The Modern Man

Day 51: Monday

Good morning Zak,

“I went to the museum where they had all the heads and arms from the statues that are in all the other museums.”

-Steven Wright

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One of the so-called Elgin Marbles, British Museum

Do you ever wonder what’s with that?  Like, what on earth happened to about half the limbs on these statues?  Well, most of the damage can be accounted for by factors you would expect, like weather, other natural forces, accidents…  But not all of it.  Some of the changes to these statutes are the result of a very intentional human process: bowdlerization.

Dr. Thomas Bowdler was a physician and social activist of the 18th and 19th centuries.  He’s best remembered for his 1807 publication, The Family Shakespeare.  This was like the P.G. version of Shakespeare.  All the offensive material had been removed, making it appropriate for children.

Since then, Bowdler’s name has been turned into a verb: to bowdlerize, meaning “to expurgate, or censure inappropriate material.”  For example, the medieval church bowdlerized some classical statues by covering up or removing the private parts.

One day people will speak also of timothizing and zakifying things… I’m not sure what it’ll mean.

Anyway, here’s a question: what is the significance of bowdlerism from a purely artistic point of view?  Is The Family Shakespeare just as good as the original?  Or does it maybe lose something, inhibiting the full breadth of Shakespeare’s original poetic vision?

Shakespeare’s plays are of course heavily influenced by the plays of the ancient Greeks and Romans.  Those guys were a little more liberal than the Christian society of Bowdler’s 19th century England… especially when it came to things like sex, violence, nudity…  But sometimes we tend to think of the cultural difference too dualistically—as if the ancient Pagans were some kind of wild hippies compared to the restrained Christian society that followed.

The truth is, even the ancient Greeks had their forms of censorship.  Physical violence and other obscene acts were considered an abomination to Dionysus, the god of theater, and were not permitted to take place on stage.  On the other hand, Christians are not always so restrained.  Occasionally in Christian literature, poets will attempt to glue the missing genitals back on to our concept of man:

“Pleasant and fitting both their use will be
When time and mode and measure do agree,
Else withering from the root all lives would fail
And that old Chaos o’er the wreck prevail.
Conquerors of Death! they fill each empty place
In Nature and immortalize the race.”

-Bernardus Silverstris, De Mundi Universitateº

Other poets too have since tried to piece together our broken form:

ONE’S-SELF I SING

One’s-self I sing, a simple separate person,
Yet utter the word Democratic, the word En-Masse.

Of physiology from top to toe I sing,
Not physiognomy alone nor brain alone is worthy for the Muse, I say
the Form complete is worthier far, The Female equally with the Male I sing.

Of Life immense in passion, pulse, and power, Cheerful, for freest action form’d under the laws divine, The Modern Man I sing.

-Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

Until tomorrow,

Tim

º Ed. Barach and Worbel, Bibliotheca Philosophorum Mediae Aetatis, II.xiv.155

Dover Beach

[…]

Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Ægean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

[…]

From Dover Beach, by Matthew Arnold

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Sophocles pondering the metaphorical “turbid ebb and flow” of human misery

This has been a surprising Saturday something: a series of somethings that surprisingly happens on Saturdays sometimes.

Dark Sayings

Day 23: Wednesday

Good morning Zak,

I noticed that while 16 people liked my “Pigeons Rummaging” entry there were proportionately very few plays of the sound recording.  As I see it these data could only mean one of two things: either people are not that interested in the sound of pigeon feet crinkling leaves in the park, or the people who liked the post didn’t necessarily read it all the way through.  Zak, since the first of these possibilities is clearly ridiculous, I’m going to assume that most people simply didn’t read far enough to realize that they would have the opportunity to indulge in the distinct auditory pleasure that is pigeons stepping on dry leaves.

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Question marks, a common symbol of mystery

Your question, Zak, is quite a puzzle. To use the ancient Greek word we might even call it an ainos, that is, a “riddle or proverb,” or to use the classical Hebrew,  a ḥîdah or “dark saying.”  The Greek is cool ‘cause it gives us the word “enigma,” but I have to say I prefer the meaning of the Hebrew.  I mean, dark saying?  Is there any cooler sounding concept in all the languages of the world?  I wish English had a word that meant “dark saying.”

So in 3rd grade, Jimmy and Sally S. got together one time.  I think most people only heard about it through the grape vine.  They tried to keep it a secret at first, but as I understand, the turning point came when they almost spent half of recess together.  Obviously, that got people saying things, which is how I heard about it in the first place.  They broke up after school, and Sally S. is still single at the moment.  At least that’s what I heard.  Other people say they’re still together.

I bring this up as an illustration that third graders a very wise individuals.

It takes the light of wisdom to discern the secrets of a dark saying.  The ancient world is brimming with stories of wisemen who uncover the hidden meaning of enigmas and cryptic riddles.  There’s Solomon who discerned the dark sayings of the queen of Sheba, and then there’s Oedipus, for example, who solved the enigma of the Sphinx.  We all know the famous riddle of the Sphinx:

“THIS TEXT HAS BEEN CORRUPTED.”

…Or do we?

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Oedipus (right) answers Sphinx (left, in darkness)

You see there’s a slight problem.  There are actually many different contradictory versions of this story preserved by different ancient sources.  Kind of like gossip.  No one can say for certain exactly what it was that the Sphinx asked Oedipus.  It’s quite an enigma.

So what do we do about this?  One option is to brush the whole thing aside.  You could simply say, “it doesn’t matter, because the Sphinx never asked anything, because, importantly, SPHINXES DON’T EXIST!”  Once you’ve said that, you can go find a third grader and tell them that Santa isn’t real and Christmas is just a capitalist consumerist trap invented by rich business owners.  This approach to literature is known as “Podsnappery.”

Another option would be to read the text anyway.  Sure it contains many contradictions.  Life contains many contradictions.  In fact, the less consistent a story is, the more interesting and realistic it becomes.

“I take a sip of my drink and think about the movie I wanted to write once. Something about a man who goes back in time to kill his dog or something. Oh well, it was too unrealistic.” –Flash365

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Deconstructed Church, Michael Jantzen

The duty of a reader is to uncover the light of truth buried in the obscurity of dark sayings.  There’s nothing wrong with being a Podsnapperist, but it’s different from being a reader.  Being a reader means engaging in the heuristic search for the underlying structural integrity beneath the surface of a text; it means, in the words of Solomon, “searching for wisdom as for hidden treasures” (Proverbs 2:4).  Basically it’s what you did with juicy gossip in third grade.

“We know how to tell many lies as if they were true. But we also know, whenever wish, how to speak the truth.” -the Muses, from Hesiod’s Theogony

Authors tend to hide what is most sacred to them out of view from the Podsnapping public.  But a reader, in the fullest sense of the word, is someone who assumes that a text contains hidden treasures worth searching for, someone who tries to uncover precisely what it was that a nonexistent sphinx said that one time in ancient Thebes.

“If I’m vague, it’s only because upsetting topics distract people from the real issues of the world like coffee cups and muppet babies.” –Rarasaur

Zak, let me ask you a question; maybe you can discern its meaning… Do you believe in sphinxes?

Until tomorrow,

Tim

Unusual Uses and Usages

Day 11: Monday

Good morning Zak,

So here’s one for you: would words have meaning if there weren’t anyone around to read them?  This is an alternative version of the better-known riddle, “if a tree falls in the woods with no one to hear it, then do I still sound pretentious asking you this?”  Zak, you might feel confident about how to answer both of those questions, but as you’re reading this there’s probably a slight problem.  I’m guessing no one is around willing to hear your answer.

“No one,” by the way, makes a great nickname.  That’s why Odysseus told a cyclops his name was “Cleverness” that one time before he attacked it.  When the cyclops’ friends asked it if everything was okay, it shouted out, “No one is attacking me!”  Get it?

I guess you had to be there… in ancient Greece… where the word for “cleverness” sounded almost exactly like the word for “no one.”  A classic miscommunication.

Classicists are kind of funny people these days.  They’re like Harry Potter fans, only more hipster.  They all have basically the same quirky personality, some of them are under the impression that they’re descendants of gods, and they share all sorts of clever inside jokes and references that mostly just classicists get.  So more or less like Harry Potter fans.  If you, reader, happen to be a part of that niche little audience, maybe you’d like to indulge yourself with a quick poem by Hilda Doolittle.

But while reading out-dated poetry is great, if there are people around to hear you, I would recommend a more social activity.

One great way to spend a stormy evening is playing telephone with your friends.  If anyone is unfamiliar, telephone is a game of transmission: players gather in a circle, and one person discreetly whispers a particular message of some kind into the ear of their neighbor.  The message is then carefully transmitted all the way around the circle.  At that point the original version of the message is revealed for all to hear, shocking participants with how much it has changed.  The purpose of this exercise is evidently to make light of the fallibility of human expression.

But maybe you don’t agree that telephone is such a “great” activity.  That’s cool.  These days, plenty of people disagree about the proper usage of the word “great.”

There was also that time Odysseus was in the underworld and he met a crazy old dude named Tiresias.  Tiresias told him to carry his oar so far in-land that people would think it was a winnowing-fan for separating the wheat from the chaff.  He was assuming the people in the country were so domestic that they would hardly even recognize the accouterments of pirating.  It’s possible this has some kind of deep metaphorical meaning that made it worthy of entering the cannon of classical world literature, but it’s probably just a miscommunication.

“And I will give you a sign, clear indeed: when another traveler meets you and asks whether it is a winnowing-fan you carry on your shining shoulder, plant your handy oar into the earth and offer a sacrifice to lord Poseidon…” Homer

Really, I suppose there’s no reason you couldn’t use an oar as a winnowing-fan.  You could also use a hairbrush as a musical instrument.  Come to think of it, there are a lot of alternative uses for everyday objects.  Like fish, for example.

Until tomorrow,

Tim