It did not take us long to transform civilization. In fifty years, we have almost stopped making war, standardised the possibility of making love without increasing the population, quarantined half of humanity, taken from our children the games once played by hands and offered them video games instead, and replaced books with social networks! The digital world, the global world and the pictorial world have become our holy trinity.
Our children will barely remember the texts that their disenchanted literature teachers reluctantly transmit to them. Francis George Steiner, the Franco-American literary critic who died in February and who wrote extensively on the relationship between language, literature and society, had long prophesied this shift from the age of books to that of pictures. The brilliant polyglot had no illusions. No more than Marc Fumaroli, another virtuoso, who spoke against the invasion of ‘globish English’. Fumaroli was a defender of the French language and culture against the all-pervading American influence, another champion who dreamed of an eternal revival of the Ancients. M. Fumaroli often warned that French culture was being impoverished by lack of ideology, mercantilism, mass consumption and capitalism from within and threatening tides of “American soft power” from without — cultural influences that include a globalised form of English. He too left us recently. The hourglass will not be reversed. Farewell to the Elders who would no longer return.
Do we need the ancients? Perhaps we do, or why would a book like La Langue Géniale, a fiery lamentation in favour of the ancient Greek language sell 200,000 copies and be translated into many languages? The author of that book, Andrea Marcolongo, has recently written another book (Etymologies pour survivre au chaos) and hopes to survive the present chaos with the help of etymology. Does she have followers? Some people are surely tempted by the challenge of learning a strange language. Many students do not know patience, but learning a language well takes time. It is obviously not a short sprint but a long marathon. Even before you embark, you need some preparation.
So we should no longer dream of a spontaneous generation of little Hellenists and Latinists. We seem to be powerless to counter the astounding power of a civilization of images. Yet, we still have the freedom to recharge our batteries thanks to a few couriers of memory. If we exercise that freedom, we may deliver ourselves from the poverty of the contemporary political language, and its breathless, repetitive, amnesiac rhythm. Then perhaps we could slowly move away from a rhetoric that thrives on agility and surprise and gives very little leeway to reflection and grace. Isn’t that the reason politics, once so infused with memory and history, today has degenerated into nothing more than an amnesiac comedy where words are euphemized and held by the shackles of what is ‘politically correct ‘?
Perhaps in every etymologist there is a relentless genealogist who distrusts the present. The words appear bland. They lose their dominion because we no longer know anything about their history. We forget that the present does not exist, except in the distension of the soul which recovers memories and projects them towards what will happen. The present is therefore ineffable, a simple limit established between a past that we remember and a future that we predict with the help of memories. The etymologist links words to their archaic meanings as a sailor anchors his ship.
The history of words never tires of correcting the misinterpretations of the present time. So, it would be wrong to see only a difference in degree between ‘hate’ and ‘detest’. Hate is an eternal vow of total enemy annihilation. It is like Polyphemus cursing Odysseus. On the other hand, ‘detest’ is derived from the Latin detestari, literally, to curse while calling a deity to witness. The root is the word terstis that has given to English the verb ‘testify’. So in order to ‘detest’ we need a witness, a third party who can decide between adversaries, who needs to confirm that the person has wronged us! The quarrel can be purged in court. So to ‘detest’ is legal and free from the extreme, murderous hatred. Isn’t it equally interesting that in Latin “I love you” is diligo te, I choose you. If the Romans feared nothing more than blind and irrational chaos, how could they accept that the noblest feeling was the result of mere coincidence? So love was a choice for them. Never mind if Cupid shoots arrows at random. Nothing would happen out of turn. Everything is pre-planned. Love is a choice, not an accident.
Again, if ‘happiness’, is either the result of chance, or sheer good fortune, the word being derived from the old Norse ‘happ’ (good luck), the happy man is happy only by chance! The word ‘felicity’, on the contrary, is derived from felix which is related to fecundus, being fertile. Felicity comes to the person who is fertile and productive, even when he experiences hard knocks. To be felcitous is not to know a peaceful life but an energetic life which signifies the joy of doing. In the same manner, infelicity is the inability to move, it is to remain motionless without being able to chase away painful thoughts. Similarly, for the Hellenists, a poem or ‘poesy’ signifies a ‘creation’ and the poet is a ‘maker’. Hence, the opposite of poetry is not prose, but ataraxia, mental or emotional detachment. It will be concluded that poets are not idle beings, they make, and by making, lead a fruitful life. Therefore, to make our present we need to poetise it!
And the word ‘destiny’? It comes from the Latin destinare, namely to fix, establish, allot or assign a goal. The ‘destinies’ are therefore points of support, the foundations of life. Again, no trace of chance! We know the destination we want to reach. We need to plan our trip well before arriving at that destiny. Etymology teaches us that our Ancients did not leave much in the hands of the sadistic gods or malevolent spirits. They have imparted to us language, a tool that lets us dominate, by dint of our activity and enterprise, any trace of fate (fatum) or chance. Let that be our first Greco-Latin lesson!