The Greek Alphabet: Making The Strange Familiar

In his review of Patrick Leigh Fermor‘s The Broken Road: From The Iron Gates to Mount Athos (eds. Colin Thubron and Artemis Cooper, New York Review Books, 2014) Daniel Mendelsohn writes:

His deep affection and admiration for the Greeks are reflected in particularly colorful and suggestive writing. There is a passage in Mani in which the letters of the Greek alphabet become characters in a little drama meant to suggest the intensity of that people’s passion for disputation:

I often have the impression, listening to a Greek argument, that I can actually see the words spin from their mouths like the long balloons in comic strips…:the perverse triple loop of Xi, the twin concavity of Omega,…Phi like a circle transfixed by a spear…. At its climax it is as though these complex shapes were flying from the speaker’s mouth like flung furniture and household goods, from the upper window of a house on fire.

I first encountered Greek letters, like most schoolchildren, in my mathematics and physics and chemistry classes. There was π, the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter; ω, the frequency of a harmonic oscillator and later, infinity in set theory; λ, the wavelength of light; θ, ubiquitous in trigonometry; Ψ, the wave function of quantum mechanics; Σ, the summation of arithmetic and geometric series; a whole zoo used to house the esoteric menagerie of subatomic particles; and many, many more. The Greek alphabet was the lens through which the worlds of science and mathematics became visible to me; it provided symbols for the abstract and the concrete, for the infinitely small and the infinitely large.

I never learned to read in Greek but the Greek alphabet feels intimately familiar to me. Perhaps the most familiar after English.

I first saw Greek texts in the best possible way: Greek versions of Aristotle and Plato in my graduate school library, intended for use by those who specialized in ancient philosophy. (These texts were in classical Greek.) I took down the small volumes from the shelf and opened their pages and looked at the text. It was incomprehensible and yet, recognizable. I could see all the letters, those old friends of mine: the α and the β used to denote the atoms of a language for propositional logic, the Γ of the generalized factorial function, the Δ of differences; they were all there. But now they were pressed into different duties.

Now, they spoke of ethics and metaphysics and politics, of generation and corruption; their forms spoke of the Forms. Now they were used to construct elaborate philosophical systems and arguments. But even as they did so, I could not help feeling, as I looked at the pages and pages of words constructed out of those particles, that I was looking at the most abstruse and elaborate mathematical text of all. It was all unknown quantities, an endless series of fantastically complex mathematical expressions, one following the other, carrying on without end. Yes, it was all Greek to me.  And yet, I still felt at home.

Game of Thrones AKA The Widow’s Revenge

I quite enjoy HBO’s Game of Thrones and after accounting for all the sex and violence have often wondered why I find it so entertaining; I’m not inclined toward the fantasy genre under normal circumstances and do not think I had read any of its productions before Game of Thrones. (That has changed; I have now read the first novel of George Martin‘s epic series).

Daniel Mendelsohn provides an answer of sorts, beginning with:

This has a great deal to do with the complex satisfactions of Martin’s novels, whose plots, characterization, and overall tone the series reproduces with remarkable fidelity—and whose mission is, if anything, to question and reformulate certain clichés of the fantasy/adventure genre about gender and power.

And concluding:

Whatever climax it may be leading to, however successfully it realizes its literary ambitions, George R.R. Martin’s magnum opus is a remarkable feminist epic.

Quite correctly, Mendelsohn’s central reason for regarding Game of Thrones as a ‘feminist epic’ is the position it accords to Daenerys Targaryen (and to a lesser extent to Arya Stark). Her struggle for power, wherein she will challenge men for the throne of the Seven Kingdoms is an often dominant plot line. She might be assisted by men, she might take advice from them, but she remains her own boss (and as Ser Jorah Mormont often finds out, she is not shy about letting him know this fact); all too often, she commands and rules them.  She is not shackled and dependent on male sexuality: 

The pubescent Dany…is no innocent: deprived of the attentions of her dead husband, she now and then accepts the ministrations of a teenaged handmaiden.

Mention of her dead husband, the Dothraki chieftain Khal Drogo, serves as a reminder that a crucial component in realizing Martin’s feminist vision in Game of Thrones is Daenerys’ status as a widow.

The widow, of course, is the archetypal weakened and destitute woman: she lacks a male guardian, protector, provider, and lover. She is incomplete in many ways. For instance, she lacks that which will realize her motherhood–her sole raison d’etre–a father for her children. From now on, she can only be a dependent, cast out to the not-so-tender mercies of other men, or the sympathies of her own family. The loss of her husband has marked her out as a singular unfortunate; the more superstitious might regard her as the bearer of misfortune for her husband, and seek to consign her to the margins of our world where she may infect us no more. Those women who know the standing of widows in a society like the Dothraki–and many of ours have approximated theirs in the past and sometimes even in the present–may find any inner resolve crumble when confronted with a fate as terrible as that which befell Khal Drogo. But not Daenerys Targaryen. Her mighty man–it is no coincidence that Martin made him the epitome of rugged, virile strength–is brought to his knees by a witch’s sorcery, but this loss, while tragic, does not detract her from her quest.

It is the refusal to embrace the Dothraki widow’s fate that makes Daenerys the strong woman that she is, and that allows Martin to give his epic a feminist hue.

Henry James on the ‘Fatal Cheapness’ of the Historical Novel

Reviewing Colm Tóibín‘s The Master, a ‘novelistic portrait’ of Henry James, Daniel Mendelsohn writes:

”The Master” is not, of course, a novel about just any man, but rather a novel about a figure from the past about whom we know an extraordinarily great deal, through both his own and others’ memoirs, books and letters. As Toibin well knows, ventriloquizing the past is a dangerous affair for a novelist who wants to be taken seriously: just to remind you, he has an indignant Henry tell his supercilious and critical brother (who has suggested he write a novel about the Puritans) that he views ”the historical novel as tainted by a fatal cheapness.” (‘The Passion of Henry James’, New York Times, June 20, 2004)

Tóibín‘s line is originally James’; he really did hold such views about the historical novel, so it is particularly appropriate that the subject of Tóibín‘s historical novel be James.

In Rachel Cohen‘s A Chance Meeting, we learn–in the chapter describing the encounters between Henry James, Annie Adams Fields and Sarah Orne Jewett–that Jewett had sent to, and received praise from, James her collection of short stories The Queens Twin and other Stories. Emboldened by his description of some of the stories there as ‘perfection’, she sent him a copy of her work in progress, The Tory Lover:

Set in Maine and in England during the Revolutionary War, the novel was meant to reclaim a certain historical sense for her town in much the way that she and her sister, Mary, worked to restore their old house and those of their neighbors in a newly preservationist time. [A Chance Meeting, pp. 88]

James’ reaction was sharp and critical, even as he made sure to couch his remarks in the consoling form of being made ‘as a fellow craftsman & a woman of genius & courage’:

The ‘historic’ novel is, for me, condemned, even in cases of labor as delicate as yours, to a fatal cheapness….You may multiply the little facts that can be got from pictures & documents, relics & prints, as much as you like–the real thing is almost impossible to do, & in its absence the whole effect is as nought; I mean the invention, the representation of the old consciousness, the soul, the sense, the horizon, the vision of individuals in whose minds half the things that make ours, that make the modern world were non-existent….Go back to the country of the Pointed Firs, come back to the present palpable intimate that throbs responsive, & that wants, misses, needs you, and God knows, & that suffers woefully in your absence. [A Chance Meeting, pp. 88]

What makes this criticism of James simultaneously perspicuous and limiting is his concentration on the ‘invention, the  representation of the old consciousness’. These remarks are perspicuous because James rightly focuses on that which is most inaccessible to the novelist, but they are limiting because the difficulty of that task of imaginative recreation is precisely that which intrigues the novelist and engages and involves him. Even the failures of the novelist in these attempts at inhabiting the ‘soul, the sense’ of another might make for a noble endeavor, one visible and pleasurably palpable to the reader.

Epistolary Warfare in the Letters Section

Readers of the New York Review of Books are used to the sometimes intemperate, bordering-on-pedantic, yet-always-carefully-crafted display of bruised egos that takes up so much space toward the end of each issue. I am referring, of course, to the Letters section. Here the author, formerly delighted to find out his masterpiece was to be reviewed in the supposedly-essential resident of every serious American intellectual’s magazine rack, and finding instead to his horror that it has been subjected to a ‘scurrilous’ or ‘ignorant’ reading, has written in to complain.  The reviewer, seeing the cudgels on the floor, picks them up and joins the fray. The rest of us watch and wince.  Or go get a second helping of popcorn. (I’ve often wondered why the NYRB does not conduct online polls to see who ‘won;’ this would be a surefire crowd-pleaser and would spark many watercooler conversations aka tweetstorms.)

A confession: I often turn first to the Letters to see if any entertainment is forthcoming before settling down to browse. As a philosophy graduate student in New York in the late 1990s, I, along with some of my colleagues, found the debates between ‘senior’ academic philosophers hugely diverting: to see grown men slashing away at each other, hurt, offended, determined to set the balance right, philosophical sanguinity cast to the wind, was quite reassuring. We felt immature; it was good to know that getting a Ph.D and writing several books hadn’t helped our heroes either.

I have been reading the NYRB for a while now, so I think I’ve seen just about every variant of the angry author-versus-defiant reviewer template.  The author who sets out to reveal the reviewer’s hidden or not-so-hidden agenda; the author convinced the reviewer lacks essential reading comprehension skills; the reviewer who thinks the author is a shill or paid agent (of a variety of forces, whether political or corporate); the list goes on.

Still, there have been a couple of recent additions to this ouevre of literary jousting that are possibly noteworthy for having provided some interesting twists on well-established themes.

Exhibit Number 1: Daniel Mendelsohn reviews Allan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child. Galen Strawson jumps in to defend Allan Hollinghurst. Some intemperate language, some artfully constructed phrases; well worth a read. Deviation from template? The author hasn’t managed to get in a word yet, in deference to a defender that has already jumped into the fray. Of course, Strawson isn’t just defending Hollinghurst. He’s defending a whole literary tradition.  Who wouldn’t cast one’s so-called neutrality aside with such high stakes?

Exhibit Number 2: Helen Vendler reviews Rita Dove’s Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry. Dove fires back a 1700 word defense. Deviation from template? Vendler’s response, which was described as ‘cheeky’ by Alexander Abad-Santos of the Atlantic Wire and as ‘professional’ by Cynthia Haven of the Book Haven is a one-liner: “I have written my review and I stand by it.” I think it’s neither. The review is written and in print; there appears to be no dispute about that. And as long as Vendler doesn’t issue explicit disavowals of it, it’s pretty clear she stands by it. So the need for the gratuitous one-liner is mysterious. (Incidentally, I’ve clearly been living under a rock for the past two months; I hadn’t realized the Vendler-Dove fracas was such a  cause célèbre.)