The Godless Canon

The Godless Canon

Is English literature naturally secular or has the canon been designed to marginalize religion?

The most startling[1] aspect of the canon of English literature that has come down to[2] us is how, from the earliest times, it questions, marginalizes and ignores religion. If we include Beowulf (C.9th?) in the canon (rather than[3] seeing Anglo-Saxon literature as a separate tradition that had little impact on what came after), we find a confused mishmash[4] of pagan monsters, Wyrd[5] and an Old Testament God who is clearly hands-off[6] in His approach[7] to humanity.

The next major work in the canon is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (1380s?). Here the protagonist is a keen[8] believer in the power of the Virgin Mary, though this belief is undermined[9] in our eyes by the coexistence in his world of magic. In other words Christianity may be explicit but it is hardly[10] confirmed by being placed[11] in a fairy-tale[12] context.

Chaucer

The great canonical work in English of the Middle Ages is The Canterbury Tales (1400). Chaucer offers us a cast[13] made up of[14] a crusader knight[15], a prioress[16], a monk[17], a friar[18], a pardoner[19] and a summoner[20] (among others). However, these are brilliantly sardonic portraits[21], which thoroughly[22] question each of these overtly Christian characters’ true adherence to the faith they profess. The crusading knight is in fact a mercenary; the prioress is viciously[23] antisemitic coquette who shows more compassion for little animals than for the poor[24]; the lecherous[25] monk dedicates his time to hunting[26], and so on[27].

Shakespeare

The Middle Ages came to an end with the Reformation and from then on[28], authors could not count on there being[29] a single set of religious beliefs that their audience shared[30]. Indeed[31], with a spectrum of beliefs ranging[32] from the Puritan to the Anglican to the Roman Catholic, most authors opted for marginalizing religion. For instance, Shakespeare wrote one religious sonnet out of[33] 154. However, Shakespeare goes further and when he does present[34] religious characters they are ineffectual (Friar Laurence[35]), hypocritical (Angelo[36]), ignorant (Oliver Martext[37]) or corrupt (the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Ely[38]). When Shakespeare includes a saint in his work – Joan of Arc – she is portrayed[39] as a witch[40]: La Pucelle. His most impressive creations are nihilistic worlds (such as the Albion of King Lear or the Scotland of Macbeth) or ones ruled[41] by magic (such as the Island in The Tempest or the forest in Midsummer Night’s Dream). It is true that it was illegal to mention God on stage after 1603 but Shakespeare made no serious attempt to incorporate religion into his plays even before that.

Milton

The exception to the rule should be the towering[42] work of the 17th Century: Paradise Lost. Here we have an epic poem entirely dedicated to recounting the foundational stories of Christianity. However, even here the canon undermines9 religion, albeit unwittingly[43]. Despite Milton’s best intentions, later generations have found Satan by far[44] the most interesting character in the poem, and in a formal sense he is the central character. The Romantics went further and saw Satan as the hero of the piece.

The Rise of the Novel

The 18th Century saw the rise[45] of the novel and here again religion was marginalized and stories tended to be morally ambiguous. Where religious figures do appear[46] they tend to be hypocritical buffoons like Collins in Charlotte Brontë’s Pride and Prejudice or Seth Pecksniff in Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit (1844) or hypocritical villains like Mr. Brocklehurst in Jane Eyre (1847) or Reverend Chadband in Dickens’ Bleak House (1853).

By the 20th Century the UK was one of the least religious countries in the world and the literature reflected the marginal place of organized faith in British society.

An Alternative Canon

What is fascinating for me is how artificial this focus is. Religious and moralistic literature has gradually been expunged[47] from the canon over the last 70 years. In fact, most surviving Anglo-Saxon poetry is religious. The ‘other’ great work of the 14th Century was William Langland’s Piers Plowman, a poem entirely dedicated to how to lead[48] a god-fearing[49] life. Earlier generations studied George Herbert and John Bunyan as essential parts of 17th-century literature. Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield (1766) used to be considered an integral part of the rise of the novel. Only the religious poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins[50] survives within[51] the canon as a testament to the long tradition of religious literature in English that existed alongside the modern canon.

I comment on all this not because I have any interest in restoring religious literature to its ‘rightful’ place in the canon but rather[52] to show how what we study as great literature is determined by contemporary tastes rather than[53] objective merit.

Indeed, the process of secularizing English literature has been reversed somewhat in recent years. This has not been because of a renewed interest in religion but because of a wish to rediscover women writers. As a result, the religious writings of Julian of Norwich, Margery Kempe, Anne Locke and Christina Rossetti are all being read again.

 

[1] startling – surprising, shocking

[2] to come down to (come-came-come) – reach, be inherited by

[3] rather than – as opposed to, instead of

[4] mishmashmixture

[5] Wyrd – a pagan Germanic concept similar to destiny

[6] hands-offnon-interventionist

[7] approach – (in this case) attitude

[8] keen – enthusiastic

[9] to undermineweaken, debilitate

[10] hardlynot really

[11] to place – put

[12] fairy-tale (adj.) – magical, fantastical

[13] cast – (in this case) a group of protagonists

[14] to be made up of – consist of

[15] knight – mediaeval soldier who fought on horseback

[16] prioresswoman who manages a priory/convent (directly subordinate to an abbess)

[17] monk – religious man who lives in a monastery

[18] friarmember of a mendicant order such as a Dominican or a Franciscan

[19] pardoner – sb. licenced to sell papal pardons and indulgences

[20] summoner – an officer for a mediaeval ecclesiastical court

[21] portrait – (in this case) description

[22] thoroughly – effectively, exhaustively

[23] viciouslyfiercely

[24] the poorpoor people

[25] lecherous – lascivious

[26] huntingchasing and killing animals for pleasure

[27] and so on – et cetera, etc.

[28] from then onafter that

[29] count on there being – assume that there was

[30] to sharehave in common

[31] indeed – (emphatic) in fact

[32] to range – stretch, span, vary

[33] out of – from a total of

[34] does present – (emphatic) presents, creates

[35] in Romeo and Juliet

[36] in Measure for Measure

[37] in As You Like It

[38] in Henry V

[39] to portray – present, depict

[40] witchwoman who practises black magic

[41] to rulegovern, control

[42] towering – (in this case) exceptional, supreme

[43] albeit unwittinglyeven though this is not intentional

[44] by far – unquestionably, easily

[45] rise – (in this case) emergence, appearance

[46] do appear – (emphatic) appear

[47] to expunge – erase, delete, eliminate

[48] to lead (lead-led-led) – (in this case) live

[49] godfearing – devoutly religious

[50] an English Jesuit

[51] within – in

[52] but rather – (in this case) I comment on it

[53] rather than – as opposed to, instead of

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Company Names

Company Names

I spent the early part of the summer writing 400-word summaries[1] about several hundred leading companies operating in the UK. Surprisingly, the job was fascinating first because I realized[2] quite how much the economy of my country of birth has been transformed in the last couple of decades. A number of large[3] banks and companies that were household names[4] have simply disappeared, while insurance brokers, payday lenders[5] and internet betting shops[6] now form a major part of the economy (the long-term implications of which I won’t go into[7] here). Just one example: Stoke-on-Trent is a city of a quarter-of-a-million people. It used to be famous for its pottery[8], coal[9] and steel[10] industries. Now the largest[11] employer is the online gambling company[12] Bet365.

Anyway, along with new companies come new names and it is these that are the subject of this rambling[13] article. Specifically, I want to consider some of them in the context of Alexandra Watkins’ book Hello, My Name is Awesome (2015). Most of the new names continue the traditions of using euphony[14], acronyms and wordplay.

Effective Names

A good example is the name of Mitie /’maiti:/, the outsourcing[15] company, which is a felicitous acronym for “Management Incentive Through Investment Equity” with a pun[16] on ‘mighty[17]. Another successful brand name[18] is that of the discount website ‘Groupon’, a clever portmanteau word[19]. It comes from ‘group’ fused with ‘coupon’. A final example of an effective name is Npower[20], which stands for[21] “national power”. However, the name has echoes of ‘empower[22] as it is often mispronounced (“enpower”).

Brain[23] Fodder[24]

HungryHouse[25] is also a pretty[26] successful company name. It connects with the moment in which potential customers are likely to[27] purchase[28] takeaway food[29] – when they are hungry – and offers alliteration for memorability[30]. Finally, there are echoes of the simile “as hungry as a horse[31]. However, the rhyme in GrubHub[32] makes that name even more inspired: ‘grub’ is a colloquial word for food and ‘hub’ means ‘centre’. Both names are better than Deliveroo[33], though. Kangaroo’s transport their young[34], not food – Hamster would have been more appropriate!

GoSkippy[35] seems a singularly stupid name for an insurance company. First, why refer to a TV character who disappeared back in 1970? – only a small part of your potential customer base – those over 55 who grew up in Britain or Australia – are going to relate to[36] it. Moreover, what do kangaroos have to do with[37] insurance? Maybe I just[38] don’t like kangaroos!

A better animal allusion is found in the name of Music Magpie[39]. Not only is there alliteration but magpies collect valuable objects, just like the ‘recommerce[40] company does.

In-Jokes

Some names are less successful because, though they are highly[41] ingenious, ordinary English-speakers need them to be explained. For instance[42], the logic behind the name of ‘Airbnb’ becomes evident with a little explanation. The idea behind the company is that anyone can turn[43] their apartment into a bed and breakfast[44] (b’n’b) by putting an inflatable mattress[45] in their sitting room (the ‘air’ in the name).

The name of the online supermarket, Ocado, is also obscure without an explanation. It is “a made-up[46] word, intended to[47] evoke fresh fruit” (i.e. Avocado), according to CEO Jez Frampton.

Bad Names

The name of the classified ads[48] website, Gumtree[49], betrays[50] its origins. It was set up[51] by expatriate Antipodians in London to help other expatriate Antipodians with accommodation, employment and so on[52]. The name comes from the New Zealand expression ‘to be up a gum tree’ (= be in a predicament[53]).

Personally, I find ‘ipostparcels[54] extremely irritating. I’m no fan of starting a name with a lowercase[55] letter or running three words together[56], so to me it looks like the efforts of a small child who is just[57] learning to write.

However, for me at least an example of crass[58] company name is ‘Missguided[59]. Yes, OK, it includes the ‘miss[60] suggesting that it is oriented towards young women, though it is telling[61] that they never use ‘miss’ on their website, only ‘babe[62]. But the pun[63] is on the word ‘misguided’, which means ‘ill-advised[64] or ‘foolish’ – what sort of a connotation is that? In fact, ‘Missguided’ commits three of Alexandra Watkins’s[65] seven deadly sins[66] of brand names[67]: it looks like a typo[68], it’s annoying[69] and it’s uninspired.

The Limits of Clever

The name ‘Quickquid[70] sounds like an effective use of allitero-assonance with the allusion that they will lend you money rapidly and nothing more. However, it might just also be an allusion to the Latin word Quicquid (= whatever[71]) – but I doubt it! Sometimes a name is just[72] a name and you shouldn’t over-interpret[73].

[1] summary – synopsis

[2] to realize – (false friend) become conscious

[3] large – (false friend) big, important

[4] to be a household name – be wellknown, be recognized by practically everyone

[5] payday lender – a company that lends customers small sums of money at high interest rates, on the agreement that the loan will be repaid when the borrower receives his/her next salary payment

[6] internet betting shoptype of online casino

[7] to go into sth. (go-went-gone) – examine, investigate

[8] pottery – ceramics

[9] coalpieces of carbon used as fuel

[10] steeltype of extra-strong ferrous metal

[11] largestbiggest, most important

[12] online gambling companytype of internet-based casino

[13] rambling – digressive, discursive

[14] euphonysound parallelisms (e.g. alliteration, assonance, etc.)

[15] outsourcing – contracting out, paying another company to do part of one’s production process

[16] punpiece of homophonic wordplay

[17] mightypowerful

[18] brand nametrademark, commercial name

[19] portmanteau wordterm formed by fusing together parts of two existing words

[20] a gas and electricity company

[21] to stand for (stand-stood-stood) – represent

[22] to empower – emancipate, give sb. control over his/her life

[23] brain (adj.) – mental

[24] fodderfood for animals

[25] an online platform for takeaway food

[26] pretty (adv.) – reasonably

[27] are likely to – will probably

[28] to purchase – buy

[29] takeaway foodfood that is prepared at a restaurant but is brought home by customers or delivered to their homes by the restaurant

[30] memorability – being memorable, being easy to remember

[31] as hungry as a horsevery hungry, famished

[32] an online and mobile food-ordering company that connects customers with local restaurants, a rival of HungryHouse

[33] an online food-delivery company; a competitor to HungryHouse and GrubHub. The name is a portmanteau word19 based on ‘delivery’ + ‘kangaroo’

[34] their young [U] – their babies

[35] an insurance company. The name refers to Skippy the Bush Kangaroo, an Australian TV series (1968-1970)

[36] to relate to sth. – identify with sth. , feel a connection with sth.

[37] what do kangaroos have to do with…?how are kangaroos related to…?

[38] just – (in this case) simply

[39] an online marketplace for buying and selling second-hand CDs, DVDs, etc. A magpie is a species of black and white bird (Pica pica) related to crows (Corvidae) that is known for taking bright objects

[40] recommercebuying and selling of second-hand products online

[41] highlyvery

[42] for instance – for example

[43] to turn – (in this case) convert

[44] bed and breakfastsmall private hotel

[45] mattress – the soft part of a bed

[46] made-up – invented

[47] intended to – designed to

[48] adadvert (UK English), advertisement

[49] an online company for people to buy and sell things within their local communities. A gum tree is literally a eucalyptus tree or similar

[50] to betray – (in this case) reveal

[51] to set sth. up (set-set-set) – create sth., establish sth.

[52] and so on – et cetera, etc.

[53] to be in a predicament – be in a difficult or embarrassing situation

[54] a package-delivery company

[55] lowercaseminuscule

[56] to run together (run-ran-run) – fuse, combine

[57] just – (in this case) in the process of

[58] crassstupid, showing no intelligence

[59] a clothes store for women aged 16 to 35

[60] miss – an unmarried woman

[61] telling – revealing, significant

[62] babe – (potentially sexist) young woman who is considered sexually attractive. The term, of course, infantilizes women.

[63] punpiece of homophonic wordplay

[64] ill-advised – imprudent

[65] Hello, My Name is Awesome (2015)

[66] deadly sins – (in this case) cardinal mistakes

[67] brand namename of a product or service

[68] typospelling mistake

[69] annoyingirritating

[70] a payday lender. Literally, a ‘quid’ is, colloquially, a pound (sterling).

[71] whatever – a. under any circumstances; b. anything; c. (an exclamation expressing total indifference) I don’t care!

[72] just – (in this case) only

[73] to over-interpretfind camouflaged significance where none was intended

An Academic Car Crash?

An Academic Car Crash?

Photo by Marina Carresi

The other day I received an email whose title was, “The Academia Community Just[1] Hit a Big Milestone!”. The headline[2] was referring to the fact that the Academia.edu social-networking site[3] now has more than 50 million members. While[4] I celebrate the fact that “Facebook for Faculty[5][6] has more members than California or Spain has citizens, I was taken aback[7] by the headline. For me a milestone[8] is a physical thing. I dug one up[9] in my parents’ garden when I was young (see photo). Sure[10] I accept that it can be used metaphorically to mean an important marker[11] or a significant figure[12] but it is still a living metaphor[13] in that I associate the expression ‘to reach/pass a milestone’ with the image of someone walking past a milestone on a road in the English countryside. For instance[14], a milestone figures large[15] in the pantomime[16] Dick Whittington (see image). So, the mixed metaphor[17] ‘to hit[18] a milestone’ sounds comical: I imagine someone crashing his car into a stone next to the road. If “the Academic Community just1 hit a big milestone”, their car was probably a write-off[19]!

However, there are no milestones in the USA, so ‘a milestone’ there is just[20] an important marker11, a significant figure12 or an impressive number. If you have been trying to achieve[21] such a milestone, it no doubt makes sense to say “to hit a milestone”, just as[22] you hit a target[23]. In other words “to reach/pass/(hit) a milestone” in US English is a dead metaphor[24]. Interestingly, there are a very similar number of Google hits for “reach a milestone” and “hit a milestone” but the latter[25] is about 3% more popular. So it looks like I’ll just[26] have to get used to[27] it.

[1] just – (in this case) very recently, (literally) a moment ago

[2] headlinetitle to a news story

[3] social-networking sitewebsite for interacting socially (e.g. Facebook)

[4] while – (in this case) although

[5] faculty – university teachers, academics

[6] I thought I’d invented this epithet for Academia.edu but I’ve just discovered that people were using it back in 2010!

[7] to be taken aback – be surprised

[8] milestone – (literally) stone next to a road on which the distance to a town is written

[9] to dig sth. up (dig-dug-dug) – uncover sth., excavate sth.

[10] sure – (in this case) of course

[11] markerindicator, signal

[12] figure – (in this case) number

[13] living metaphorfigurative expression that can only be understood in reference to the original connotation

[14] for instance – for example

[15] to figure large – be prominent, be important

[16] pantomimetype of theatrical comedy performed at Christmas

[17] mixed metaphortwo expressions that have been confused, (in this case) ‘reach a milestone’ and ‘hit a target’23

[18] to hit (hit-hit-hit) – (possibly) have a collision with

[19] write-offvehicle that is so badly damaged that it cannot be repaired

[20] just – (in this case) only

[21] to achieve – attain, reach, get to

[22] just as – in the same way that

[23] to hit a target (hit-hit-hit) – achieve an objective, attain a goal

[24] dead metaphorfigurative expression that can be understood without knowing the original connotation

[25] the latter – the last mentioned, (in this case) the expression “to hit a milestone”

[26] just – (in this case) simply

[27] to get used to (get-got-got) – become accustomed to

Corpus Christi Controversies

Corpus Christi Controversies

On the news this week I saw people arguing[1] over seating[2] on the route that the Corpus Christi procession was going to take through Toledo. I wonder[3] how many of them know the origins, controversies and evolution of this tradition.

For the first 12 centuries of Christianity there was a disagreement among[4] theological linguists at the heart[5] of the Catholic Church. The problem is that Hebrew[6] expresses metaphors and statements of fact[7] in exactly the same way (you distinguish between the two using the context). Under normal circumstances this is easy. If I say “It was so hot that we were melting[8]” (or even “It was so hot that we were literally melting” as many native speakers would illogically say!) you know it’s a metaphor. However, religion is a context in which miracles do happen[9], so when Christ said, “This is my body… this is my blood[10]” he might have been talking metaphorically or literally.

The debate was finally put to rest[11] in the Catholic Church in 1264 when transubstantiation[12] was declared to be dogma. Incidentally, one of the big differences between Catholics and most Protestants is that Protestantism thinks that Christ was being metaphorical; most Protestants reject transubstantiation.

Paradoxically, just when[13] greater importance was being given to the Eucharist, the laity[14] weren’t allowed[15] to receive the body of Christ at Mass[16]. But because the Church insisted that the host[17] was literally the body of Christ, the congregation[18] felt that simply seeing the Elevation of the Host would be good[19] for their souls[20]. Gradually, in towns and cities across Europe people began running from church to church in order to see the elevation of the host as often as possible. This boisterous[21] behaviour[22] was, of course, antithetical to[23] the spirit of the Eucharist. To prevent[24] it, the Papacy decided in 1317 to establish the Feast[25] of Corpus Christi in which the Host would be paraded around[26] towns and cities for all to see as much as they wanted. Nobody was going to race[27] from church to church each Sunday to glimpse[28] the Host if he or she could gaze[29] on the Holy Wafer once a year during the procession. It worked[30] – except that now their descendants fight over seats for the best view!

[1] to argue – (false friend) disagree

[2] seating – seats, where to sit

[3] to wonderask oneself

[4] among – amongst, (in this case) between

[5] heart – (in this case) centre

[6] Hebrew – the traditional language of Jewish people, the original language of the Bible

[7] statement of fact – idea that is believed to be literally true

[8] to melt – (of solids) become liquid

[9] do happen – (emphatic) occur

[10] bloodred liquid found in veins and arteries

[11] to put sth. to rest (put-put-put) – settle, decide

[12] transubstantiation – the (supposed) conversion of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ during the Eucharist

[13] just when – at exactly the time that

[14] the laityordinary Christians who are not members of the clergy

[15] to be allowed – be permitted

[16] Mass – a celebration of the Eucharist

[17] the host – the bread consecrated in the Eucharist

[18] the congregation – assembly of ordinary people in church

[19] good – (in this case) beneficial

[20] one’s soul – one’s eternal spirit

[21] boisterous – undisciplined, tumultuous

[22] behaviourconduct

[23] antithetical to – incompatible with

[24] to prevent – stop

[25] feast – (in this case) annual religious celebration

[26] to parade sth. aroundtake sth. in procession through

[27] to race – run

[28] to glimpsesee for an instant

[29] to gazelook for a long time (in devotion)

[30] to workfunction, be successful

Shoring Up[1] London Bridge

Shoring Up[1] London Bridge

Photo: London Bridge by Robert Dimov

[1]

Mrs Thatcher once infamously said, “There is no such thing as society”. She was wrong and one of the reasons she was wrong was literature. Much of literature, like religion, tells us how to behave[2], especially in extreme circumstances. Works like Beowulf and Spenser’s The Faerie Queene are essentially conduct books[3]. In this sense literature is propaganda from the past for the future. However, unlike[4] religion, literature is flexible and naturally inclusive.

In his Nobel acceptance speech this week Bob Dylan mused[5], “I had principles and sensibilities and an informed view of the world. And I had had that for a while. Learned it all in grammar school[6]. Don Quixote, Ivanhoe, Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels, Tale of Two Cities, all the rest – typical grammar-school reading that gave you a way of looking at life, an understanding of human nature, and a standard to measure things by[7]. I took all that with me when I started composing lyrics[8]. And the themes from those books worked their way into[9] many of my songs, either knowingly[10] or unintentionally.”

A similar process occurred when the band Oasis took the name of the greatest British play of the 1950s, John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger (1956) and transformed it in the title and refrain for their song Don’t Look Back in Anger (1995). Over the last fortnight[11] that refrain[12] has been used by Mancunians[13] both to console and to define their reaction of “love conquers hate” in the wake of[14] the terrorist attack in Manchester.

Many would baulk against[15] the idea that a mere pop song could be considered literature. More would be affronted[16] by the idea that literature – let alone[17] pop lyrics7 – could compete with religion. But the greatest British poet of the 20th Century, T.S. Eliot, described literature as “Fragments… shored[18] against my ruins”. In other words bits of legends, stories, plays and poems are what we use to console ourselves in times of need – be they Cervantes, Charles Dickens or John Osborne.

That famous quote comes from Eliot’s cento[19] at the end of his greatest poem, The Wasteland (‘What the Thunder[20] Said’, ll. 426-31) [1922], which ends:

Shall I at least set my lands in order[21]?

London Bridge is falling down[22] falling down falling down[23]

Poi s’acose nel foco che gli affina[24]

Quando fiam uti chelidon[25]O swallow[26] swallow[27]

Le Prince d’Aquitaine a la tour abolie[28]

These fragments I have shored18 against my ruins.

Why then Ile fit you[29]. Hieronymo’s mad againe.

Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.[30]

Shantih[31] Shanith Shantih.

London Bridge is not falling down22, thanks to the robust mix of multicultural voices and the literature we have shored18 against our ruins.

[1] to shore up – reinforce, fortify, strengthen

[2] to behave – act, conduct oneself

[3] conduct bookguide to social norms

[4] unlike – in contrast to

[5] to muse – (in this case) write thoughtfully

[6] grammar school – (US English) elementary school

[7] to measure things by – to evaluate experience

[8] lyrics – the words to a song

[9] worked their way into – be inserted in a subtle way

[10] knowingly – intentionally

[11] fortnight – two weeks

[12] refrainline that is frequently repeated in a song

[13] Mancunian – sb. from Manchester

[14] in the wake offollowing, after

[15] to baulk against – resist, not accept

[16] to affront – offend, insult

[17] let alone – much less

[18] shored – accumulated, a. up to support a building, b. (of a catch of fish) brought ashore

[19] centoliterary text created from lines/fragments by other authors

[20] thunderloud noise generated by a storm (= tempest)

[21] shall I set my lands in order – will I reorganize my kingdom appropriately?

[22] to fall down (fall-fell-fallen) – collapse

[23] a line from a famous nursery rhyme (= traditional children’s song) that probably has its origin in the ritual of human sacrifice in blessing new buildings

[24] “(remember later on my pain). He hid himself in the fire which refines them” from Dante’s Inferno

[25] from The Virgil of Venus (anonymous) “When shall I be like the swallow?” (i.e. able to sing and fly away/escape). The refrain of the poem promises love to all.

[26] swallow – (Hirundinidae) very fast migratory insectivorous songbird

[27] “O swallow swallow” comes either from The Princess by Tennyson or Itylus (= Philomel) by Swinburne

[28] “The Prince of Aquitaine in the ruined tower” from The Disinherited (El Desdichado) (1865) by Gérard de Nerval (1808-55)

[29] Why then Ile (= I’ll) fit you – I’ll give you exactly that. The line is from Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy: Hieronymo’s Mad Againe (c.1589). Hieronymo is asked to produce a court play. Superficially, he says he will do it, but he is really saying that he will use theatre to trap the murderers of his son.

[30] Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata – give, show compassion, and control yourself; from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, a sacred Indian (Hindu and Buddhist) text

[31] Shantih – (the Sanskrit conclusion to an Upanishad) peace, amen, shalom, As-Salaam-Alaikum

Five-O

Five-O

Having survived half a century it would be nice to say that I’ve acquired some deep wisdom[1] that I can pass on[2] to people. But the truth is that having spent 17 years writing articles whose remit[3] was that they had to be interesting enough for people to want to read them in a foreign language, I feel rather[4] emptied of knowledge. I understood the world, albeit[5] naïvely[6], better at 20 than I do at 50. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; if it weren’t so, there would be no room[7] for awe[8] or laughter[9].

Yesterday I counted the books I’ve read over the last 14 years for my literature classes: 182. Sure[10], many of them are not that[11] long but it’s still an awful lot of information that has gone in (and mostly come out) of my brain. This all leads[12] me to a verse from James’ song Five-O[13]:

I’ve been looking for truth at the cost of living,
I’ve been afraid of what’s before mine eyes.
Every answer found begs[14] another question;
The further you go, the less you know
The less I know.

So much for the introspection; there’s no point in writing a blog to satisfy your own whimsy[15] because nobody will read it. So, I offer you a bit of Japanese wisdom1. The diagram should be pretty[16] self-explanatory. May you find your Ikigai – I’m still looking.

[1] wisdomknowledge derived from experience, sagacity, insight

[2] to pass on – convey, transmit

[3] remitspecified purpose

[4] rathersomewhat, surprisingly

[5] albeiteven though

[6] naïvely – ingenuously, innocently

[7] room – (in this case) possibility

[8] awewonder, astonishment

[9] laughterlaughing, hilarity, humour

[10] sure – (in this case) admittedly

[11] that – (in this case) so, very

[12] to lead (lead-led-led) – take, guide

[13] Five-O – 50

[14] to beg – (in this case) provoke, elicit

[15] whimsy – whim, caprice

[16] prettyreasonably

History and our Worldview

History and our Worldview

Photo by Jeppestown

If I were to describe to you a scene in which a democratically elected head of state and his brother were set upon[1] by a mob[2], tortured, mutilated and murdered, which country do you think these events might have happened[3] in? I suspect that your answer would not be Holland. But that is precisely what happened when a crowd[4] of supporters[5] of William of Orange – future king of England – attacked Johan de Witt and his brother Cornelis in The Hague in 1672. Members of the mob2 even ate the Witt brothers’ livers[6] in a cannibalistic frenzy[7].

Over the years I have come across[8] isolated examples of extreme behaviour[9] that have shocked and contradicted my worldview. It is relatively easy to explain away[10] Crusaders roasting[11] and eating Muslim babies because that happened an awful long time ago. The fact that the English settlers[12] propagated the practice of scalping[13] across North America is also surprising for anyone brought up[14] on westerns[15]. But still, several centuries separate us from such primitive barbarism.

One of the most sickening[16] of the many shocking aspects of the AIDS crisis in Africa is the “virgin cleansing myth”. Popular superstition suggests that one way of curing AIDS is to have sex with a virgin. The consequence of this outlandish[17] notion is that thousands of children have been raped[18]. At one point almost a third of the population of South Africa reportedly believed in ‘the virgin cure’, though progress has been made in dispelling[19] the nefarious[20] myth. It’s a hideous[21] idea but I’d always seen the virgin cleansing myth reported in the media as propagated by traditional healers[22]; as a local cultural problem it would seem difficult to solve from outside the culture.

Then, to my horror I discovered, after a minimal amount[23] of research[24] that the virgin cleansing myth is not native to Africa but in fact emerged in 16th-century Europe. Worse still, it gained prominence[25] in Victorian England where sex with a virgin was believed to cure STDs[26]; in the second half of the 19th Century Britain suffered an epidemic of syphilis and gonorrhea. Far from being[27] a ‘primitive’ local belief, this atrocious idea was exported to southern Africa by the British Empire. I wonder[28] why they never mention these things in history class at school or on the BBC.

[1] to set upon sb. (set-set-set) – physically attack sb.

[2] mobviolent tumult, angry multitude

[3] to happen – occur

[4] crowdmultitude, tumult

[5] supporterfollower

[6] liver – hepatic organ

[7] frenzy – hysteria

[8] to come across (come-came-come) – encounter

[9] behaviourconduct

[10] to explain awayfind excuses for

[11] to roastcook over a fire

[12] settlercolonist

[13] scalpingcutting the hair and skin off the top of an enemy’s head

[14] to bring up (bring-brought-brought) – rear, raise

[15] westerncowboy movie

[16] sickening – repulsive

[17] outlandishludicrous, bizarre

[18] to rapesexually assault

[19] to dispel – eliminate

[20] nefariousevil, criminal

[21] hideous – (in this case) awful, repulsive

[22] traditional healerwitch doctor, sb. who supposedly cures illnesses using nonWestern medicine

[23] amountquantity

[24] research – investigation

[25] to gain prominence – become important

[26] STDssexually transmitted diseases

[27] far from being – it was the opposite of

[28] to wonderask oneself