• "…in my personal life: to do things without making them a project in themselves. To have some rubbery-ness, greater fluidity, create space for criticism that isn’t going to kill whatever it is I am trying to do. To have more ‘unoptimisable’ time. To be physically engaged and not wrapped and/or rapt in my own head. To be shit at some things. To be present." This is good, from Greg; I ache for some of those feelings.

Greats

21 September 2019

Δεντρολίβανο says the packet on the table. And I, of course, know that this says DENTROLIBANO, pronounced in my head in a clear southern, English accent, every syllable delineated.

I do not know what Δεντρολίβανο is, and have to look further down the packet to realise that it is ROSEMARY.

I studied dead languages at school. (And, for reasons, a bit at University too).

Most of our peers didn’t understand why we’d do Greek. It seemed pointless, even more dead than Latin, and there was the hassle of a whole new alphabet to learn.

To me, it seemed obvious: someone gives you the chance to read words written over two thousand years ago. Wouldn’t you say yes? Wouldn’t you at least be curious?

 

Here is what I am left with:

  • ten years of Latin lets me stumble through gravestones and churches around the world, just enough vocabulary to decipher a decent amount (bar the eccentricities of Church Latin), and I can probably still scan poetry if I had to. It is exciting to look at stone, and see something come to life.
  • three years of Greek leaves me with a mere handful of words, practically no grammar, but I still know the alphabet.

What this translates to is: I can read road signs. It takes me longer than I’d like, which can be distracting when I’m driving, and there’s usually a romanisation underneath. But: I can read road signs!

I can read lots of other things too, speak them out loud, say them excitedly as we walk by or browse a menu.

I can speak the letters, and for every word that I recognise, either through old muscle memory of vocabulary, or, more likely, because it’s pretty similar to something in another language, there are a hundred more that I have no idea what they mean. (Like the Latin in churches, I fare better at the ancient sites – a few words in the stone at Messene, but mainly names, gods, goddesses, and my favourite of all, the long list of all the wrestlers at the Palaestra. At the pace I read it, it sounds like a classroom register).

And I definitely, absolutely, cannot pronounce it, as shopkeepers and restaurant staff across the Peloponnese can attest.

 

It’s not really DENTROLIBANO; it’s ‘dentrolivano’, spoken softly, with that beta becoming more like a soft ‘v’ in modern Greek pronunciation.

In my head, Greek is pronounced with the lugubrious tenor of my classics teacher. “ζῷον”, he says: “zdaw-ohn”, that omega extended with the lips in a perfect oh. (Zoon, “animal”, and off into zoological and so forth we go).

Dead languages read like history, but they sound like your classics teacher; all these ancient men and women (but mainly men) thousands of miles away, speaking in a plummy classroom accent where you can hear every letter and especially the endings of the words to catch their declension.

This is not what Greek sounds like any more, because Greek is not a dead language.

 

I knew this in theory, but I was really not prepared for how pretty it would be: those same characters spoken by tripping, delicate, mediterranean voices, breathy on the chis (but less on the breathings which I can’t see any more), all manner of rough edges smoothed, all those syllables neatly danced around. “ευχαριστώ!”, “thank you”; we get the Eucharist, the giving of thanks, from this, but here it is “ef’hristo!”, an everyday word that I find myself saying a great deal, somewhat apologetic at my lack of the rest of the language.

(We go to a chemist for some eye drops, which we manage to acquire between us, the chemist, the people in the queue and the chemist’s friends who hang out in the shop. I hear the old lady grumble something about Ελληνικά, and I want to say “Yes, I know! I’m annoyed I don’t speak Greek, you’re annoyed I don’t speak Greek, we’re all annoyed I don’t speak Greek!”. What I really say is: “ευχαριστώ!”)

 

Betas have become soft vs, upsilons are somewhere between an english “f” and “v”, the etas I say like “air” are now “ee”. It all makes sense when you think about it, but it is upside down to me. (My partner’s Greek colleague at work sighs when she tells him I studied Ancient Greek – “we had to do that at school, I hated it – it’s all backwards!” So we both agree on that, then).

But it’s alive, floating, bubbling. I think back to Xenophon’s Persian ExpeditionAnabasis IV, my set text at 16, written around 2400 years before I was taught it – and imagine all those men standing in the snow, marching on the spot in bare feet to keep warm (and in preference to the un-tanned sandals that froze to their colleagues’ feet), chattering in this rolling, living language. I have to admit, it makes more sense now.

I know better what their faces look like, and what their tongues sound like.

  • "It’s not very hard for me to find fiction that’s ‘relatable’, that mirrors my own assumptions and experience of the world, because people like me write books and publish them. I find that fiction and I read it, often with pleasure and sometimes with admiration, but I look for books of all kinds that are not ‘relatable’ to me, books that are windows more than mirrors. If fiction has a moral purpose – it doesn’t have to have a moral purpose – it’s in letting us see our shared world from places other than our own and through eyes other than our own, giving us versions of human experience and history and geography that are not at all ‘relatable.’"
  • "If you look carefully at that montage in The Parallax View — the “screen test” where they show Warren Beatty a montage of images with titles like MOTHER, LOVE, ENEMY, GOD, HOME to see if he’s got what it takes to be an all-star psychopath assassin — you’re going to find an image of me, cuddling naked with an up-and-coming-soon-to-be-B-list TV star named Ben Murphy."

    And so begins a heck of a flow of prose, in HILOWBROW's excellent round-up of 70s thrillers. The whole piece just keeps accelerating to its inevitable conclusion. "It only looks like a conspiracy if you're a detective".

  • Nice interview with Tim, largely on _Infinite Detail_, for which there are some spoilers. And I liked this, on how important sound is to the book, and why:

    " It comes from a bunch of places. Mainly wanting to always write a book that addressed the science fictionality of Black electronic music. And to me it’s impossible to separate the music I’m writing about – and love – from the heard environment, the two are entwined."

  • "Here is, instead, the first reading that occurred to me, looking at these reimagined vistas set among the tall columns of RIBA headquarters: the idea that videogame architecture is essentially a folly, something that takes the form of a building that has a physical function, but which cannot meaningfully fulfil that function and which instead uses its simulated practicality to fulfil, say, an emotional or aesthetic or wayfinding purpose. I read Playing the Picturesque as suggesting that we might use the existing centuries of design and discussion around follies, and the long related history of arguments about the “picturesque”, to usefully inform the ways that we look at videogame architecture."

    Lovely writing – dense, detailed, and shrewd – from Holly about a show I must go and check out.

  • A magical, brilliant teaching tool. Ableton's education/explanation team have always been top-notch, but this is great, and I am envious of it and them. I love how it starts with sound, and abstract explorations, before breaking those apart into components – amplitude, pitch, timbre – and only later mapping those to synthesizer components – all of which will work with a keyboard plugged in, thanks to webmidi. Grand stuff, and so great to see them investing in this sort of thing.
  • "…"there is no parallel here. Richter was a genius. He worked tirelessly for many years to perfect his piano playing. The lobster was some aberration. But what if it was not? What if the lobster was *essential*? What if every pianist needs a lobster? What if everyone needs a lobster for something?"

    So much in this huge essay by Errol Morris – on anxiety, on performance, on the piano, on consciousness, and how we offload our consciousness to small advisors – what a programmer knows as rubberducking. There is so much in here to love, and I probably need to reread it at least once.

  • "The things we love create us if we get to them early enough, but when we get to them a little bit later, they show us who we’ve already become, what we’ve accumulated, what we’ve chosen to discard and what we’ve clutched so close to ourselves for so long that its material has leaked into our own." More wonderful writing about The National from Helena Fitzgerald. Wonderfully written, and so on the nose about what loving bands, or people, or things, feels like.

Don’t leave writing to writers. Don’t delegate your area of interest and knowledge to people with stronger rhetorical resources. You’ll find your voice as you make your way. There is, however, one thing to learn from writers that non-writers don’t always understand. Most writers don’t write to express what they think. They write to figure out what they think. Writing is a process of discovery. Blogging is an essential tool toward meditating over an extended period of time on a subject you consider to be important.

Marc Weidenbaum on the value of straight-up blogging, in a place you own yourself. All of this. I’ve been quiet here – less quiet at my work site – but not absent, and knowing that this is mine, and that slowly, what I’m thinking about was always present – even in the Pinboard links – has value.