Saturday, January 4, 2014

Elegy for an Iconoclast: Martin Bernal

So, as the year was wrapping up I got to thinking about who might be the most interesting person to have died in 2013. Some passings got a lot of attention, like that of Mandela and Peter O'Toole. One that got almost no attention was the death of historian Martin Bernal (I didn't learn about it myself until September, more than two months after the event, and only then because a friend in England who knew of my interest in Bernal's work passed along the news*).

I have a fondness for iconoclasts, scholars who come up with an idea out of left field that explains things the standard theory about their field don't cover. They ask the right questions, though they may not come up with the right answers (the late great Thor Heyerdahl being a prime example). It's also a good way to keep up to date, especially given that sometimes things we were taught were true back in school (e.g., that dinosaurs are extinct) aren't true anymore.**

In Bernal's case, he started with a very simple thesis that seems self-evident: that classical Greek civilization did not create itself out of nothing but was heavily influenced by the two great civilizations and cultures that dominated that part of the world (the eastern Mediterranean) before the rise of Greece: first Egypt (particularly in the time of the Middle and New Kingdoms) and then later Phoenicia (from whom they derived the alphabet). He suggested this influence took many forms -- most interestingly, drawing parallels between Egyptian gods and what became the Greek pantheon. Most controversially, he pointed out that although Greek is an IndoEuropean language, only some 40% of Greek words can be traced back to an IndoEuropean root.*** The traditional solution to this problem was to postulate that the remaining 60% derived from an unknown people ("the Pelasgians") who'd lived in the Aegean before the Greeks, whom they conquered and whose language heavily influenced their own. Bernal suggests instead that a large proportion of the non-IndoEuropean words derive from Egyptian and Phoenician, borrowed along with the trade goods and concepts that accompanied them.

This proposal led to a firestorm of controversy, which settled into a predictable pattern: Bernal would publish a volume making a number of claims,**** the book would be denounced in whole and in specifics, and Bernal would respond in detail to the attacks. Mary Lefkowitz and Guy MacLean Rogers even put together a five-hundred-page collection devoted entirely to essays attacking Bernal's ideas (BLACK ATHENA REVISITED), to which Bernal responded with an equally lengthy point-by-point rejoinder (BLACK ATHENA WRITES BACK).

The fascinating thing about all this was not just that Bernal threw off some really interesting ideas (e.g., that the 'Philistines' were Mycenean Greeks) but that he changed his opponents more than they changed him. Over and over, if you follow through the debate, Bernal will challenge the conventional wisdom, to which The Powers That Be (e.g., Establishment figures like Lefkowitz) would react by (a) denying that his charge was true and (b) shifting their own position towards his, but stopping well short of his mark. I think Bernal himself was something of a gadfly who knew exactly what he was doing and deliberately cast his ideas into provocative form to elicit just this response.

The best example I can think of for this comes not in BLACK ATHENA itself but a side project, the book CADMEAN LETTERS, which investigates the origins of the Greek alphabet (and writing systems in the Mediterranean in general). Conventional wisdom held that the Greek alphabet dates from the 8th century BC (a century or more after Homer's time) or perhaps even later, and that other writing systems found in the western Mediterranean (e.g. Italy, Iberia) were later still. Bernal suggests that the date was sometime in the 14th or more probably 16th century BC and that the Iberian and Italian scripts derive not from Greek but from this early form of Phoenician. His argument bogs down in excruciating detail and sometimes impenetrable jargon ("there is no difficulty in a voiceless velar affricate-lateral simply delateralizing"), but his critics' response is telling: they indignantly denounce his 16th century BC date and adopt an 11th century BC date instead.

In the end, I'm sorry that Bernal got sidetracked in the linguistics (the least interesting part of his argument) and never wrote out in full his ideas about ways he thought Egyptian gods and mystery cults influenced Greek beliefs and practices: he discusses this briefly in the Introduction to his first volume but got diverted and never returned to fulfill his promise to devote a whole volume to it (which wd have been called THE MYSTERY OF THE SPHINX). Alas.

So, 'rest in peace' seems a little inappropriate to this prickly scholar, but I hope he got a certain satisfaction, in the end, from having weathered the storm. I suspect half his ideas will be taught as conventional wisdom in twenty years' time (probably without any reference to him), which I suspect wd have amused him no end. For my own part, I learned a lot reading him ( e.g., that Hebrew is a Canaanite language, and belongs to the same family tree as Egyptian and Ethiopian, or that Hebrew and Phoenician were mutually intelligible dialects of the same language) and I'm glad I discovered his books (through my friend Taum, who bought the first one and whose copy I inherited). But I'm still sorry we won't ever have that book about Egyptian myth and its dissemination.

--John R.
just finished: CADMEAN LETTERS (second reading)
audiobook: MOCKINGJAY (second time through)

*thanks Charles!
**it's now generally accepted that birds are not just direct descendents of dinosaurs but actual living dinosaurs themselves.
***similarly, English is a Germanic language but has borrowed so heavily from Latin and especially French that Germanic words actually make up less than half of our vocabulary.
****BLACK ATHENA eventually ran to three volumes, some two thousand pages in all, but Bernal's entire argument can be found just by reading the seventy page Introduction to the first volume, which summarizes the whole.

1 comment:

Cole said...

I had the opportunity to meet Prof. Bernal back when I was an undergraduate; not only was he brilliant but he was also a very nice man.