Otto Steinmayer: Classic Ground

National literature a long time coming

[New Straits Times, 8 July 1992]

Many months ago, a bunch of us literary types were talking about the present state of Malaysian writing.

"Thank God," I said, "that I only deal with dead writers!" Does that sound like the pedant's mutter as he locks himself in the Ivory Tower? I hope you know how to take it. A living and active literature is impossible to nail down. The people making it are burning up with the fires of creation, to which the angin of scholarly reflection might easily bring a death-chill. That's one purpose of studying old literature. It stays on the page. It and its author do not complain while being torn apart and put back again. In the process, we learn something.

A important question has been thrown out in these pages: What is the nature of a National Language and Literature. Though as a foreigner the most I can do is to sit on the sidelines, I'm intrigued. The debate is new neither to this country or to this time. The West has been chewing it over for millenia, and perhaps its experiences will bring light to current issues.

The concept of a NL&L took a long time to be formulated in the West. The Greeks, by definition, had neither. How can there be a NL&L without a Nation? and there wasn't, strictly speaking, a Greek nation until the last century, when the Turks withdrew and Greece joined Europe as a modern state.

Language itself is an unruly fact of nature not entirely under our control. Before radio and tv, variety was the norm. People in one valley spoke differently than those in the next.

When a people consciously sets out to create a NL&L they define themselves as a group against all others. You might hold up Homer as a model of patriotic Greek poetry. Yet Homer's Trojans speak Greek and act Greek. I doubt that at the time of the Trojan war the Trojans and the Greeks were all that distinguishable. The Greeks had not yet done anything to make them Greek as we know them. Homer presents the Trojan war as the conflict of two states, not a racial or East/West conflict, as later historians saw it.

If we could manage to interrogate a Greek from a few hundred years later on what he felt to be his NL&L, he'd point with pride to his local dialect and the poets who wrote in it. Not much distinguishes the broad outlook of the Spartan poet Alkman (in the days when the Spartans hadn't given up poetry for war) from the lyric poets writing across the sea in Lesbos. Except that Alkman loved that sound of his own broad A's and praised the snowy peaks of Taygetos, and Sappho delighted in the sea and the level orchards of her island.

The rise of cityism (on that scale, can you call it nationalism?) in the turbulent 6th and 5th centuries is reflected in the poetry. The time was one of political experiment. I doubt that there were ever so many different types of government working at one time in such as small place as then. The Athenians especially never tire of praising their own justice and political pluralism, their artistic and intellectual way of life.
It hardly ever degenerated into chauvinism. Aristophanes' comedy Lysistrata, in which the combined women of Greece aim to stop the Peloponesian War by going on a sex-strike, brings on stage women from all over Greece, each speaking her own dialect. Their community of interest is more important than these local differences.

It was through appreciation of a common culture that intellectual Greeks hoped to free themselves from the limitations of city squabbles that seemed---next to the hopes they felt--petty and pointlessly exhausting.

The pamphleteer Isocrates spent a lifetime trying to establish the unity of the Hellenes. H thought that anyone who spoke Greek and adopted Greek culture was a Greek, and hoped that this way of looking at Greekness would eliminate the divisive factors of blood and city.
It didn't. But Isocrates, in his plan recognized the truth of what had been happening for some hundreds of years, that Greekspeaking people of culture, whatever their origins, had already travelled and felt at home anywhere in the Greek world.

The overwhelming might of Alexander, and then the still greater might of the Romans suppressed the wrangling Greek cities, but did not unify them. But in that enforced peace, the Greek world became more of a cultural unity.

For an example of a true NL&L we have to wait for the Romans. As they ascended to prominence in the Mediterranean world, they grew conscious that their native language seemed countrified and uncouth compared to Greek. To remedy that, they tried to rival the Greeks on their own terms. If Greece had Homer, we should have a National Epic, too! they thought, and at length one appeared, the Annales of Quintus Ennius (not himself a native of Rome), a Roman history, and Roman myth, in verse. We have a few fragments left, some of real beauty, and others that are egregious slips. A bit from a battle scene:

at tuba terribili sonitu taratantara dicit.

"Now the trumpet, with terrifying noise, says rooty-toot-toot." But the Greeks were then in no position, politically, to snicker.
The campaign heated up when Rome had matured to the status of a superpower. The writer/politician Cicero and his friends devoted much work to regularizing and polishing the Latin language, and the dialect spoken in Rome, one out of many in Italy, became standard.

When Julius Caesar's grandnephew established himself as the Emperor Augustus, he cultivated the best writers of the time, who had, many of them, found themselves some years before on the side of the Opposition in the civil wars and suffered confiscation of land and property. Titus Livius was set to write the official history. The poets (Catullus was dead by that time) were sounded out individually on the possibility of writing a new epic. It is amusing to see how Propertius, whose specialty was love-poetry, declined the job. Vergil finally supplied it with his Aeneid, which became an instant school-text. Horace recast Greek lyric poetry in Roman form.

The purpose of Augustus's national literature was to create an image of Rome, a city great almost by accident, as a power designed by Fate for leadership. The Americans had a similar myth in their "doctrine" of Manifest Destiny. Vergil phrased it most ringingly:

...But you, Roman, remember to rule the nations with command,
These will be your arts, to impose custom on peace,
To spare the conquered and break the proud in war...

An elegant Roman literature taught correct Latin to Italians and provincials, along with appropriate "traditional Roman virtues" such as frugality, courage, and service to the state. While Augustus made laws that forced the upper-classes to marry and procreate, irresponsible love poetry could get one into deep trouble, as the witty Ovid found out.

No such program in history succeeded as well as Augustus's. Within a hundred years, most of the best Latin writers were coming not only from outside Rome, but from France, Spain, and Africa, whose native languages Latin completely eclipsed.

Latin and Latin literature proved to be better survivors than Rome itself. In the tangle of vernacular languages from the Dark Ages on, Latin remained (with Christianity) the one stable part of European culture.

Up til only about 200 years, the many races of Europe used Latin as a primary language of communication, a common language shared by everybody but centred nowhere. (Early European travellers to this archipelago described the function of Malay in the same terms, comparing it to Latin.)

Latin thus wound up as a sort of National Language without a Nation, unless you prefer to say that Latin was the NL&L of the Republic of Letters.

Mark the word "republic." The phrase for the literary community was coined at a time when Europe was ruled by kings, when "republic" was as dirty a word as "communist" just recently. This says something about the way language and literature wiggle out of grasp.