Of dictionaries, memories, and friends

Johnson's DictionaryWhen a copy of this selection from Samuel Johnson’s famous dictionary arrived last week, I was delighted, and immediately reminded of my late, and well-loved friend, Bill. He would have appreciated the book, chuckled over Johnson’s witty definitions, delighted in the words at play. We would have sat around the kitchen counter, alternately reading random definitions from the book, in between sips of wine.

Like every good writer I’ve ever known, Bill loved words, puns, wit, and the interplay of language.

Sadly, Bill died of esophageal cancer late last year, the same cancer that took my father a few years earlier. A nasty, painful, flesh-wasting disease.  Because of that, Bill and I never got to sit down and share our thoughts about this book over a glass of wine, as we had done many times over many different books, before. I saw him a couple of weeks before his death, as he lay, bedridden, in palliative care. A thin shadow of the man who used to come up for long weekends to spend time with us.

Bill was a passionate reader and we shared many books and interests in common; especially those on Napoleonic and English history. He had a passion for British naval history, and Jane Austen’s life and times, and he was a fount of knowledge about the late 18th and early 19th centuries. He could quote Shakespeare, Gilbert & Sullivan, and Austen. He introduced us to numerous BBC dramas, comedies, and specials, and he was generous in lending his DVDs of them. He had a musical streak and we played guitar and ukulele together. And, of course, he loved words.

I was reading through this book the other night, and wondered how Johnson himself felt about friendship and death. James Boswell was his biographer, friend and companion late in his life, but did they share the same sort of closeness as I had with Bill? Boswell went off on a trip to Scotland when Johnson was sick, and was away when the latter died, in 1784. How did Johnson feel about Boswell’s absence, or Boswell and being so far away when his friend died?

Boswell’s comment on hearing of the death was, “He has made a chasm, which not only nothing can fill up, but which nothing has a tendency to fill up.” I felt similarly, when Barbara, Bill’s wife, called to tell me of passing, last year. And I felt relieved, not that he was gone, but that his suffering was finally over. I am not ashamed to admit I cried at the news.

I’d known Bill since the late 1970s-early ’80s, back when we both worked on InfoAge magazine, years even before I met Susan. Many the evening back then we stayed up late and talked, sometimes argued, and drank our wine while playing chess, go, or some wargame – at which he almost always won. He was the smartest, funniest man I ever met and my time with him – our time, really, since he was a friend to both of us – was precious.

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Gilgamesh four thousand years later

GilgameshGilgamesh continues to enthrall us, even after more than 100 years of translations and interpretations. The story continues to be told and retold and even re-imagined. There’s even a children’s version of the tale.

You can read a version here, in PDF format or an online version here.Translations and transliterations (if you know your Akkadian…) are here. There was likely an oral version shared even before writing was invented – if you really want to know what that might have sounded like, listen to some modern recordings of old Babylonian poetry here.

Gilgamesh is not simply humankind’s earliest written legend – it’s also a powerful story that tells us about what it means to be human, to be part of a greater community. It’s about growing up, about friendship, fear, loss, death, sex, magic, faith, pride, finding wisdom and the meaning of life.

Several texts of the Gilgamesh epic have been found, all of them fragmentary, so part of the retelling is collecting the pieces and assembling them into a whole. They are also in other languages including Elamite and Hurrian. It is also a personal tale based on a man many archaeologists believe to have been real: the King of the city-state of Uruk,* some time between 2750 and 2500 BCE.

While the story itself dates back to the late third millennium BCE, the earliest tablets – Sumerian versions of the epic – date come from the city of Ur around 2150-2000 BCE. The Akkadian version is from about 1900 BCE.

The Gilgamesh story is the earliest work of literature known, and was so popular it spread throughout the great Mesopotamian civilizations of Sumeria, Babylon, Akkad and others. The great epic was still being repeated and written down on clay tablets during the Hittite rule a thousand years later. That alone shows the power of its storytelling.

Some parts – like the Flood myth – even made their way into the Bible, albeit wrapped in a different religious blanket.Four thousand years later, this story still captures our imagination.
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The magic of reading

Jumble_02Can you make sense of those lines in the image to the right? Of course not. They’re deconstructed from the letters of a simple, one-syllable word and randomly re-arranged. It’s just four letters, but their component parts are not arranged in the proper order, so they seem like meaningless lines and squiggles. We’ve not been taught to assemble them into a structure that makes sense to our brains. Yet we’re quite capable of assigning meaning and context to abstract forms, if they’re assembled properly.

The order that we prefer those lines and curves to be in is arbitrary – the association of any particular line or curved with another piece is simply a convenience we all agree to use. Other cultures, other languages have a different agreement, equally arbitrary. The lines that form a lamed in the Hebrew alphabet don’t look anything like the lines we use to make an “L” but they get translated into that sound in the reader’s brain because that’s what the reader was raised to expect. Similarly, a Cyrillic “L” looks different from both English and Hebrew, yet performs the same function in the language. When a non-Hebrew or non-Cyrillic reader sees them, they recognize the lines, but there is no neurological association to tell that reader what they mean.*

Jumble_01When those lines and curves are again aligned differently, they offer a hint of order. English readers can more easily recognize some of the forms, even if they don’t always coalesce into specific letters. You might be able to guess at some of the letters, maybe even all., but most likely the word itself remains obscure unless you put a lot of cogitative effort into solving the puzzle.

Yet even if you can’t figure it out, our brains are remarkably agile in that they are eager to build associations from even the smallest clues. That’s how pareidolia happens – described on Wikipedia as, “…a psychological phenomenon in which the mind responds to a stimulus, usually an image or a sound, by perceiving a familiar pattern where none exists (e.g. in random data).” But while it makes for imagined faces of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches, it also helps us identify things that are not in the exact shape and form that we expect.
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Thoughts on reading Ulysses

James Joyce
Onomatopoeia. Odd, sometimes, entertaining too. Like speed bumps that make you slow down and silently mouth the letters. A slow smile at the sound it makes in your head. Alliteration. Anastrophe. Joycean wordplay.

What is that word? A neologism? Or some Irish colloquialism? An anachronism? Another language? Or more playful spelling? So many to stumble over.

Notes. Can’t read Ulysses without the notes. Too many Latin, too many French, too many Gaelic phrases for my monolinguistic brain. Too many Catholic references for my secular upbringing. Too many dips into the classics for my modern education. Irish politics. British politics. Contemporary culture. Jesuits. French authors. Greek tragedies. Lost without the notes.

But notes add to the work. From 930 pages, it expands to almost 1,200. A third larger, a third more to read.

Stream of consciousness? Misleading. That implies a beginning and an end; a source and a destination. A collective movement towards a goal, words flowing in harmony like fish spawning. A direction towards the final outcome. Ulysses is more explosive. A torrent of consciousness. A tsunami. Volcanic eruption of words.

Who would have thought the minutiae of bodily functions so worthy of literature? So many words dedicated to base biological acts.

Was Joyce’s world really so repressed? Were men really so uncomfortable with women and women’s sexuality? If this this the world my parents grew up in, it explains a lot about them – and how they handled my own childhood.

Of course, it’s set in 1904, the hump of the Edwardian era, before the Great War that would sweep away the last vestiges of Victorianism from Europe (although not the USA, where it still has hold). Literary archeology. And it’s Dublin, even further outside my cultural frame of reference than London or New York of that time.

This was banned? This was controversial? This sparked howls of outrage? My, weren’t we close-minded back then. A single episode of The Sopranos has more profanity, more irreverence, more sex. But a lot less introspection.

Who is speaking? Who is thinking? Not always clear. Joyce ignores the niceties of form and eschews formality at the expense of clarity.

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The House on the Borderland

House on the Borderland “But for a few touches of commonplace sentimentality [it] would be a classic of the first water.” So said H. P. Lovecraft of the 1908 novel, The House on the Borderland, by William Hope Hodgson. But, Lovecraft admitted, the book was also a major influence on his own, later work. And for good reason: it created the ‘unknown horror’ effect that Lovecraft (and later writers) exploited so well.

House on the Borderland is a seminal work in its genre and, despite its age, deserves not to be forgotten by modern readers. Here’s a passage from the book:

And then, as I peered, curiously, a new terror came to me; for away up among the dim peaks to my right, I had descried a vast shape of blackness, giantlike. It grew upon my sight. It had an enormous equine head, with gigantic ears, and seemed to peer steadfastly down into the arena. There was that about the pose that gave me the impression of an eternal watchfulness—of having warded that dismal place, through unknown eternities. Slowly, the monster became plainer to me; and then, suddenly, my gaze sprang from it to something further off and higher among the crags. For a long minute, I gazed, fearfully. I was strangely conscious of something not altogether unfamiliar—as though something stirred in the back of my mind. The thing was black, and had four grotesque arms. The features showed indistinctly, ’round the neck, I made out several light-colored objects. Slowly, the details came to me, and I realized, coldly, that they were skulls. Further down the body was another circling belt, showing less dark against the black trunk. Then, even as I puzzled to know what the thing was, a memory slid into my mind, and straightway, I knew that I was looking at a monstrous representation of Kali, the Hindu goddess of death.

You can read or download a copy at Gutenberg.org. It’s not very long – just over 50,000 words, and is a fairly quick read.

Hodgson – whose 140th birthday was celebrated by fans last November (the 100th anniversary of his death is in April, 2018) – was prolific in his lifetime, but is an almost-forgotten figure these days. Only two of his novels – the other being The Night Land (1912) – got any significant attention or popular reprints for many decades after his death. Thanks to the internet, digital files and the magic of on-demand publishing, a lot of his work is available online; five of his novels are now downloadable from Gutenberg. And this slowly growing popularity has seen a few publishers reprinting many (maybe even all) of his works.

While still in the shadows compared to other writers, he is read today by fans of classic horror and early scifi. But he’s not anywhere near a popular writer. In part that may be because better, subsequent writers like Lovecraft, Lord Dunsany and Edgar Rice Burroughs captured (and continue to capture) the public’s imagination. Plus, they wrote about the modern, post-war world: with radio, cars, telephones, movies, steamships and the like. They are easier, I suspect, for modern readers to comprehend than those from the Edwardian era.
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Cultural appropriation is the new gluten free

Cultural appropriationLike food fads, political fads wax and wane as the gnat-like attention span of their followers gets diverted by the Next Big Thing. Political Correctness has of late given birth to Cultural Appropriation just like the gluten-free food fad gave rise to lectin-free food fad.

All such fads are fuelled by the earnest desire of some people to avoid thinking and follow the crowd over the intellectual cliff. They’re not about analysis, research, and objectivity: they’re about being on the Latest Thing bandwagon.

All fads teeter on a basic misapprehension; sometimes it’s a fabrication, other times a misunderstanding, and other times simply a con. Anti-vaccination faddists, for example, believe that vaccines cause autism. You can present reams of evidence that debunks their core belief, but they won’t get off their bandwagon to investigate, let alone change their erroneous belief. You can ridicule chemtrails, flat earth, alien abductions, angels, ghosts, homeopathy and Bigfoot all you want – it won’t shake the faith of the true believers. Just look at the uber-wingnut Food Babe and her gormless followers…

Like food fads, political fads are steadfast until they aren’t. But in the interim, people get pleasure out of pointing fingers and accusing others. Shaming and name calling. Such is the state of the Cultural Appropriation fad: calling out those who deliberately or even inadvertently “appropriate” another culture has replaced the accusations of bigotry, racism, bullying, cyberbullying and misogyny among the Upright Politically Correct Watchdogs for Cultural Appropriation Violations (UPCWFCAV).

Wikipedia tells us that Cultural Appropriation is:

…the adoption or use of the elements of one culture by members of another culture.[1] Cultural appropriation, often framed as cultural misappropriation, is sometimes portrayed as harmful and is claimed to be a violation of the collective intellectual property rights of the originating culture.

If you even so much as think of rolling seaweed and rice together and you’re not Japanese, watch out: the UPCWFCAV will have you skewered on social media or through indignant letters to the editor. If you dare pluck a balalaika and you’re not Russian, think of getting a Chinese-character tattoo and you’re not Chinese, make a taco and you’re not Mexican, wear dreadlocks and you’re not Jamaican, or admire a totem pole and you’re not First Nations… watch out. The UPCWFCAV will be on you in a flash.

But the UPCWFCAV aren’t made up of Japanese, Russian, Jamaican, First Nations or other natives protecting their culture from exploitation. They’re mostly white, urban (and suburban), leftish Westerners with too much time on their hands and hankering for a suitable cause in which to sink their well-maintained teeth and inject some meaning into their lives.
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