Sunday, May 29, 2011

Public Blog Face

May days often make me want to stop blogging.  Too many transitions all at once.  At work, the spring semester turns to summer (when research conducted needs to be written up and sent out to editors for review and possible publication, when the fiscal year closes and the next opens, and when new students arrive).  And this year with family there's been the celebration of our wedding anniversary (my spouse's and mine) and the happy graduations of two of our children (one from undergraduate higher ed and another from high school).

Thanks to the ones of you who've noticed I set this blog to "private" the past several days.  Thanks for the email conversations.  It's time to resume more public conversations around the topics of this blog.

Blogging is an intrinsically social act.  It's social so that, when I'm not able to be so attentive to you, whether you are a regular reader or a new one, all sorts of unintended things happen.  And, thinking that I should or even could control how your read this blog (which is too often an illusion of my own making), I retreat.  I'd rather not have a public face at all.  Otherwise you might think I'm crazy for some of the things I've said.  Or you might imagine me as sane.  You make meanings.  Let me quote Nancy Mairs of this "social act" in a moment.

But, first, let me quote something I read this morning.  It's the preface to Psalm 34.  What maybe you should know as I tell you how I read that psalm is this:  When I was in high school, was an atheist in the closet, I agreed to my father, who was a very public Christian, to memorize this psalm for money.  He, a missionary, had sent me away to a boarding school.  Whatever his motivation, or mine, his having me memorize the Psalm had considerable, spiritual, impact on me when I was 16 years old.  This morning, however, I read not the bit I memorized but the preface.  And I didn't read it in Hebrew first this morning, but in Greek translation of that Hebrew by the Jews in Alexandria, Egypt, who were translating it, whatever their motivation.  Here's how that goes:
τῷ Δαυιδ
ὁπότε ἠλλοίωσεν τὸ πρόσωπον αὐτοῦ ἐναντίον
καὶ ἀπέλυσεν αὐτόν
καὶ ἀπῆλθεν
I'm interested the face of this, as a preface.  I'm focusing now on the line ὁπότε ἠλλοίωσεν τὸ πρόσωπον αὐτοῦ ἐναντίον.

It's a translation, apparently, of the line in Hebrew that gets translated "when he changed his demeanour before."  (Robert Alter, translating, has "For David, when he altered his good sense before Abimelech....")  In Greek, however, it's something like "when he othered that face of his in opposition to."  Would you image with me that we don't really know all there is to understand here?  Won't you call this Greek Hebraic?  Can you suppose that there's something rhetorical going on here, for Jews taking their holy Hebrew and rendering it into a most public Hellene, that hearkens back to an empire over them, maybe two kingdoms, that one of Egypt and then that one of the Greeks?  What does that public face look like to you?  Lots of other English translators, whether working from the Greek or Hebrew, will convey the idea that David is pretending to be crazy, that he is distorting his face to act like a mad man, that he is trying to trick Abimelech.

The Greek makes it clear that David was changing his public face.  And I never really paid attention to that pre-face to this psalm before.  Sort of changes how I read it now.  What have the Jewish translators done?  How must I read that?  Can they control how?

At any rate, going back to your reading of this blog, I now want to quote (again) Nancy Mairs.  She's written this:
Publication of any sort is an intrinsically social act, "I" having no reason to speak aloud unless I posit "you" there listening; but your presence is especially vital if I am seeking not to disclose the economic benefits of fish farming in Zäire, or to recount the imaginary tribulations of an adulterous doctor's wife in nineteenth-century France, but to reconnect myself—now so utterly transformed by events unlike any I've experienced before as to seem a stranger even to myself—to the human community.... lending materiality to my readerly ideal, transform[ing] monologue into intercourse.
How do you read that? or what do you figure what it means when, right before you read a psalm in public or in private, you notice what David has done with his public face?

For me, you being here reading, with me, is an intrinsically social act.  How we can change when it's good change is what's most interesting to me now.  What faces we put on in public, in publication, change everything.


Theophrastus said...

And I didn't read it in Hebrew first this morning, but in Greek translation of that Hebrew by the Jews in Alexandria, Egypt, who were translating it, whatever their motivation

You will forgive me, I hope, for finding this sentence offensive. Had you left out the definite article "translation ... by the Jews in Alexandria," I would have found it less offensive.

I would not describe Invisible Man as a book by "the blacks." I would not describe Naked Lunch as a book by "the gays." I would not describe The Republic as a book by "the Greeks."

Besides suggesting that the entire community participated in the translation (rather than a single translator or a small group of translators), your account leaves open which Greek translation you were reading: Theodotion? Aquila? Symmachus? The so-called Septugaint?

J. K. Gayle said...

You will forgive me, I hope, for finding this sentence offensive.

Thank you, Theophrastus, for commenting. Even more, thanks for starting in so politely and explaining as carefully as you have (i.e., with much care) how you've had to read what I've written.

No, there's nothing at all that you've done, of course, that I need to forgive you for. I'm sorry to have offended in any way. This is not my intention.

And, Yes, now I can see how you might find offensive what I wrote. The context in which I tried to specify particular individuals (i.e., providing my blog readers with information about those definite individuals, and peculiar work in translation, and the location in which they had to do that work, and that rhetorical situation of theirs) doesn't at all give the contrasts that were (also) some in my mind. That they were Jews is important to me because they were not the Greeks in Alexandria doing the translation from Hebrew into Greek. That they were in the past is important because their later readers, all of us now "outsiders" with respect to history, have taken their work in many different ways (which I'm guessing they did not, perhaps could not, have intended). That they were not in Jerusalem but were in Egypt (as some of "the Jews" there again) and in Alexander's city (where they, as non-Greeks not even of the national monarch's race, were seen as "barbarians" by the imperial Greeks) is important to me. With you, "I would not describe The Republic as a book by 'the Greeks'." But I would describe what Plato wrote that Socrates said in The Republic as their "ideal" agenda for "the Greeks in Athens," an agenda that was mapped out a little more by Aristotle for those Greeks in The Politics and in The Rhetoric, an agenda that led to Alexander's training by Aristotle and the conquest of the world by the Greeks then. I don't think I'm the only one to believe, reading The Republic, that the agenda as it evolved had some impact on the Jews in Alexandria, who were commissioned to translate their scriptures into Greek. Reading what has been called the Septuagint, I also believe that their translational Greek was much more a project against the ideal Greek outlined by The Republic of the Greeks. Sylvie Honigman, reading the legend of the Septuagint, says that the work of translation by the translators in Alexandria was a work that followed the Homeric paradigm. I think that it also followed the paradigms of Heraclitus, of Aesop, of Gorgias, of Aspasia much more than the paradigm of Alexander, ARistotle, Plato, or Socrates. Why? Well, I'm thinking that Naomi Seidman, reading some of the Talmudic assertions about the LXX, may be right: that the Jewish translation that resulted was much, much different than any Christian understanding today of the Septuagint. In other words, the Jews in Alexandria translating Hebrew into Hellene were doing something very intentionally political by their translating. They did not live in Jerusalem. They had to live under a monarch, in Egypt.

And this some was one of the points of my blog post today. Writers and translators may have agendas and intentions. And yet, the readers make of that what they themselves must. I consider all of us today as outsiders to the work of the translators of the LXX. We have to interpret now what that meant. I'm sorry if I offended. This is not at all my intent. Thank you again for being kind and for commenting so kindly.

Theophrastus said...

How do you read these four phrases differently (if at all)?

a translation by the Jews of Alexandria

a translation by Jews in Alexandria

a translation by a few Jews in Alexandria

a translation by a Jew in Alexandria

Theophrastus said...

Reading what has been called the Septuagint, I also believe that their translational Greek was much more a project against the ideal Greek outlined by The Republic of the Greeks.

The language and register of The Republic was anything but standard Greek; as Robert Gordis (former professor at Jewish Theological Seminary) observes:

It would be a grave error to underestimate the deep emotional drive underlying the ostensibly cool analyses of Plato's Socratic Dialogues. It was the poet in Plato that lead him to banish poets from his Republic, for he knew the strength of the irrational, the power lodged in the creative aspects of human nature, which brook no discipline and confound the neatest blueprints of the future. The entire structure of Platonic ideas is a creation of the poetic faculty, a myth that seeks to interpret the nature of reality.


I was reading with amusement the story of how John Calvin had Sebastian Castellio run out of Geneva because of Castellio's suggestion that Song of Songs was a love poem. This story tells me something about John Calvin, but it does not tell me much about the Genevan in the street.

It seems to me that you have romanticized the Hellenistic Greeks, taking the works of a few as speaking for the multitudes. An analogous argument is made by those who take Philo, for example, as a representative spokesperson for some imagined unified Alexandrian Jewish perspective.

We know from numerous sources (including the Talmud, the New Testament, Josephus, the Dead Sea Scrolls) of the great debates and divisions in Palestinian Judaism; should we not also imagine that these divisions existed among Hellenistic Jews as well?

J. K. Gayle said...

taking the works of a few as speaking for the multitudes.

No, I'm not romanticizing the Hellenistic Greeks nor doing anything like making Philo the single voice of some supposed monolithic perspective of all Jewish peoples who lived in Alexandria. Of course there must have been debates, great ones even, and divisions. The fragmentary nature of the LXX, the MT, the NT, suggest that it is more than just the problem of the preservation of written materials or the perpetuation of oral artifacts that accounts for what we know of the Jewish scriptures.

On the Plato and the shifts from orality to writing, from poetry to dialectic to logic to cold prose, there's much evidence. This doesn't change what Robert Gordis calls the "deep emotional drive" in Plato's Socrates.

But "poetry and the poet had exercised a control not merely over Greek verbal idiom but over the Greek state of mind and consciousness," shows The Republic, as classicist historian Eric Havelock so very powerfully argues in Preface to Plato: History of the Greek Mind.

And from Plato we get all sorts of novel, technical language. These terms set the stage for his student Aristotle. Both Plato and Aristotle invent a number of Greek terms never before used.

These neologisms mainly work to contain the sloppiness of womanly rhetorics such as the fragmentary and pathos oriented poetry of Sappho and the dialectic and epideictic and pathos oriented rhetoric of Aspasia.

In The Gorgias and The Phaedrus, Plato invents the word we now know as rhetoric. (See Edward Schiappa's "'Rhetorike': What's in a Name? Toward a Revised History of Early Greek Rhetorical Theory," a compelling study of the neologism of Plato. Also, Jeffrey Walker, with Rhetoric and Poetics in Antiquity, makes a strong case that "Plato's writing shows a distinct penchant for using neologisms using the -ike formation...." Moreover, in his Greek Rhetoric Before Aristotle, Richard Leo Enos shows how different the Gorgias of history from the one Plato constructs in his socratic dialogue, a work that Gorgias himself in history responds to, this work where Plato apparently invents "rhetoric" and this "rhetorician" to disparage the "art" as problematic.

But Aristotle surpasses Plato in the political project of containing Greek. He's quite aware of the differences between the "rhetoric" coined and taught by his teacher and the competing "rhetoria" of Isocrates, according to Schiappa. In his Metaphysics, Aristotle actually turns on the dialect method of Socrates and of Plato, putting forth logic as above both logos of the poets and rhetoricians and above dialektike of his own teachers. Schiappa (in Protagoras and Logos: A Study in Greek Philosophy and Rhetoric) shows how Aristotle there distorts history to make his claims, just as Plato distort (according to Enos and ostensibly to Gorgias himself) who Gorgias, the "sophist," the "rhetorician," really was.