Thursday, August 05, 2004

Preemptive repost!

I thought it appropriate to offer an edited (slightly) version of an old post tonight. I’ll get back on a more productive schedule in a few days.

Suffering a Modifier

A Harlot’s soliloquies on the virtues of celibacy and a harlequin’s on the merits of sobriety are enough to make one wonder whether time might not be fundamentally out of joint. That is the sense I get living on our messy planet nowadays. An enchanting repertoire of phrases is being exploited by an unlikely cast of characters to create the sort of rhapsodies that make my hair bristle.

Take the beautifully evocative adjectival phrase “long suffering,” as an example. It sounds like something you might encounter in an epic poem. I must admit, I simply adore a good epic. I grew up on the nightly episodes narrated by my Dad—a manly kind of a man, and a soldier, who habituated me into appreciating the spirit of the epic heroes.

We have, as you might expect, quite an interesting epic tradition in Iran. Shahnameh, the masterpiece of our bard extraordinaire Ferdowsi, is what we all love and adore here in this heartland of evil (well, almost all of us!)

So do our eastern neighbors in India. Theirs is a lot more fantastic than ours, as well as more complex and voluminous. It comes alive with so many engrossing concepts such as Brahman, Avatars, Maya, Dharma, and Karma, along with myriad seekers and a host of the duty-bound with exotic names such as Brahamacharya, Grihastham, and Vanaprastham. Don’t just wonder about these if you don’t already suspect what they are. Do yourselves a favor and read the Mahabharata.

And our western neighbors have a fascinating, enduring tradition of their own which, as some argue, is so influential as to make Greek a variety of the Near Eastern literature. But I digress. You should know I have a special weakness for those wacky Greeks. A pity they caused my ancestors to rebel and to expel them. I would have been a lot happier knowing more of their beautiful ancient languages.

But that is the thing about all invaders, you see. They almost always pack up and leave--sooner or later. Why they just refuse to come in peace in the first place, or to leave when asked-- before the ensuing devastation and aguish, and the needless murder and mayhem-- these questions are always a puzzle.

All epic traditions rely on the vital technique of repetition. It makes the job of a poet easier and, of course, singing becomes a lot more fun--especially after a few drinks. Not only long lines, but phrases get repeated…phrases like the strong armed, the long haired, the swift footed, and so on. These are called epithets. And so, every time I notice repetition of a certain formula-- especially in an age when the readers of the epics are scant, with bile permeating the spirit of many of the remaining few who actually do read—then I get seriously worried.

I become anxious and agitated these days noticing the omnipresence of the epithet “long suffering” in print. I suspect it must come from the Greeks. Homer of course calls folks “wretched,” and “longsuffering.” And naturally with Homer, we hear the agonizing sounds of “men killing and men being killed.” It is also an epithet which brings to mind the wanderings of that Polypemon and Polymetis fellow—the cunning, and resourceful Odysseus. His name, incidentally, is related to the Greek verb odussomai-“to cause pain.” And he sure causes a lot of pain for the lovely Penelope and many, many others. She too can be a long suffering protagonist, as well as longsuffering.

And who amongst us can forget the tribulations of the great “weeping prophet,” Jeremiah. He so poignantly speaks of his own sufferings, and of course, also of long suffering. What follow, curiously enough, are national captivity, assassinations, chaos, and exile. In Odyssey too we witness chaos, murder and carnage, though the outcome is ultimately an order sanctioned by the gods. A coincident or not, there is a certain unsettling something about this simple formula! I occasionally just shudder when I encounter it.

Why, you ask? First there were the long suffering Afghans. Then came the long suffering Iraqis. And now, the resulting number exhibited by the Google Search Engine keeps on surging when I enter the phrase “long suffering Iranians!” The joys and the wonders of paranoia.

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