Saturday, 28 February 2015

Writing the past

Travels in the ancient world: various recent events dictated Italy 2015’s impossible, so have opted for Turkey again, late in the year, viz., Sardis, Laodicea, Antalya (for its archaeological museum), as well as Istanbul.
  Istanbul’s so-called Serpent Column, which Constantine nicked from Apollo’s Delphi, the Τρικάρηνος Όφις, (Trikarenos Ophis) cf. Herodotus’s Histories, still stands in the ancient Hippodrome, but only just. Of its original three snake heads one remains (in the Archaeological Museum) but after more than two millennia the bronze column itself has degraded – although, according to Simon Sebag-Montefiore, you can still read some of the Greek on the triple coils. The twelfth coil mentions 10,000 Spartans ~ more than any of the other poleis at Plataea, but possibly an overstatement.  It’s a pity the polished marble plaque has been smashed.
  I’m not interested in the Ottomans – although daughter #2’s keen to see Hagia Sophia, and no doubt even sail the Golden Horn. (Do we have to?!)
  I would like to descend into the cisterns with their phenomenal underground architecture.  We shall see – we’re not wandering around beneath the city on our own.
  I’ll probably be free of research per se by then.  C. P. Cafavy said, ‘As you set out for Ithaka | hope the voyage is a long one, | full of adventure, full of discovery (ever the lit. chick, me).  Well, it’s certainly been all that, and more.  Although not sailing in a seasick-making Bronze Age ship without a keel, it’s been the Greek poet’s marvel of a journey. Without my own ‘Ithaka’ I ‘would not have set out,’ except ‘She has nothing left to give [...] now’.  It was the travelling that mattered, not the arrival. From Imagination to the Blank Page. A difficult crossing, the waters dangerous. At first sight the distance seems small, yet what a long voyage it is, and how injurious sometimes for the ships that undertake it’ (Cavafy, prose poem ‘The Ships’).  Hopefully it will be a while yet before this ‘ship’ makes its metaphorical landfall on Odysseus’s rocky home ~ though not a twenty year stretch, please!  I still want to continue tramping around Classical remains, too, until I’m ancient. (Perhaps that should read ‘I’m too ancient’.)
  And, without Classics et al, what to write about?  I began this blog on 1 August, 2010 and an initial vapid over-enthusiasm eventually settled into one or two posts per month.  Even so, it’s hard to believe it’s been close on five years. OK, it’s also been a learning process, over and above the writing – technology, the layout, how to process pictures, etc.  All useful, all fun. 
  However, on the down side, I feel more than usually isolated at present. Isolation isn’t always a bad thing, i.e., solitude to read, research or write, (see here) but combined with frittering my study time in intellectual frustrations, an incipient spring restlessness, a new grandchild far away who’s growing up daily, a marked boredom with the small concerns of village life, etc. ad infinitum et ultra, there is a something jumping up and down at the back of one’s normally serene unbothered consciousness.
  It’ll surface if it needs to.  I have a feeling I won’t like it but, if I don’t, can always studiously ignore it.  Besides, I have a general rule of thumb about life: if something is meant to be, it goes well.  If it doesn’t, it’s not meant to be. Que sera, sera ... 
  I suspect there are as many different modes of composing a thesis as there are supervisors.  This is a kind of authoring I’ve never truly had to immerse myself in before; it’s been a very steep learning curve. Very.  Re. writing qua composition, I’ve never been one for over-editing, being reluctant to polish too much in case shining the thing up removes its gilt, but academic prose has to be tightly constructed ~ minus ornamental over-indulgent adjectival clauses. 
  And time is perpetually in short supply. Time takes organisation, e.g., domestic tasks. Having a dishwasher frees up ca. eight hours a week – an ordinary nine to five working day.  But spread that working day across the week and it’s fractured and sporadic.
  Very little work has been done of late, anyway. ‘Off sick’ – a viral revisitation.  Blasted NHS and its useless 2014/15 ’flu immunisations.  Might as well have stuck a syringe full of holy water in my arm. ...

Previous post, I said something about academia persisting in connecting prose to the advent of writing, asserting this was when people became literate – which seems a huge assumption to make.  However, making connections between an archaic Dionysian figure and the Orpheus of the (written) Classical world is the current locus of one’s labours. A late arrival on a Greek stage already overcrowded with gods, demi-gods and heroes, he first existed somewhere in that shadowy pre-literate gap.  
  Modern Bulgaria, and parts of Greece and Romania, constituted ‘barbaric’ Thrace, the non-Hellenic neighbour.  Vase art depicts Thracians wearing alopekides (fox-skin caps) and zeirai (patterned cloaks).  The little we do know of Thracian Orpheus is vague and subject to controversy but, broadly speaking, at some unknown date, likely not much before the Sixth-century BC, the cult of Dionysos spread into Greece from the north.  In the train of the horned god of fertility and wine came Orpheus – a figure not featured in the pantheistic Olympian world and yet seemingly essential to a post-Homeric Greek cast of mind, i.e., the concept of a personal control over your own fate and the hereafter. 
  Researching Orpheus is akin to cutting out shapes; the pattern depends on where you start, and which bits you join to what.  For instance, his power over animals is illustrated only in later Classical art, but where did the idea stem from?  I’m trying to body swerve around the ‘Orphics,’ modern theories and speculations, the Derveni papyrus and so on.  I know what I think, and why, but it flies in the face of superior scholarly opinions to mine, so shall keep schtum pro tem.   

Heigh~ho, end of February; winter’s terminus.  We had random days of sunshine this month, ‘days lent,’ as the saying goes ~ loaned from spring to winter.  In the kitchen my little basket of bulbs has crocuses and miniature tulips with stripey or jade green foliage poking upwards towards the increasing light.   Outside, there are snowdrops by the wall, and the rowan trees are showing buds; hopefully these will survive the pecking birds.  This is ‘the hunger gap’; wildlife has to find anything it can before new seasonal growth.  I’ve put out so much birdseed these last three months I could have field-sown a hectare or more.
  The season of lists begins. A garden list, a DIY list (more hope than realism) and catalogues of things-which-must-be-done (only won’t be). #1 task is a massive paper shredding op.  Acres of forests cut down, rendered into paper bank or tax statements, then sliced / diced and recycled.  There’s a moral in there somewhere, if one could only discern it.

The radio’s playing ‘O, soave fanciulla,’ (Giacomo Puccini, La Bohème: ‘O, lovely maid in the moonlight’ ~ molto romantico. Naturally, it doesn’t end well.)  But a better accompaniment to study than the wintry ‘Che gelida manina,’ ~ ‘Your tiny hand is frozen.’ My hands were frozen. And my feet.  And the rest of me.
  March tomorrow.  Avanti, la primavera!  

Picture credits: Turkish etching, JAS retrouvé; serpent column plaque,;  snowdrops,

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Entrances ~ & exits

Life’s been incredibly complicated of late.  In the midst of ruthlessly pruning my chosen offering for next month’s review, bad news was delivered: Lady Punto had not only failed the MOT (a broken sun visor!) but also required a huge sum for repairing a corroded sub-frame. (Scotland’s icy winter roads are thick with salt.) The bill would be somewhat over £1000 for labour.  Add in pricey Fiat parts and it was looking stupidly uneconomical, viz., in excess of £2,500.
  So, decision made. The DAB radio’s probably worth more than the vehicle.  I was slightly sad ~ I love Fiats, having had four of them in a row, but it doesn’t need a psychic to foresee the inevitable.  Alas, time to go, lady.  The Punto’s been good to me, but it’s almost ten years old and has done ca. 75,000 miles.  
  Sitting in the dealer’s vehicle park, lonely and forlorn but sparkling clean after the rural mud had been washed off, the car looked AOK.  Just illustrates how deceptive appearances are. But replacing it with an automatic Panda meant ordering from Turin (in reality, Poland); months to wait. You need wheels in this neck of the woods.  A Plan B had to be implemented. If you gotta have a car you gotta have a car.  
  In the end one elected for something sensible, a motorist’s equivalent of Barbour jacket and wellie boots: a Hyundai ~ described by Car magazine as ‘anonymous-looking’. That’s fine by me – anonymous is good. I like anonymous!  I must be getting old. It’s a conservative choice with an extended warranty, air-con (in Scotland?) and obligatory bells and whistles.  I confess its USB / MP3 or whatever player are no use to me; the radio / CD is all I need or want, as long as it functions reliably.  Too much tech is hazardously distracting.
  I did briefly contemplate bun-shaped little Fiat again, except automatic 500s are scarce even if theyre available (which I doubt).  Anyway, Top Gear gave it a thumbs down re. hills.  Its nothing but hills hereabouts ... 
  If all this makes me appear a petrolhead, Im not.  I just require the right vehicle for my lifestyle.

Apprehension in one sphere of life can spill over into other spheres, however much one tries to keep them separated. ‘Car anxiety’ even leached into the ancient Greek bubble I float around in most of the time.  
  I wish the problems of this research enterprise were as easily solved, or I could see the future. At present I’m taking a fairly basic, even literal, view: humans either seek explanations for or solutions to their problems.  Having disentangled discrete strands of his myth (as I see them), Orpheus proceeds on his way, toting his lyre: two steps for’ard, one back (until we reach the next road block).

Below are a couple of  out-takes, which may / may not be reinserted: Ive always junked far more than is kept in any MS, and I’d wandered off the research piste. Discards are occasionally useful, tho I’m not obsessive or precious about preserving every little piece I write.  If it’s cogent, relevant or worth saying in the first place it’s not dumped. 

While the Thracian poet and singer apparently returned alive from the Underworld, his original myth certainly wasnt connected to Christian ideas of  ‘resurrection’ or salvation.  One road block is the so-called ‘Orphics’ – a latter-day term; we don’t know what they called themselves. They must be mentioned, even if only in passing, but, basically, the extraordinary corpus ascribed to Orpheus is sham Dionysiac mysticism. Laminated with spurious literatures, it’s a mishmash of poetry, archaic myth and phoney religion. When I’m feeling mordant it appears to have been no more than an ancient game of dress-up, to purloin the mythic past and market it, something new with a seal of venerable antiquity.
  ’Twas ever thus ...
 To Western sophisticates (as we so-o smugly believe we are) the link between poets and divine knowledge might seem very strange. ‘Poetry’ derived from the ancient Greek ποίησις (poiesis), a ‘making’ or ‘creating.’  It was divine inspiration, oral and aural – words not meant to be read but heard.  
 Oddly, some academics persist in linking prose to the advent of writing, because prose can’t be memorised and transmitted in the way poetry can. From this they extrapolate the idea this was when literacy reached the populace at large – which seems to me to be rather a quantum leap.

But there’s also a mantic perception of future and past embodied in the figure of Orpheus: prolepsis (foreshadowing) together with flashbacks plus analepsis (restoration) – especially the oracular function as granted by Apollo when the Thracian’s head fetched up on Lesvos after his death at the hands of Dionysos’s maenads.
   I wanted to emphasise how vatic ‘prophecy’ per se should be divided into two distinct types. There is ‘seeing’ as in a ‘second sight,’ which comes to the seer involuntarily, from outside his or her self, e.g., Kassandra at Troy. Then there is the sight prophets or manteis (seers) could call on to understand the present, as a means of accessing an ‘other’ dimension of future, past, alternative reality or parallel worlds.  I believe the figure of Orpheus belonged to the second of these – an Apollonian category which included diviners and interpreters of auguries and dreams, omens, portents and visions. 
Oracles were not strictly prophecy per se; they were answers to questions in return for offerings ~ examples being the Delphic Pythia, the Temple of Apollo at Phrygian Hierapolis (‘sacred city’) or the sanctuary of Dionysos in Thrace.  Gaseous fumes were common features, albeit historians cannot deny the priests of any site were adept in creating simulations.
  Hierapolis, north of Laodicea, was infamous for a cave which emitted poisonous carbon dioxide (above). Pretty well a guaranteed one way street to the Other World, wouldn’t you say?  It still wafts CO2, but its killing vapour’s only hazardous for careless birds.  
  ‘Oracles of the dead’ weren’t necessarily a part of every ‘Gates of Hades’ around the ancient Greek world. Cumae in Italy was a Late Archaic Greek colony, ca. 500BC. The ‘Great Antrum of Baiae’ and its sulphurous underground ‘River Styx’ in the Phlegraean Fields, (northern shore of the Bay of Naples) where the Cumaean Sibyl dwelled, was reputedly an entrance to the infernal realm.  The ruined site, with its Greek temple and later Roman bath complex, currently lacks archaeological verification.

On with the labyrinthine trek to Hades and beyond ...

Picture credits: Fiat, Μεταχειρισμένα ανταλλακτικά για Punto,; Orpheus with lyre,; Hierapolis, Laodicea ©Francesco d’Andria;  ancient Roman resort of Baiae, © Google images;

Saturday, 31 January 2015

Keeping calm and carrying on ...

The thesis (if you’re American, ‘dissertation’) is still on the back burner ~ too many interruptions, i.e., power cuts plus Scotland’s ghastly weather. Of late, we have had to escape the house when we can. Snow, ice and high winds throw normal routines out of gear, plus the cold gets me more and more with each succeeding winter. The heating’s on full blast, but freezing patches remain ~ the study not the least of ‘em. Working at the PC requires Dimplex heater + thermal vest and fleecy gilet as well. 
  However, at least power cuts mean I can catch up with research reading ~ even if candles are more Tudor than Twenty-fifteen. My mothers antique oil lamp from the farm comes in useful, too. 
  Meanwhile, elderly Lady Punto’s been playing up. With its MOT due I’m not sanguine about its prospects of immortality.  Its computer smugly zero’d itself back to its birthday in Turin, and the car was sequestered in the dealer’s workshop for three days. Being deprived of it is like losing a limb. 
  I did make desultory enquiries about a new small Panda automatic two door hatchback, but the dealers haven’t got back to me. I don’t wish to settle for second hand ~ nor do I want one of those bun-shaped Fiat 500s (R). Too twee – especially the ones skipping about with big black plastic eyelashes affixed to their headlights. (Why?) I am not of the giddy demographic which views cars as fun. For me, wheels are a lifeline, an utter necessity.   

Life must be pared down to essentials. I have resolved not to fossick around online, to curtail emails and (try to) eschew commenting on other people’s blogs. More books have arrived, courtesy of Christmas tokens and vouchers, including a much–desired but scarce Oxford title that usually retails at ca. £111.  Someone had it on offer at forty quid, so I jumped. When (if?) research is finished a whole raft of titles will have to be sold on; there is no space left here for even the slimmest of volumes unless I utilise the stairs. And that’s not sensible – I’d only fall over the books, like I fall over the cat.   
  The thesis is taking more time, not less. I need to make more ‘space’ for it. (How? Where?!) I manage a morning’s work, give or take, before 100% mental focus fades.  Earlier in the process the research had to be squashed into a busier schedule, which concentrated the mind. However, after excising out the unnecessary, one can have too much time, and thus dawdle. It’s called Parkinson’s Law.
Orpheus et animas mortuorum: Apart from a small number of archaic poems, the greater part of our evidence for the figure of Orpheus recounts only what later authors wanted to convey. Therein lie the conundrums. Even tho’ now the basic working material is there, serial revision / re-casting / relocation of text is taking a lot of time, let alone comprehensive ref / footnote checking which will have to be done (possibly including two addenda). 
  However, this mid-point is crunch time. Heading for the March review, I know it’s OK ~ ish ~ but it’s not as good as it could and should be.  Simplification had a negative impact; it’s lost some of its depth.  I do not want this to be an example of the minimum being the maximum ~ the effort I’ve put in should be worth more than mere skating over the topics surface, and re-reading excerpts gives a distinct impression of skating.
  Stylistically, I aim for variety ~ nothings more boring than a monotone drone ~ but variations must be appropriate. The narratives weak in places, but will be fine-tuned. There are parts where a relatively minor points made and its tones too heavy, and other sections where the writing isnt concomitant with the weight of something important.  
  It’s uneven. Not quite as bad as a curate’s egg but, as long as one has inspiration, craft can be exercised on draft.
  If I up my game I might have a final working MS by end of the semester and, after  approx 12 months of polishing, be rid of the millstone by end 2016 latest ~ ahead of schedule?  And get my life back!

I’ve agonised over the ‘I’m going to tell you’ – ‘I’m telling you’ – ‘I’ve just told you’ MO. It’s so tedious. I dare say the prescribed touchstones of this academic method offer a safety net for many who haven’t created a lengthy work before, to navigate through the labyrinth and marshal a convincing argument without losing the thread, yet the construction should be no barrier to comprehension and understanding. Dont get me wrong, I love writing: it keeps me alive. However, extra points “for originality, high levels of criticality and/or interpretation, [...] and so on” here depend on one’s examiners, particularly if they’re old school.  A Classics research thesis will be different from one submitted in, say, social science, maths or A&H, but it should be simple to read. ‘Simple’ doesn’t mean dull, or lacking in academic clout ~ it means the work is clear-cut and comprehensible. 
  It’s a minefield. 

Picture credits: thesis header,; Fiat 500,; books,; outline,; thesis wordle,