Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Tracking the Muse through ancient Crete

With only days to go before May’s supervision appointment, the thesis finally reached its end. Sort of.  It’s nowhere near perfect, but it is done. ~Ish. There’s a lot of fine-tuning and repositioning ahead, à propos of the reverse outline – but, basically, having printed out the bulk of the material to date, we have a solid ream of research paper.
  The process of notating and alteration is ongoing. The bulky ‘proof copy’ I made for myself is already liberally decorated with scribbled comments, editorial remarks and PostIt memos to shift this bit there, and that bit somewhere else.  The word count is snaking ever-upwards, and will have to be addressed – sooner rather than later.  
   Bearing in mind the date is purely arbitrary on my part, we’re still on course for September: I work best to deadlines. However, there’s always some last minute glitch ‘twixt cup and lip.  (And that’s not counting a change to MS’s Windows 10, if it’s forced on us.)
   I’m likely to exceed the early autumn date ~ I know this, but it’s simply the way I deliver.  I also want to try and visit Malta the week after (for Neolithic and Tarxian temple tombs. I’m still re-tracing my late father’s footsteps around the Med.).  We’re desperate to get away after last year’s failure of projected re-visit to Turkey.   

The thesis will take as long as it takes. I’m not unduly worried about time factors, only that the opus must be 100% right, and I’m happy with it, let alone anyone else.
  I feel, and many agree, that theses examined by academic friends of friends are not worth the paper they’re written on.  It’s kind of suspect, a high turnover PhD factory system.  No – find the best in your field, make certain of a challenging external examiner.  Then you will know your thesis has accomplished something of value, both to you and the academic community.  Mine does not wish to join the forgotten library of unsound efforts which contributed little or nothing to academe. 

There’s a helluva lot yet to be accomplished – not least imposing uniformity.  There are pages where a word such as ‘maenad’ is a capitalised proper noun, in contrast to other instances where it’s simply lower case. 
  Also to be addressed: the need to use a consistent form of Greek words and proper names throughout ~ probably the more familiar Latin versions, e.g., Aeschylus rather than Aiskhylos, although possibly retaining Sokrates, Sophokles, Vergil and so on. 
  Having hung onto Chapter 4 (Crete) until now, I finally submitted it.  Chapters 1, 2 and 3, plus 5, 6 and half of 7 have been duly ‘done’. Four is probably the longest chapter, and I was nervous of the reaction. It’s more like ‘book’ material than thesis, per se.
  The result surprised me.  Prof likes it and, aside from a few minor alterations, instructs ‘Don’t change a thing!’  Apparently my writing’s improved over the months and years of this research process; he perceives an increase in confidence.

Embarking on the conclusions (Chapter 7), I had assumed the motherlode of material was mined out.  However, nervously launching the final push, there was another gleam in the rocks of the investigation.  It could have been fool’s gold, but the seam proved fruitful. Maybe its content will end up in Chapter Two eventually, or even Chapter One, but currently Im happy to leave it where it’s tacked in, pro tem.
   I’m still alighting on various angles explored earlier, via different academic disciplines.  
  A great deal of my research isn’t ‘new’ in the sense of being undiscovered, but it’s how the material is put together. Also, much that was written, say, in the nineteenth or twentieth centuries, has been further illuminated by later research. Because of this, it has become relevant in ways that original authors likely never envisaged.  It’s been a passe-partout – quite literally a master key – a Greek key! – for a number of doorways.  Crete is a notable example: I am utterly absorbed by ancient Crete.

Early this month, there was a much-anticipated ‘Greek weekend’ up in Aberdeen, held under the auspices of the Scottish Hellenic societies and the Friends of the British School at Athens.
   Returning home after a hectic three or four days of almost constant activities, and not a lot of sleep, I was exhausted, despite not attending any of the social functions. (I’m not a social bird, and besides we had a family dinner party, Friday night.)  But it’s always rewarding to meet one of one’s intellectual heroes when they live up to their stellar images.  I would give my eyeteeth for a chance to go down to Cambridge  ~~ if said teeth weren’t already awaiting implants.
However, one participant ‘donated’ a large photo file of Greek vases to me, transferred by WeTransfer (e.g., wine krater, left). As WT expires after a certain time, unless downloaded, the pictures were duly whisked into a desktop file, pronto!
 
In the news: I’m appalled and dismayed by the Canadian forest fires and the destruction of Fort Mac.  While the authorities don’t yet know what started this holocaust, it seems the RCMP suspect human agency. The TV pictures look like something out of hell.  One reporter opined it was unreal, akin to a disaster movie’s CGI.  Young Trudeau appeared truly shocked – but what can they do?  Nature is ruthless.
  The eastern provinces need rain, lots of rain, to sluice down and douse every last spark.  It’s so sad, the apocalyptic damage, let alone the probable wholesale destruction of wildlife.  My Vancouver friend says a few touching stories are emerging: there have been donations from Syrian refugees who hardly have a dime to their names. They give even the little they have to spare.
  
The wretched Scottish election for the Holyrood pile of concrete is over.  The results were much as expected, bar getting a LibDem back into N/E Fife, which is a Good Thing.  At least that’s one Scottish xenophobic party lackey oot the door.   
  A minor point: a few business acquaintances suddenly realised our new-fangled Scottish Tax Office had removed hefty amounts from their self-employed pension arrangements.  We all knew it was coming.  Scotland’s massively in debt, but allowing Scots their own tax raising powers reminds me forcibly of the Roman empire’s practices.  For these latter-day publicani it was a fine excuse for a raid.  

The four hundred year anniversary of Wm. Shakespeare began last month.  I ignored as much of it as I could – it seemed orchestrated more for the tourist industry and English Heritage.  For me there’s no comparison with the tragedians of the Athenian fifth century BC.  WS’s achievements are very unlike those of the ancient Greek drama; the latter is superior in all respects.  While it’s possibly an odious comparison (WS was an astonishing writer, if indeed the whole oeuvre is his own pen, which many doubt) nevertheless I personally cast him as the worst of models.  There is far too much Shakespeare in Eng. Lit. curricula; he has a stranglehold.  There are other playwrights available in our literary history who gave us as much, if not more.  Although, thinking about it, English tragedy is much too ‘small.’  If it was worthwhile to try (which it isn’t) you’d have a job to demonstrate that WS’s works accord with, say, the Aristotelian poetics.  Milton gets closer than anyone, in my estimation.  
  But hey! This is only my opinion.

Picture credits: ‘Minoan,’ pen and wash, © JAS, 2016; Cretan doorways, © Stefanakis Studio Photography, Iraklion, KPHTH, Greece: www.stefanakis-photo.gr;  Greek krater, Corpus Vasorum Antiquorum, Marischal Museum Collection, photo © Prof. F. Kuepper, University of Aberdeen, Scotland: May, 2016;

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Je suis EU ...


The EU debate is starting to heat up.  People are beginning to enquire, ‘Which side are you going to vote for?’  I haven’t changed my mind.  I still figure we’re better ‘in’ than ‘out,’ and those of my acquaintance who have lived in Europe tend to the same view.  However, there are hordes of Little Englanders who’ve rarely, if ever, ventured outside their parish, and likely believe everything they read in the Daily Mail. I read combinations of the Economist, the Financial Times and the Indie, alongside the French press, the New York Times website and Reuters news agency.  We all live on one world, this one little planet.
  If politicians could be relied on to tell the truth it might be different, but personally I have no reason to trust any of ‘em.  And up here in Scotland the glaring nationalist agenda is cast in high relief. Advantage, self-interest or cynical political utility are considered the determinants of motivation, value, or worth.  My reaction is always the same: the Ciceronian ‘cui bono?’

If we do secede from the Union, will our European retailers depart?  Me-eh! I can’t do without Continental foods.  Life wouldn’t be the same without Greek kourkoubinia soaked in honey, espresso coffee and Bavarian smoked ham. ...   

A month has passed, almost without my even being aware of it doing so.  This thesis business is so life-consuming that it seems part of eternity.
  Currently, I’m ploughing through virtually every sentence: whole paragraphs and pages of ‘em, plus the copious footnotes.  It’s a fiddly task – one must find and amend various items, such as inline page numbers cited as references.  Until now, I’ve always typed ‘p.’ with the number immediately after the period, e.g., p.2.  Apparently, this is Not Academically Done.  It must be ‘p.’ then a space, then the number, e.g., ‘p. 2.’  Now, this may appear to be ‘academic,’ but – but, it makes a new ‘word’ in Word, and increases the count by some hundreds.
  Fun, eh?
  I don’t mind, aside from the time-consuming bit, but I’m slightly concerned about the wordcount. Another convention is a space between a date and ‘BC,’ e.g., 750BC should be rendered ‘750 BC,’ which insertion has also made the wordcount and the page count spiral upwards. (And no, I am not writing ‘BCE’.)
  No one tells you, when you launch into a project like this, that it won’t be only the writing up that will tax you: there are elephant traps all over the research landscape, pitfalls which, if not avoided, will mark you down.  I’m increasingly feeling the twinges of ‘imposter syndrome,’ anyhow: wondering if what I’ve done so far is serious enough. 
  Plus, I found that in swapping Chapter 5 for Chapter 6, I’d somehow managed to save two copies of Chapter 5.  Me-eh!  Panic stations: where was Chapter 6? It was the longest one, and the most research-dense. Thank goodness for USB flash drives ~ that one would have been an irreplaceable loss.  It has major findings in it.   Never do stuff when you’re tired, or late at night, or in a hurry. 
  Fourteen-odd thousand words saved. Phew!
 However, I’m in reassuringly familiar territory – endgame, really.  I know where I am. 
 The penultimate phase is basic authorial housekeeping: checking and re-checking, and drawing a mind-map to illustrate to myself how and where everything links up. Also, Pat Thomson recommends reverse outlining.  When final chapter’s at least two-thirds complete, this I shall do.  Otherwise, I am happy: its satisfying, to have the thing printed out and weigh its heft.  Ive bound it like an olde-tyme proof copy, when such things were paper, BC (before computers). 

Nothing else has been accomplished.  Time doesn’t appear to stretch to the ordinary and mundane.  My new Will sat on my desk, drafted, complete – but unsigned – for weeks.  Vital necessities such as online grocery shopping are left far too late, and, with the telephones silenced, calls are missed.  Does this happen to everyone?  Are there really organised PhD researchers out there, whose lives run like clockwork and whose nearest and dearest don’t mutter imprecations sotto voce when subjected, yet again, to a late dinner and a vague mother or wife who seems to have gone AWOL? A woman who wanders down to the kitchen at the midnight hour to make tea and toast and then flip open her laptop – having also hurriedly fed an importunate cat (who spies an opportunity and must be kept from scooting upstairs to wake someone else if a plate of gourmet cat food is not forthcoming.  Our vet thinks this is terribly funny!)
  I need an amanuensis. Failing that, a minion?

After a fortnight of sporadic Internet problems, beginning mid-March, access became virtually impossible.  BT sent a chirpy text, to inform me that we now have ‘high-speed Broadband.’  We didn’t.  Trying to log on was worse than the old dial-up days, and if anything even more grindingly slow.  I finally telephoned BT, and – after one and a half hours on the line – they agreed to send an engineer.  If the problem turned out to be my end, I would have to pay (£130). H’m.  Betcha BT would find some reason connected to my property, but, as virtually every other website I use wasn’t so quite so difficult of access, albeit crawlingly slow, I figured it was BT’s fault. 
  However, access to the ‘Net suddenly miraculously improved, so I cancelled the engineer’s appointment.  We shall see if things remain improved.  I suspect BT fiddled or tweaked something their end, and hey, presto!  Jane was online again. 

Easter came and went. It was lovely to have #1 daughter, son-in-law and grandbaby here. I do appreciate the efforts they make to drive to Scotland. 

We went up to Glen Devon, for lunch at the Tormaukin (‘mountain hare’) Inn hotel (Michelin Eating Out Guide, 2016). Fine food, properly warmed plates, excellent waiting staff and a good wine list.  What else do you need? 
 Apparently there are no Michelin restaurants where they live in the west Midlands, but surely massive metropolitan areas must have something better than curry houses, kebab, hamburger or pizza joints and imitation ‘southern’ fried chicken?  
  The little ones growing up fast next time she visits shell be walking.  As the family departed on Easter Monday, granddaughter pointed at the watchful feline and crowed, Cat!  She and the cat have finally come to a mutual understanding. 

Outside my cell, life goes on.  The birds’ dawn overtures are singing in the spring, but more in hope than expectation.  The Scottish weather’s as dull and dreich as always; shall we ever return to a proper cycling of the seasons?  The garden’s like an old black and white film slowly fading up into colour – mostly different shades of green.  It’s a mere two months to the summer solstice, but the poor brave daffodils were flattened by snow, wind and rain, and very few flowers are showing yellow on the bare stems of the forlorn forsythia.
  We’ve been forced to stop feeding the birds, which is sad. No less than five or six cats have moved into the immediate area: two grey tabbies, two ginger and whites (one with a tail as plump as its body) and an occasional black tom with white paws. Our little black cat is now so elderly she doesn’t defend her territory. As a result, the young black and white feline from next door exercises its ninja talents on the avian visitors – and the nests in the shrubberies.  At 6.00am one morning I swiped a very dead magpie fledgling from under its paws.  I don’t mind decimating the corvids; they in turn destroy whole broods of garden birds, but it’s not fair to encourage winged visitors just so they can be murdered by a cat.
  Our cat was never a great birder: she always preferred the mice under the shed, but the B&W from next door sits on the sills and peers in, even scrambling up the rowan tree to my bedroom window.  It appears to believe it can adopt us. 
  Nope.  It’s not black, for starters.  I only ever have the blackest of black cats. 
  But it’s a bit of a game, locking and unlocking the cat flap to discourage invaders from gaining access to steal our wee one’s food – though I don’t know what effect her thyroid meds might have on healthier animals. 
  Not my problem!

Sunday, 20 March 2016

Life among ruins


This is blogpost 100!  While living in the present, the past and the future, and having just broken through the thesis word barrier and finally exceeded the minimum 70,000 words, I’m feeling utterly ancient: older than the most antique of Romans – more like archaic Greek Dark Ages.  But there is also a new feeling: ‘Yay! All downhill now?’    Hopefully.

Going back to the beginning, prepping for this ‘first final draft,’ I’ve found more research, and more recently acquired knowledge, expands and informs the earlier work. Text and footnotes are piling up. It’s advisable to resist any temptation to dot back and forth throughout the MS. A better practice is to plod along in a linear fashion, to ensure the structure is solid. It’s not that alterations don’t have to be made, and blocks of text are still being switched hither and yon, but there’s a definite feeling of being in control – for the very first time.
  The thesis is actually starting to look like a definite ‘thing’ – a real thing, with a beginning, middle and end.  One odd discovery is my writing’s improved. Necessity is the mother of craft and technique.  Say what you have to say, but make it clear and concise.  I don’t wander off the narrative track now, for the sake of a pretty sentence or phrase, or indulge my penchant for pedantry. (Well, maybe a little.)
  But it has enhanced working practices.  Setting the self-imposed deadline was the turning point.  With September in my sights, I can no longer procrastinate, postpone or put off.  The ‘thing’ has to be done, and done properly.  
  The light at the end of the tunnel is glowing brightly: its low-energy wattage has increased by a hundred-fold.  Just gotta get there. 
  Currently, Im wrangling the Greek words, phrases and quotations.  It must all be ****** anglicised, i.e., anglophonics in the Western Latin alphabet. Honestly, its a nightmare – and, if its also without diacritics, accents or breathings, tantamount to spelling mistakes. All that tuition and laborious learning one did, 20092012!  If I am requested to restore the Greek, I shall go quietly but permanently insane.  It has taken me hours, spread over 4 days, to alter all the snippets and quotes in Chapter One alone. Three more chapters to wade through, before first week in May. ...   

Living in the past – don’t we all, eventually?  I figure it’s memory that does it.  The older a person becomes, the more memory they have stockpiled and the less they look forward to in terms of lifespan and years?  Looking over my shoulder at my parents’ generation, I recall a teenage feeling they lived in the past, but it was actually only items from family memory-banks being aired. There was a great deal they didn’t air.  That generation simply didn’t.  They were heirs to the collateral damage of a long European war, the miserable attrition of austerity and the remnants of a post-Edwardian moral consciousness.  They were ‘betweeners,’ in a no-man’s land between the early fifties and the late sixties, belonging to neither.  

We all make myths, if only for ourselves – some of us more than others. Muthos (anglicised as mythos) stems from the Greek for ‘to murmur with lips closed.’ I guess the modern means of myth-making has to be the commercial movie industry, but it often fails the permanence test.   A day or so ago, we trotted off to see Allegiant (above), the third offering in Veronica Roth’s Divergent franchise.  While I disliked Hunger Games, these versions of the Roth books are more endurable – mayhap because I can identify the structured mythologem, the mythic scaffolding behind her futuristic dystopian scenario, and the socio-anthropological ideas of ‘in-groups’ and ‘out-groups’ in a ruined Chicago. (A mythologem is a basic theme, e.g., the betrayals, reprisals or self-sacrifices of the Divergent novels.)  It’s a pity the prose doesn’t live up to the portentous themes – and, sadly, neither do the films.  They are uneven and fragmented. (It’s also being said that Roth’s been subjected to online pressures to change the finale. Why?  This is not Jane Austen, for goodness sake!)  There is a lot of bang for your buck – vision-defying CGI designed for big screens, wrap-around cinema-shaking sound and a casual supercharged violence for a generation of gamers – but thankfully no vampires, or aliens. One must be grateful for small mercies.  Also, compared with Roths original books, the movies seem to have got their storyboarding well out of sync, but an emphasis on female leads who act independently of frowning boyfriends appears to be a staple of YA fictions.  

Science fiction is not an easy craft.  As one’s Vancouver writer friend says, most sci-fi these days is indubitably wall-to-wall fantasy. He likes to insist on the science being accurate. “You can’t get there from here, as they say. We know that Mars is a vast cold desert and Venus is literally hellacious.  Mercury is a barren rock and the gas giants have far too much gravity, weather and just about everything. Leaves only a couple of large moons (Europa and Enceladus) as possible places for life, and we can see there are no super civilizations there. Hence, alien invaders would have to come from the stars. ... Makes one yearn for the canals of Mars, doesn’t it?” This last is a reference to Heinlein, ‘Dean of science fiction writers,’ who had an indelible effect on me. It’s not real but it is poetic.

It’s the poetic I go for.  While sci-fi arbitrarily changes the proper coordinates of space and time, so all that may be imagined can come about, it also possesses a logos (logic, reason) of its own, of ‘possibilities’ outside physics. The ancients looked for meanings in the stars, and one of the modern results of this is science fiction. It’s the same logic that made gods happen, except our galaxies are populated with aliens and new worlds instead, however impossible.
  A neglected aspect of the current popular fictional mythologies, text or screen, is at least it continues to use the spoken and written word, in some form or another. Western literacy is rapidly reducing, and the use of ephemeral technologies is widespread.  The next epoch may not be literate at all – at least, not with the meaning we have understood for the last three millennia.  Maybe I’m unduly pessimistic, but we could be heading for a new Dark Age. The dystopian futures of twenty-first century fictional accounts are silent on the topic. They portray effects, not causes.  

Writing the past, I’m not sure I would have cared to dwell in ancient Greece. Women did not have an easy time, even if they were well-born or wealthy.  At least, the aristos didn’t.  Hoi polloi (the many) weren’t so socially restricted.  A woman of the lower echelons could go to the street fountain or well to draw water and gossip with her female friends without having to wear a veil, or being accompanied by a servant dogging her every sandalled footstep. (This does highlight the antediluvian attitudes of some backward-looking states today. Not much progress in nearly three millennia, eh?)

Right work calleth.  Back to Mircea Eliade, et le mythe de leternal retour, archetypes et repetition, and the everlasting theoria (theory).  In the sense of ‘to behold, to contemplate,’ theories display as many facets as there are theorists. To a certain extent, the bulk of the academic studies I’ve consumed on mythology adhere to a comparative approach, but for each of the academic theorists I have mentioned in the thesis there is a separate ‘Orpheus’.  I’m not convinced I’ve come up with yet another one, but we shall see. 
 But my fingers itch to write it into a book rather than a thesis.  I keep revising my picture of the completed ‘thing.’ If I let it, it will sidle off towards a fictional narrative. Old habits die hard. ...

Family sagas continue.  The last of my late mother’s immediate connections passed away this month.  I didn’t go to the funeral, due to thesis work and feline veterinary requirements, etc. However, my sister informs me that more and more half-cousins and other relations are popping up in her genealogical researches, including Canada and the US, as well as Down Under in the Antipodes.  This is interesting.  Perhaps, when I finally leave the Bronze Age and re-enter 2016 (December at earliest) one should contemplate going someplace where Greek or Roman never trod.   



Picture credits: Forum Romana, © iStock.com/extravagantni; Allegiant,’ © http://cinemavine.com/allegiant-trailer-stills/Divergent’ – ruins of Chicago © http://ihdwallpapers.com/divergent_chicago_city-wallpapers.html;