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…

Digiphilia

My computer seems to be constantly doing things behind my back, or under my fingers. One minute it’s performing some sort of update, the next, applying a patch or pretending to, at any rate. I have to trust that whoever makes the little signs that pop up is honest and doing things in my best interests. But how would I know -until it’s too late? There’s a lot of hope that goes into owning a computer nowadays -but sometimes it seems more like a Mafial protection racket and I do what it says so I don’t get hurt. So my data doesn’t leak out onto Facebook. Doesn’t de-encrypt on its way to the Cloud.  Of course, that’s what I pay it to do, but nonetheless it always seems busy. Like me.

Sometimes I wonder what that means, though -being busy. Is it like my computer -being occupied with a thousand thankless tasks whose relevance is probable, but unprovable and invisible? Or is busy actually more like what it does for me when I ask it to print something, or search for a particular file and display it? Something I can use, in other words.

The questions are not as odd as they seem. A patient of mine seemed to be confronted with a similarly existential angst one day as she was fiddling with an app on her smartphone trying to find the date of her last period. I’d seen Jenny a few times in the past for heavy and irregular periods, but they’d sort themselves out and I wouldn’t hear from her until the next time her family doctor became concerned. A young-looking woman in her mid-forties, she always seemed busy with something in her purse or in the depths of one of the voluminous pockets of the coat she always chose to wear. Then, like a magician extracting a rabbit from one or the other, she’d hold up a scrap of paper like it was a Dead Sea Scroll and wave it at me in triumph. “I knew I’d written it down,” she would explain, her face red with the effort. “It’s the best way.”

It was different this time, however. I hadn’t seen her for a while and her hair was longer, greyer, and piled on top of her head like she’d done it in a hurry in the dark. Her face had changed as well -more lined. More flustered. She was wearing a dark blue woolen sweater with no pockets, and her purse wouldn’t have held much more than a phone. But as agitated as she looked, she greeted me with a warm smile of recognition.

My first question, after the usual reminiscing banter seemed the obvious one. “Your doctor says that your periods are heavy and irregular again,” I began, glancing at his letter on the screen of my laptop. “When did the last one start?” This initiated a confident dip into the little purse and a rather smug look on her face. She pulled out a standard issue smart phone and started to punch in the password to unlock the screen. I could tell from her expression that it hadn’t worked. “I decided on a simple one, so I’d remember the password,” she explained with a blush. “But I think I entered it backwards…” She smiled to herself and re-entered it with much the same result. “Damn! Maybe I’m using the one for my debit card -the PIN thing…” she added for clarification. “Or could it be the..?” She punched in a few more numbers, this time angrily, then sighed noisily. She blushed again, but her cheeks were already flushed with irritation. “New phone,” she added, but more to herself than me. “Actually, my first smart phone…”

She put it on the desk for a moment while she decided what to do.

“Just tell me the approximate date your last period started,” I said to calm her down a little. “It doesn’t have to be exact…”

But I could see an idea flash across her eyes. “I wrote it down just in case,” she said and stood up to reach into a pocket in her jeans. My fingers hovered over the keyboard in anticipation. “Here it is,” she said, pulling out a crumpled piece of brightly coloured paper the size of a small post-it reminder like I used to stick on my charts to alert my secretary to do some task or other. Jenny had her backup systems.

But it wasn’t the date of her period, it was the password for the phone.  I rolled my eyes when she wasn’t looking, and smiled patiently: my backup system…

Soon she was deep in the inner mysteries of her phone hunting for an app, scrolling randomly it seemed to my watchful gaze. I glanced at my watch -eighteen minutes so far of no progress in solving the problem she had waited so long to see me for.

“I used to just remember things like this,” she said with an embarrassed shrug. “Then, when my periods became irregular, I would write the dates down…”

I couldn’t see her face as she said this -her long, greying hair had come unravelled from its original wrappings and was hanging over her nose and eyes as she stared at the tiny screen, head bowed as if in prayer, frantically scrolling through some app or other with her fingernail.

“My girlfriend convinced me to get one of these,” she said, perhaps pointing at the phone that was hidden in her lap behind the desk. She looked up briefly and smiled at me. “You remember Lara?”

It was a statement really, not a question despite the obvious verbal question mark. I decided I did not have to respond and just smiled in return. I had no idea who Lara was.

“You delivered her little girl a few years ago,” she continued almost as an aside, trying to multitask as she whacked at the screen. “Anyway she said she’d given up pencils for good and was happy about it. No more scraps of paper in her pocket, or sounding the depths of her purse for a reminder she’d forgotten she’d put in there.” She surfaced again for air, and then just as unexpectedly disappeared behind her hair. “No more worrying about where things are; everything’s in the same place…” Her hair quivered for a moment, then the moment passed and the scratching sound resumed. “You can even set an alarm on some of the apps… Not this one, though,” she added, as if to excuse her absence.

“Anyway, Lara says to say hello.” And then a whispered curse, as if her friend had joined her behind the wall of hair.

“Any word about your period?” I  asked, pretending it was a joke.

Jenny giggled nervously and waggled her hair again. “I should have written that down somewhere for you… Well, I mean I did, but I can’t find it.” Two eyes peeked timidly through the hair like children hiding in a bush. Then suddenly, her head bobbed up and the hair parted as a curtain might with a gust of wind. “Wait a minute,” she said, excitedly, “I did write it down!”  She jumped to her feet and managed to cram some fingers in another pocket in her jeans. “Hah!” she shouted excitedly. “Here it is! You always have to have a backup plan, don’t you?” She pulled out another post-it note and placed it triumphantly on my desk.

I smoothed it out and tried to read the now-smudged writing on it as she watched my every move with ill-disguised pride. When I seemed to be having difficulty she gently retrieved the tiny document from my grasp and translated it. But slowly, like a teacher trying to help an unexpectedly slow pupil. “It says nine days ago, doctor. It started nine days ago -well, probably nine and a half, because they often seem to start the night before…”

I have to say she was very patient with me. More patient than I felt. “Nine days ago Jenny?”

“Nine and a half,” she corrected me.

“But couldn’t you just have told me that in the first place? I thought maybe it might have been a few weeks ago, or perhaps a very long time ago…”

She shrugged noncommittally. “That’s why I wrote it down,” she said as if I was still being a bit slow. “I didn’t want to give you the wrong information, after all…”

“But…”

She looked at me, obviously annoyed that I was not being more understanding. “I lead a busy life, doctor. I can’t be expected to remember everything.” She softened her expression like a mother, concerned she might have been a bit hard on her child. “So I write everything down where I can find it when I need it.”

I stared at her phone for a moment and shook my head with a knowing smile. I don’t think she saw that, though, because she was obviously  pleased with her methods and was carefully folding up the password on that first piece of paper and getting ready to put it back in her pocket again. “When you’re busy, you have to have a plan,” she said proudly. “And a backup…” she added wisely, in case I hadn’t seen the wisdom in it all.