Monday, May 17, 2004

Is it ‘a cultural thing’?

Disclaimer: tentative with so supporting links. Might revise!!

I was thinking a post today about language. But then I came across David Aaronovitch, Culture is no excuse. And so a change of plans and I’ll tell you why. The occasion for the language post was a note from our learned Polish blogger about proper Polish pronunciations. I’ll post it later for those interested

Any how, I was looking at some Polish language sites and as it turns out, even adjectives, numerals and pronouns decline for case, gender and number, but luckily there are no articles. I hate articles. As I was wondering whether polish might have dual pronouns I got distracted and began to think about Victor Davis Hanson.

You see, we don’t have dual in Modern Persian. There is a great deal of Arabic influence in Persian, but Arabic does have dual and we don’t. Ancient Iranian languages and their Sanskrit sister do as well. Why not Persian? Who can claim to know why for sure?

Homeric Greek, for instance, appears to have had dual among other ancient Greek languages that do not. There are traces of the dual in the famous Embassy scene in the Iliad as I recall. In that particular scene, there is a great deal of activity in order to persuade Achilles to abandon his rage.

The “ambassadors” don’t succeed, of course, because our hero is smashingly mad and he is simply not going to be soothed by any words. So the question for those reading the book for the first time always becomes: what would it take for his rage to dissipate?

This all brings me to Mr. Hanson. Now I must admit he almost always infuriates me, but I go on to read him religiously. I look forward to reading him every week, because political disagreements aside, he is an educator after all. If he should fail to elicit a response, then he could not have been any good at what he has chosen as a vocation in life. I have intense disagreements with him yes, but I do respect him nonetheless.

In my less generous, more indignant moods, I think him a demagogue. But anger too passes and I then begin to feel that he should know better, (and I think deep down he does.) Today, I began to think that his writings reminded me of Achilles of the Embassy scene, and quite justifiably so (the rage I mean). 911 was a brutal day, and he has responded with all the ancillary self righteous anger.

He is wrathful and one wonders what it might take for him to respond to some form of supplication. But in fairness, one must acknowledge that he does not shrug off responsibilities. He is serious about the undertaking he promotes and the consequences that might ensue. Political machinations aside, he appears a decent man, and is a classicist and so one may always hope that his is a variety of a more sensible conservatism -- the sort of conservatism that may be persuaded through a series of measures to cease lashing out.

In essence, one can almost detect in him an honest, transparent sort of conservatism rooted in the Iliad—gory battle scenes, war cries, dismembered bodies, severed necks and all-- absent its magnanimous generosity of the spirit.

Now, gory battle scenes and war cries are what you get a lot in old epic tales, more or less. Most cultures have them. And they can tell you some things about cultural proclivities in whatever limited sense they might be understood.

In the Iranian tradition, you don’t see too many severed heads and bloody details because our epic is generally a tale of the battle between the old and the young warriors. They counsel each other ceaselessly to be wise and to go on with their lives.

The background to some of the more memorable episodes is that of a young man trying to introduce a more just order and some father or father figure, faithful to the directives of the corrupt monarchs, ends up killing him. Either that or that the fearful fathers send their sons off to die in an impossible undertaking, but soon after begin to regret their decisions. As the sons lie prostrate and dying, they almost always inevitably try to sooth their aging fathers and send farewell messages to their mothers-- up to their last gasps.

So in the Iranian tradition, since so much hinges on the last minute exchanges, we don’t get too many severed heads because that would naturally also mean dysfunctional tongues. We just can’t have dysfunctional tongues now, can we?

The Indian warriors, on the other hand, can’t afford to show emotions since they should be dispassionate about their conducts. Killings can not be an expression of anger, and should neither elicit happiness nor sadness. Hence, they actually get to cross swords while boasting an aloof sort of a smirk. As for the war cries, they rely on some god or other to do that for them.

The Japanese though are the weepers. Their sleeves are always wet and dripping with tears as they kill off their enemies. Our Japanese of the ancient tales are sensitive kind of butchers especially since they have a profound appreciation for the uniqueness of each moment and hence the utter irreplaceability of each individual life being taken away.

Naturally of course, there is that perennial Japanese sadness, with good reason, and yet they still manage to chop off heads --sometimes even mounting them on swords for good measure—as well as lots and lots of wailing and tears.

And then there is that pernicious universe of our hero Odysseus. He has a reputation for being the archetypal Western man and quite a few people actually like him. But, I am not that impressed by him, nor by his universe. It is sort of an inscrutable universe for me, too cunning, too many unknowns about the actual identities of characters we get to meet and too many folks—both the winners and the losers-- generally adrift in the aftermath of a ferocious war.

Odysseus is a rational man yes, but he also always manages to get away on technicalities. Even in the Iliad. There is a memorable night expedition in which a man Dolon gets killed after a promise of safety that does not exactly mean what it was supposed to communicate. Quite a few people get butchered that night while asleep, the alibis being a “measured” use of the language, sanction of one of the myriad deities, and the “honor” being bestowed ultimately for settling the bloody affair on someone else.

We come to expect much posturing and falsehoods from Odysseus. He is the one, after all, who can go on to blind and torment another being, however little sympathy the infamous Cyclops may have elicited from us the readers, pretending to be actually a “nobody.”

Now this universe is the universe of liberals such as Mr. Aaronovitch. A lot hinges on the cunning use of the language; they have come to expect largely to get away on technicalities.

They either suddenly transform into a “nobody” while doing the blinding, or they ride the wave of our apathy or antipathy to shift the burden away from themselves and onto others
Theirs is an implacable sort of an ire coupled with self righteousness and alibis.

Alibis are dime a dozen in this day and age though. For those of us with little appreciation for the shenanigans of the master—the wily Odysseus himself -- there can’t be much of a luster to the deeds of the apprentices either.

Aaronovich does raise a number of interesting questions and one significant riddle: If everything is indeed a cultural thing, he asks caustically, “What the hell is it all for?”

This question, along with the alibis, I will explore in the next installment

No comments: