Alexander Hellene

To Whose Glory?

One way to achieve true equality is to make everybody the same.

I mean this in the literal sense.

* * *

I recently spent some time with my ninety-one-year-old grandfather. The guy is a total legend. Born in Greece, he grew up during the Nazi occupation and had some narrow escapes before making it to London, then Canada, and eventually the United States. And that was just the first seventeen years of his life; he’s had quite a lot of experiences as an adult as well.

He’s a bit of a Renaissance man, having a chemistry degree, a Ph.D. in philosophy, and being a priest who taught Greek at the college level. I love talking with him, and it seems like I learn a new story with every conversation that we have. During this most recent visit, I asked him a question that has been burning on my mind for years:

What is the Greek word for “bowl”?

Laugh if you want, but this is a serious question that highlights the glorious quirks of the Greek language, and the myriad differences between all tongues. Greek is a language with multiple words for “love” and “time,” each embodying totally different concepts, yet there’s no word for “grandparents.”

My grandfather paused for a moment and looked down at the floor. “I . . . I don’t know,” he said.

This was interesting. Neither my father-in-law—who is from Greece—and my wife, who was born here but speaks fluent Greek, knew the word for “bowl” either. I looked it up on the Internet and found the words “γαβάθα” (“gavátha”)—which my Pappou had never heard—and “κύπελλο” (“kýpello,”), although the latter is more like “cup.”

My Pappou waved a hand. “These days, they probably just call it ‘μπωλ’ [the Hellenized version of “bowl”]. Have you watched Greek TV lately? Half of it is in English. They add ‘aki’ [diminutive suffix] so they’d probably call it ‘bolaki.’”

*     *     *

I used to think the French were pretentious and close-minded for having their language academy, which vigorously polices the French language and makes sure there aren’t too many foreign words and influences in the official lexicon. “That’s so dumb,” old me thought. “Why invent some convoluted way to say something when you can just borrow a foreign word?”

Why indeed.

Now, after seeing the path of destruction wrought by the explosive, inexorable lava flow of American culture vomited forth upon the poor, unsuspecting word, I think the French have the right idea.

The dilution of the Greek language, a tongue spoken for some 3,000 years, makes me more angry than sad. It’s not just language, though American-style slang and expressions which sound stupid enough to my American ears are bad enough—it’s also things like fashion and music.

Long gone are the days of Spaniards dressing differently from Albanians, who dressed differently from the Dutch, who dressed differently from the Turks, who dressed differently than the Iranians, who dressed differently than the Japanese, who dressed differently than the Kenyan, who dressed differently than the American. Now, everybody looks exactly how the tastemakers at some giant multinational clothing conglomerate, probably headquartered in New York City or Los Angeles or London, wants them to.

And the music . . . you haven’t experienced pain until you’ve heard Greek music, with its indigenous folk melodic and harmonic character, instrumentation, and rhythmic cadence, defaced with hip-hop beats and Latin drumbeats, peppered with people rapping in Greek.

Why does everyone have to dress the same? Why does everything have to sound the same? Why does everyone have to speak the same way?

Why do our cars and our buildings and our shoes have to look identical, nation to nation, state to state, town to town?

Why must everything be flat?

This is, perhaps, the end result of what we think of as capitalism—rule by monopolistic oligarchs who want to maximize profits by selling as much stuff to as many people, and to hell with any traditional modes and moralities it may destroy. But “commercialization” might be the more appropriate term. If there’s money to be made, someone will figure out away to extrat every last cent with no other considerations and no constraints.

Everything is for sale. Even taste.

*     *     *

Once upon a time, I was taught that American-style industrial capitalism was going to save humanity and bring about world peace through blue jeans, Coca-Cola, and rock n’ roll. What we’ve really exported is degeneracy, obesity, bad food, bad architecture, the destruction of traditional religions and societies, and despair.

The United States tried to force Afghani women to think Duchamp’s “Fountain” was great art and tried to shoehorn all sorts of social programs that go against Islamic teaching tno Afghani culture. The Japanese are rightfully concerned about the rise of American skater culture in the Land of the Rising Sun. The Chinese have taken bold steps to curtail the ability of Hollywood to access the lucrative Chinese market.

I’m jealous of the Chinese. I wish we could cordon off Hollywood from the rest of America.

Speaking of China, the lucrative Chinese market is all I’ve been hearing about for 20 years. In college in the early 2000s, I heard some variation of “If the Coca-Cola corporation can sell one Coke a piece for one dollar to one billion Chinese, they’ve made $1 billion!” as though it would be a good thing for America as a whole if some giant megacorporation with more money than several countries put together can get even more. Somehow, I will benefit.

You have to understand the time. I entered college in 2000, the proverbial “end of history,” right around the time when China was being integrated into the U.N. and the world’s economic system. Free-market liberal democracy was viewed by the so-called Washington Consensus as the final end-state of all political systems. Consumerism will eradicate all strife wrought by differences in religion, culture, and systems of governance. Looking back, I’m shocked by how sinister this was, and by how it went right over my head at the time.

But there was too much triumphalism and “Rah-rah America!” chest-beating. The Soviet Union fell! We won! There was a lot of talk about how what’s good for American corporations once they can crack the Chinese market is good for America—and the world!—and we all went along with that. It seems like a cruel joke now.

*     *     *

I recall one visiting lecturer who gave a talk around 2002 or 2003, some years into this brave new world. “The interesting thing,” she said—and I’m paraphrasing—“is that, while China is eagerly taking in American corporations, American money, and American products, it has so far taken in none of our political ideas like democracy and freedom. In fact, if anything, the United States is slowly becoming more socialist.” She used the term “salami socialism,” i.e., one small slice at a time, and she said that like it was a good thing.

But this isn’t about socialism versus capitalism. I suppose it’s about globalism, but in the crassest, crudest, most basic and aesthetic sense of the word. And anyway, China is now neither fully socialist in the classical Marxist-Leninst sense, nor fully capitalist in the classical Austrian school/American sense. Although, I’m also not sure that China has done much else to halt the Westernizing of its population’s wants, tastes, needs, and desires. Everybody wants that big American-style car and American-style house, and fashioanble American-style clothes to wear while watching those American movies and listening to American music, after all. It’s a tough genie to put back into the bottle.

*     *     *

We have reached the pinnacle of flatness. We have achieved the end-state of form and function. Nothing can get any better than this. Or so we’re told.

I beg to differ.

I lament the leeching of color and flavor from the world. These surface-level issues matter because they are an indication of what lay beneath. “You can’t judge a book by its cover” is utter nonsense. You absolutely can, and you should. If a thing is ugly, bland, boring, uninspiring, or actively offensive on its face, then it is a near sure thing that you will find similar characteristics if you dig a little deeper.  

It must be that the ugly and the bland sells really well; otherwise, the all-holy marketplace would correct for it in the sense that people wouldn’t buy it. But what if people only buy, and are only aware of, that which the marketplace put before them?

Commerce has long been one part of art. Lords and nobles and wealthy patrons would commission composors and writers and artists and carpenters to create great works both public and private. The interesting thing here is that the money was paid up front, and things were designed, at least in the Christian European context, to glorify God. I’m sure thing were similar in other cultures I am not as familiar with.

This all begs the question: Who is being glorified now?

They want us defined by what we buy. Forget turning the temple into a marketplace; the temple has been replaced by the marketplace. The next step is to think about to whose glory the marketplace is built to.

– Alexander

12 thoughts on “To Whose Glory?”

  1. Alexander,

    Gee you had to provoke me with your seductive etymological question about bowl huh? 🙂

    Well, bowl is Germanic word where the Dutch (bol) is pretty much identical to bowl. Basically it’s a round object. Makes kinda sense and its also the origins of bowl, a game played with balls which I suspect gives us bowling.

    French has bol but it comes from the Greek boûlos and it means something completely different. Mind you bol but it has a lot of meaning depending on context. The closest I found is from the glass making industry and is a cup. Make sense but not what I’M looking for.

    So, I asked the linguists at the Grand dictionnaire terminologique for help.

    The other Romance languages like Spanish and Catalan get from English but supposedly via French (which is possible if it’s from say Frankish or Gothic or some other pan Germanic language but I’m unconvinced for now)

    A language academy and a civil director who supervises naming of people aren’t such dumbass ideas. These are some of the absences I’ve always deplored about English. In Europe (except Britain) changes in the languages still rile up people. Which shows language still matters.

    Speaking of homogeneity, there’s a pushback. Just today, I came across this awesome Twitter profile of a young woman who’s going around Catalunya to save and rehabilitate the masia (the stone farmehouse)

    https://twitter.com/martamasies

    Her Twitter name is Huntress of masies (translated of course).

    Her pinned tweet is a great cri de coeur:
    It’s says a lot about a country how it oversees its conservation of its cultural patrimony

    Most are really beautiful. Tell me, you wouldn’t want to live in one and pass it on to the next generations?

    To summarize, whose glory? Well, obviously it’s not for God….yet.
    But as always, He works subtly through us and always has the last laugh.

    xavier

    1. Xavier,

      Interesting! I love the histories behind seemingly simple words. And yet, Greek, for all of its richness, doesn’t seem to have a commonly used word for “bowl” except for “bowl/bol.”

      Interesting about Ms. Huntress of Maises. We all should preserve our various cultural patrimonies before they get squashed into a ball of beige mush.

      1. Alexander,

        Not beige mush. Brutalist architecture: bunkers with small windows and steel greenhouses.

        I’m convinced that the skyscrapers contribute to urban warming. The amount of sunlight reflection from the glass has to add at least 5-10 C to the city. And that’s not counting the asphalt.

        I’d like to see cobble streets again. I suppose there’s technology to flatten the stones and make them anti slippery in the winter.

        xavier

        1. Xavier,

          The color of the much is definitely up for interpretation, but mush it is!

          It is very liberating to realize that things are set up by people who hate us, hate God, hate beauty, hate nature, hate truth, and hate goodness. I’d love to change many things modern life, even if it means far fewer conveniences. This is an argument libertarians always like to pick with me–“If you meant it, you could go live like a medeival peasant!”–etc. etc. No, I don’t want to live like a medeival peasant (though they probably avoided many problems we have now), but I know I am not happy living like this.

          1. Alexander,

            Libertarians are such childish binary thinkers, aren’t they?

            Latin has 2 types of both and expression aut…aut (exclusive) vel…vel (not exclusive) And they’re aut…aut thinkers.

            Anyways, no, we don’t have to live like medieval peasants as popularly imagined. But there are some aspects of their lifestyle which are still relevant and combine it with the better aspects of modern living.

            I like my computers and 3D printers as well as microwaves. So we need to be imaginative and apply trial and error to find what’s the best mix. A lot of us will be different. I’m not into gardening, but I might give making a table or tray in wood. I write with fountain pens and then type up my texts in the computer. I love the festes major of the town’s patron saintand celebrate itvia a farmer’s/artisanal market, good food, block parties with the neigbours and so on.

            So let’s experiment!

            xavier

            1. Alexander,

              Sorry just thought of this.

              One of the stupid consequences of this infantile binary thinking is the ludicrous cult of authenticity.

              You’re a fake if you don’t give up all your technology and live like a real peasant. You see this with the mission civilitarice, white man burden karens and soyboys.

              We mustn’t sully the 3rd world people with our vulgar technology. No, no they’re authentic! And we must preserve them like ants in amber and preserve them. If we must, we’ll thwart them from modernizing! It’s really for their own good as they’ll choose against their interests. And we can’t allow that!

              Again, you can combine both. The Japanese did when they were forced to reopen. So why can’t the rest of the world also decide how it’ll address modernity on its own terms.

              xavier

            2. “Let’s experiment!”

              I like that. This isn’t an either/or, binary, zero-sum type of thing. The point isn’t that all modern things are evil–becasue that’s just another type of either/or, binary, and zero-sum type of thinking, just from the other directon and equally facile–it’s that all evil things are evil. You have to look at the fruits of a thing. The vigorous and full-throated libertarian defense of pornography and the industry around it, for example, is one of the first things that soured me on libertarianism. “Free speech requries it to be protectd, and the Supreme Court said so, so checkmate, prudes!” is such a stupid rallying cry I’m surprised anybody, myself included, ever fell for it. If free speech = complete legal and cultural enshrinement of porn, then perhaps free speech as a concept, or at least the American version of it, is the problem. See what I mean by fruits? Whereas, on balance, computers and the Internet have done more good than harm–yes, I truly beleive this–as have things like indoor plumbing, modern sanitation, and farming and irrigation techniques.

              So anyway, we’re on the same wavelength. This is my long-winded way of saying I agree wholeheartedly with your call to combine the best of the old with the best of the new . . . but always with the proper spirit, mindset, and intent.

  2. Sadly, America used to have a culture and it used to be awesome. I wish I had kept my American culture thread from Twitter before deleting the account. Hopefully you’ve seen it.

    It got replaced by post-modernistic globalism.

    That’s another story for another day though.

    It’s good to see Romanians still wear Romanian clothes in ceremonies (weddings, funerals, special days at schools, and holidays) and hopefully they’ll continue to do that. I can’t stand hip hop mixed with traditional music. It’s awful, no matter which country it emulates from.

    The thing is, rather than bitching about what happened, I’m working on bringing it back. Do the research. Base your works off of the past good ones and add your own style to it.

    That formula could apply to any artistic medium.

    1. Roman,

      America did indeed have a unique and distinct culture, back when it wasn’t based on consuming product. It sounds like commie propaganda, but we are run by gigantic megacorps and banks who pull our government’s strings to keep laws and tax codes favorable and the dough rolling in. There is no distinction. To paraphrase Frank Zappa, government is the entertainment wing of the military/industrial complex.

      There are many reasons for our reduction to this sorry state. Pockets of culture exist, but regonal difference have melded together into a boring corporate monoculture during my 40 years on this Earth to a degree so noticeable you’d have to be willfully blind not to see it. Whether one laments it is up to personal opinion.

      In any event, your thread was a really good one.

      “The thing is, rather than bitching about what happened, I’m working on bringing it back. Do the research. Base your works off of the past good ones and add your own style to it.”

      This is awesome, and what us PulpRev writers try to do.

  3. Hardwicke Benthow

    And the music . . . you haven’t experienced pain until you’ve heard Greek music, with its indigenous folk melodic and harmonic character, instrumentation, and rhythmic cadence, defaced with hip-hop beats and Latin drumbeats, peppered with people rapping in Greek.

    This mention of Greek music made the Greek singer Nana Mouskouri pop into my head. Are you by any chance familiar with her work?

    She has sung in at least 12 languages (I’m mostly familiar with her work in English), but as far as I know, didn’t ever “deface” Greek music by mashing it up with other cultures’ music into it. When she sang Greek music, it was Greek. When she sang French music, it was French. American music remained American when she sang it, etc. She was versatile and could pass as a native singer of each language, but always true to what each song was and the culture it came from.

    I’ve always found her voice very beautiful. Reportedly, she eventually found out from a doctor that she had only one functional vocal cord, which may be why she sounded so unique.

    A sample of her singing in Greek:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eI4UUK64arM

    English:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hziOjJrYQd0

    German:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NXhMpAjkUJI

    French:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PofFFpTefyM

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