Sunday, 18 December 2011

Immortals Review: The Bad (Spoilers)

It's been quite a while. I am now even further removed from watching "Immortals 3D" as it seems to be called, so some of the bad points that I was saving have either been forgotten, diminished in atrocity in my mind or have been rehabilitated after long thought. It almost seems a little ridiculous to review it now, actually, but I hate to leave something half-done so I'll just mention a few of the things I didn't like about the film.

  1. I find it really frustrating when a film lets a narrative thread amount to nothing, as a sort of permutation of the "and it was all a dream" bathos. It annoyed me particularly in Lord of the Rings, where the whole plot-line of amassing troops and taking stands and inspiring men's hearts was, ultimately, irrelevant in light of the necessity of throwing the ring into the fires of Mt. Doom (sorry if you haven't read or seen it - I did warn about spoilers...). The plot of Immortals was similarly frustrating, when the protagonist's failure to achieve his objectives were invariably followed by a disturbingly dressed or mustachioed deus emerging ex machina.

    But then, after all (I thought to meself), isn't that rather true to classical form? Perhaps my expectations have been softened by the vicissitudes of modern spoon-feeding Hollywood narrative ploddery, and I can't handle the authentic mythological structure of divine agency and overarching fate? So my criticism may apply cinematically, but with a view to the classical integrity of the plot, I have to conclude that, actually, the bathetic interventions of the gods and what have you are entirely apt, and my displeasure is due to my own weakness in my demand for linear, consistent story-telling.
  2. The dialogue was almost impossible not to snigger at (even the lines in Ancient Greek). It would take some more analysis for me to say exactly why, but for some reason(s) I accepted the ridiculous script of 300 - maybe something to do with the fact that I was a teenager when I first saw it. Or maybe it was the narrative of that film which allowed me to ascribe weight to the words, whereas the relative flimsiness of this plot - at no point did I actually feel that the future of civilisation depended on the outcome of any particular crisis - prevented me from taking the words as they were meant.
  3. All of the actors were hitting way below their batting averages. It goes without saying that Mickey Rourke can do better that this film, but even in dross such as The Expendables and Iron Man 2 he delivers a convincing performance; not so in Immortals, when he seems to need a throat lozenge and/or Prozac. I can't remember ever having seen John Hurt fail to impress me in a role, but he seemed to be smirking and counting his fee throughout this one. Freida Pinto had apparently just been told to be as sexy as possible, which she accomplished without, I'm sure, finding it too taxing (of course, she's no Nancy Kovack). Ultimately, I think this is the fault of the scriptwriters and the director, for failing to give these considerable talents decent material to work with, or competent guidance in doing so.
I think that should be enough to round off this unfortunate foray into the world of watching-films-and-then-blogging-about-them.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Immortals Review: The Good (Spoilers)

I have now, finally, after all of that anticipation, seen Immortals (not "The Immortals", as previously written). It was quite a bizarre experience. I've taken a few days to mull over the film, and have decided that the best way to structure my review/response/reaction would be to split it in two, the first post listing all of the positive and/or commendable aspects of the film, and the second unleashing some of the detracting elements (I think you can see where I'm going with this).


  • Some of the mythology is correct... sort of. Theseus is famous for fighting a minotaur in a labyrinth, even if the circumstances are about as radically different from the ones presented in the film. In fairness, however, the final scene of the film suggests that the myth passed down to us (as represented by the friezes and large statue of Theseus fighting the minotaur) is in fact a distortion or exaggeration of the "true events", which, if I'm interpreting that correctly, does imply some degree of narrative consistency. That is to say, the whole point of the film is to show the events that spawned the legends familiar to us today. Could be.
  • The treatment of the notion of immortality in Greek eyes was actually fairly convincing, with Hyperion (?!) projecting a model of paternal continuity, as opposed to Theseus' conception (no pun intended) of "deeds" rather than "flesh" being immortal. I was reminded not only of the general themes of kleos and so in Greek mythology, but also Book 16 of the Odyssey, where Telemachus emphasises the fragility of his family line:
ὧδε γὰρ ἡμετέρην γενεὴν μούνωσε Κρονίων·
μοῦνον Λαέρτην Ἀρκείσιος υἱὸν ἔτικτε,
μοῦνον δ' αὖτ' Ὀδυσῆα πατὴρ τέκεν· αὐτὰρ Ὀδυσσεὺς
μοῦνον ἔμ' ἐν μεγάροισι τεκὼν λίπεν, οὐδ' ἀπόνητο.
For in this way the son of Cronos has made our bloodline solitary:
Arcesius sired Laertes as an only son,
Then he in turn was the father who sired Odysseus only; but Odysseus
Sired and left me in his halls alone, and had no enjoyment from me.
(That's my attempt, there are better translations here, here and arguably here)
So, the tension in the film is essentially the same as the central concern of the Homeric epics, where Achilles in the Iliad could hardly be more indifferent towards either his own life or that of his son - here, Theseus dies in pursuit of glory without even knowing that he has a son.
  • The whole idea of the gods being mortal - indeed, dying, as they do in the bust-up with the released Titans - is not such a crazy one. In fact, I myself once wrote an essay (and perhaps at some point will write a post) on the mortality of the immortals, so these chaps must be on to something.
  • Despite the general fuzziness regarding the mythology (which could be intentional and excusable, as discussed earlier), some of the details were traditional. For example, that Theseus' girl-acquaintance is called Phaedra, and that together they have a son named Acamas (Immortals 2?). The Titans in Mt. Tartarus. And so on (yes, alright, I can't remember any others, but I had a (slightly longer) list when I came out of the film).
  • Some of the fight scenes were quite well choreographed (even if for the most part they tended towards a sort of "300-lite", and the 3D was rubbish... no, that comes later).
  • The opening scene was in... Ancient Greek. Ish. Okay, it wasn't exactly the right dialect, and it wasn't strictly speaking logical that the sybils should speak Ancient Greek to each other while everyone else spoke American English, and the subtitles didn't absolutely match what was being said (I look forward to the inevitable YouTube video with "correct" subtitles), but it was a nice effort, and a refreshing break from antisemitic caricatures hurling abuse in Aramaic at Jesus while Pontius Pilate mutters mournfully to himself in Latin. Which reminded me of the opening scene of A Serious Man.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

On Floating Islands and Fixed Idiocies

I was amused recently (alright, not that recently, I've been busy) to read about this cockamamie scheme, thought up by Patri Friedman (grandson of Milton) and massively contributed to by Peter Thiel, billionaire founder of PayPal, to establish a floating libertarian utopia in the middle of international waters. The organisation is called the Seasteading Institute, and apparently they are serious.

My first reaction on reading about this peculiar utopian vision was to recall the various floating islands in literature (Wikipedia has a pretty decent but not comprehensive list), from Aeolia to Sea-Star Island, from the 1967 Rex Harrison Dr. Dolittle film. I was going to do a post based on floating islands in the ancient world, but that's already been done, albeit almost a century ago, by Cook, in Appendix P of his monumental "Zeus: A Study in Ancient Religion":

Instead, I want to talk about the narrative of the story, rather than the props. It struck me that the aims of these sea-steaders are almost identical to those of Pisthetaerus and Euelpides in Aristophanes' Birds, who, disillusioned with the litigiousness of Athens, leave to start a new "colony" in the sky, free from the the strictures of big government the law courts. In a remarkably well-wrought and bittersweet satire, Aristophanes shows us the deterioration of this noble (?) idea into a simple replication of the very features of Athens they sought to escape, in an ingenious parody of the acquisitive Athenian imperialism of the time.

They may as well name this floating island on the high seas "Nephelokokkygia", not simply because it's such a pie-in-the-sky (pasty-in-the-sea? croissant-in-the-ocean?) idea, but because the original phrase "Cloud Cuckoo Land" actually comes from an almost identical idea to this one!

I love the smell of symmetry in the morning.


New development in the cross-over between floating islands and idiocy.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Top Classical Films, in Anticipation of The Immortals: Part 2

Here, I continue my countdown of my ten favourite classics-related films (for #10-5, and for links to three trailers for the film The Immortals, see here), as I prepare mentally and emotionally to watch the film as soon as possible (tomorrow hopefully).

5. Ben Hur

Good reasons to like: I must confess that I haven't actually seen this preposterously long Heston-fest in one sitting from start to finish, but I have seen all 222 minutes of it at some point or another, and it did win 11 Oscars, so I couldn't really leave it out of the list. And besides, any film that involves racism, buxom Jewesses and cruelty to animals is alright in my book.

Silly reason to like: Like many films from the period, the scores of extras are pricelessly gormless.

4. 300

Good reasons to like: Despite widespread derision and pooh-poohing, this film is, to my mind, right on the money. Contrary to the claims of many critics, rather than imposing anachronistic norms and ideals onto ancient times, 300 follows the account of Herodotus fairly closely, even down to one of my favourite jokes in Greek literature, from Spartan quipster Dieneces (although in the film it's delivered by 'Stelios' and in the wrong context): having been told that the arrows of the Persian archers would block out the sun, he responds: "[Good.] Then we will fight in the shade." Beyond that, a stirring and entertaining retelling of a truly significant event in Western history - with no more embellishment, I would argue, than Herodotus' own account.

Silly reason to like: "Spartans, what is your profession?!" "A-oo! A-oo! A-oo!"

P.S. What happened to Gerard Butler?

3. Jason and the Argonauts

Good reasons to like: Another Harryhausen classic, but so much better than the original Clash of the Titans. Some of the special effects are breathtaking, and the mythology is hard to fault. One of the oldest and best stories from the Greek canon, it's not only the adventure that's well delivered: the scenes that focus on political intrigue, romantic eye-brow-waggling and philosophical introspection are every bit as riveting as the giant metal-man and the animated skeletons. Even if they weren't the last few words of that sentence justifies this film's place on the list.

Silly reason to like: On a personal note, when my Dad sat me down in front of this movie when I was a wee lad, it not only sparked an enduring interest in Classics, but also (and more significantly) Medea (Nancy Kovack) presented me with my first ever crush. Fact.

2. Gladiator

Good reasons to like: Now, on this one I don't think I'll have any disagreement - save for the fact, perhaps, that I haven't put it at number one. Ticks all the boxes, from direction to acting to score to cinematography (whatever that is), and ridiculously quotable. In fact, it's hard not to just list all of the brilliant lines from the film. Would you not be entertained?! (What we quote in blogs, echoes in eternity.)

Silly reason to like: The closest Russell Crowe has ever come to maintaining an accent throughout a film.

1. Hercules

Good reasons to like: Well, I mean, it's a Disney film, isn't it? And a cracker, at that. Maybe a bit heavy on the anachronism-based jokes, but solid family-fare from the greatest film-makers in History (this blog will talk a lot about Disney, just warning you now). Stellar performances from the always fantastic Danny DeVito and James Woods, consistently good songs, with consistently good lyrics set to consistently good music, and a wholesome message to boot. God, those people at Disney know what they're doing. And it's (sort of) got (some of) the Classics (almost) right.

Silly reason to like: At one point, Herc(ules) takes off a lion-skin and Phil(octetes) wipes his face with it - the skin in question belongs to Scar, from the Lion King. Cute.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Top Classical Films, in Anticipation of The Immortals: Part 1

In England, the long-awaited Classics-based thrill-fest The Immortals came out in cinemas on Friday. Tragically, I have not yet had a chance to watch the film, and probably won't until at least Sunday, but I have every reason to expect it will be as riveting and moving as the various trailers.

Others have been less optimistic, and in their glass-half-empty churlishness have compiled lists or parodies of previous unfortunate cinematic forays into Greek and Roman mythology. This one is fairly neutral. I, however, am made of jollier stuff, so here is my countdown of Classical films which were are actually genuinely good.

10. Troy

Good reasons to like: Though much maligned, this film has suffered a great deal of snobbery from critics and certain audiences. Let alone the fact that it's an enjoyable and entertaining movie, it does render Homer's characters (Brad Pitt's brooding Achilles, Eric Bana's tragic Hector and Orlando Bloom's cowardly, effeminate Paris particularly) and themes (immortality, kleos, war, loyalty and greed) quite faithfully, even if some of the action has been jazzed up (the Achilles/Hector showdown) or radically changed (I don't remember Agamemnon being stabbed in the Iliad by Briseis...).

Silly reason to like: The score by Yated was scrapped for being too "old-fashioned" and a new one was written last minute by James Horner. "Horner" looks quite a lot like "Homer". Coincidence?

P.S.: Also, here's a little bit of insider gossip for you: I've been told that after a screening of the film for academics, they were asked by the producers not to reveal the ending...

9. Spartacus

Good reasons to like: One can get pretty dewy-eyed about the "golden age" of Hollywood film-making, but this truly was an epic work, with fully fleshed out (if not quite three-dimensional) characters and a long-enough running time (184 minutes) for a properly developed (some might say over-developed) plot. It also has the courage to eschew Hollywood "happy ending" cliches: the most famous (and oft-parodied) scene from the film is undoubtedly the "I'm Spartacus!" clip embedded above, but the self-sacrifice shown in the duel between Antoninus and Spartacus, each trying to kill the other in order to spare them the ordeal of crucifixion, is somewhat more gritty, and a refreshing subversion of goodie vs. baddie. The execution is a bit mawkish, but the morality is at least a bit ambiguous. Equally, the shot of Spartacus hanging from the cross as his son goes free is profoundly bittersweet, a happy ending of sorts tinged with realism.

Silly reason to like: Tony Curtis, who plays Antoninus, also plays the cross-dressing Joe/Josephine in Some Like It Hot. Somehow he seems to wear more make-up in Spartacus.

8. Clash Of The Titans (Original 1981)

Good reasons to like: It's another top notch film, except doesn't take itself too seriously and prioritises fun over fidelity to mythology. Yes, it's a bit of a hodge-podge when it comes to the details, but the fundamental plot is mainly true to the original Perseus story. I've always found Calibos quite sympathetic, and found his speech rather moving. Maybe it's because I'm a deformed demi-god who has trouble letting go. Most important, however, and what elevates this film from being too silly is Ray Harryhausen's special effects, in the last film he would work on. Nostalgia overload.

Silly reason to like: Simply because it isn't the atrocious 2010 remake.

7. O Brother Where Art Thou

Good reasons to like: This is an allegorical offering from the Coen brothers, meshing the Odyssey and Americana to deliver a hugely effective result. Ulysses Everett McGill, as the trailer says, has to "get home to his wife and kids", facing Sirens and a Cyclops along the way. This is I suppose an extreme case of the trend exhibited by Troy - it gets the basic themes and characters right, so much so that you don't care about the small differences. They are especially forgiveable in this film, because, well, it's set in the 1930s America South. The subtle references, for example to Odysseus' epithets, make this a particular treat for the classically literate.

Silly reason to like: The name of the film is a reference to the 1941 film Sullivan's Travels, in which the title character proposes to make a film called 'O Brother Where Art Thou', where the name is deliberately and satirically pretentious.

6. A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum

Good reasons to like: Similar to O Brother Where Art Thou, this is a sort of meshing of Roman comedy and American wise-guy humour (epitomised by Phil Silvers, "The King of Chutzpah", who stars as the slave dealer Marcus Lycus, having previously turned down the role of Pseudolus). All of your favourite stock characters are here, with a brilliant (if annoyingly catchy) score by Sondheim adapted by Ken Thorne, and Buster Keaton's last ever performance. What's more, it's genuinely funny. At least, I think so. While it isn't as good as the original musical, it's still hugely entertaining and not to be missed.

Silly reason to like: It stars Zero Mostel, who also played Tevye the Milkman on Broadway in Fiddler on the Roof, the greatest musical of all time, and therefore everything he is in must by definition be amazing.

(to be continued...)

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Pop Classics 1: Noah and the Whale, Jocasta

First in a new series, in which I post modern songs based on Classical mythology or history. This is one of my favourites, and is quite well acquainted with the source material. Noah and the Whale's first stanza is sung in the first person by Jocasta, Oedipus' mother, seemingly justifying to herself her decision to expose the baby:
Oh, its flesh keeps them alive,
Oh, as death helps life survive,
Oh, the world can be kind in its own way.
Of course, the real reason is the fear of Laius' death, which has been prophesied to occur at the hands of the baby. It is his life that will survive as a result of the death; but Jocasta couches it in terms of helping the wolves survive, giving them their food. That way, her atrocity is spun as being natural, in keeping with the natural order.  In Oedipus Tyrannos (720-722), Jocasta does a similar thing, disavowing the act by saying that Apollo did it:
Κἀνταῦθ' Ἀπόλλων οὔτ' ἐκεῖνον ἤνυσεν
φονέα γενέσθαι πατρός, οὔτε Λάϊον,
τὸ δεινὸν οὑφοβεῖτο, πρὸς παιδὸς θανεῖν.
And then Apollo did not let that
Murder of his father happen, nor Laius -
The terror which he feared - be killed by his son.
The second verse seems to be by someone talking to Jocasta (the Chorus, perhaps), explaining the futility of her attempts to subvert the strictures of fate.  When it refers to "her husband" for whom she has grieved, there is a wonderful (Sophoclean?) ambiguity as to whether this refers to the murdered Laius, whose murder she sought to prevent by her exposure of her son, or in fact her eventual husband, Oedipus, who wasn't dead but whose death she was prepared to cause.  In seeking to save her husband, she killed (as far as she knew) her child - in fact, the child survived and the husband died, but the child (for whom she grieved) became her husband.

All in all, quite a sensitive song, with lyrics that seem to understand the subject matter and shed light on a previously under-explored area of the myth, namely Jocasta's feelings about the exposure of her son, and the irony of which of her husbands dies and how.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Honda creates Homeric Hephaestus Robot

One of my favourite genres of fiction is the kind of dystopian projections of future human development exemplified by such works as Orwell's 1984 and Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451.  In a future post I may discuss my pet theory that much of Greek drama, especially Aristophanes' comedies, involves a version of this kind of admonitory fiction, presenting a slippery-slope image of what might happen to Athens if a certain path is either chosen or persisted in.

For now, I will contain myself to some of what I judge to be the futuristic notions in Homer (don't worry, I will mention someone else someday soon), namely that of technological advance.  It seems to me that the descriptions of Hephaestus' automatons are not magic, or described as being supernatural in and of themselves, but rather resulting from a supernatural skill.  That is to say, it would theoretically be possible for human craftsmen (and the renowned Daedalus is such an established figure by this time that his name is often used adjectivally to mean "ingeniously-crafted") to construct such machines, and Homer's description of the wondrous assistants is an imagining of the horizon of what human engineering could achieve.

And, as it turns out, Homer was proven right this week. Take a look at this video of what The Telegraph referred to as an "Artificial intelligence robot which can help round the home", compare it to the passage in the Iliad, and consider whether Homer’s faith in the potential of metallurgy was ill-placed.

             "ὑπὸ δ' ἀμφίπολοι ῥώοντο ἄνακτι
χρύσειαι ζωῇσι νεήνισιν εἰοικυῖαι.
τῇς ἐν μὲν νόος ἐστὶ μετὰ φρεσίν, ἐν δὲ καὶ αὐδὴ
καὶ σθένος, ἀθανάτων δὲ θεῶν ἄπο ἔργα ἴσασιν.
αἳ μὲν ὕπαιθα ἄνακτος ἐποίπνυον·"

             "and the maids rushed to help their master,
Made of gold, looking like living maidens.
They have intelligence in their mind, as well as speech
And strength, and learned their tasks from the immortal gods.
They bustled about in support of their master."

Actually, Honda haven't quite yet matched Hephaestus' feat, given that Asimo doesn't seem to have any speech capabilities.  Still, if 'I, Robot' is anything to go by, won't be long now.  And it surely won't be too long after that before someone has one made of gold...  Bloody bankers.

The Accidental Vandal?

As well as finding modern parallels to ancient odds and ends, I’ll do my best to find ancient precedents or similarities to modern day events or news stories.  I was particularly amused by this story, in which an unnamed cleaning woman caused irreparable damage to an art instalment in a German museum.  The Guardian report lists some other examples of similar things happening to similar offerings by Joseph Beuys, Gustav Metzger and Damian Hirst - I don’t intend to get into the merits of modern art, but I will preliminarily compare these stories to this scene from the incomparable Mr. Bean film, in which a piece of real art is also "cleaned", although under quite different circumstances:

This story reminds me of a couple of Classical ones, although they are obvious and neither corresponds exactly.  The first relates to the theme of misunderstanding whether or not something is a piece of art, because it is so true to life.  It is the contest of Zeuxis and Parrhasius, in which the two painters sought to establish which of them was the greater artist - which, in this context, means which of them renders the most lifelike representation.

Zeuxis goes first, and paints such realistic grapes that birds fly from the sky and try to eat them.  Pleased with this result, he then smugly demands that Parrhasius draw back the curtain in front of his own painting.  As it turns out, the curtain is the painting, and Zeuxis himself, like the birds, has been fooled.  Parrhasius therefore wins, as fooling a human trumps fooling birds.  Interestingly, according to the Washington Post: "Thanks to [Kippenberger's] troublemaking persona, some have suggested that he would have liked the way that the cleaning woman 'completed' his sculpture" - although this does seem to refer to a commenter called "fearslayer88", so I'm not sure how much store to set by that.  One might think, however, that, much like Zeuxis and Parrhasius, Kippenberger intended for his artwork to look as lifelike as possible, and that this mistake is a tribute to his artistic skill, even if his artistic intentions were different (i.e. his realism was not to do with proving how well he could recreate the real world as an end in itself, but rather as a means of delivering an artistic message (I would imagine)).

That all assumes, of course, that this was a mistake, which leads me to the second Classical anecdote this story reminds me of.  It relates to the notion of destroying art – and, somewhat indirectly, to the fact that the poor lady is, quite rightly, not named anywhere as far as I can tell.  That was hoped to be the fate of the infamous (pun intended?) Herostratus, who intentionally set fire to the beautiful Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, one of the Seven Wonder of the Ancient World, for the simple purpose of gaining fame for doing so.  The sentence was apt: as well as execution, that his name should never be referred to again by any historian.

There's a useful and fairly extensive list of sources for this story from the excellent Michael Gilleland (Laudator Temporis Acti) here, which might help you decide whether or not the cheeky arsonist won out in the end – certainly, his name has not been lost to posterity as was the hope, though he is hardly a household name.  Does that count as immortal fame?

Now, is it likely that this cleaning woman didn't realise that she shouldn't clean the art installation?  Did she clean any others?  Or could it be that this German cleaning lady is, in fact, what the Germans call a Herostrat?

And, to close off, something I was reminded of by the hilarious Guardian title:

Sunday, 6 November 2011

The Successes and Failures of GM Alphabet

The modern alphabet as it is used today has evolved over many millennia, undergoing many transitions from the Middle East, via Greek (which consisted of various dialects) and Etruscan to the Latin alphabet which is used today, with few variations, by many languages including English. Due to the differences between these languages, many changes were either necessary or convenient, which is why the Semitic alphabet (without vowels) was 22 letters long; the Greek alphabet, as we know it from literary Greek at least, was 24 (missing the digamma, including the tacked-on upsilon, phi, chi, psi and omega); and Latin was between 21 and 23 letters.  Since Classical times, of course, more letters have been added, as Indiana Jones forgot to his peril.

But most of these changes took place organically - that is to say, there was no central committee whose job it was to regulate the alphabet, introducing and phasing out words deemed either redundant or required; for example, Etruscan had no /g/ sound, so they made Greek's gamma (Phoenician's gaml) a <c>, and used it as one of their /k/ sounds (in addition to <k> and <q>). There may be some exceptions: for example, there is a story related in Plutarch that Spurius Carvilius Ruga (or, as spelled in Greek, displaying some differences in orthography, Σπόριος Καρβίλιος) added a stroke to the letter C in order to accommodate the /g/ sound in his name, since the Etruscans had done away with the gamma.  If true, this story represents one example of top-down alphabet change. By contrast, the letter <z> was rntroduced by no-one in particular, after the Romans decided they could no longer transliterate the pesky zeta with <s> or <ss>.  Even though the letter was officially removed in the first place by the Censor Appius Claudius Caecus (as in the Appian Way) around 300BC, after rhotacism made it defunct (or he didn't like the face people pulled when they said it, cf. De Nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii, III.261).

But there are also examples of attempts to add to the alphabet falling flat: the Emperor Claudius tried to add three letters to the alphabet, and was so monumentally unsuccessful that today scholars don't even know what one of them was. One was a "(
reversed, upside-down digamma), which stood for the semivowel /w/"; the other, a plus sign without a west-pointing arm (if you see what I mean) "was used in place of the letter ypsilon in Greek names. Its phonological value is unclear. A third letter, which is reported to have stood for the cluster /ps/, has not yet been found in an inscription. Its precise form is uncertain; the Latin grammarians cite several possibilities."*

There have been attempts more recently to effect "alphabetic reform" on the English language, and not just lame April Fool's jokes or slightly less lame YouTube sketches (I actually found it quite funny) - or indeed nutters on Yahoo! Answers.  Most notably, Benjamin Franklin tried in 1768 "to give the alphabet a more natural order":

This is quite succinctly summarised and illustrated here.  More recently, also in America, was the publication in 1905 of "A Plea for Alphabetic Reform" by Benn Pitman.  Notwithstanding his inability to spell the word "Pharaoh" (see p.4), he did pioneer shorthand writing (or phonography). Interestingly, his New York Times obituary from December 29, 1910, reports as follows, and you may make of it what you will:

Beyond that, there is the interrobang, which ended with a whimper, and which wouldn't even really have become part of the alphabet, unless one classed it with the ampersand ("&"), so named because students rattling off their A-Z would add at the end, "and, per se, 'and'".  In that sense, the ampersand was considered to some extent a 27th letter (or at least, that's what Wikipedia says).

By the way, if anyone knows anything about James Joyce and Finnegans Wake (I certainly don't), they might be able to connect this to the "abcedminded" and "allaphbed" puns that are found there?  And "letters" and "lettrines"?

* A Companion to the Latin Language edited by James Clackson, who, by the way, can be heard voicing-over this brilliant clip (<3 BBC).

Friday, 4 November 2011

(Epos) Nekerdes: Part II

Just to follow up on and flesh out some of the ideas from yesterday's inaugural post.  First, this video which depicts some of the horror of losing treasure (κέρδεα) that you have hoarded:

Second, to develop a bit more fully the contrast between Iliadic notions of action and Odyssean notions of crafty speech.  This is obviously a huge topic, but I want to approach it briefly, in keeping with the theme of the video, through the prism of the sons of the two poems' respective heroes: Neoptolemus (son of Achilles) and Telemachus (son of Odysseus).  I'll just point out in passing (although I am a big believer in noms parlants, especially in Homer) the differences between the meanings of the two names: Neoptolemus meaning "New War", just what is not needed after the horror of the expedition to Troy; while Telemachus means "Far From Battle".  Neoptolemus is the one who kills Astyanax, Hector's infant son (at least, that is his most defenceless and innocent victim), whereas until Athene comes to rouse him, Telemachus does little but sit at home biting his nails over his absent father.

Both are, for one reason or another and to some extent, fatherless.  Neoptolemus' father is off hunting a glory that will never fade, in the knowledge that this will result in his death and, consequently, never seeing his son again.  Achilles' extreme nonchalance when it comes to fatherhood is demonstrated most starkly by his off-hand comment when speaking about his grief at Patroclus' death, in the Iliad at 19.327: "If, I suppose, godlike Neoptolemus is even still alive." (εἴ που ἔτι ζώει γε Νεοπτόλεμος θεοειδής).  This is ironically preceded by his referring to his son as "φίλος υἱός", "beloved/dear son" - the absurdity of this designation is driven home by a comparison to the truly loving attitude of Hector in Book 6 in the Iliad towards his son Astyanax (whom, let us not forget, Neoptolemus will kill).

The line in which Neoptolemus' name is used for the only time in the entire Iliad is particularly emphatic because of its particles: "που", "perhaps, I suppose", is a sort of verbal shrug, an explicit declamation of ignorance; "γε", "at least, at any rate", emphasises the word that precedes it, marks that word as the stressed point of the sentence.  It is a sorely overlooked particle, often misunderstood or brushed aside as being "merely for the metre".  (In fact, I might start a little sub-blog here devoted to this overlooked and under-appreciated particle - Ge And Proud?)  This is a good example of the word's usage to accentuate the tone of the line - in this case indifference, complacency, disinterest - by underlining that the father does not even know if his son is alive or dead; it simultaneously links the sentiment to the ephemeralness (it's in the OED...) of Achilles' own life.

Telemachus receives a lot more attention, in both poems; in the Iliad, Odysseus even refers to himself, in a reversal of the traditional patronymic mode, as the "father of Telemachus" (Τηλεμάχοιο πατὴρ 2.260).  Whereas fatherless Neoptolemus tries to emulate his father with extreme violence and blood-thirst, misunderstanding the point of fighting due to his lack of fatherly guidance (see Iliad Book 9 for evidence of Achilles' sensitivity and thoughtfulness), Telemachus fails to grasp the notion of Odyssean cunning and restraint, going to the opposite extreme to Neoptolemus and indulging in inertia and passivity - however, due to the return of his father, by the end of the Odyssey he has learned about subtlety and caution, proving himself a man by refraining from stringing his father's bow, even though he is able to do so, and lying to cover it up (Od. 21.125-135).

Thursday, 3 November 2011

(Epos) Nekerdes

Hello, welcome to the blog. I intend for this post to be a little microcosm of what I hope the blog will do, and the tone it will be in, although obviously at this stage it's all a bit primordial (and I've never done this before). So this will basically be an explanation of the name, and a sort of mission statement, and an exemplum.

The first thing I hope to do with this blog is fill in any gaps I find in the blogosphere. That is to say, when I google something and come up empty-handed, I'd like, as far as I am able, to provide the information that I couldn't find for the (highly theoretical) next person. At the time of writing this, according to Google, there is not one blog that has ever used the word "nekerdes" in any post - I did find one reference to "l'Hôpital Neker des Enfants Malades à Paris", but it's from quite an offensive article in quite an offensive French Catholic gazette, so I won't link to it here (also I don't know how to) (and I hate Catholics) (just kidding).

So now there is a blog that has not only used the phrase, but has enshrined it as a letterhead and founding principle.  This firstly means that I do not intend to "monetise" this blog or ever have ads on it.  (I can delete this later, right?)  But more broadly, I don't really intend to get any profit out of it, other than the opportunity to verbalise some of my own ideas and disseminate some others that I come across, hopefully being of some help to others.

The phrase epos nekerdes (ἔπος νηκερδὲς) is found in Homer's Odyssey at line 14.509, within a litotes (double negative - i.e. Odysseus' word isn't without profit): Eumaeus, the loyal swineherd, has just heard his disguised master Odysseus - whom he hasn't recognised - spin a completely truthless yarn about being a high-born Cretan, and then a short anecdote (still in character as a vagrant) about once being cold and being given a warm cloak.

This is one of my favourite books, a transitional midpoint in a poem so fixated (no pun intended?) on markers of transition.  It harks back to the much longer tale (whose truth is disputed by scholars, see Richardson (JSTOR) for a particularly sceptical and insightful analysis) Odysseus told to the Phaeacians, and harks forward to the tale he will tell to Penelope.  Aside from the broader motif of words and trickery that permeate the poem, the also ties into the theme of acquisitiveness and materialism: just before arriving at Eumaeus' hut (on the border of his own property), Odysseus stashed all of his Phaeacian gifts (13.362-371), which are almost as essential a component of his nostos as his own return is.

There is one other example of the word "nekerdes" in Homer (only one, which is arguably significant in itself, in a poem with so much repetition and reliance on epithets), and it comes in the Iliad, at line 17.469, just after the pathetic death of Patroclus.  It is the "nekerdea boulen" (νηκερδέα βουλὴν - unprofitable plan) of Automedon, the bereft charioteer of Achilles, in a scene so sad that even Zeus is moved (17.441-455) - the focus is on loneliness and isolation in the midst of war, the futility of mortal combat (despite Achilles' choice of a short life instead of great fame) and the irony of the wrangling that began the Iliad over prizes and loot, now that Achilles has lost something that is truly valuable to him.

Each use of the word is saturated with the ethos of its own poem, and each poem has a different understanding of what the word means - note that in the Odyssey it describes a "word" and in the Iliad it describes a "plan".  It's not terribly profound, but I quite like the dichotomy.

Another thing this blog will try to do is draw connections between the ancient world and more modern stuff.  When it's done well, as in the Richardson article above with the Hitchcock reference, I think it's great fun as well as often being enlightening and thought-provoking.  So, I'll be both attempting it and quoting more eminent people achieving it.

In that spirit, I leave you with this clip from the great Danny DeVito in Other People's Money - and make sure to look out for the Greek subtitles.