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content note: self-harm


The way you spoke lightly
brushed over my cuts like they were still raw
and if you saw me clutching my arms you didn’t know why.
Or perhaps you didn’t understand, either, why
I didn’t mind you playing over my hands
(you hugged me the first time you ever met me
and I figured it meant as little to you as it did to me)
yet I shrank back when you stroked my arms.
I do not surrender my secrets so easily;
The barriers I have carved in my arms will not yield to you.

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Written for Dungeon Prompts: the message we’re selling

If I’m honest, I don’t know what I’m selling. Probably nothing. I’ve never liked the notion that I’ve got to sell lies to people, to stick my neck out and sell myself with flashy presentation and catchy soundbites. It feels dishonest – and it feels wrong, too. I like telling the truth, without ornamentation or omission. I’m also very shy and reclusive; I let my work speak for me because I find speaking for myself exhausting. If my work is loud – good. Job done. I can take pride in a good day’s effort and the fact that other people actually paid attention to it.

So I don’t like selling. I like sharing.

And what do I share?

Not much, if I’m honest. At the moment I’m going through a very selfish and isolated phase in my life, where I hide away from everyone. This isn’t necessarily because anything’s wrong (though my brain doesn’t work normally and I’m worried about my friends right now for personal reasons); it’s because I have several exams coming up and I need to revise. Well, I guess that does count as something being wrong because I hate exams (they test your ability to parrot and give you an arbitrary score), but most people consider them a necessary, if stressful, part of life and can’t be bothered to change this.

But when I do share, I share things that are important to me. The state of the world. The importance of eradicating suffering. And – most relevant to this blog – I share emotions and ideas that people put down in different languages, so that the barriers of language might be broken down a little.

I would like to change the world, but I’m not nearly brash and harsh and power-hungry enough to do it on my own. And I’m not prepared to scream and shout myself hoarse selling soundbites. So I share instead, and I hope that sharing touches someone.

 

i wrap myself up in bad words
like a clapped-out poet
who relies on twisting language and turning metaphors
into nonsense that winds
round and round worn old cobblestones
so that one man says
“that’s deep”
and one woman says
“that’s quaint”
but no-one says
“I understand this”

Well, I guess I might have laid on the hyperbole too thick – though I am frustrated.

Owing to the existence of such lovely things as revision and an oral exam coming up in just over a month and a half, I’ve found myself doing lots and lots of French work. This is due to the commonly accepted wisdom that if I don’t do 6 hours of work out of class (something like that), I am very definitely going to fail. This is also due to one of my French teachers believing that if she gives tired and overworked 18-year-olds a pack of exercises with 30-something pages in them, they are obviously going to be able to get them all finished. (Everyone else managed; I think I’m just lazy.)

Now, some of the French work I’m actually reasonably good at: I can knock out a 40-mark essay within a couple of hours and get an A or an A*. This is not because I’m some kind of freakishly endowed genius, it’s because the essay you have to write is ridiculously generalist (unlike the close analysis required for a Latin essay) and once you know the essay format and your cultural topic reasonably well, it becomes an exercise in regurgitation. I kind of like doing that because sometimes I get to sneak some actual proper analysis in amongst the 500-600 words, depending on the question.

There is also translation; by translation, I mean reams and reams of exercises. I don’t mind doing these because I can generally find or approximate the vocabulary, though it gets tedious after doing about 16 in a row (which is how they’re laid out in the exercise packs). I also need to do more because I sometimes forget the prepositions after certain verbs. Finally, I find working through vocabulary online on Quizlet quite therapeutic, though I don’t get much time to do it.

Last – and very definitely least on my list – are tense-changing exercises. Ugh.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand why these can be useful, and I get the need to practise new tenses. I did these about a million times last year with something called Cloze grammar, which is a gap-filling exercise that is worth just under 10% of the written paper. I don’t mind practising tenses with individual sentences, to be honest.

I have two main issues with tense-changing exercises: they need to be appropriate for the age group and level of education of the students, and they need to remember the basic way that languages work.

I don’t know quite how to explain how tense-changing exercises can sometimes be inappropriate for the age and level of education of students, except with examples. For example, you probably wouldn’t give a class of 12-year-olds who had just met the passé composé (perfect tense) an extract from Stendhal or Zola and ask them to turn all instances of the passé antérieur (past historic) into the passé composé; hell, I didn’t properly get to grips with Le Rouge et le Noir until I was 18. Equally, asking a class of 18-year-olds who are doing French for their school leaving qualifications to put every verb they see in an extract from an article into the passé composé…well, I don’t know how other people feel about it, but since I learned it at 12 I’ve now been working with it for 6 years. That is a pretty long time to get to learn and understand a tense. I don’t think I need to do any more tense-changing exercises with it for a while.

The other thing is that most languages have different tenses, and use these different tenses in written and spoken forms, for a very good reason. Even English, which is notoriously sloppy with its sequence of tenses, still distinguishes between past, present and future (albeit not particularly clearly). In many languages, only the most basic introductory texts will be written in one tense only. This is because different tenses and moods tell you when in time something happened, and whether it really happened at all or whether it was just something you thought about.

Tense-changing exercises can lose that, which is inevitable. No single tense is able to express as much as a variety of them do, and without taking that into account a text can and will turn into gibberish. Grammatically correct gibberish, to be sure, but gibberish all the same.

So what to do now? My recommendation would be to use tense-changing exercises sparingly, in small chunks rather than big texts, and to tailor them to each student rather than trying to squeeze them all into the same box (which is easier when there are only about 4 students in the class). That way they can be used efficiently and effectively, instead of frustrating people who can’t get to grips with them and boring people who think they’re too simple.

Something that strikes me about Tacitus’s prose is how very dry and compressed it is – well, his narrative prose anyway. When rendered into English it is prosaic and unassuming, but in the original Latin it is often deliberately ambiguous and abstruse to avoid imperial wrath (Tacitus lived and made his way through the cursus honorum under the bloody rule of Domitian, and was left with a hatred of tyranny). It’s also incredibly varied, using a wide range of grammatical structures (including bending the rules of Golden Latin for some of them) and often using rare forms of a word, or a Greek one where a Latin word would have sufficed.

This brief and varied prose is interesting (and difficult) to read, but that’s not its only purpose; by deliberately developing a complex and compresed style, Tacitus is better able to bring out the voices of other characters.

Take, for example, Thrasea Paetus – a nobleman, a contrarian and an enemy of Nero and what he stood for (in the Annals, degeneracy and tyranny; in real life, probably populism). His speeches are written in a very balanced and polished style reminiscent of Golden Latin, with a traditional tricolon crescens, use of alliteration to emphasise his points and a clearly defined structure:

“usu probatum est, patres conscripti, leges egregias, exempla honesta apud bonos ex delictis aliorum gigni. sic oratorum licentia Cinciam rogationem, candidatorum ambitus Iulias leges, magistratuum avaritia Calpurnia scita pepererunt; nam culpa quam poena tempore prior, emendari quam peccare posterius est. ergo adversus novam provincialium superbiam dignum fide constantiaque Romana capiamus consilium, quo tutelae sociorum nihil derogetur, nobis opinio decedat, qualis quisque habeatur, alibi quam in civium iudicio esse.

Olim quidem non modo praetor aut consul, sed privati etiam mittebantur, qui provincias viserent et quid de cuiusque obsequio videretur referrent, trepidabantque gentes de aestimatione singulorum: at nunc colimus externos et adulamur, et quo modo ad nutum alicuius grates, ita promptius accusatio decernitur. decernaturque et maneat provincialibus potentiam suam tali modo ostentandi: sed laus falsa et precibus expressa perinde cohibeatur quam malitia, quam crudelitas. plura saepe peccantur, dum demeremur quam dum offendimus. quaedam immo virtutes odio sunt, severitas obstinata, invictus adversum gratiam animus. inde initia magistratuum nostrorum meliora ferme et finis inclinat, dum in modum candidatorum suffragia conquirimus: quae si arceantur, aequalibus atque constantius provinciae regentur. nam ut metu repetundarum infracta avaritia est, ita vetita gratiarum actione ambitio cohibebitur.”

“Senators, it has been proved by experience that in a community of honourable men excellent laws and salutary precedents may have their rise in the delinquencies of others. So, the licence of the advocates bore fruit in the Cincian rogation; the corruption of candidates, in the Julian laws; and the cupidity of officials, in the Calpurnian plebiscites; for, in the order of time, the fault must precede the chastisement, the reform follow the abuse. Let us, then, meet this new development of provincial arrogance by framing a decision consonant with Roman honour and firmness: a decision which, without detriment to the protection we owe to our allies, shall disabuse us of the idea that the reputation of a Roman may be settled elsewhere than in the judgement of his countrymen.

“There was a day, indeed, when we sent not merely a praetor or a consul, but private citizens, to visit the provinces and report upon the loyalty of each; and nations awaited in trepidation the verdict of an individual. But now we court foreigners; we flatter them; and, as at the nod of one or other among them, there is decreed a vote of thanks, so — with more alacrity — is decreed an impeachment. And let it be decreed! Leave the provincials the right to advertise their power in that fashion; but see that these hollow compliments, elicited by the entreaties of the receiver, are repressed as sternly as knavery or cruelty. Often we go further astray while we oblige than while we offend.31 In fact, certain virtues are a ground for hatred — unbending strictness and a breast impregnable to favouritism. Hence, the early days of our officials are usually the best; the falling off is at the end, when we begin, like candidates, to cast about for votes; and if that practice is vetoed, the provinces will be governed with more steadiness and consistency. For as rapacity has been tamed by fear of a trial for extortion, so will canvassing for popularity be curbed by the prohibition of votes of thanks.”

You can tell you’re supposed to sympathise with this guy, can’t you? Especially when comparing it with Nero’s speech:

illic veneratus deos, cum Vestae quoque templum inisset, repente cunctos per artus tremens, seu numine exterrente, seu facinorum recordatione numquam timore vacuus, deseruit inceptum, cunctas sibi curas amore patriae leviores dictitans. vidisse maestos civium vultus, audire secretas querimonias, quod tantum itineris aditurus esset, cuius ne modicos quidem egressus tolerarent, sueti adversum fortuita adspectu principis refoveri. ergo ut in privatis necessitudinibus proxima pignora praevalerent, ita populum Romanum vim plurimam habere parendumque retinenti. haec atque talia plebi volentia fuere, voluptatum cupidine et, quae praecipua cura est, rei frumentariae angustias, si abesset, metuenti. senatus et primores in incerto erant, procul an coram atrocior haberetur; dehinc, quae natura magnis timoribus, deterius credebant quod evenerat.

There he worshipped the gods; then he entered also the temple of Vesta, and there feeling a sudden trembling throughout his limbs, either from terror inspired by the deity or because, from the remembrance of his crimes, he was never free from fear, he relinquished his purpose, repeatedly saying that all his plans were of less account than his love of his country. “He had seen the sad countenances of the citizens, he heard their secret complainings at the prospect of his entering on so long a journey, when they could not bear so much as his brief excursions, accustomed as they were to cheer themselves under mischances by the sight of the emperor. Hence, as in private relationships the closest ties were the strongest, so the people of Rome had the most powerful claims and must be obeyed in their wish to retain him.” These and the like sentiments suited the people, who craved amusement, and feared, always their chief anxiety, scarcity of corn, should he be absent. The Senate and leading citizens were in doubt whether to regard him as more terrible at a distance or among them. After a while, as is the way with great terrors, they thought what happened the worst alternative.

As you can see, not only is Nero’s Latin grammatically much simpler, but it also contains subtext that, to be deliciously frank and colloquial, makes him look like an idiot.

Lastly, Tacitus often makes use of sententiae – concise, balanced phrases that the Romans loved. However, these have a characteristically Tacitean twist; the sententiae of other writers are normally much more positive in outlook, while Tacitus’s are darker and more bitter, often emphasising the cowardice and hypocrisy of the Senate.

Since I turned eighteen
I bloomed from a young and awkward girl
into a strange flower of a woman
and I was ready for it.
I braved hardship
and the million heartbreaks of depression;
I threw myself into the grave
and rose again each time
and stood by the graves of others, too,
while the earth slipped from beneath my feet.
A lonely child found
friends, laughter,
life-enriching love,
a niece too.
My roots are deep; my stem rises high towards the sun
but my thorns protect me.
This grown woman
no longer needs the coddling and protection of childhood
nor the drama of adolescence
and she resents it.