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…

Is Man a Piece of Work?

You see it all the time, don’t you –portrayals of great male warriors triumphing over equally determined rivals, their muscles rippling with sweat, their eyes scanning the crowd daring any others to step forward. It is a classic scene, presumably so reminiscent of the glory days of yore when men were really men –a classic depiction of a decidedly monolithic world where pursuit of power alone determined ethics and values. Where might was not only right, it was also appropriately so. What else could drive a nation, a culture, a belief, to success?

And what about those of us not favoured with bulging muscles who either could not, or would not compete in the marketplace of war? We wore the yoke –the etymological root of subjugation.

Although largely undisputed, I have always felt that this view of history was probably a victor’s view: partial, and likely doctrinaire. Perhaps even unrealistic. And yet a reading –or nowadays, more likely a movie portrayal- of the classic heroes would do little to disavow this opinion. Every so often, though, there seem to be other, quieter voices crying in the growing wilderness of masculine insecurity that cast doubts on the impenetrability of the foliage. Voices that find paths hidden in the woods.

‘Homer’s Iliad has been used by some men to hail the virtues of traditional masculinity in the 21st century. Typically, the famous work of literature serves as a sort of manual of manliness. […] Aside from longing for the (grossly misunderstood) glory days of a triumphantly Christian Europe that traced its heritage to the Greeks and Romans, the new champions of the West obsess over an idealized version of the past that bears little resemblance to the real Greece and Rome.’ https://theconversation.com/toxic-masculinity-fostered-by-misreadings-of-the-classics-88118 -This from an article in the Conversation.

‘The classical world furnishes us with examples of manhood, masculinity and heroism that have inspired some men to react against the supposed feminizing of Western culture, especially in the university setting.’ But, as one might expect, the reality was likely far more nuanced than its adherents would have us believe.

The article’s author, Matthew Sears, Associate Professor of Classics & Ancient History, University of New Brunswick, uses Homer’s Iliad, a classic tale about the Trojan War, as an example. He says that when he first read it, ‘[…] the final showdown between the opposing heroes Hector and Achilles [was] an utter letdown. Hector, in fact, runs away rather than face his opponent. Only after Achilles has chased Hector around the walls of Troy three full times does Hector turn to fight, and only then because the goddess Athena tricks Hector into thinking that a Trojan ally would be by his side.’

This seems to glorify the strength and reputation of Achilles, of course, but also denigrates Hector, the Trojan hero. But more interesting –to me, at least- ‘By using different Greek words for manliness, Homer distinguished between Achilles’ toxic masculinity and appropriate expressions of manliness.’ I’ve left the link in for readers who may wish to pursue this further. ‘Readers do, however, tend to recognize in Hector, the greatest Trojan warrior, a far more sympathetic figure, embodying classical manhood by fighting bravely and selflessly for his city and family against impossible odds and an implacable enemy.’

And yet, this is still a masculine trope, albeit a different variety, isn’t it? No, Hector doesn’t win, but he fights for what he believes in against impossible odds… A real man, although not a victor like Achilles. But wait -the complexity increases! ‘Not only does Hector’s nerve fail him at Achilles’ final approach, […]the Trojan prince waits outside the safety of the walls not because of any higher principle or courage. Rather, he waits because he has made the mistake of not ushering his soldiers into the city much earlier, which would have spared countless men a grisly death at Achilles’ hands. Hector must therefore save face lest some lesser man chide him.’ –Things fall apart, the center cannot hold, in the immortal words of Yeats.

‘Before fleeing, Hector also ponders whether he should lay down his arms and attempt to strike a deal. Instead of fighting to the death, Hector considers offering Achilles not only Helen and the treasures she brought to Troy, but every last ounce of treasure in every last household in the city, effectively selling out all the Trojans instead of facing death himself. Only after deliberating over these two options does he turn to run.’

But doesn’t that make Hector more of a person, not less of a man? As Sears puts it, ‘Aren’t we all guilty of taking a stand when it’s easy and when we’re among friends, yet balk at the chance to speak out when there might be real repercussions? […] From the gut-wrenching fear and indecision in Hector’s breast, to the plaintive laments of his father, Priam, as he begs his son to come inside the city walls […] the heroes of Greek epic are terrible fodder to use to justify […] toxic masculinity.’

It seems to me that there is a current of fear raising the hackles of many men nowadays. In this age of mirror-speak, many fear not seeing what they expect. What they deserve. Every unwelcome reflection is too easily mistaken as historical revisionism –that the attribution, for example, of the relative lack of contribution of women in history, is related not to its suppression, but rather to its absence. And for many, I fear, that the recording of history has largely been the preserve of men, seems unimportant. Merely an excuse, to delegitimize the world view it wishes to espouse.

So, have I become a modern day Judas, selling out my side, if not for money, then out of weakness? Someone not ‘man’ enough to oppose the feminizing of Western culture, to speak out against political correctness –or worse, who agrees with it? I suppose the answer lies in how the question itself is framed. I do not understand the various gender divides as competitions, or as assignations of unequal resources or restricted abilities. Nor, for that matter, do I see us as equals –of course there are physical differences, different aspirations, different Weltanschauungen- but so what? Everybody is different from everybody else. We are not clones. No one is actually ‘equal’.

I think that the time has come to forget about the ever-changing definitions of equality and rejoice in what makes each of us unique. What we need to espouse is fairness –in every interaction. All the rest is poor translation.