Monday, August 08, 2005

We Live in Debauched Times

I can't decide which is worse, the fact that a respectable teacher of classics would think that this is a good idea, or that an equallly respectable teacher of philosophy would write such a glowing review of it. I don't have anything in particular against the Potter novels in and of themselves--they strike me as not essentially unlike much else that is out there, and while I do not think they are in the same league, qualitatively, with the Chronicles of Narnia, neither do I find them any more "occult" than the Chronicles. (I continue to be perplexed by those who insist on comparing the Potter world to the Tolkien world, as though LOTR were in the category of children's literature.)

Don't get me wrong: I think it's fine and dandy to keep some semblance of classical Greek kicking, but as Brennan notes at the start of his review, nobody has really done that--that's why this book can count as "one of the most important pieces of Ancient Greek prose written in many centuries": it has no real competitors.

Classical Greek is a rather interesting phenomenon. What survives is a very tiny selection of the finest literary output of one of the greatest civilizations the world has known. The Greek that we read in the New Testament is really quite different. It is in a dialect usually referred to as koinê--that's just the Greek word for "common"--which is a kind of compromise between the vulgar Greek on the street and the more refined literary Greek used in published or publishable poetry and prose. The expression "Classical Greek", by contrast, is a modern coinage used to refer to the very high quality literary Greek of the fifth- and fourth-centuries BC. Some of the authors that one could read in "Classical Greek" are Aeschylus, Euripides, Plato, Thucydides, Pindar...well, you get the idea.

Or maybe you don't. New Testament koinê, after all, is the Greek of the first century of the Christian Era; perhaps "Classical Greek" is just the street Greek of four hundred years earlier, as different from koinê as the English we speak is from Shakespeare's. Just as Shakespeare's English was the street English of his day, who's to say that the Greek of the Classical period is all that different from what the folks on the street heard and spoke in the Agoras and Harbor Towns of Plato's day?

It's hard to say, given the limited documentary evidence from the period. But just as the English that I use when I'm speaking to my dog differs from the English that I use when I'm writing a philosophical paper, I think that it's fair to say that the Greek spoken by your average citizen on the street was somewhat different from the Greek that Plato wrote in his dialogues. Why anyone would want to speak to their dog in the same tone, using the same vocabulary, that they use in their finest prose, is beyond me, and yet here's an attempt to do just that with the Potter novel. It's not a particularly noble plot, as story-lines go; the characters are woodenly drawn; the settings are goofy and cartoonish; and yet we're supposed to find it inspiring that it is now preserved in the same language that Sophocles used to tell the story of Oedipus.

I don't mean to be a fuddy-duddy about this. It's not that I think it somehow sacriligious to use classical Greek as a medium for the Potter stories. But one thing in particular about Brennan's review struck me as rather troubling:
It will also be of great value to teachers of mid-level Greek who are casting about for texts with which to encourage and entertain their students. After the Xenophontic parasangs have lost their charm and the Euripidean trimeters are limping, students can refresh themselves with a bout of "ikarosphairikê" (Wilson's spot-on neologism for quidditch), or enjoy the bantering of Fred and George.
Why do I find this troubling? Well, just this morning, as I was giving an exam in my ethics class, I had a student come up to me with a question about something on the test. I was asking them to assess arguments for validity and soundness. In case you've forgotten, an argument is valid whenever it is impossible for the conclusion to be false when all of the premises are true. An argument is sound whenever it is both valid and all of its premises are true. So it is important to know whether a premise is true if you are looking for soundness as opposed to validity. In one of my sample arguments on the test, I used a premise that said "Since Shakespeare wrote Moby Dick...". The student had come to me to ask whether this premise is, in fact, true or false. I told him that I couldn't answer his question, as that would give the answer away. I didn't mention to him, however, that I thought it should be something that everyone in the class already knew. In short, I'm troubled by the Potter translation not because I think it is a bad idea in itself, but because I think it is a manifestation of the dumbing down of American tastes in general that folks would prefer to read Potter to reading Xenophon, Thucydides, Plato, or Euripides. Brennan spends some time in his review showing how the themes in the Potter novels are not unlike the themes that one finds in such sources as Lewis, Kipling, Plato, Mallory--well, why not read Lewis, Kipling, Plato, and Mallory? Why not translate them into Greek, if you must?

Because they're not as popular. Potter is popular. He's banal, but he's popular. Why should we ask kids to read Plato on the immortality of the soul when they'll have more fun reading about a game played on a broomstick 100 feet in the air? Education is useless if kids don't enjoy getting it. College has to be fun or it isn't relevant. This is just one step away from saying that we shouldn't teach kids about subjects that they don't like, let alone in a manner that they don't like. Hey! Moral theory is boring! Political theory is boring! Let's read about sports! Especially sports that can never be played by real people! Now that's educational!


Tom said...

He's banal, but he's popular.

Could a more revealing conjunction than "but" be used in this sentence? "Because," perhaps, or "therefore"?

I suppose the question is whether Harry Potter is used as a supplement -- in which case it has the advantage of not otherwise engaging the mind that is practicing reading a foreign language -- or as a replacement to 5th and 4th century BC Classical Greek writings.

A question: How many authors of that time period could have their complete surviving works packed into a single volume shorter than the Harry Potter translation?

Scott Carson said...

Could a more revealing conjunction than "but" be used in this sentence? "Because," perhaps, or "therefore"?

A good question--I admit I didn't actually think about the wording all that much. I don't think I would want to say that the stuff is banal because it's popular--my own inclination would be to say that the causal connection goes the other way: banal stuff is more easily understood by a greater number of people. That would tend to support the "therefore" alternative.

But I also tend to think that part of what is so attractive about not only Potter but lots of other similar literature is the escapism of it. I don't think that all escapist literature is banal--I love LOTR, and I think it is far from banal, but I also think that it is escapist in many ways for folks who really get into it, especially the early adolescent set.

How many authors of that time period could have their complete surviving works packed into a single volume shorter than the Harry Potter translation?

A great question. You could put a dozen Platonic dialogues in that many pages, if not more, though you could not get the entire Platonic corpus in there. But you could get all of Herodotus, all of Aeschylus, all of Sophocles, all of Thucydides. Probably not all of Euripides but certainly most of him.

And you could certainly put together a very nice reader that included selections from all of the above, not only complete dialogues of Plato but entire plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, lengthy selections from Herodotus and Thucydides, even Xenophon. And then at the end you could have a chapter of the Potter book.

Apollodorus said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Scott Carson said...

As long as somebody has been fooled into thinking that I take something seriously, then my work here is done.

You make a good point about Aristophanes, and there are, of course, lots of other things in ancient Greek literature that one could point to as having far less redeeming value than the plays of Aeschylus or the dialogues of Plato. But it seems to me that the difference between Xenophon and Potter is that Xenophon is real Greek, the Potter just a clever imitation.

Sure, clever imitations can be, well, really clever at times. But the best ones are not exactly imitations. The Commentaries of Pius II (Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini) are a fine read, but at least Latin was a language that he actually spoke and wrote. By and large I think imitation is a dicey proposition, and rather moreso in Greek than in Latin.

On the other hand, I will confess to having obtained a copy of the Potter. I may actually read it.

Stephanie said...

I think that translating Harry Potter into ancient languages is an excellent idea, as the translating of any children's books is. The classical Greek and Latin literature that survives was written by intelligentsia so that their audience would admire their beautiful and elegant use of language. That's great, but for the people stumbling through the early stages of _learning_ that language, difficult constructions make life hard and sap enthusiasm. Reading children's books and fairy tales in translation is my advice for anyone learning any language - the grammar and vocabulary are reasonably straight forward, the reader is mostly familiar with the story line, so will be able to fill in the gaps of their understanding more easily, and the text is short enough to read through to the end before running out of concentration. Should a made-up translated text supplant the original authors? Of course not - but it makes a good bridge.


Scott Carson said...


You'll note that I don't actually disagree with you--I didn't say that it certainly is a bad idea. What I lament is the bad taste of certain students.

When I was teaching Greek language courses many of my students were eager to learn Greek not so that they could read books like Potter or Winnie-the-Pooh or whatever other children's literature might be available in translation, but so that they could read the New Testament. They were excited about that prospect.

I'm not saying people shouldn't enjoy the Potter books. I'm simply lamenting the fact that there are people out there who find the idea of being excited about reading Plato or the New Testament way too geeky for words, and in fact don't actually believe you if you aver that you do find such reading fun and exciting. In another forum, when I suggested that reading Plato could be as much fun for some people as reading Potter is for others, the reply was "oh come on".

If you, personally, find the Potter books so much fun that, given the chance to read something in Greek, you would pick Potter over Plato, then by all means go ahead and do so, but you needn't assume that your choice is going to be the right one for everyone, even folks in the beginning stages of learning the language. If your argument is that the Greek in Potter is good to read because it's easier, then you're not really reading classical Greek; but if your argument is that the Greek in Potter is good to read because it's fun, then there's no particular reason to read Potter rather than Plato unless you happen to think that Potter is more fun, as subject matter, than Plato is. And it is that latter attitude that I continue to lament.

If you're prepared to admit that it's OK for some folks to literarlly prefer Plato to Potter on the grounds that reading Plato really is more fun, then I don't see any reason why we shouldn't ask why some folks prefer reading Plato to Potter if they are given a choice. Do you really want to say that it's only because they're geeks or nerds? I don't want to make that judgment. I prefer to assume that someone who enjoys reading Plato wants to read him out of intellectual curiosity, because he is interested in expanding his horizons rather than escaping from reality.

And that's the sort of student I would prefer to have in my classes.

If I were given the choice!

Stephanie said...

The Harry Potter books (excluding #4 & #5) are a good read. Not especially intellectual, but Rowling can keep the story moving. Myself, I'd much rather turn the Diana Wynne Jones books into Greek and Latin - she's a far better writer. C'est la vie.

As for enjoying Plato - people like what they like, although I can't for the life of me picture someone reading themselves to sleep with the Symposium.


Starkadr said...

Look up Pavlovian conditioning would you...