Tuesday, 19 March 2013

rediscovering Greek


One’s thought patterns become different, he said, when forced into the confines of a rigid and unfamiliar tongue. Certain common ideas become inexpressible; other, previously undreamt-of ones spring to life, finding miraculous new articulation. By necessity, I suppose, it is diffult for me to explain in English exactly what I mean. I can only say that an incendium is in its nature entirely different from the feu with which a Frenchman lights his cigarette, and both are very different from the stark, inhuman pur that the Greeks knew, the pur that roared from the towers of Ilion or leapt and screamed on that desolate, windy beach, from the funeral pyre of Patroklos. 
Pur: that one word contains for me the secret, the bright, terrible clarity of ancient Greek. How can I make you see it, this strange harsh light which pervades Homer’s landscapes and illumines the dialogues of Plato, an alien light, inarticulable in our common tongue? Our shared language is a language of the intricate, the peculiar, the home of pumpkins and ragamuffins and bodkins and beer, the tongue of Ahab and Falstaff and Mrs. Gamp; and while I find it entirely suitable for reflections such as these, it fails me utterly when I attempt to describe in it what I love about Greek, that language innocent of all quirks and cranks; a language obsessed with action, and with the joy of seeing action multiply from action, action marching relentlessly ahead and with yet more actions filing in from either side to fall into neat step at the rear, in a long straight rank of cause and effect toward what will be inevitable, the only possible end.

I'm reading The Secret History by Donna Tartt and obviously it's the Ancient Greek aspect that I like best. How strange that is, though - I haven't done any Ancient Greek since school, and I always liked Latin better. But I guess it's something that stays with you, like a very elaborate in-joke.
I really like novels that work on several levels. I'm sure that one could read The Secret History without having the first idea about Classics, just like you can read Jane Austen without knowing anything about  the Anglican church. But if you do have some prior knowledge, it's like picking up clues along the way and that is so much fun.
Much of The Secret History is based on the Bacchae by Euripides. I guess if you don't know the Bacchae, Tartt's students would appear to you to be raving lunatics, inspired by an ancient esoteric cult, but it's so much worse (creepy) than that. I read it one November afternoon in 2011, in one breathless sitting because I was going to a student production of the play with some friends that night. The Dionysos was played in a strangely camp fashion and the evening wasn't as disturbing as it could have been - but then again my heart was beating fast fast fast because of the person sitting next to me. 


  1. What a coincidence, this morning I started listening to The Secret History on audiobook, read by Donna Tartt herself! It's really good, and creepy. Love that book.

    Beautiful photos.

    1. I actually read it because you recommended it on your epic list! Should have mentioned that, really.
      And yes, it's so creepy. I'm 200 pages from the end and it feels so ominous - like, what can possibly happen next?

  2. Love the one with the horse too.