Thursday, October 16, 2014

Triplicity

As I probably already mentioned somewhere, I am slightly superstitious. It’s nothing serious, and nothing I can’t rationalize when need be, and it has never influenced my behavior or decision-making; rather, I consider myself superstitious in the sense that I sometimes see patterns which I know can’t logically be there, and that I sometimes start believing in the validity of these patterns, despite my better judgment. These patterns I have decoded in various shapes and forms, but one of the more persisting ones is my faith in the power of the number three. 
    ‘Triplicity’ is a rare word according to my dictionary (BOOM! saved another word from extinction today—you can thank me later), and it denotes ‘a group of three people or things’, and also, in a more archaic version, ‘the state of being triple’. The earliest known usage in English of triplicity dates from the 14th century, and derives from the Late Latin word ‘triplicitas’ (‘three-foldness’), which in turn derives from the Latin word ‘triplex’ (‘threefold’, ‘triple’, ‘three’), which again is a derivation from the combination of the prefix ‘tri’ (‘three’) and the Latin verb ‘plicare’ (‘to fold’, ‘bend’, ‘multiply’, ‘add together’). You might recognize it on account of its more common bigger brother ‘duplicity’, which, before it came to be associated with ‘deceitfulness’, initially merely referred to the ‘state of being double’. Luckily, I don’t see the ‘state of being triple’ prompting any such negative connotations, so I can happily continue to use it. 
    Triplicity in my daily life is most immediately apparent in my practice as a writer, because ‘the rule of three’ in writing is one of the first ones I learned. Quoting Wikipedia, the rule of three is a writing principle ‘that suggests that things that come in threes are inherently funnier, more satisfying, or more effective than other numbers of things’. (Note that this definition contained exactly three adjectives.) A reader or an audience is more likely to consume information if it is written in triplicities, so as a writer it is a rule you ought to be conscious of. A series of three often creates a progression in which the tension is created, built up, and finally released. It is the classical ‘beginning, middle, end’ structure, and it continues to be relevant. Interesting side-note: based on the triplicity rule of writing, we have a figure our speech called a ‘hendiatris’. Some of you may have heard of a hendiadys (the expression of a single idea by two words connected with ‘and’, when one could be used to modify the other), but a hendiatris also exists, in this case to express a single idea in three words. To name a very obvious example: sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll, to describe the lifestyle of a rock star. And now you know.
    But apart from my writing life, triplicity also plays a role in my everyday life, and lately increasingly so. And I know that this is probably only so because I interpret it that way, but I am personally pleased with my interpretation, because evidence has proven it to be more-or-less accurate. I am more specifically referring to the saying ‘third time’s the charm’, which expresses the hope that, after failing twice in the same endeavor, the third time will be successful. And, strangely, I have found this rule to be correct.
    Exhibit A: my higher education. I started at the conservatory, and while I don’t regret it, it turned out not to be my cup of tea. Then, I started at University, and chose to study English and Spanish. This was better (because English), but still left me stumbling rather spectacularly. Then last year I started for a third time with English and Dutch, and since then it has been going smoothly. Triplicity: proven effective.
    Exhibit B: my weight loss attempts. Once during high school, and once at Uni, the state of my weight bothered me enough to attempt an official diet. That is, I went to a dietitian, who told me everything there was to know about calories and carbs, and then followed up on me while weight loss happened. But while both attempts resulted in weight loss, neither was permanent. Since August this year, however, I gave it a third try, this time without the aid of a dietitian. And while I’m not there yet (so I can’t give conclusive proof that it will be—and will remain—successful), I have a lot more faith now that I will be able to sustain a stable weight once I get there, simply because I’m not relying on someone else for motivation. Triplicity: proven effective. 
    Exhibit C: writing activities. I’m currently working on the third draft of my manuscript, and I finally feel like it’s going somewhere. And since I entrusted the second draft to a professional editing service, and they gave me feedback, I am confident that with their help, I can make the third draft into a more-or-less definitive version. And then, who knows what will happen? I can’t say, of course, but I’m optimistic this time. Another writing-related development is that the English department at Ghent University is organizing a writing competition this year, for the third time. And though I never participated the first two times (for various reasons), I am working on a short story as we speak, which reflects the theme of this year: “in the world” (a phrase which, the advanced mathematician will observe, consists of three words). Needless to say that I am giddy with excitement. Triplicity: proven effective.

    There are more examples, but they are a bit too soon to share, or they haven’t proven their effectiveness yet (though one could argue that some of the previous examples haven’t proven their effectiveness either; their triplicity merely contributes to my feeling confident). Plus, I have illustrated three examples, which seems quite perfect. But do not fret, dearest reader, about my mental health: I am perfectly well-aware that of my own superstition concerning this ‘rule’. Putting faith in things like ‘third time’s the charm’ is, ultimately, more wishful thinking than statistical reality, and what you interpret as the ‘third time’ can be sometimes very subjective. But it is nice to believe that there is a greater cosmic order to my life’s blueprint, and, more importantly, it is also an effective motivator: when at first you don’t succeed, give it a second and a third try; the third time, you’re likely to be successful. Are you going to be successful? There is no guarantee, of course, but it is true that if you give any endeavor a second and a third chance, you are more likely to ultimately get it right than if you give up after your first attempt. Therefore, I don’t think I will lose faith in triplicity anytime soon, whether or not my rational mind cringes at such fancies. I think we might learn from Caesar in this respect: after all he had to come and see first, before he conquered. A good strategy to keep in mind.    

Monday, October 13, 2014

Éclat

I’ve been doing well. I wouldn’t have believed it a year ago, but almost exactly at the turn of the year, things started going better for me (which was surprising, given my initial skepticism). My grades went up, I lost weight (also surprising, on account of more skepticism), and I am happy to say that I am finally working on my novel again (after a dry spell). A casual observer might state that this year has been quite successful for me. And I would agree. And considering where I came from, I can not but feel happy about all these positive developments. But the strange side effect of my success is that I’m starting to revalue its importance, and I have arrived at the conclusion that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. And I don’t mean that in a negative way; I am very happy and grateful about my personal victories, but it wasn’t those victories which gave me self-confidence. Rather, I needed self-confidence in order to achieve those victories, and from that point on it became a positive feedback cycle. But before I lose myself in a chicken-or-egg argument, I want to posit a question which I have been thinking over for a while: are we defined by our successes? Considering their role in my life at the moment, several things are pointing in that direction. But are they?   
    ‘Éclat’ stands for ‘a brilliant display or effect’, but also, less concretely, for ‘social distinction or conspicuous success’. Now, instead of working my way back in time like I always do, I wanted to start with the oldest form first, but was sadly disappointed in my good intensions, because ‘éclat’ has not yet been traced back to its oldest roots. A possible explanation is that it derives from the Old High German ‘skleizen’, meaning ‘to tear to pieces’, ‘split’ or ‘cleave’. This form did then supposedly mutate into the Old French verb ‘esclater’, meaning ‘to smash’ or ‘to shatter into pieces’, which then evolved into the modern French verb ‘eclater’: ‘to burst out’ or ‘to shine brilliantly’. (Ah, now I see the connection, I can hear you thinking. Quite intriguing, starting with the oldest form.) And from French the derived noun ‘éclat’ was then taken over by the English language, though you can still clearly see—what I like to call, with cheap thriller connotations—the French Connection. 
    Not that I am so proud of my own éclat—it seems like a shameful exaggeration to even talk about my achievements in such grand terms. And let’s face it: we’re all a lot less impressed by our own successes than by others’. And a good thing too; people who are very impressed with themselves are usually not that successful. Rather the opposite: it’s those who keep believing that they can do better who aim higher. And when you aim high you’re at least giving yourself the chance at éclat, which is essential if you want to get there. Of course, there are no guarantees that you will get there, but it’s surprising how much a little goodwill and perseverance can do. And, what has turned out to be the most important to me: resilience. It’s a cliché, but failure is just part of the process. Being the perfectionist that I am, I had a very tough time accepting this, and I used to beat myself up at every little misstep.
But éclat isn’t the absence of failure; it’s the ability to let failure be failure, and not let yourself be dragged down with it. Allow yourself to stumble instead of falling to the ground and live there. Resilience is not giving up in the face of whatever life throws at you, and whatever blunders you might commit in the face of it.
    Also good to keep in mind: éclat is what you see, or rather, what you want to see. This principle is symbolized pretty neatly by what I call “the iceberg theory”. The iceberg theory states that what peaks out above the water, what you would call ‘éclat’ in the sense of ‘conspicuous success’, is only the tip of the iceberg. The largest part which contributes to success is the part beneath the water, the part you can’t see. As this wonderful little diagram illustrates, what you don’t see as an outsider are the risks, the failure, the sacrifice, and most of all the immense amount of work you have to put in. 


Or, to use another illustration:  
Of course, you knew this already. But social comparison is a tricky thing, and seeing someone else’s éclat will often blind us to obvious truths. It’s good to keep in mind, however, that success is always relative: what might be a big step for you, can be everyday reality for another person (even banal), and what might be normal to you might be another person’s wildest dream. So if we do have to evaluate our successes, the only way to measure it is by comparing with ourselves. Did I do better than I did yesterday? If so, then you were successful today. If not, then you were a bit less successful. 
    But even comparing our éclat with ourselves is dangerous, because it determines for a big part how we see ourselves. Which brings me to the question I started out with: are we defined by our successes? A difficult question, to be sure. On account of my personal victories the last few months, I would say yes, because those successes have contributed considerably to my self-confidence (though I needed that self-confidence to achieve those successes in the first place), and a steady trust in the process. Where I always used to feel the compulsive need to control every facet of my life, I am now more comfortable “going with the flow”, as they say. Or, as I recently read somewhere: “hold the vision, trust the process”. I would call this a recipe, wouldn’t you? A recipe for éclat. But anyway.
    If we are defined by our successes (as much as we are defined by our failures, by the way; the theory works in the negative as well, and often a lot stronger), that means that a successful Helena is a different person than not-so-successful Helena. And because successful Helena feels infinitely better than not-so-successful Helena, and because at the moment I think I’m a lot more useful to myself and to the rest of humanity (*cough*) than I used to be, this sentiment might imply something about the Value of Helena. And here’s the rub, because how you value yourself changes depending on the context. And this is where it gets dangerous. 
     Let me explain to you my theory. At the risk of falling into false dichotomies, I have divided the world into two kinds of people: the people who determine human value based on an individual’s use to society, and the people who believe that a human life is inherently valuable, regardless of context. I would call myself a member of the latter category: of course it is easy to say in hindsight, but the Helena who was wilting away a bit more than a year ago didn’t essentially have any less value than the current Helena who is showing some éclat. But the fact that we feel defined by our successes (and I certainly do, to a certain extent) shows how easy it is to forget this. 
     This difference in ideology is a very important one: it’s at the root of social security, for one. If, as a society, you believe that human life is inherently valuable, you will be more willing to put in effort to sustain that life than if you believe that an individual only has the right to live (and, by extension, the right to have the means to live) if (s)he is being a responsible and useful member of society. It’s a difference in ideology which determines a society’s stance on death penalty, abortion, and euthanasia. But more than these big issues, it’s a difference in ideology which has a big impact on our everyday lives, and while it is easy to apply the theory to other people, we are often not so kind to ourselves. I, for example, find it difficult to enjoy something if I don’t feel like I have earned it; there needs to be hardship if I want to enjoy my achievement. On those moments it is important to remember: you don’t need to earn it. You are a human being, and you deserve good things. You deserve éclat simply because you were born. And when you’re in a rut and you feel worthless and depressed, that might just be the one most important thing to remember.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Penury


In my family, we’ve never had much in the way of money. That is, we get on very comfortably, and are by no means poor, but the little extras some of my peers enjoy were rarely a part of my day-to-day experience. For me the greatest downside to this was that we never travelled a lot, or ever very far, while I would like nothing more than to explore the world. But there are worse things to have to deal with, and all in all I don’t think I have a right to complain. And one of the main reasons why I don’t panic about money affairs is because of the extensive social security system we have in Belgium. In this sense, I think we really are unique in the world, because in terms of health care, unemployment benefits, education etc. Belgium has always excelled at funding in order to make all these services (or basic human rights, depending on how you look at it) accessible for everyone. Lately, however, some things have changed in our governmental composition, and a steady fear has been growing that this will have severe monetary consequences for a whole lot of us.
     ‘Penury’ is defined as ‘the state of being very poor’, also ‘extreme poverty’. It derives from the Latin word ‘penuria’ (‘need, scarcity’), which in turn derives from the adverb ‘paene’ (‘scarcely’). Derivations of ‘penury’ include (I need to fill this paragraph, okay?) the adjective ‘penurious’, and (oddly) the noun derived from the adjective , ‘penuriousness’, which has the same primary meaning as ‘penury’, so it’s pretty useless. There are some subtle differences, however, since ‘penurious’ can, aside from ‘extremely poor’ or ‘poverty-stricken’, also mean ‘characterized by poverty’, but also ‘unwilling to spend money’. One assumes that these meanings also pertain to the derived noun, but my dictionary says nothing on this point, so I’m just going to go with my assumption that this is the case. And now you know.
      For my American readers: education in Belgium has always been heavily subsidized. Rightly judging education to be the cornerstone of a healthy and wealthy society, policy makers have always invested a lot of tax money in public education, and I, for one, find this a very positive thing. Of course, you might say that I’m not one to talk, since I, as a student, am the one who’s reaping the benefits of the system. I, however, think that I have a right to speak exactly because of that reason. In today’s information society it is virtually impossible to function if you haven’t received a decent education, so the simple begetting of a diploma (preferably higher education) is extremely important. And thanks to our government, which has always enforced the funding of public education, this has always been possible. Now, however, things are changing, and due to governmental penury, the Powers That Be have decided that budget cuts are going to happen for our educational institutions as well. And I needn’t explain to you that this will have grave consequences for the more penurious amongst us. 
     Of course, the announcement that the entrance fees for universities and colleges will be getting higher has elicited a wave of protest amongst the student population. And this not merely because of the higher price: because the fact is that budget cuts are happening already, and that making entrance fees more expensive is not, by far, going to make up for decreased funding. If entrance fees would have to compensate for the funding we used to have, we’d get the same situation as students in America have: the cost for higher education there is dizzyingly high, which means that most students have to get student loans, and when they have their diploma, they are in debt. And as much as I like America, I do not want to have to live in such a system. Right now the place where I study, Ghent University, is ranked in the 100 best universities in the world. And while I don’t have much in the way of national pride, or even regional pride, I am secretly a little proud that I study at such an excellent institution. And if funds go down, educational quality will inevitably drop as well. It is a sad truth, but if you don’t invest in education, financial penury will result in intellectual penury as well. And I, for one, am not about so sit by and let that happen. 
      This might strike some of my readers as arrogant. Who am I to say where the tax payer’s money should go? Just wait until you have to pay taxes; then you’ll sing a different song. And with all due respect, but I don’t think so. I am very happy with our social security system, and for such an excellent system I would be happy to pay a bit more. Because I do realize that education is very expensive, and I am extremely grateful that I get the chance pursue it. But getting a diploma pays off. It gives you greater chances on the job market, and if your education manages to get you a decent job, paying taxes would not be just an obligatory part of being a member of society, but a way of giving back. Because I don’t want to take our system for granted, even though I believe that education is a basic human right, and shouldn’t put you in penury. Rather the other way around, I should hope. There’s also another, very simple reason, which was best phrased by our mutual friend, John Green: “Let me explain why I like to pay taxes for schools even though I don’t personally have a kid in school: I don’t like living in a country with a bunch of stupid people.”
      My apologies for the somewhat political nature of this post. I usually do not care much for politics, but (also a sad truth) I am no better than others in wanting to defend my own interests. Which means that my usual political indifference can change to activism if I feel like my personal values and future are being threatened. But while I feel vaguely guilty that I am more passionately involved in this battle than in, oh say, climate change, I don’t think it’s pure selfishness that I’m thinking about my future. Because this isn’t just my future. This is the future of an entire generation. The generation which will fuel tomorrow’s economy (ideally by getting a high-paying job). You get where I’m going with this: I perfectly understand the need for budget cuts, but if you take money away from education, you will eventually lead the entire country to penury. Organizing education is a giant investment for any society, but it pays off. Perhaps more than any other investment you might make. And if you don’t do it, you might as well use what money you save to pay for your own funeral.     

Monday, September 22, 2014

Canorous


As any loyal reader of this blog ought to know, I am a big fan of music. By extension, I’m a big fan of anything which has anything to do with sound, though I specialize in esthetically pleasing ones. As such, I’m an avid music fan, both actively and passively. Which means that if you happen to come across me walking, I will probably be wearing my headphones, passively enjoying the dulcet tunes of my favorite artist; actively, I have been known to participate in a karaoke event or two, apart from which I like singing any time I can get away with it (usually when I am alone). Because while I deeply appreciate instrumental music, I am also a lover of the human voice. Or, as I shall now call it, a philanthrophoniac. Neologism for this post: check.
    ‘Canorous’ is marked as ‘rare’ by my dictionary, and is used in reference to ‘song or speech’, meaning that it is ‘melodious or resonant’. The word arrived in English in the mid 17th century, and derives from the Latin verb ‘canere’ (‘to sing’), added to which was the common suffix ‘-ous’. I find this a particularly delightful word, because whereas I don’t listen to songs unless they are canorous, in my daily business with people I have met a wide variety of timbres, pitches, accents and inflections, and since I can’t choose to only talk to those with particularly canorous voices, I appreciate them all the better. 
     But what is there so enchanting about a (esthetically pleasing) human voice? It is not the first thing you remember when you think about a person, is it? The first thing that usually jumps to mind when someone calls a name is physical appearance. But this is exactly what I find so fascinating about voice: it is usually overlooked. To me, however, it is very important for various reasons. Admittedly, some voices are more remarkable, memorable and/or canorous than others, but to me knowing what a person sounds like is an essential part of knowing that person. This might creep some people out (though on the whole I find it not that strange), but I have mental conversations with my friends sometimes, and I have discovered that I cannot do that if I don’t know (or if I only have a vague memory of) what your voice sounds like. Until I find out what your voice sounds like, in other words, I cannot, despite all rational arguments, consider you a close friend. 
      Which does not mean that you’re a bad friend if you don’t call me regularly so I can hear your voice; for me it has more to do with level of intimacy. In the digital age, I communicate with many of my friends over chat or email, but with my sister, for instance, I have frequent phone conversations (mainly because she doesn’t have much time for anything else). And the fact that I feel closer to her than to most of my friends (even though I have technically less contact with her than I do with most of my friends) has at least as much to do, I think, with the fact that I hear her voice more often, as with the fact that we’re siblings. Also delightful about my sister is that she is a trained radio presenter, so her voice always sounds wonderfully canorous (though most of that gets lost over the phone, sadly). 
    This is very personal, of course. I like knowing someone’s voice because that little detail about them makes our acquaintance a lot more personal an intimate to me than my contact with several of my online acquaintances. I don’t know many people who pay lots of attention to voice, however, let alone find it so important. But I am not the only one who is influenced by voice. Research has shown that voice can influence us, in our perceptions and attractions, in ways that are usually unconscious. Did you know, for example, that familiar voices automatically jump out to you in the middle of the hubbub? What’s more, people find familiar voices easier to understand than strange ones, even if the stranger speaks perfect English. What’s even more, it appears that people with foreign accents are generally considered less trustworthy, which has nothing (or little) to do with prejudice, but everything with the fact that foreign accents are more difficult for the brain to process. And unfortunately our minds seem to apply a simple rule: if it’s more difficult to understand, it’s less likely to be true. However, in order to counteract that, people with two different accents tend to unconsciously imitate the other’s accent to make it easier to understand. Isn’t that funky?
     In the spectrum of human attraction there are the known facts: heterosexual (it irks me that articles always forget to mention this) women are more attracted to deeper voices, and heterosexual men are more attracted to higher voices (but not too high-pitched and squeaky). Which is actually how you can identify the stereotypical gay male: the ‘gay accent’, as it is called, is different from the speech pattern of heterosexual males, because gay males use more intonation in their speech, whereas straight males usually have a more monotonous way of speaking. Gays are more canorous, in other words. Yay for gays!
      Voices, accents, intonations, inflections and speech patterns continue to fascinate me. For a long time unconsciously, but lately I actively started paying attention to it. In fact, it’s the direction my academic career seems to be taking, since this year I will be writing my bachelor paper on Under Milk Wood, which is tellingly subtitled ‘a play for voices’. It’s my plan to analyze those voices, not mainly looking at the text, but listening to the voices the way they were recorded decades ago by Dylan Thomas himself (and what a canorous voice he has; since I heard him read I have no respect for writers who can’t read their own work—yet sadly, reading poetry properly is an art few seemed to have mastered). Considering how much of a nerd yours truly is, I am particularly looking forward to this. Spending my time researching such canorous poetry makes my heart skippy. You see, since I stopped my musical education the amount of music in my life ostensibly seems to have lessened, but since then I have become fortunately aware of other, more subtler forms of music. The cadence of a sentence. The symphony of dialogue. The merry ring of a resonant laugh. Bliss. 

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Verisimilitude


I blame my father for turning me into the reader I am. Being the bibliophile and intellectual of the household, it was he who first got me interested in literature, and inevitably he was a major influence on what kind of books I like to read. I have had to find out that the literary taste I developed because of this paternal influence is, however, rather particular, and therefore one I don’t seem to share with many people. Which is why I can jump up at the mention of authors like Julian Barnes, Zadie Smith and Annie Proulx, but will sit by silently, wearing a somewhat confused smile, when my peers start raving about Game of Thrones. Mostly this difference in literary tastes originates, I think, in what you expect from literature. And one of the things which determines whether or not I will consider a book worth my while, is verisimilitude.  
  ‘Verisimilitude’ is a very fancy word which means ‘the appearance of being true or real’. The word wiggled its way into the English language via the identical 16th century French word ‘verisimilitude’, which in turn derives from the Latin ‘verisimilitudo’, meaning ‘likeness to truth’. This is a compound noun, consisting of ‘verus’ (adjective meaning ‘true’) and ‘similis’ (adjective meaning ‘like, similar’). You will probably not encounter this word often in your daily likfe (though kudos if you do); I myself only discovered it once I enrolled at university and discovered the wonderful world of literary terms. As such, you will (sadly) probably only find it in written text, but as always with obscure words, I will make a valiant attempt to popularize it. But now back on topic.  
To me, a good book has to have a perfect balance between realism and fictionality (and has to have, in other words, verisimilitude). For most people, myself included, the attraction of books lies exactly in the fact that they are different from everyday life. The book is a closed universe in which characters move according to a plot, with a buildup, a climax and a denouement. There is an order to this fictional universe which is comforting exactly because it is absent in everyday life. To quote my literary hero (brace yourselves, he’s coming along again at some point): “Books say: She did this because. Life says: She did this. Books are where things are explained to you; life is where things aren’t.”
  However, as much as this necessary divergence from Life As It Is makes books attractive, in order for me to really see a book as valuable, I have to be able to take a piece of it with me in my day-to-day life. And this is where verisimilitude comes in. Many people see books as a means to get away from the world for a couple of hours; a means of escapism. And I do too, to a certain extent. But if a book makes too much sense, is too logical, too clever, I probably won’t enjoy as much, because it differs too widely from my day-to-day experience.  
  Verisimilitude creates the difference between what I consider the ‘a quick read’ and ‘a good read’. I’ve read books that tug you along into a fictional world which is marvelous and wonderful and you just can’t stop reading because it’s so exciting and you have to know what happens. And at the end of it, you usually do figure out what happens. At the end of it, everything will make sense, every storyline will be neatly tied up, and every question will be answered. And you will be left a happy, fulfilled reader. 
  I think I experience these books just like everyone else does. I find them extremely enjoyable to read. I also usually forget about them a week after I finish them. And this is the difference between ‘enjoyable’ and ‘valuable’ literature to me. Books I consider ‘valuable’ literature are rarely page-turners. I sometimes have to push myself to get through them. But by the end I will often have learned a lot about myself, about the world, about life, love, death and all his friends. These books are usually not that thrilling, exactly because of their verisimilitude. They resemble real life, which, let’s be honest, is often boring, confusing, and meaningless. Thrilling? Hmm. Let’s save that discussion for later, shall we? 
  A good book has to challenge me. Has to challenge the way I look at the world, at my life, and everything revolving around me. A good book changes you. To quote my literary hero (again): “When you read a great book, you don’t escape from life, you plunge deeper into it. There may be a superficial escape—into different countries, mores, speech patterns—but what you are essentially doing is furthering your understanding of life’s subtleties, paradoxes, joys, pains and truths. Reading and life are not separate but symbiotic.” And it is exactly this symbiosis of fictionality and verisimilitude which makes a good book, in my eyes. Which is why, in my writing, I try to not let everything make sense. You don’t have to solve every mystery. You don’t have to answer every question. Good books don’t try to answer questions, but raise them. If the writer solves everything for the reader, the reader has nothing more to wonder about. As I usually have with page-turners, you can put the book aside and forget about it. Books which raise questions make you wonder. Make you think. Considering how much time I spend in my head, I rather like a book which gives me new and interesting thoughts. Things that don’t make sense. And yet, if it is well-written, in a way it will make more sense than anything ever has. This is the magic of fiction. You take two concepts which are superficially irreconcilable, but then you blend them together, and a chemical reaction takes place which leaves you with one of the most intoxicating potions the human race has ever made (not to be bombastic, or anything). Cheers. 

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Philhellene


Sing, Muse, of that blessed ancient peninsula in a corner of the Mediterranean! Sing, of its mountains, of its seas and of its myriad islands. Sing of Asia Minor, of Krete and of Northern Africa. Sing of its ancient culture, of its comedy and its tragedy, of its music and its philosophy, coming together to build the cornerstone of what we now call Western Civilization. Sing of the country which invented democracy, which reared Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, and which nursed the West’s first greatest writer, who gave us the epic stories of Helen of Troy and Odysseus. Sing of the seafaring people who conquered the world through culture, much more than through politics. And sing, Muse, of those who carry yet today a love for that oldest mother country: Hellas. 
     BOOM (sorry, couldn’t help myself; it’s the first time that I’ve written an invocation of the Muse, and I got a little carried away.) Ahem. ‘Philhellene’ is a noun defined as ‘a lover of Greece and Greek culture’. It’s a contraction of the Greek adjective ‘philos’ (filov; ‘loving’) and the name the Greeks themselves gave to their country: Hellas ($Ellav). Another term would be ‘Grecophile’, but I prefer ‘philhellene’ because a) my spellcheck doesn’t appear to accept ‘Grecophile’, and b) I prefer the term which uses the Greeks’ own name for their country. Feels more authentic to me.
     So, in case you hadn’t figured it out yet: I’m a philhellene. When picking a subject to study in secondary school, I went for the least obvious choice and picked, apart from Latin, yet another dead language: Ancient Greek. And I haven’t regretted it for a second. In fact, I enjoyed it more than Latin, because as a language it’s a lot more elegant and refined. It also gave me a feeling of exclusivity, of course: there were, I think, at least 40 people taking Latin in my year, but in our Greek class it was nice and cosy, with only five of us. And though overall secondary school wasn’t a unequivocally wonderful experience for me, the classes Ancient Greek always made me feel better. And as I still study languages, my knowledge of it has helped me out in numerous ways: not only have those years of study given me a linguistic insight (as did Latin) which is very handy when you have to learn a new language, but it also has given me a load of cultural background which is vital if you want to understand anything of Western literature.
    I’m talking about the classics, of course. Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey were both on the menu (which is very handy now I’m reading Ulysses; pray for me), and as a 12-year-old girl I remember spending many afternoons sitting at the bottom of my closet (I didn’t yet understand the irony of this, and now I don’t understand how I could ever have found this comfortable) reading a very big and heavy book titled ‘Greek Myths’. After the epic, the oratory of Pericles followed, and the philosophy of Plato. And, let’s not forget a very important reason for my current philhellenism: the lyric. More importantly, Sappho, whose lyrical poetry continues to inspire. Though I’m generally more into contemporary literature (and less into the oldies), Sappho and Shakespeare (I’m starting to sense a consonantal pattern) are the two great exceptions. Of course, the classes on Sappho were interesting to me in more than merely an academic sense, but I only became aware of that later. I am still a fervent fan now, though, and while now I rarely pick up the other literature we used to read, I still frequently read a Sappho poem. (And thanks to a lovely friend of mine, I can now read them in English translation; my two great literary loves combined! I’m in heaven.)   
    Am I going anywhere with this eulogy (eulogìa) on the oldest mother country (as I shall henceforth call it)? Not really, no. I merely wish to raise a glass of retsina to the country which continues to inspire me, in my writing (Muses are handy when writing poetry), in my studies (‘find the Greek reference’ is a game I love to play in my academic papers, and it has yielded wonderful results), but also in my general appreciation of life. I know that my mind would be much the poorer for it if I, like the hoi polloi ($oi polloi; let me be condescending just this once?), had chosen not to put Greek on my curriculum. So in this sense this blog post is also an encouragement for anyone who still has this choice ahead of them: please add Greek to your curriculum. The vocabulary is arduous to study, but very useful (just think about how many English words derive from Greek), the grammar may give you a headache sometimes, but the literature will enrich you in ways you probably won’t appreciate until much later. Also, an argument against anyone who tells you that studying a dead language is a waste of time: believe me, it is not. It may not serve you in the most practical sense, but if you, like me, are more interested in the value of things than in mere functionality, then you might consider joining the phalanxes of philhellenism. We have cookies. (and feta cheese, and tzatziki, and moussaka; also, olives)     

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Zaftig


So, even as I’m putting the first words into this post (and such inspiring ones they are), I know this is going to be a tough one to write. Probably awkward. Possibly confrontational. But it’s an important subject, and I’ve been wanting to write something about it for a long time. So here goes nothing. 
Zaftig is an adjective which can only be used in reference to a woman, and it describes that woman as ‘having a full, rounded figure’, or simply ‘plump’. My dictionary informs me that it is mostly used in informal situations, and mostly only in North America at that. I say, let’s globalize that shit. Can’t let such a gorgeous word stay in North America. Anyway, it finds its origins in Yiddish, where the word ‘zaftik’ was first recorded in 1937 as ‘alluringly plump, curvaceous, buxom’ (and what gorgeous words they are). As some of you might know, Yiddish has undergone strong German influences, and this particular word derives from the Middle High German word ‘saft’, which means ‘juice’. So essentially, when you call a woman zaftig, you call her juicy. There are too many opportunities for innuendos here, so I’ll leave those to the dirty minds of my readers. Ahem. 
But now for the serious part. I have had body issues for about a decade. It started when I hit puberty around 12, at which point I started gaining weight, and hasn’t really stopped since. There have been wild fluctuations in my weight (various diets happened), but at the moment my weight is more or less stable. But even though I have accepted that I will always be zaftig to some extent, I am still not happy with my body. And in our current culture, is anyone, really? Even if you put a host of top models in a room together and asked them to talk about their body issues, I bet most of them would be able to come up with at least one thing. They will probably be minor, but however minor your grievances about your body may seem to others, on this very day millions of women are feeling bad about their bodies because of reasons which are hardly reasonable (true paradox). Some are more valid than others, of course, but whichever way you look at it, the conclusion (made over and over again) is that there is something seriously wrong with a culture which seems to promote starvation as something to aspire to.
I might add that I am solely going to write about women in this post, because sadly they are often more harassed for their (lack of) physical beauty than men are, but I am not saying that men can’t have body issues. Of course they can, and I think it would surprise us to know exactly how many. And I think that it’s actually a taboo subject, so it would be interesting to talk about. But as my experience is that of a woman, I’ll be mostly focusing on that (but males, do not despair: I feel your pain). And my experience as a woman has so far not been pleasant, in the area of physical beauty. There have been moments of triumph, but they always have been short-lived, and even on the best moments I have felt (and feel) a reasonable amount of shame and discomfort about my body.
Being a cerebral person, though, I have tried figuring out why I do feel bad. Because it has been told us over and over again by well-meaning parents that your (lack of) skinniness really does not matter. Culture, of course, tells us quite something different. And it’s not even about having the abs, but it’s the endless shaming of people who do not have optimal physical health. Apparently, in order to be a worthy human being, you need to have optimal physical health, and any deviation from that rule is considered nothing less than a cardinal sin. And you will never hear me say anything against a healthy lifestyle, but it’s the very strict definition of what is ‘healthy’ and ‘not healthy’ which does it for me. If you want to be healthy, you need to eat enough fruit and veggies and stay away from carbs at all costs, you need to go to the gym preferably every day (getting some muscle is good for your metabolism), and you need to get as much exercise as possible, because if you want to qualify as ‘perfectly healthy’, you need stamina. 
I mean, really. Ain’t nobody got time (or energy) for that. And then on the other hand there are critical voices which are vehement about the importance of a positive body image, and that whatever someone else says, you should not ever be ashamed of your body. But you put all that contradictory muddle together, and it gets quite confusing. Which authority do you follow? No wonder (zaftig) teenage girls have body issues.         
I was comforted and inspired by a passage I read in On Beauty by Zadie Smith. In this passage a mother is confronted with her daughter’s body issues: 

“ ‘Right. I look fine. Except I don’t,’ said Zora, tugging sadly at her man’s nightshirt. This was why Kiki had dreaded having girls: she knew she wouldn’t be able to protect them from self-disgust. To that end she had tried banning television in the early years, and never had a lipstick or a woman’s magazine crossed the threshold of the Belsey home to Kiki’s knowledge, but these and other precautionary measures had made no difference. It was in the air, or so it seemed to Kiki, this hatred of women and their bodies—it seeped in with every draught in the house; people brought it home on their shoes, they breathed it in off their newspapers. There was no way to control it.”

Sounds about right, doesn’t it? To be honest, I feel ambiguous about it all. Having had body issues myself for so many years (which I have not at all outgrown), I can sympathize with women who feel like a zaftig figure is abhorrent, rather than ‘juicy’. And yet as a feminist I feel passionate about battling the shameless bodyshaming (true paradox) our culture seems to promote. Who cares if you’re zaftig? I mean, really. If you have kind eyes and a nice smile I doubt that anyone will worry about your muffin top or cellulite. The so-called “problem areas” (i.e. stomach, ass and thighs) do not, in whatever shape or size they come, detract from or add to one’s general attractiveness, and I find it sad that many women appear to think so. As if the shape and size of your stomach, ass and thighs are a litmus test for attractiveness. You can be one skinny bitch, but if your face is ugly that won’t get you very far. With all due respect to people who have face-related dysmorphia, of course, but weight issues have a special status in our bodyshaming culture. If you have dwarfism or an amputated leg or a twisted spine which makes you look funky (and makes you not fit into our culture’s ideal of physical beauty), that may make you feel self-conscious (and again, all due respect to such issues), but those are issues you cannot, technically speaking, help; they happen to you. But so many women are bodyshaming themselves because of their weight because, unlike genetic or circumstantial malformations, weight is, objectively, something you can do something about. If you are not one skinny bitch, in other words, that’s really your own fault. Which makes zaftig girls like me feel so very, very guilty. 
It is a shame that culture intervened in a relationship which only ought to have two partners: you and your body. Ultimately (cliché alert) it doesn’t matter what anyone thinks about your body (except your GP, maybe), as long as you feel comfortable with it. So yes, I am zaftig. With that, at least, I have made peace. I don’t like skinny bitches anyway. My litmus test? Go stand naked in front of a mirror and see if you can look at yourself without looking away. It is a test I fail daily, and I know that only when I succeed at it, I will truly feel happy about my body. But that might take another lifetime. And ultimately, feeling happy with your body is one thing, but what is still the most important thing is feeling good about yourself, inside out. And on that I seem to have made remarkable (and surprising) progress this year, so so far I am quite happy with 2014. I’m curious how it might surprise me yet.