Finding The Words: A Place To Think Out Loud

Neither can embellishments of language be found without arrangement and expression of thoughts, nor can thoughts be made to shine without the light of language.

– Cicero



[…] Language is the breath of God, the dew on a fresh apple, it’s the soft rain of dust that falls into a shaft of morning sun when you pull from an old bookshelf a forgotten volume of erotic diaries; [it] is the faint scent of urine on a pair of boxer shorts, it’s a half-remembered childhood birthday party, a creak on the stair, a spluttering match held to a frosted pane, the warm wet, trusting touch of a leaking nappy, the hulk of a charred Panzer, the underside of a granite boulder, the first downy growth on the upper lip of a Mediterranean girl, cobwebs long since overrun by an old Wellington boot.

 – Stephen Fry

In the end, words are all we’ve got. Some are an unpleasant mouthful – think ‘autochthonous’ or ‘antidisestablishmentarianism’ –, while others seem to taste as good as they sound to say – like ‘mellifluous’ or ‘serendipity.’ But, as both Cicero (seriously) and Stephen Fry (jokingly) suggest, language is vitally important, being everything and nothing all in one – not one thing, but ten thousand. Much like the rag-bag, hodge-podge that is life.

Words are signposts that point the way to meaning; vehicles that carry us hopefully to our destination. When we speak of a tree in the garden, the word ‘tree’ has no essential tree-i-ness about it. I could just as well say ‘boom’ or ‘fa’ or ‘pokok’ or ‘umthi’, but, unless you were Dutch or Hungarian or Malay or Xhosa, none of those expressions would conjure up the image of a tree. So a word is just an agreed-upon indicator, like a white flag or a green light.

But, if words are the building-blocks of language, then stories are the edifices that we construct with them. Sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, page by page, they can be erected, whether in the end they turn out to be the literary version of a garden shed, a semi-detached house or a skyscraper. The moment that we put pen to paper or touch the computer keys, our natural inclination as humans is to tell a story; it’s simply the way we arrange the world and imbue it with meaning.

History represents the ultimate repository of stories, however, since it’s how we got to where we are. From Tutankhamun to Trump, there is variety, yet continuity in exploring how the past became the present; no day is like another, but the same themes repeat again and again. Familiar and foreign at the same time, the past can be by turns colourful and disgusting, poignant and cruel, inspiring and ridiculous. Consequently, history represents a place where we often meet strange forms of the familiar, which aids us in perceiving the present with fresh eyes.

Again, Stephen Fry captures this very well: ‘History is not the story of strangers, aliens from another realm; it is the story of us had we been born a little earlier. History is memory; we have to remember what it is like to be a Roman, or a Jacobite or a Chartist or even – if we dare, and we should dare – a Nazi. History is not abstraction, it is the enemy of abstraction.’ In short, it is the details of history’s chronicle that provide us with one powerful narrative capable of transcending the differences between us, showing how humanity ultimately shares a single story.

Although I’m fascinated by almost all aspects of the past, two epochs have interested more than the others: the ancient world of Greece and Rome, and the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In particular, imperial Rome and Victorian Britain have always enthralled me, although recent American history has captured my attention lately. Looking at these ancient and modern periods in tandem has enabled me to examine connections between the near-at-hand and the faraway, discovering more in common between the dusty classical past and the oily industrial age than one might think.

From a technical perspective, I study what’s termed classical reception, which basically encompasses everything anyone has thought, written, painted, sculpted or graffiti-ed about the ancient world since it came to an end up to now. (Perhaps, I should be termed a ‘classical receptionist’, but that makes me sound like I’m answering the phones for ancient Rome.) More specifically, I investigate the means through which people in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries invoked, interpreted and depicted the classical past, and why they did so in the context of their times.

Which brings me on to facts – useless and otherwise –, which I collect, catalogue, dissect and venerate, for without them we can have no theories – or as Sherlock Holmes put it, ‘Data! Data! Data! […] I can’t make bricks without clay!’ Whether it’s the most arcane fact – the tension of the 230-plus strings in a grand piano exerts a force of twenty tons on its frame – or the most mind-boggling – if one were to remove all the space between atoms that make up humanity, we would all fit inside an apple -, I find our world endlessly fascinating.

All my life, language, stories and facts have been important to me – whether reality or fiction, past or present. And ever since I’ve been able to hold a pen, I’ve been writing; poetry or short stories or one-act plays – anything that has connected my mind to my pen, whatever the end-result has been. In the last decade or so, academic research of one sort or another has taken up most of my energies, but I’ve recently happily rekindled my passion for creative writing.

On my website, I wanted to create a space where I could write less formally about the subjects that mean the most to me, both personally and professionally; the ones that inspire or surprise me; the ones that challenge my ideas or confirm them; the ones that make me angry or make me think. I have no axes to grind or hobbyhorses to ride, only the this-ness and that-ness of life to discuss – and metaphors to mix, of course.

Writing is not always easy; it’s a struggle sometimes to put down in black and white what exists in one’s mind in shades of grey. Indeed, I tend to agree with the German author, Thomas Mann, who once remarked that ‘[a] writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.’ Both a relief from and a support to my other writing, I hope that this journal can offer a place for me to think out loud and connect with others of a like – and, indeed, an unlike – mind.

On the homepage, it says “Classicist. Scholar. Writer.”, which is, I think, the best that I can do in categorising myself and my interests. Since we are all in the process of becoming, with everything always provisional and much transitory, those definitions are about the closest approximation of who I’ve been, who I am and who I want to be. I cannot remember a time when I wasn’t fascinated by the ancient world and history in general, or doing reading or writing of some kind, and I can’t imagine a time when I won’t be.

As you can see, this first entry has been a blend of all sorts, so you can expect the rest of the entries in this journal to be something of a miscellany, too. Naturally, as you’ve seen, I’m passionate about classics and history – so expect plenty of topics related to those –, but my other interests in art, architecture, literature and music will also find their place here. Neither comprehensive nor exhaustive, this is a place where I seek to speak not ex cathedra, but off the top of my head.

In finding a word to define this journal, I might settle on the Latin word ‘satura’, meaning an assortment or a medley, which described any Roman dish consisting of a diverse set of ingredients. (It’s also where we get our word ‘satire’, which originally contained both verse and prose; hence its title.) In exploring language, stories and facts that catch my eye, I hope to strike an appetising balance between edification and entertainment that will prove interesting, yet won’t spoil your dinner.

To employ another Roman culinary metaphor, I look forward to ranging over a wide variety of subjects here in my journal that will run ‘ab ovo usque ad mala’ (‘from the egg to the apple,’ as the full range of Roman dinner courses went) – or ‘from soup to nuts,’ as we might put it. So, feel free to dip in and out of this assorted buffet at your leisure; I hope you’ll find something to your taste amid its omnium gatherum of this, that and the other.

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