George Orwell Identifies the Main Enemy of the Free Press: It’s the “Intellectual Cowardice” of the Press Itself

Image by BBC, via Wikimedia Commons

Tucked away in the style section of yesterday’s Washington Post—after the President of the United States basically declared allegiance to a hostile dictator, again, after issuing yet more denunciations of the U.S. press as “enemies of the people”—was an admonition from Margaret Sullivan to the “reality-based press.” “The job will require clarity and moral force,” writes Sullivan, “in ways we’re not always all that comfortable with.”

Many have exhausted themselves in asking, what makes it so hard for journalists to tell the truth with “clarity and moral force”? Answers range from the conspiratorial—journalists and editors are bought off or coerced—to the mundane: they normalize aberrant behavior in order to relieve cognitive dissonance and maintain a comfortable status quo. While the former explanation can’t be dismissed out of hand in the sense that most journalists ultimately work for media megaconglomerates with their own vested interests, the latter is just as often offered by critics like NYU’s Jay Rosen.

Established journalists “want things to be normal,” writes Rosen, which includes preserving access to high-level sources. The press maintains a pretense to objectivity and even-handedness, even when doing so avoids obvious truths about the mendacity of their subjects. Mainstream journalists place “protecting themselves against criticism,” Rosen wrote in 2016, “before serving their readers. This is troubling because that kind of self-protection has far less legitimacy than the duties of journalism, especially when the criticism itself is barely valid.”

As is far too often the case these days, the questions we grapple with now are the same that vexed George Orwell over fifty years ago in his many literary confrontations with totalitarianism in its varying forms. Orwell faced what he construed as a kind of censorship when he finished his satirical novel Animal Farm. The manuscript was rejected by four publishers, Orwell noted, in a preface intended to accompany the book called “The Freedom of the Press.” The preface was "not included in the first edition of the work," the British Library points out, "and it remained undiscovered until 1971."

“Only one of these” publishers “had any ideological motive,” writes Orwell. “Two had been publishing anti-Russian books for years, and the other had no noticeable political colour. One publisher actually started by accepting the book, but after making preliminary arrangements he decided to consult the Ministry of Information, who appear to have warned him, or at any rate strongly advised him, against publishing it.” While Orwell finds this development troubling, “the chief danger to freedom of thought and speech,” he writes, was not government censorship.

If publishers and editors exert themselves to keep certain topics out of print, it is not because they are frightened of prosecution but because they are frightened of public opinion. In this country intellectual cowardice is the worst enemy a writer or journalist has to face, and that fact does not seem to me to have had the discussion it deserves.

The “discomfort” of intellectual honesty, Orwell writes, meant that even during wartime, with the Ministry of Information’s often ham-fisted attempts at press censorship, “the sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary.” Self-censorship came down to matters of decorum, Orwell argues—or as we would put it today, “civility.” Obedience to “an orthodoxy” meant that while “it is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other… it is ‘not done’ to say it, just as in mid-Victorian times it was ‘not done’ to mention trousers in the presence of a lady. Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness," not by government agents, but by a critical backlash aimed at preserving a sense of “normalcy” at all costs.

At stake for Orwell is no less than the fundamental liberal principle of free speech, in defense of which he invokes the famous quote from Voltaire as well as Rosa Luxembourg’s definition of freedom as “freedom for the other fellow.” “Liberty of speech and of the press,” he writes, does not demand “absolute liberty”—though he stops short of defining its limits. But it does demand the courage to tell uncomfortable truths, even such truths as are, perhaps, politically inexpedient or detrimental to the prospects of a lucrative career. “If liberty means anything at all,” Orwell concludes, "it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”

Read his complete essay, "Freedom of the Press," here.

via Brainpickings

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Kurt Vonnegut Offers 8 Tips on How to Write Good Short Stories (and Amusingly Graphs the Shapes Those Stories Can Take)

You can't talk about American literature in the second half of the 20th century without talking about Kurt Vonnegut. And since so many well-known writers today imbibed his influence at one point or another, you'd have to mention him when talking about 21st-century literature as well. Despite so fully inhabiting his time, not least by wickedly lampooning it, the author of Slaughterhouse-Five, Cat's Cradle, and Breakfast of Champions also had a few tendencies that put him ahead of his time. He worked wonders with the short story, a form in whose heyday he began his writing career, but he also had a knack for what would become the most social media-friendly of all forms, the list.

In the video above, those abilities converge to produce Vonnegut's eight bullet points for good short-story writing:

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them — in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

In the short lecture above Vonnegut gets more technical, sketching out the shapes that stories, short or long, can take. On his chalkboard he draws two axes, the horizontal representing time and the vertical representing the protagonist's happiness. In one possible story the protagonist begins slightly happier than average, gets into trouble (a downward plunge in the story's curve), and then gets out of it again (returning the curve to a higher point of happiness than where it began). "People love that story," Vonnegut says. "They never get sick of it." Another story starts on an "average day" with an "average person not expecting anything to happen." Then that average person "finds something wonderful" (with a concurrent upward curve), then loses it (back down), then finds it again (back up).

The third and most complicated curve represents "the most popular story in Western civilization." It begins down toward the bottom of the happiness axis, with a motherless young girl whose father has "remarried a vile-tempered ugly women with two nasty daughters." But a fairy godmother visits and bestows a variety of gifts upon the girl, each one causing a stepwise rise in her happiness curve. That night she attends a ball where she dances with a prince, bringing the curve to its peak before it plunges back to the bottom at the stroke of midnight, when the fairy godmother's magical gifts expire. In order to bring the curve back up, the prince must use the glass slipper she accidentally left behind at the ball to — oh, you've heard this one before?

Vonnegut first explored the idea of story shapes in his master's thesis, rejected by the University of Chicago "because it was so simple and looked like too much fun." Clearly that didn't stop him from continuing to think about and experiment with those shapes all throughout his career. He would also keep clarifying his other ideas about writing and literature by explaining them in a variety of settings. He assigned term papers that can still teach you how to read like a writer, he appeared on television dispensing advice to aspirants to the craft, and he even published articles on how to write with style (in publications like the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers' journal at that). Nobody could, or should try to, write just like Kurt Vonnegut, but all of us who write at all could do well to give our craft the kind of thought he did.

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Kurt Vonnegut Diagrams the Shape of All Stories in a Master’s Thesis Rejected by U. Chicago

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Sarah Bernhardt Becomes the First Woman to Play Hamlet (1899)

At one time, the name Sarah Bernhardt was synonymous with melodramatic self-presentation. In her heyday, the actress created a category all her own—impossible to judge by the usual standards of the dramatic arts. Or as Mark Twain put it, “there are five kinds of actresses: bad actresses, fair actresses, good actresses, great actresses—and then there is Sarah Bernhardt.”

Admired and beloved by Victor Hugo and playwright Edmond Rostand, who called her “the queen of the pose and the princess of the gesture,” Bernhardt commanded attention in every role, and became infamous as “a canny self-promoter,” as Hannah Manktelow writes. Bernhardt “cultivated her image as a mysterious, exotic outsider. She claimed to sleep in a coffin and encouraged the circulation of outlandish rumors about her eccentric behavior.”

Bernhardt’s worldwide fame rested not only on her public relations skill, but also on her willingness to take dramatic risks most actresses of the time would never dare. In one notable example, she played Hamlet in 1899, at age 55, in a French adaptation of Shakespeare’s play. What’s more, she boldly undertook the role in London, then again in Stratford at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre. Finally, she became the first woman to portray Hamlet on film (see a short clip above).

Reactions to her stage performance by contemporaries were mixed. In her review, actress and writer Elizabeth Robins praised Bernhardt’s “amazing skill” in playing “a spirited boy… with impetuosity, a youthfulness, almost childish.” But Robins issued a qualification at the outset: “for a woman to play at being a man is, surely, a tremendous handicap,” she writes, a criticism echoed by English essayist Max Beerbohm, who went so far as to deny women the power to create art.

“Creative power,” wrote Beerbohm, “the power to conceive ideas and execute them, is an attribute of virility; women are denied it, in so far as they practice art at all, they are aping virility, exceeding their natural sphere. Never does one understand so well the failure of women in art as when one sees them deliberately impersonating men upon the stage.” Setting Beerbohm’s categorically sexist assertions aside (for the moment), we must mark the irony that both he and Robins are troubled by a woman playing a man, given that all of Shakespeare’s female characters were once played by men, a fact both critics somehow fail to mention.

Where Beerbohm saw in Bernhardt’s performance a mere “aping of virility,” Robins, unhampered by Beerbohm's ugly misogyny, observed the great actress in vivid detail, in an essay that brings Bernhardt’s Hamlet to life with descriptions of her, for example, “appealing dumbly for another sign” after seeing her father’s ghost (on painted gauze), “and passing pathetic fluttering hands over the unresponsive surface, groping piteously like a child in the dark.”

The pathos of Bernhardt’s performance was undercut, Robins felt, by some clumsy moments, such as her  mistreatment of poor Yorick’s skull. (A real human skull, by the way, given to her by Victor Hugo). “It was not pleasant,” writes Robins, “to see the grinning object handled so callously…. Indeed, I feel sure that Madame Bernhardt treats her lap-dog more considerately.” On the whole, however, Robins felt the performance a truly dramatic achievement through Bernhardt’s “mastery of sheer poise… of sparing, clean-cut gesture… the effect that the artist in her wanted to produce.”

Further up, see an ink drawing of Bernhardt as Hamlet by Reginal Cleaver and, just above, an 1899 postcard photograph (with Hugo’s gifted skull). Read more about Bernhardt’s performance, and the attendant publicity, at the Shakespeare Blog, and learn about a new play based on Bernhardt’s Hamlet called “The Divine Sarah” at the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Shakespeare & Beyond.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Watch All of the Commercials That David Lynch Has Directed: A Big 30-Minute Compilation

Some filmmakers start in commercials, honing their chops in anticipation of making personal projects later. A select few go in the other direction, realizing their distinctive vision before fielding offers from companies who want a piece of that vision's cultural currency. Anyone who's seen David Lynch's most acclaimed work will suspect, correctly, that Lynch belongs in the latter group. With 1977's cult hit Eraserhead, he showed cinema what it means to be Lynchian. This brought him the attention of Hollywood, leading to the respectable success of The Elephant Man and the disaster that was Dune. Only in 1986, with Blue Velvet, could Lynch make a truly, even troublingly personal film that hit the zeitgeist at just the right moment.

Naturally, Madison Avenue came calling soon thereafter. "With the smash Blue Velvet, a Palme d'or at Cannes for Wild at Heart, and then the national phenomenon of Twin Peaks' first season, David Lynch clearly established himself as the U.S.A.'s foremost commercially viable avant-garde-'offbeat' director," wrote David Foster Wallace in a 1997 piece on the filmmaker.

"For a while there it looked like he might be able to single-handedly broker a new marriage between art and commerce in U.S. movies, opening formula-frozen Hollywood to some of the eccentricity and vigor of art film." Lynch's fans in television advertising must have imagined that he could do the same for their industry, and you can watch the fruits of that hunch in the half-hour compilation of Lynch-directed commercials above.

Lynch has worked for some startlingly big brands, beginning with Calvin Klein: his trio of spots for the fragrance Obsession take as their basis the writing of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and D.H. Lawrence. A few years later he directed a humorous mini-season of Twin Peaks to promote Georgia Coffee, one of the top brands of canned coffee in the Lynch-loving country of Japan. The New York Department of Sanitation engaged Lynch's services to imbue their anti-littering campaign with his signature high-contrast ominousness, a mood also sought by fashion-industry titans like Armani, Yves Saint Laurent, Gucci, and Dior. The marketers of humbler goods like Alka-Seltzer, Barilla Pasta (a seemingly auteur-aware brand that has also hired Wim Wenders and Fellini), and Clear Blue Easy home pregnancy tests have also gone in for a touch of the Lynchian.

Quite a few of these commercials originally aired only outside America, which may reflect the supposedly more enduring appreciation of Lynch's work that exists in Europe and Asia. But for all Lynch's artistic daring, the man himself has always come off as an enthusiast of unreconstructed American pleasures. To this day he remains a steadfast smoker, and in 1998 brought that personal credibility to the Swiss cigarette brand Parisienne. The resulting spot features men in ties, showers of sparks, dead fish, backwards talking, a forbiddingly illuminated shack, and apocalyptic flames: Parisienne, in other words, must have got exactly what they paid for.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Hear the First Recorded Blues Song by an African American Singer: Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues” (1920)

Historian John Hope Franklin once described the decades from the end of slavery through the advent of Jim Crow as “The Long Dark Night" because of the legislative chicanery and extreme violence used to disenfranchise and dispossess African Americans after the failure of Reconstruction. It is during these years that the blues emerged from the rural South into the cities, and the age of the “race record” brought black music into popular culture in ways that irrevocably defined what the country sounded like.

The source of the blues, writ broadly, is the sufferings and strivings of those anonymous rural folk who transmitted their experiences through song, “whether in the cotton fields or in lumber camps, on the levees or in the shacks of field hands or housemaids,” as Dave Oliphant writes in Texan Jazz. But when it comes to naming early sources, the waters get murky. Jazz writer Ted Gioia refers to the period before the mid-1920’s as “the Dark Age of myth and legend” in blues history for its paucity of written detail.

We do know that blues songs gained much popularity throughout the first two decades of the 20th century, many of them penned and published by Memphis composer and “father of the blues,” W.C. Handy. These blues were first commodified and recorded in the 1910s for white audiences by white vaudeville singers like Nora Bayes and Marion Harris. It wasn’t until 1920 that a blues record by a black singer was recorded and released, “and in a sense it was happenstance,” says Angela Davis in the NPR segment below.

“Earlier in the year,” Davis explains, “[Ukranian-born singer] Sophie Tucker had been scheduled for a recording session but became ill and [blues songwriter] Perry Bradford managed to persuade Okeh Records to allow Mamie Smith to do the recording session instead.” And so we have at the top what Gioia calls the “breakthrough event” of Smith’s “Crazy Blues,” recorded on August 10, 1920, significant because “the first recording companies were reluctant to promote black music of any sort,” and then only when it was performed by white entertainers.

In the decade of "Crazy Blues," that changed dramatically, as record companies realized a huge untapped market of talent and potential buyers in the working-class black community. “Crazy Blues” was a hit, selling 75,000 copies in its first month. This release and subsequent recordings by Mamie Smith eventually “led the way,” says Davis, “for the professionalization of black music for the black entertainment industry and indeed for the immense popularity of black music today.” Though not strictly a traditional blues, as Oliphant and Gioia both note, the song, and Smith, established an enduring template.

Mamie Smith had been a vaudeville performer, working since childhood as “an all around entertainer,” as the Library of Congress’s Michael Taft remarks on NPR. The Blues Encyclopedia points out that her theatrical background and flamboyant personality lent much to the “the archetypal ‘Queen of the Blues’ persona” inhabited by so many later singers. She was, we might say, the first in a long, distinguished line of songstresses, from Bessie Smith to Beyoncé, who delivered music of hardship and struggle with glamor, glitz, and swagger.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him at @jdmagness

What It Would Look Like If Wes Anderson, Quentin Tarantino & Other Directors Filmed Cooking Videos

I usually chafe when director Wes Anderson is labelled “twee,” but as an enthusiastic, sticky-fingered gobbler of bark and ash encrusted campfire s’mores, I did enjoy a rather rowdy laugh at his expense while watching the above video.

Each entry in filmmaker David Ma’s #FoodFilms series starts with a hypothesis that pairs a simple, familiar dish with a director whose visual style is well established.

What if Wes Anderson made S’mores? 

Ma’s early marination in the realms of food styling and advertising is a recipe for success here.

Anderson’s beloved God shot has become a staple of online cooking videos, but Ma’s attention to subtler details would pass muster with a Cordon Bleu chef.

The formally engraved card! The ribbon motif! The costumes!

The look is more Grand Budapest Hotel than the camp-themed Moonrise Kingdom, but no matter. That more obvious pairing started tasting a tad over-chewed around the time of the Moonrise Kingdom-inspired wedding photo shoot.

Ma’s homage to Quentin Tarantino is a butch and bloody take on spaghetti and meatballs.

To paraphrase Jean-Luc Godard, "It's not blood. It’s red sauce.

The soundtrack suggests that Ma’s ear is just as keen as his eye.

45 seconds in, there's a Part 2, as an extra treat for QT fans.

Big budget action king Michael Bay and a Gravity-centric Alfonso Cuarón round out #FoodFilms’ four-course tasting menu.

However satisfied viewers may feel with these hijinks, their appetite for the project is far from satiated. Sequel requests are piling up:

What if Kubrick made Toast?

What if Tim Burton made a grilled cheese sandwich?

What if Woody Allen made pizza?

What if Steven Spielberg made cupcakes?

What if Kurosawa made scrambled eggs?

What if Guy Ritchie did a Full English Fry-Up?

Gives me a hankering to see what Sofia Coppola would do with my grandmother’s favorite layered Jell-o salad.

While we’re waiting for Ma to serve up his next dish we can tide ourselves over with some of his other highly stylized recipe videos, like the Incredible Hulk’s Smashed Potatoes.

Readers, what director-dish pairing would you order up? Let us know in the comments.

via W Magazine

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

The Monty Python Philosophy Football Match: The Ancient Greeks Versus the Germans

Today, as the 2018 World Cup draws to a close, we're revisiting a classic Monty Python skit. The scene is the 1972 Munich Olympics. The event is a football/soccer match, pitting German philosophers against Greek philosophers. On the one side, the Germans -- Hegel, Nietzsche, Kant, Marx and, um, Franz Beckenbauer. On the other side, Archimedes, Socrates, Plato and the rest of the gang. The referee? Confucius. Of course.

Note: Some years ago, this match was recreated by The Philosophy Shop, a group dedicated to promoting philosophy among primary schoolchildren. The Telegraph gives you more details.

Enjoy.

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Watch “The Hangman,” a Classic Animated Film That Explores What Happens When No One Dares to Stand Up to Evil

Last Friday, I was downtown at an open air cinema to watch a collection of animated shorts. It was also a beastly hot night with roaring sundowners, a very present danger of being clocked in the head by falling palm fronds, and an existential danger of fire in the hills. The other existential danger was that of the authoritarian turn of this country that, at that moment, seemed so far away from our picnic baskets and wine in a can.

In the middle of the program of well made but light and fluffy shorts came the above animated film, “The Hangman.” The version above is not the restored version we saw, but it’s pretty much the same, give or take a scratch. Les Goldman and Paul Julian’s 1964 short delivers a moral message along the same lines as anti-Nazi pastor Martin Niemöller’s “First they came for the Socialists” statement--currently a meme you’ve probably seen pass through your social feed. And though the narrative, based on the poem by Maurice Ogden, is easy to suss out as it trundled towards its mortal conclusion, it did not stop the fact that the rambunctious Friday night audience fell dead silent upon its conclusion. You may too.

The poem first appeared in a 1954 issue of Masses and Mainstream, a monthly Marxist publication that continued publishing through the worst excesses of the McCarthy hearings to an understandably vanishing readership. The poem has occasionally been taught in the context of the Holocaust, but any kind of creeping fascism will do. Not much is really known about Ogden, who wrote the poem under the pseudonym Jack Denoya in its original publication. (He is possibly the same man who taught at Coast Community College in Costa Mesa, CA, and ministered at Orange Coast Unitarian Universalist Church.)

The animated version, with its modernist look influenced by UPA’s animation studio, came out one year after Masses and Mainstream folded. During that Friday night viewing, I suspected the narrator to be Ken Nordine, who recorded a vocal jazz album around that time. But actually the voice belongs to Herschel Bernardi, a film and theater actor who would have been known to Broadway fans for his starring role in Fiddler on the Roof but to television fans as Charlie Tuna in the Starkist commercials. Before all that, however, he was a victim of the Hollywood blacklist, which made him a perfect choice to narrate “The Hangman.”

Director Paul Julian illustrated much of the background art used in Warner Bros. cartoons, and his claim to pop culture fame is providing the “beep beep” sound for the Road Runner cartoons by the same studio. Producer Les Goldman went on to produce several other influential animated shorts, such as “The Dot and the Line” and “The Phantom Tollbooth.”

However, “The Hangman” is serious food for thought in these fraught times, and it’s good to see it back in circulation, thanks to curator Ron Diamond. Here’s to hoping history doesn’t repeat itself.

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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast and is the producer of KCRW's Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.

French Bookstore Blends Real People’s Faces with Book Cover Art

You can lead the I-generation to a bookstore, but can you make them read?

Perhaps, especially if the volume has an eye-catching cover image that bleeds off the edge.

If nothing else, they can be enlisted to provide some stunning free publicity for the titles that appeal to their highly visual sense of creative play. (An author’s dream!)

France's first indie bookstore, Bordeaux’s Librairie Mollat, is reeling ‘em in with Book Face, an irresistible selfie challenge that harkens back to DJ Carl MorrisSleeveface project, in which one or more people are photographed “obscuring or augmenting any part of their body or bodies with record sleeve(s), causing an illusion.”

The results are proliferating on the store’s Instagram, as fetching young things (and others) apply themselves to finding the best angles and costumes for their lit-based Trompe-l’œil masterstrokes.

…even the ones that don’t quite pass the forced perspective test have the capacity to charm.

…and not every shot requires intense pre-production and precision placement.

Hopefully, we’ll see more kids getting into the act soon. In fact, if some youngsters of your acquaintance are expressing a bit of boredom with their vacances d’été, try turning them loose in your local bookstore to identify a likely candidate for a Book Face of their own.

(Remember to support the bookseller with a purchase!)

Back stateside, some librarians shared their pro tips for achieving Book Face success in this 2015 New York Times article. The New York Public Library’s Morgan Holzer also cites Sleeveface as the inspiration behind #BookfaceFriday, the hashtag she coined in hopes that other libraries would follow suit.

With over 50,000 tagged posts on Instagram, looks like it’s caught on!

See Librairie Mollats patrons’ gallery of Book Faces here.

Readers, if you’ve Book Faced anywhere in the world, please share the link to your efforts in the comments section.

via This is Colossal/Hyperallergic

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. In honor of her son’s 18th birthday, she invites you to Book Face your baby using The Big Rumpus, her first book, for which he served as cover model. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Archaeologists Think They’ve Discovered the Oldest Greek Copy of Homer’s Odyssey: 13 Verses on a Clay Tablet

The Homeric epics are thought to have been composed in the 8th century BCE. In the case of these ancient poems, however, “composed” is a very ambiguous term. While archaeological and linguistic research dates Homer’s versions of the poems to somewhere between 650 and 750, BCE., a scholarly consensus agrees these tales existed hundreds of years before, in oral form, transmitted by wandering bards and modified often in the telling. While they are thought to have been written down in Homer’s age, “any glimpse into Homer before medieval times is rare,” notes the Smithsonian, "and any insight into the composition of the epics is precious.”

Before the medieval manuscript tradition, beginning in the 10th century CE, the largest extant copies of the Iliad and Odyssey come from what is known as the “Homeric papyri,” fragments such as the Bankes Papyrus discovered in Egypt in the 19th century. Now, it’s being reported in news sites all over the web that the oldest written copy of the Odyssey has been found—or rather 13 verses of it, carved into a clay tablet and discovered in the ancient city of Olympia in southern Greece. While the dating has not been fully confirmed, experts believe the artifact comes from the Roman era, sometime before the 3rd century CE.

While the discovery may be significant, we should be careful to qualify the many claims made for its status. Like the poem itself, the story of this discovery has seemed to change in its retellings. The tablet is the oldest find in Greece, not in the world. “Finding a bit of Homer in home soil,” says Malcolm Heath, professor of Greek language and literature at Leeds University, “will obviously give the Greeks a warm glow.” But, as The Times reports, “the earliest surviving fragments of the Odyssey” are actually “bits of graffiti scratched into clay by schoolboys at Olbia on the Black Sea coast of what is now Ukraine.” These fragments are “at least 600 years older than the Olympia tablet.”

Furthermore, the Derveni papyrus, discovered in Egypt, which may include a quote from the poem, has been dated as far back as 340 BCE. Nonetheless, the new discovery is still unusual, not only for its place of origin, but also because of the medium. As Cambridge University’s Tim Whitmarsh notes, “It’s rare to find continuous text of Homer written out at such length in clay." The tablet includes a notable word substitution that will certainly be of interest to scholars, particularly those at work on the “Homer Multitext project.”

That project, Smithsonian writes, is gathering all the fragments together “so they can be compared and put in sequence to provide a broader view of Homer’s epics.” A view that shows us, as the project explains, “that there is not one original text that we should try to reconstruct,” but rather an unknown number of variations, transcribed and altered over the course of hundreds of years and scattered all over the ancient world. All of these fragments are fascinating examples, writes Science Alert, “of the way written texts can survive through the centuries, or even millennia,” just as the story itself shows how oral traditions can survive just as long without any need for written language at all.

Related Content:

One of the Best Preserved Ancient Manuscripts of The Iliad Is Now Digitized: See the “Bankes Homer” Manuscript in High Resolution (Circa 150 C.E.)

See The Iliad Performed as a One-Woman Show in a Montreal Bar by McGill University Classics Professor Lynn Kozak

Emily Wilson Is the First Woman to Translate Homer’s Odyssey into English: The New Translation Is Out Today

Hear What Homer’s Odyssey Sounded Like When Sung in the Original Ancient Greek

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him at @jdmagness





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