Friday, February 29, 2008

Locus Classicus?

This is called Classicism. It is the enemy, we're trying to annihilate it.
-James Redfield, Professor of Classics, University of Chicago, on the idea that learning Greek through Homer ill prepares the student to read "real Greek"

It was the opinion of Ben Jonson that Spenser, in his liberal employments of archaism and coinage, far from enriching their native English, "wrote no language at all." Samuel Johnson similarly chided Milton in his Life, and pointed out quite accurately that the same Latinism which so often elevates the noblest sentiments of Paradise Lost renders the great poet's prose almost unreadable. On the other hand, Addison, speaking also of Milton, felt that high style was unachievable without the intervention of a foreign tongue, citing the Latin poets' borrowings from Greek, and the many different dialects that enriched the voice of Homer. Perhaps the most famous treatment of the issue is that of Horace:

Si forte necesse est
Indiciis monstrare recentibus abdita reurm,
Fingere cinctutis non exaudita Cethegis
Continget, dabiturque licentia sumpta pudenter.
Et nova fictaque nuper habebunt verba fidem, si
Graeco fonte cadent parce detorta. Quid autem
Caecilio Plautoque dabit Romanus, ademptum
Virgilio Varioque? Ego cur, acquirere pauca
Si possum, invideor, cum lingua Catonis et Enni
Sermonem patrium ditaverit et nova rerum
Nomina protulerit. Licuit semperque licebit
Signatum praesente nota producere nomen. (Ars Poetica, 48-59)

Jonson translated these lines thus:
Yet if by chance, in uttering things abstruse,
Thou need new terms, thou may'st without excuse,
Feign words, unheard of to the well-trussed race
Of the Cethegi; and all men will grace,
And give, being taken modestly, this leave,
And those thy new, and late-coined words receive,
So they fall gently from the Grecian spring
And come not too much wrested. What's the thing
A Roman to Caecilius will allow,
Or Plautus, and in Vergil disavow,
Or Varius? Why am I now envied so,
If I can give some small increase? when, lo,
Cato's and Ennius' tongues have lent much worth
And wealth unto our language, and brought forth
New names of things. It hath been ever free,
And ever will, to utter terms that be
Stamped to the time.

The idea of a fixed language, dropped perfectly from the lips of Gabriel, is not without a long heritage, nor a certain seduction. I myself am hardly unaffected by its charms, and although the arguments on either side have their compelling points, and I have already found a professor of mine against it, I must admit my own adherence to a sort of Classicism of language. Many have heard my opinions on the subject, and know that I hold our modern brand of English in very low esteem, especially for its use of foreign words. On that particular I am soundly convinced and eager to win converts, but my purpose here is rather to lay out what can be meant by the very idea of judging periods of language against one another, which the kind allowances of modern canonicity cannot fathom, though the common experience of taste assures us it is there.

I should first point out, perhaps, that I am speaking of something a little different than the learned litany above: their concern, as I have quoted them, is the proper use of foreign words and syntax in formal poetry. This is a more specific concern within the broader question of good poetic diction, which is itself within the scope of my present concern. Although his concept is closer, Professor Redfield is also speaking of something a little different, namely, an Ideal Greek Language, from which all others, in true Platonic fashion, would be but emanations or derivations. All language is of course bound to history and emerges from it, and the boundaries of what is English and what is Greek are fixed only with the usage of the time. What we speak now would not be English to Aelfric or Bede, and the boundaries of style are no different than the boundaries of the language itself, as the very idea of archaism demonstrates.

If language then, which is the shape and means of expression, takes different shapes at different times, it seems natural to assume that the language of some periods will be able to express things that the language of another time could not. Concrete examples prove the soundness of this intuition on a basic level: when Shakespeare writes "thy most worst" (Winter's Tale III.ii.177), he says something that a modern English speaker, in a very real sense, cannot say, or at least cannot say without explicit appropriation of the Elizabethan idiom. As with simple gestures so with great ones: it is no coincidence that languages of literary merit can point to periods crowded with excellent writers. Such coteries are often labeled the product of political circumstances, but the usual broadness of a period of literary greatness in a language defies such logic. English poetry, for example, comprehended a broad spectrum of political states from Spenser to Pope, and yet who could deny that for the space of nearly two centuries there was consistenly good poetry in the English language? Similarly, Latin speakers experienced a Republic, its violent collapse, the establishment of monarchy, and its institutionalization all between Lucretius and Juvenal and yet found great writers consistently springing up while the language retained its vigor.

I accept that I have done very little in so short a space to prove any grand claims, and perhaps only muddled the forthright clarity of my opening statements. It is a subject worth far more attention than can grace a blog. I shall close by asking only whether anyone in good conscience can hold today's Atlantic Monthly in one hand and an issue of the Spectator in the other and affirm that our modern speech carries the day.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Hauerwas' Marital Misconceptions

It may appear as somewhat of a presumption to announce a guest posting for a blog so little traveled as this one. Yet I do not think I would be right in withholding the perceptive opinions, upon a subject so recently treated on this site, of none other than my dear and only mother, Cynthia Rivera, enthusiast and sometime scholar of medieval Iceland. Without further ado, then, I present a recent exchange of e-mails between us concerning some statements of Stanley Hauerwas' which I quoted in an earlier post.

Initial Objections to Hauerwas (mother):

I'm sure people have lots of different answers to the question "what
drives you crazy about the way people discuss religion and
homosexuality?" Mine is: will people please read up on the history of
Christian marriage before they start talking about it ?!?! I have heard
more mistakes than I can count--and they come from both sides :(

I'd like to know when and where Dr. Hauerwas thinks "For centuries,
Christians married people who didn't know one another until the marriage
ceremony." Not any time or place I know of. Certainly not in Western
Europe in ancient or medieval times, or at least not often. I'm not even
sure how that would work when most people married within the same small
geographic area--and by the middle ages were required to announce their
betrothal in public well in advance of the wedding.

I'm sure he knows theology, but I wonder how much he really knows about
the history of marriage (a subject about which lots of people assume
they know more than they do). I'm no expert either, but I can say that
within the past three or four years I have read (all or the first half)
of every significant book-length study of the history of Christian
marriage (in English and skimmed some in French and German) and lots of
articles as well. And I never saw anything like this. In fact, one of
the recurring battlegrounds between the church and older legal/kinship
systems was the church's insistence that a true marriage required free
and informed consent--something not absolutely incompatible with
marrying a stranger but certainly a problematic requirement under those

I wonder if he's just extrapolating from having read accounts of royal
marriages. It's a fairly common fallacy of people reading about a time
or place with which they are unfamiliar to focus on the top of society.
See, for example, the absolutely unshakable belief lots of people have
that in medieval and renaissance Europe people married very young. This
was true only of the very highest levels of the aristocracy and even
there such marriages often remained unconsummated for years afterwards
(medieval people weren't stupid--they knew just as well as we do that 14
years old girls seldom produce robust babies, which is sort of the point
of marriage among the landed ;)

Another theory, based on your comment, is that he picked it up from
Lewis who was a literature not history person and has been known to
overgeneralize about sexual matters in the middle ages.

Anyway, that's my rant. Put it down as the sort of ranting people often
send to blogs :)

Response (son)

Hauerwas does fire in all directions.  I was already a little
suspicious of the reality of his comment about people
returning from war being barred from communion (I think I
mentioned this in the post), as opposed to it being something
theologians said should happen.

If I remember the C.S. Lewis passage correctly, his emphasis
was on the fact that modern conceptions of marriage put almost
exclusive weight on the romantic love of the two parties, and
therefore lead to lots of divorces when that element
disappears and there is no sense of obligation/vow to fall
back on. I believe (though my memory is less certain here)
that he also said something to the effect of "people didn't
fall in love and then get married, but rather got married and
then fell in love." Now that you point it out, Hauerwas'
"they didn't know each other" does seem rather absurd. But,
and you obviously would know better than I, to what degree
would lower class marriages be arranged as opposed to for love
(as if that's an either/or, right;)?

Come to think of it, Tyndale talks about this at the beginning
of the Obedience, and this may be better clue to why people
like C.S. Lewis and Stanley Hauerwas might disagree with
medieval Icelandic churchmen on this, since Tyndale is
criticizing the Roman church on its marriage practices when he
writes, in the context of the obedience of children to
parents, "See we not daily three or four calling one woman
before the commissary or official, of which not one hath the
consent of her father or mother? Yet he that hath most money,
hath best right and shall have her in the despite of all her
friends and in defiance of God's ordinances." Obviously this
is complicated by the implied bribery and/or prostitution
(well, the prostitution is not implied, since he says, in the
sentence previous, "the weddings of our virgins (shame it is
to speak it) are more like unto the saute of a bitch than the
marriage of a reasonable creature."["saute" must mean
something like sale or auction, although my edition's note
says it means "leap," which not only makes no sense, but
cannot be, as the OED first instance of that word, which is
from the French, is 1948, while a word spelled the same but
differently derived is current with Tyndale meaning "ransom
for manslaughter;" that's just poor scholarship on David
Daniell's part]). In any case, the idea of marriage,
presumably for love, sanctioned by the church but disapproved
of by the parents is there in the background in the early
sixteenth century, even if Tyndale attacks the more obviously
deplorable practice.

This definitely is a subject where people like to make stuff
up under the guise of historicism. I've heard the claim often
trotted out (although as often denied by those well read
enough to have encountered such obscure texts as Plato's
Symposium) that devoted, lifelong romantic love is a medieval
development that didn't really exist in the ancient world.
Certainly overly zealous embrace of historical peculiarity is
just as bad as ignorant acceptance of modern views as universal.

Counter-Examples Expressly Stated (mother):

Hi--Here's my promised thoughts on the history of marriage stuff. I
think what Lewis says, as paraphrased by you (and that sounds right), is
fairly accurate. It would be even more accurate if it were something
like "people fell in love and then got married less often than today,
and got married and then fell in love more often." That is, he's
describing the majority of people but not by any means everybody.
Interesting that Lewis also tied it to modern divorce, because I was in
a conversation with friends just recently about how we know almost
nobody (hard to be sure :) who married for entirely non-romantic
reasons, but tons of women our age who have stayed married for what
would have been "reasons to get married" in another time: children,
family businesses, the wishes of their parents, religious teachings,
stability of a community, etc.

Sounds like you think Hauerwas may just have been carelessly
exaggerating something he'd read by talking about strangers. Makes
sense. I think three very distinct concepts get thrown together by those
who aren't careful: stranger marriage, arranged marriage, and marriage
for practical reasons. They can overlap and all three can be contrasted
with marriage because of love or attraction. But they are very different
from each other.

Let me give you a couple of made-up examples of arranged or practical
marriages which are the farthest thing possible from stranger marriages.
Say two farmers who live a few miles apart and are old friends decide
their children should marry each other: that's an arranged marriage, but
the couple have known each other all their lives--probably played
together as babies. Or say a young woman who is the only child of a
harness-maker decides to marry her father's most skillful apprentice: a
very practical marriage but the couple have lived under the same roof
and possibly eaten at the same table since childhood. Both are farther
from stranger marriages than a modern couple who marry after knowing
each other socially for a year or two :)

If I had to summarize what society's attitude toward marriage was in
pre-modern, Christian, Western Europe it would be something like this:
marriage is a practical (economic, political, business, whatever)
arrangement between two families (and therefore as a practical matter
the main decision-making power lies with the parents or their
surrogates). However, (A) the church will not bless a marriage not
entered into freely (B) everybody knows that everything will go more
smoothly if the couple get along and (C) things will go even better if
there is affection between the man and woman. (Nobody wants to live next
door to, or be in an extended family with, people who are fighting all
the time; everybody wants lots of children raised in the best possible

Don't know much about the war/communion thing although I do know there
were a couple of periods during the medieval era when the institutional
church (leading intellectuals and/or the papacy) was big on legalistic
pacifism. Not sure of the details, but this could relate to that.

The Tyndale quote is intriguing and I'd like to know more about what
he's talking about--I'm not strong on the period when a lot of things
about the medieval church are collapsing and/or getting corrupt, but I'd
bet they included local marriage practices.

Conclusion (son):

I was thinking about the War/Communion thing, and I think I recall
reading somewhere an argument that claimed the Crusades were so
successful because it allowed all the violent and restless Frankish
noblemen to go off to war without suffering religious consequences. So
Hauerwas may be closer to the truth there.

As for Tyndale, you can read the passage I'm referring to on Google
Books (just search for The Obedience of a Christian Man; it's the first
one that comes up, starting on the bottom of page 32). It seems fairly
clear what he's saying, although, given the importance money plays in
all of it, we're probably dealing with burgher-level people at least and
not common folk. He doesn't say much about reasons to marry in this
passage, or in the Obedience at all, but is more strictly concerned with
the marriage receiving the approbation of "father and mother" and "the
consent of all thy friends," as well as being "[an oath] sworn to God
before his holy congregation." For the attacks he makes at the end of
the section concerning men getting out of marriages by becoming monks
there seems to be a clear scriptural precedent at Matthew 15:1-9, and
I'm surprised he doesn't cite it.

Anyway, I've probably forced Tyndale into this discussion far enough.
Thanks for pointing these things out to me. I think in zeal for his
basic conclusion, that marriage ought not to be only or even primarily
about romantic love, as well as in scholarly sympathy for the trope of
the past's complete difference from us, I completely missed the fact
that Hauerwas was making a claim that was patently absurd, and not only
to common sense, but, as you pointed out, the conditions most human
society has existed under would be far less amenable to the marriage of
strangers than the jumbled and fluid modern west.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Genap Under Nihthelm

"Ovidii Medea videtur mihi ostendere quantum ille vir praestare potuerit si ingenio suo temperare quam induglere maluisset." -Quintilian, X.I.XCVIII

("To me Ovid's Medea seems to show what that man could accomplish when he preferred to discipline his genius rather than indulge it.")

It is certainly regretful that works like Ovid's tragedy are lost to us, but this pain is often tempered by the fact that we know almost nothing of the character of what we have lost. How sudden, then, is the redoubling of the smart when we come upon a line such as this, wrapped though it is in the haughty judgment of a refined critic, that gives some glimpse of the quality of what has been taken from us. I cannot say I am the greatest partisan of Ovid's, but he is a supremely enjoyable poet even when he does coddle his fancy, and a very fine one in his better moments; to have lost the judged exemplar of his maturity is a loss indeed. All we can offer are the words of an anonymous Anglo-Saxon: genap under nihthelm, swa heo no waere "They are clouded under the hood of night as though they never were."

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Is Data or Aren't They?

I haven't posted in a while on account of my midterms (which continue through next week) among other things, so I thought I'd take this opportunity to briefly comment on something which consistently irks me, namely, the mistaken notion that the collective noun "data" is grammatically plural. This is a widely spread notion and provides for that ugly but nonetheless far too common collocation "the data are," as, for example, on this page from the Wake Forest University Department of Biology. The roots of this misconception lie in the Latin analogue of our English word, which is a neuter plural past participle of the word for "give." In Latin, "data" are "givens," and thus, until actually quite recently, "data" was employed as a plural and meant "axioms." The OED cites the earliest usage of this sense from 1646. This, however, as any speaker of English will tell you, is not the most common meaning of the word "data."

The common modern meaning, which the OED sets as "Facts, esp. numerical facts, collected together for reference or information," shows up first in 1899. As it first came into usage, it may indeed have remained a plural in this sense; after all, people still learned Latin in those days. But after a century in the service of illiberally educated scientists, I can say with absolute certainty that in genuine usage the word is grammatically singular and plural only under the duress of pretension. I find no authority in the argument that the Latin word is plural: Latinitas non Anglice dicit, "Good Latin doesn't speak English." We have borrowed, for example, the Spanish word "siesta," which is grammatically feminine in Spanish, into our language. Should we then be saying "I approve of the siesta, it is a fine institution," or "I approve of the siesta, she is a fine institution." Obviously the latter is a little awkward, since only the biologically female are grammatically feminine in contemporary English.

Let us assume, however, that number is a different case from gender, since gender really only affects the personal pronouns, and take no note of the fact that number only affects present indicative verbs, and the preterite of "be." If we apply this steadfast principle of faithful Latinity to the whole language the results really become quite strange. Compare, for example, the verbs "translate" and "transfer." In Latin they are derived from different 'principle parts,' as they are called, of the same verb, the former being the perfect participle and the latter the present stem; the third 'principle part,' the perfect finite verb, transtuli, has not found its way into English. But if it had, what sentences we could make! "After that, Mr. Jones transtuled the works of Horace into English, having translated Ovid already. 'It is a goal of mine,' he said, 'to transfer all the great Latin poets into English.'"

The answer to this more absurd proposition, of course, is that different senses of a single Latin verb came into English by way of different stems. Now that they have become English, it is beyond silly to try to re-Latinize them. I fail to see how the case of "data" is much different. The sense of the word is undoubtedly plural, but in a collective way, which is hardly rare in English: navy, furniture, etc. The fact that the easiest synonym for "data" is "information" goes a long way, I think, towards showing the common sense of implementing it as a grammatical singular. English has simply used the word differently than Latin.

I will pass over the fact that neuter plurals always take singular verbs in Greek.