perhaps out of sheer frustration, RT has been speculating that Martinsburg, WV, might be a world navel. How this might be true has offered our mind-boggled writer a means of escaping certain unenviable realities of the moment.
To wit: RT and his mom are facing an infestation of insects–not the biblical locust, but the altogether more quotidian and infuriating bed-bug. M’burg has apparently already endured one wave of these creepy crawlies, and now they are paying RT’s life a visit.
Give credit where credit is due: bed-bugs are tough, and the duplex is now undergoing the first of several treatments to get rid of the pest. Everything is a mess in the apartment, and the BBs have given both RT and his mom a case of the screaming meemees. But this too shall pass…
In the meantime, and by way of further escape, RT has been assiduously reading Karen Armstrong’s The Great Transformation. TGT follows the spiritual development of four major cultures–Greece, Israel, India, and China from early times through the development of an Axial Age culture, Axial here meaning societies that encourage moral behavior in their members. RT singles out the book’s clear language and logical organization as it reports and reflects on the historical and moral development of the greater part of the ancient world. He also notes the sidelining of Assyria and Mesopotamia as, he assumes, a dead culture that serves to establish the baseline for Axial development. Bye bye, Gilgamesh!
Which is not to say that KA has a tin ear for mythological development–her reporting of certain Ancient Greek festivals has RT convinced that some parts of the Exodus story have links to Greek myth. Which brings to mind the ever elusive Elohist, one of the several projects awaiting further development in RT’s distracted mind. On the other hand, mom’s memoir continues apace.
In the meanwhile, there’s always the Martinsburg library to escape to when the bugs get too biblical. Which returns us to RT’s initial speculation about world navels… (happy spring equinox!) RT
Photo: A locust cloud over Juncus maritimus at Imililik, Western Sahara (April, 1944). Author: Universidad Autónoma de Madrid. Source: Eugenio Morales Agacino’s Photographic Archive. Via Eugenio Morales Agacino’s Virtual Exhibition. WikiCmns; CC 3.0 Attribution/Share Alike Spain.
Reading a book is like visiting a city you’ve never been to before. The city must be glamorous in some way, if not overtly, than in the details of its construction and history, the beautiful building or courtyard that reveals itself via a quick glance aside from the street, and the story that glance implies of the building’s occupants. The city may be dirty, crime-ridden, a den of vice, but it must be intricate. It must be a navel of the world.
You are being born again. Forget whatever has come before; it’s been reduced to a reference chart, an album of old photographs. This is the best kind of culture shock; you chose it.
Reading a book is always true. You the child progress through the pages. You learn and you grow, you marvel and you despair. Situations arise that you can’t understand or even comprehend. The woman who tells you she runs the large school you attend may be your mother. The man wearing the jacket of a naval captain may be your father. He may be going to his death. He gives you a silver coin.
Reading a book is like falling in love. Serendipity. Somebody is waiting for you, someone who stops you in argument or conversation. Outside the chocolate shop, at the old library, in an empty room. Someone calls out from an open window, asking about the bicycle you’re riding or offering to take you where you’re going in their boat. They are the person you can’t believe is interested in you, so different, so crazy you wonder how they can exist at all. They are the one who brought you here.
You are dying. You have no family, no friends, no work. You have only this passion.
Last Sunday, after careful deliberation, RT surrendered to his book-buying impulse and brought home the newest member of his literary litter, Karen Armstrong’s The Great Transformation. His short list also included John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg’s The First Paul and Oxford University’s New Oxford Book of Romantic Period Verse. RT’s local bookstore has never disappointed him.
Speaking of which, during his deliberations, RT was moved to compose some off-the-cuff verses. He re-positioned the chess set on its side table to safety a few feet away, sprawled out in the generously padded wicker chair, and produced the following:
the moon married the alphabet
& founded a city; somewhere in there,
she produced a cow, a cow, take note,
that walked by the waters that stream westward
past the kings, the Queen of Night, a blind man
even to Bharata, Axum, Gades, that cow; the
hundred gates of the world: the fence of humanity
and the hero who stands guard there–
lion pelt on his shoulders,
club in his hand.
He made the mountains, they say,
let loose the winds, that
flock of doves–
the archer chases them.
© copyright 2014, The Rag Tree.
Woodcut: Cadmos and the Spartoi (Engraving by Virgil Solis for Ovid’s Metamorphoses III, 101-130) 1562. WikiCmns; Public Domain.
RT remembers his first encounter with Rendezvous with Rama; he was 13, living in Costa Rica and attending boarding school in Arizona. He had become a devotee of Arthur C. Clarke, the famous science fiction writer, through reading Clarke’s stories published in Analog (if RT’s memory serves him correctly). But Rama was something else again. RT was swept away by the power of Clarke’s vision of an enormous (50-km-long), cylindrical alien space ship, dubbed Rama by us awe-struck humans, racing through the solar system. An intrepid band of human explorers gains entry to Rama, and the story concerns what happens thereafter.
But RT’s life was racing along, too, and he soon moved on to more adolescent preoccupations.
Recently, however, the book has been haunting RT, and so this week he bit the bullet, checked out a copy at his local library, and reread it in a couple of days.
Early Sci-Fi takes a lot of flak from literary critics: its authors were scientists first and foremost, and their authorial skills, whether concerned with fiction technique or the realities of social relationships, are therefore supposed to be stunted. In proof, the usual suspects are marched out: elementary plotting and scene construction, limited and repetitive diction, cardboard characters, women who are men with breasts, and the like. RT cannot speak for Sci-Fi in the period from 1930 to say 1960, but by the time he started reading the genre in the early 1970s, things, at least among the most famous Sci-Fi authors, had begun to change; and the encounters he has had with more recent Sci-Fi suggest that the field has reached literary maturity and, indeed, an impressive sophistication.
That isn’t to say that Rendezvous with Rama doesn’t show some signs of the literary neighborhood that produced it: in particular, Clarke’s diction is repetitive at times and the plotting is very straightforward. But none of that affects the novel’s strengths: its sense of wonder and a certain atmosphere that RT will discuss in a moment. More troubling to RT are the Simps (that is, super-chimpanzees) that serve on the Endeavor, the human ship that has gotten the story’s characters to the eponymous rendezvous. The simps provide all domestic services on board. Equipped with an IQ of 60, they are pictured as ideal servants, capable of cleaning things up but not understanding what menial service means or experiencing what it feels like. Well, maybe it would work, but the idea that the ship’s captain will never have to soil his hands with laundry and that the simps will never experience a sense of being at the bottom of the totem-pole, is problematic. Isn’t hierarchy an invention of the higher mammals? Wouldn’t a topsy-turvy day when the captain washes the dishes be good for all concerned?
But RT’s caveats and quibbles aside, RwR presents a world that is truly alien, in which the ship’s alien inhabitants, or at least some of them, lack mouths, have eyes located in odd places, and appear to be organo-metallic: nope, there’s no common ancestor with terrestrial zoology here. More tellingly, though it’s evident that the Ramans possess a very high degree of intelligence, the human explorers find no written script. Do the Ramans possess writing? Can they speak? We’ll have to go to the book’s sequel, Rama II, in hopes of finding out.
But that’s what makes RwR so great: the continuous sense of discovery, of entering a genuinely new world. The appeal here is not to our assumptions; in the book they are often shown to be wrong. But that doesn’t mean that Rama is utterly alien: the spaceship possesses an oxygen atmosphere and, at its most hospitable, semi-tropical temperatures. Could all life, produced by whatever combinations of evolution, manufacture, and command, still have some common defining characteristics?
And so we reach the composite image, the total vision, that Clarke presents of Rama. The ship’s interior, while certainly strange and occasionally threatening, tends towards the wonderful, and most of all in the demands for growth that it offers to its human explorers. Do we want to be more like the Ramans, possess their accomplishments? The answer is, yes. We want to grow towards the unknown, at least sometimes. That is the source of book’s optimism, its underlying sweetness.
Utopias are odd. (And whatever else Rama is, it is a completely planned world.) They are meant no so much to be perfect as to be challenging. We would not wish our planet to become Rama, but if it could help us work towards a happier existence, we can only humbly thank its creators.
Image: Rama in Forest (date: 1920s; author: Raja Ravi Press). WikiCmns; Public Domain.