Whodunnit?


Popular opinion to the contrary, it seems to me that there are advantages to cultural naïveté -well, literary innocence, at any rate. Being seduced into a novel or short story solely because of the reputation of the author, or the ravings of a friend, risks disappointment -if only in your friend’s lack of sophistication. And even if the choice was successful, there remains, for me at least, a lingering sense of manipulation, of being swept along in a crowd: just another nameless member of the flock. I would much prefer to watch it from the edge, untouched by all but the gentle murmur of its passing.

There is far more pleasure in the unguided discovery of a title or an author unbesmirched by popularity, and hiding, perhaps, in a used book store, or on the shelf of one of those take-one-give-one piles I seem to frequent at neighbourhood bus stops. For me, their anonymity -however transient- is an adventure. But I suppose I’ve always been drawn to the potential of the unsigned, the wisdom of the incognitive with no particular affiliation. Graffiti -the polite ones anyway- can be compelling, too. With them, there is seldom need for attribution, and indeed, the recognition of authorship might well detract from the message, and relegate it to partisan politics rather than liberate it to a vox populi, if not a vox dei.

I had feared this was merely a personal conceit, a longing for an unspoiled hilltop from which to evaluate the countryside, but as sometimes happens, I discovered there were others who also wandered lonely as a cloud -although with much more erudition. Tom Geue is perhaps a good example. He is a lecturer in Latin in the School of Classics at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, and wrote a thought-provoking essay on anonymity for the online publication Aeon:  https://aeon.co/essays/lessons-from-ancient-rome-on-the-power-of-anonymity

‘Not knowing the author of a literary work does something powerful to the reader: it makes her experience the words as an exemplary, representative, far-reaching burst of culture, a spark of art that seems to transcend the limits of the singular intelligence… The potential of the anonymous work is in its ability to throw the reader into the realm of apparent universality.’

As a scholar of classical Latin literature, he illustrates many of his arguments with examples from the period. ‘Literature for the Romans was primarily the product of a singular intelligence… A literary text without authorship was often thought of as something dark, mysterious, lacking and disabled. In fact, a whole part-industry of scholarship sprouted up around securing attribution, making sure, that is, that the right texts had their proper authors, and that readers could know the worth of what they read…  Even when there was no clear single point of origin for a work – eg, when the authorship was genuinely shared – Ancient readers invented one: it could never just be the Iliad or the Odyssey; it had to be the Iliad or Odyssey of Homer. There was little space in the culture of authorship for works whose author was properly unknown; and many modern readers have inherited these exclusionary tastes.’

Despite -or maybe because of- the ‘anti-anonymity biases of the Classical canon’ though, Geue seems intrigued with an anonymous historical novel Octavia that he admits we have probably heard nothing about. ‘The play is an anonymous masterpiece, and it is about the divorce and exile of Nero’s first wife, Octavia, set in 62 BCE. It stages the domestic tension and revolutionary springback of absolute power spinning out of control, and it does so with more ambition and urgency than almost any other piece of drama to survive from Ancient Rome.’ But it is unsigned for an obvious reason: probable political retribution if the author were known. And, as Geue suggests, ‘Names tame certain forces; anonymity unleashes them.’

I see that as a cause for concern, however: information -or propaganda- can obviously wreak havoc if it is false, unattributable. Graffiti are one thing, but social media is another. Since antiquity, it has always been important to know if the source of the information possessed enough expertise to justify acceptance -or, was at least trustworthy and otherwise neutral. No doubt this is why Science and its scientists have hitherto enjoyed wide public acceptance. The recent rapid emergence of social media with its anonymous sources, and agenda-laden dis-information, however, has cast some deep shadows over expert opinions. To say the least, this is a troubling development.

And yet that type of writing is not what I am celebrating. Fact-driven compositions will likely continue to need scrutiny -to mislead is to harm, if only the Zeitgeist. But when we’re talking about literature and poetry, anonymity can be tantalizing. Enticing. Character and subject development, skillful storytelling along with evocative metaphors and a seductive plot-line are far more important than author identification in that idiom. Whether, in other words, the Iliad, was actually written by a poet named Homer -if he even existed- or whether the stories are merely compilations of the works of many unnamed authors, subtracts nothing from the brilliance of their contents. I think the mystery adds to the allure.

There is beauty in discovery, there is wisdom in metaphors- but there is also a certain charm in the as yet unknown. My father was a Baptist, and came from a non-dancing, non-card-playing family, so his cursing was, well, imaginative to say the least. Most of them were evocative of frustration, or folk wisdom -like ‘it’s not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog…’ That sort of thing.

Some, though, defied my childhood comprehension and vocabulary, and I assumed they were special remnants of a world I was too young to have experienced. There was a phrase he said that I always enjoyed: ‘jumped-up mackinaw’. It was my father’s favourite expression and it always made me laugh, so he would too, and then reach out and hug me. I’ve always associated the expression with what I loved about him: he made me happy.

It was long before Google and the internet, and I remember my friends thought ‘jumped-up’ was  something bad: swearing. So with considerable trepidation, I asked a teacher what it meant one time after class when she seemed to be in a good mood.

“Well,” she said, after thinking about it, “I know about Mackinaw shirts… They were made of water-repellent wool, or something.” She looked at the ceiling for a moment. “Loggers wore them, I think…”

“So… what about the ‘jumped-up’ part?” I said, and watched her with anxious eyes.

I remember her smiling and shrugging her shoulders. “I don’t know why he’d say that, G. Maybe he read it somewhere, do you think?”

I could only think of the Reader’s Digest books in our bathroom, but I’d read most of them, too, and I was pretty sure I’d never seen it there. Apart from the Bible, I’d never seen him read much else. “I wonder who would write something like that,” I said, frustrated at being no closer to the meaning. “I don’t think it’s in the Bible, is it?”

She shook her head. “Sounds like an anonymous author, don’t you think?”

I looked at her, obviously puzzled at the word.

She smiled and explained. “Anonymous means unknown, or unnamed. So perhaps nobody knows who wrote it.”

After reading Geue’s essay, though, I remembered my father’s expression, and wondered if my teacher had been correct about the anonymity of it’s generation. I considered Googling it, but decided not to. After all, his expression defined my childhood as much as my father’s smile did, and I’m happy to think he wrote it. It’s ours -and I don’t need it to be from someone I don’t know.

Of course, maybe most of us are actually anonymous, anyway…

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