Tuesday 14 March 2023

Hittite from the north-east

Hittite from the north-east

This is a response to a recent high-powered paper based on genetic data which offers a new solution to questions about Indo-European origins and specifically the division between the Anatolian languages (such as Hittite) and the rest. The paper is “The genetic history of the Southern Arc: A bridge between West Asia and Europe” and it has 205 authors. It was published in Science in August 2022.

A few years ago David Reich’s groundbreaking book on ancient DNA observed that the DNA of early hunter-gatherers on the steppes included an influence from the other side of the Caucasus Mountains, from a genetic group which lived in the South Caucasus and also further south. This had the implication that the horse hunters who evolved into the early Indo-European (the 'Yamnaya' culture, referring to their pit-grave interments) were partly the product of an earlier migration from the South. This migration preceded the adoption of farming. We are talking about perhaps 5000 BC. "Anatolia is remarkable for its lack of steppe ancestry down to the Bronze Age. The ancestry of the Yamnaya was, by contrast, only partly local; half of it was West Asian, from both the Caucasus and the more southern Anatolian-Levantine continuum. Migration into the steppe started by about 7000 years ago, making the later expansion of the Yamnaya into the Caucasus a return to the homeland of about half their ancestors."

The new work follows up Reich’s work, or rather the work of the world-leading DNA lab which he heads, to say that the DNA of remains located in the area where we know the Hittites lived is different from the DNA of steppe Indo-European areas and so also of the DNA of parts of Bronze Age Europe which were invaded (! or at least settled) by people from the steppes who putatively spoke Indo-European. It follows that the Hittites, Luvians, and related groups came into Anatolia from the north-east, and not via a tortuous migration along regions to the north of the Black Sea and through the Balkans. Their history is separate from that of all other Indo-European groups. Anatolian entered Anatolia from the north-east (or conceivably had been spoken south of the Caucasus since very ancient times).

There is a very interesting paper by Craig Melchert (“western affinities of Anatolian”), following up a 1994 paper by Jaan Puhvel, which traces matches between Hittite and specific other languages which are not matches with the reconstructed Indo-European lexicon. That suggested a shared (and late) geographical history which the new work puts seriously in question. He was thinking of convergence in a shared contact zone after the migrations. This data and the pattern which it supports are now of great interest, but Melchert only saw a tentative pattern in it. “Puhvel (1994) argued for Anatolian as a western dialect sharing features with Italic, Celtic, and Germanic (plus or minus Greek and Baltic). However, his paper was both initially and subsequently universally (but wrongly) ignored.”

Since several other IE languages are known from the area of Anatolia, and points east, one has to ask if it is the Anatolian group only which missed out on a long trip around the Black Sea to end up in that region. Armenian is certainly a candidate, perhaps also Phrygian (a “rubble language”). The Science paper describes the Armenians as the product of a migration from the steppes into Anatolia. I don’t think anyone is going to propose Iranian as such a candidate, which only geographical logic (not linguistic) would suggest.

The earliest written records of Hittite are quite far south, in Kanesh, but this is an artefact of the way in which writing reached Anatolia, evidently from the south-east and originally in the Akkadian language and script, having nothing to say about where the predecessor forms of the Hittite language had been spoken or what migration routes their ancestors followed. We now have the possibility of dating the split between ancestral Anatolian and the other Indo-European stem, from archaeological data. So this may be as early as 5000 BC. The whole history of Indo-European studies has assumed that there was a nuclear area from which Indo-European spread into territories speaking (fundamentally) different languages. But what we now know about the Anatolian branch makes it possible that the area around the Black Sea was populated at least in part by peoples speaking languages related to Indo-European, as distantly as Hittite and Luvian, and even that this facilitated the rapid spread of Indo-European. It is a puzzle that all IE languages lost the laryngeals and yet they still existed just before the break-up. Substrate influences may explain this, at least speculatively.

It remains possible that Greek came to Greece from the east, along the southern shores of the Black Sea (and initially through the Caucasus?), but this has always been a minority view and the genetic data now make it unlikely. It was not the view of the ancient Greeks and they had tales of the settlements in Ionia being founded from what we now think of as Greece.

Monday 6 March 2023

Beautiful feelings two

This is further about a project which began with looking at the Poetry Book Society website to spot titles to review and expanded into downloading five years’ worth of lists and collating them into a spreadsheet with the names of 990 poets featured in their “shop window”. I was asking “who the hell are all these poets”. A book emerged.

I subscribe to an on-line text library called scribd. I have discovered that they have hundreds of volumes of recent poetry which I can read for free. The trouble with this is that they aren't necessarily the books I want to read and there are too many of them. The stage I have reached with the book is that I have completed the text, I have too much text and I want to reduce it but I also want to read more books so that I have more context. Right now, I have to take a break. Like, a week with no thinking about the book at all.
This morning I was dreaming of a passage in the book which I had to rewrite. When I woke up I realised that the passage didn’t exist anyway. This is overload. I want to sleep without worrying about flaws in the book.

I have the idea of thermal sensing – that if you read 100 books of poetry from a 5 year period then they stick together and the information which normally wisps away as waste heat remains as evidence. This brings out the unconscious elements of style and treatment. Poets don’t always like this but it gets you away from simply paraphrasing what they say. The light is the conscious level but the unconscious level is a trace of heat.

It also develops an idea of time and art, namely that there are collective states which animate art, especially poetry, and that these are temporary and so make up the substance of a time. A few years later they have dissipated away.
So I have read 100 books from the last 5 years. Themes do keep recurring. Three mentions of kintsugi – one was actually in a prose book (Nancy Campbell’s The Library of Ice, fantastic) and not the poems by the same writer. But this is a sort of “ping” - kintsugi three times, I have found the edge in some way. Where the edge is, that is part of the frame. Postscript. I have now seen a fourth reference to kintsugi. Surely this is a signal to stop collecting evidence.

I talk about the mainstream of an older era (say 1952 to 1980?) disappearing to be replaced by a new central style which I actually like. That is the big picture but clearly poets are still writing poems inside the limits of that older style, which was criticised so much. I don't want to name them, in a context which already puts them down, but the pattern is not disappearance. Instead we have a dozen or more styles flourishing and securing their own parts of a wider public realm. It’s like plants competing in my untended garden – the losers don’t disappear altogether. Although ragwort doesn't seem to have come back since 2018. The Carcanet New Poetries 8 includes poems that hark back to the 1950s stylistically.

I have this image in my mind of 990 poets as a self-sustaining structure with no supports. It is erect or it can't collapse any further. At any point where you are the pressure of other poets holds you up. You don’t need economic support. If you have the esteem of your fellow poets then it is a grand place to be. If you don’t have that esteem it is a painful place to be. Your achievements flow away like rain down the gutter. This is so vivid but I don’t have any external evidence for it. It is just an image, like a dream. The structure is almost invulnerable to assault but it puts pressure on all the individuals… the heat of winning, of losing, of being halfway down a field of 100, of seeing other people succeed, is too much. People who buy into meritocracy too much have a hard time because it doesn't allow for serenity.
Teaching a class where everyone assumes on day one that they are more talented than you. Maybe that is the story of our time. A poet with a pay cheque but without the will to write poetry. They certainly aren't there to read your work. Just the opposite.
Spent a day in the South Bank poetry library basically looking for books by the people in [2013 anthology] Dear World, or about 20 of them. I used the 74 names as a proxy for saying who wasn't included in the PBS lists but on investigation it may be that a lot of them gave up after one book or even didn’t get a book out. You go to the right spot on the shelves and only find one slim pamphlet. You have this classic anthology, collecting a swarm of poets under 35, who haven’t reached their peak, in 2013. Did they go on after that? So my text says that the absence of 53 names from Dear World in the lists from the PBS shop window is an indicator of how incomplete the shop window is. But this may be wrong, it may be that half those 53 names had just given up writing regularly and the PBS thing is actually a good view of who is producing serious, long, substantial books. What if the people you admire give up? I am seeing this picture of people spending ten years learning how to write poetry and then not writing it. They found lots of other things to do which had a bigger audience. There just wasn't a big splash when they got their pamphlet out. This is just a picture. Maybe the amount of poets floating around is so big that it diminishes the space each one can occupy as they write their work. Small audience, big competition. And so people drop out. I am wondering how that would apply to the 990 recent names in the PBS list trawl which I did. Are they going to be career poets or is one book going to be it?
I have the “salt younger poets” anthology, 2011, hoaching with good poems, 50 writers who hadn't had a book out at that point. A brilliantly edited book, they had done the research to an incredible degree of efficiency. So, if I do the catalogue checks, maybe 30 of them never got a book out. This is depressing; I am not sure I want to do the sociology. Writing poetry just isn’t that rewarding, it is easy to see why people give up. I am not going to do that catalogue work.
This crush of poets, the 990 names I culled from the PBS “shop window”, it is great for the consumer, but maybe there are side-effects which aren't so great. There is pressure because of too many poets striving to get the outlets. And maybe there is resentment of editors and panels because they can’t give young poets what they want. Pressure from below. When people are so angry with the gatekeepers, it is hard for anybody to have a sense of legitimacy. Possibly the ones who persist are the ones who do respect the institutions and who aren’t charred with resentment.

I am interested now in the level of disillusion. I have a feeling that there were 990 poets in contention in 2010 and that quite a few of those have already quietly given up. The data section I examined in 2022 had too many people who had started in the last five years… the age spread wasn't right, it had too many young people. Someone gets a book out, even two books, and the feedback is almost inaudible. They wanted victory rather than serenity. So maybe of these 990 now hunting for success a third are going to give up by the next time someone does a large sample.

Have spent a frustrating morning trying to access annual figures for poetry publication. I subscribed to The Bookseller on-line to get these figures, but I can't find anything relevant by searching their back issues. I think they did a breakdown of titles by genre in the 1990s but I can't find anything in the stuff available on-line. I think the ISBN agency asks publishers to categorise their titles and produces breakdowns annually based on that, but I don’t know where to find those figures. When Randall Stevenson claims 2700 titles being published annually at the end of the Nineties, I think he is using an ISBN report, but I don’t know where he obtained that figure. It's an exciting figure.

I got hold of a 2012 book from Salt, “In their own words”. Statements by 56 poets. This is really weak. It is good to know what poets think about their work but this is unrevealing. A forgotten book. As always there is something to be retrieved – Ira Lightman’s statement for example. In general these writers compose intuitively and have no idea what intuition is made of or how to talk about it. Very few of them published with Salt – a lack of coordination there. I would have been interested to see a book about Salt’s debut poets and what they valued as a generation. I was probably hoping for that. Instead, two editors signed up to do this prose book and didn’t have any interest in the Salt list. At a quick glance, only one of the 56 published with Salt. This is a lesson, possibly – when someone has a view of what poetry is happening, in a given decade or half decade, their view may not even overlap with yours. It is difficult to have a conversation about poetry when you don’t read the same poets. But the field of readable poets is so huge.
I have doubts about secondary commentary which is 90% about “theoretical” poets because intuitive poets are unable to explain their processes. But really, what can you do with processes which are so defended and so buried in silence.

Thursday 2 March 2023

Muriel Box - again

Muriel Box – again

I listened to the Radio 3 documentary about Muriel Box on Sunday and found it quite irritating. Not least because it was called “Carol and Muriel”, pushing the subject aside because she wasn’t interesting enough. Evidently they found Box boring and wanted to reclad it as a Treasure Quest with the focus on the quester and not the cultural material being sought after. The model is “Rat Scabies and the holy grail”, so a historical subject is thrust aside to show more about a perky young presenter. The presenter was perky and we learnt more about her than about M Box. They left out Box as scriptwriter (more or less) because being a director is the Power Job and that is what they found marketable. So the fact that MB was head of the script department at Gainsborough Studios at their peak was not mentioned. I have never found out who invented that style (“The Man in Grey” etc.) but it would have been good to hear a discussion of it. Instead they ignored any change of styles between 1947 or so and 1955 or so… idiotically. They didn't establish any personal style for MB and evidently she didn’t have one. Treatment of someone working deep inside the industry as if they were an auteur pursuing a personal vision is bound to stifle the historical facts. Again, the drive is to find someone Powerful and the possibility of creative collaboration is unacceptable. A key fact about MB is that she moved from febrile melodrama to social realism (“Street Corner”) and on to stultified 1950s smugness. This does not suit auteur theory treatment but it is an intellectual puzzle and one has to ask if the “shadowy person who invented the new period style” actually was Muriel Box at several turning points. On watching “Street Corner” (1953) one is reminded of several hundred cop shows (it is about female police officers) about young coppers learning the ropes, in a semi documentary style, and the question is whether Box had actually worked this out and the idea was then there for a hundred TV producers to pick up as TV matured. Box graduated to directing as the Fifties were getting going and so her films in that job are full of Fifties blandness. “Simon and Laura” isn’t the best British film of the 1950s, as someone claimed in the radio show, it is critical of television and preening actors and smug domesticity, but it exploits those qualities to the utmost and doesn't even propose an alternative. Finch and Kendall are asked to impersonate one-dimensional narcissists, and sleepwalk through their roles. As everyone says, the 1950s saw a roll-back of the feminism which the participation of women in the war effort had advanced between 1939 and 1945, and the Kay Kendall character in "Simon and Laura" wishes only to be beautiful and pampered.
The radio docu was in denial of the fact that directors weren't in control at Rank, so it couldn’t tell the story. Box's films for Rank look just like every other Rank film. I am wondering now who invented Fifties domesticity, smugness, affluence, and blandness… I don’t have a candidate. Some monsters have multiple DNA.
I wasn't impressed by the presenter's repeated claim that nobody except herself and the two people she interviewed had ever taken any interest in MB. I just got the impression that she had never read any books. This is a specialised sort of camera, producing images in which nobody worked on Box’s Rank films except Box and nobody had ever written about Box until the presenter cruised into town. A disappearing camera. This is hardly a way of recovering the truth about cinema history. Erasing the context of collaborative production actually means erasing Box’s own biography.

I had supposed that Box originated the Gainsborough Melodrama style, as head of the script department at Gainsborough, but I now know that is untrue. She didn't join them until 1946 and the films in question began in 1943. Wikipedia suggests that producer Edward Black (1900-48) invented the style, but there is now better evidence on that and based on Sydney Gilliat’s memoirs Black resisted that style.
Robert Murphy's 1989 book about British cinema 1939-49, "Realism and Tinsel" has just arrived. not a great title. Murphy attributes the Melodrama style to the wake of the Tod Slaughter films. No way! they have nothing to do with Slaughter's nostalgic revival of an 1880s theatre style! He does say that Black left Gainsborough at the end of 1943. There is much more detail in his work on “Gainsborough producers”. He says “At the beginning of 1943 Ostrer had told the Kinematograph Weekly that Gainsborough was ‘refusing to bow to the prevailing tendency to concentrate on war subjects.’” And with his ideas vindicated by the success of The Man in Grey he grew increasingly impatient of Black’s desire for a wide range of subjects, particularly when there were men like Minney, who were eager to produce flamboyant melodramas such as Madonna of the Seven Moons." He points to RJ Minney as the producer who wanted melodrama and disagreed with Black. “R J Minney said that 'melodrama is essential in a film if it is to hit the box office since the film is more akin to the music hall and the circus than to a theatre'", and all evidence suggests that Ostrer firmly believed this too.” (Michael Brooke on the BFI website) A check in Wikipedia shows that Minney produced seven key melodramatic films within a few years. So, his involvement was more profound than anyone else’s and the simplest solution is to attribute the style to him. That is, Maurice Ostrer wanted the style but wasn’t a creative figure; Minney was enabled by Ostrer but could actually find stories and put films together. So provisionally the answer is:

-Rank own or control the parent company of Gainsborough from the end of 1941 (but leave artistic control to the team in place)
- the style is first shown in 'Man in Grey' but RJ Minney is the one who works out the blueprint and imposes it on the Gainsborough team
-Maurice Ostrer as studio boss bets on escapism and re-fulfils the blueprint making another dozen films in the same style, usually with Minney
-another dozen imitations surface from various studios
-after quarrels with Arthur Rank, Ostrer leaves; Rank take over artistic control; Sydney and Muriel Box run Gainsborough for roughly two years from late 1946 and abandon the costume melodrama style
- Muriel Box is involved in possibly one of the Gainsborough melodramas, "Jassy"
-Ostrer starts up another company (Premier) and makes a sort of auto-pastiche, "The Idol of Paris", which is widely regarded as the worst film ever made and closes the door
- Rank close down Gainsborough, dislike sensationalism, and the style grinds to a halt

However, Michael Brooke for the BFI says about the origin “The following year [1943], in-house writer-director Leslie Arliss adapted Lady Eleanor Smith's Regency bodice-ripper The Man In Grey. Consciously defying an unspoken convention that British cinema at a time of war should be broadly realistic, Arliss, with cinematographer Arthur Crabtree, production designer John Bryan and costume designer Elizabeth Haffenden, devised a flamboyantly baroque visual approach that established the distinctive "look" of the cycle right from the start, which also belied the film's modest budget.” So Arliss may have made crucial contributions. It was Minney who discovered the novel on which “Man In Grey” is based, and proposed it. I have to add that Alan Lovell’s analysis is that the way the films were made contradicted the basic artistic intent and that they were inconsistent as melodramas. He finds a lack of co-operation, and it is hard to see that the style was the outcome of a creative team effort. Murphy says that the actors involved hated the films. I have a strange feeling that the production team as a whole disliked the style, the dislike is what went down in history, and this is why no-one ever claimed to have been the originator of it.
To recover what Box achieved, we have to see her running that script department, so taking in a variety of original material and re-styling it to match the planned output, matching a proven commercial formula. She was the most important scriptwriter of a certain period and we need to consider about 40 films in which she played a major creative role, not just as director but also as scriptwriter and even as script supervisor. She shifted style the whole time. Murphy says that Box looked at "Love Story" and "Madonna of the Seven Moons" and produced ("successful re-working") a story and script (Pauline Kael called it "a rich, portentous mixture of Beethoven, Chopin, kitsch, and Freud") which yielded "The Seventh Veil" (1945). This is more convincing... she was brilliant at studying the market and at arranging things. This is how films get made. Yes, she got the Oscar. It's a great film.
I have just watched (on Youtube) “The girl In the painting” (1948), with a script by M Box. This misses being a great film but I did enjoy it. The title character has been through several concentration camps and is suffering from amnesia. In one scene, a dominant older male figure (an English major) forces her in quite a threatening way to recover her memory ... using toys from her childhood sent to him by her real father. The ambiguity of the “dangerous healer” reminds me of “The Seventh Veil”, where the ambivalence is the key thing in the whole film. So this scene may be Box’s personal vision – although one of the stories came from a pre-existing novel. That is interesting, but Box’s achievement is surely not to impose a personal style but to organise material, to complete the story arcs, find the drama, and remove or minimise weaknesses. Surely auteur theory was subject to intense criticism in the 1960s, already, because it obscured the collaborative nature of film making. Murphy records that "By the time she [MB] left [Gainsborough] in 1949 there were forty scripts in various stages of development". As Box was supervisor of scripts she probably contributed to all of these.
The quest for a beautiful face seen only in a picture is in “The Girl in the painting” but also in a 1947 film called “Corridor of mirrors”, so part of a sort of pond of floating themes of the time. (Also in a 1944 Preminger film called “Laura”, which may be the start point, who knows.) The idea that one cannot identify with teamwork is irritating… surely the Left approach finds teams at the core of everything. This is closer to how films are made. One does not enter culture to seize power.
Film work starts with a table covered in new pulp novels, which already share the same plot motifs and characters. I am interested in the status of this “pond” of pulp fiction, works which (in the Forties versions] I have had difficulty getting access to. I think they repeated themes endlessly, not being very original; but also that there is a pulp creativity which I admire. “Corridor of Mirrors” is a very distinctive film but there was actually a preceding novel in 1941 which probably has all the story… $40 second hand which I am afraid is too much! It is by Chris Massie (1880-1964). There is a link between this pulp and New Romantic poetry; yet to be defined I think. Somewhere linking Wardour Street and Fitzroy Square. Box started with pulp and added logic and organisation. Then someone else made it visible and visual.

After losing her connection as a director, MB started a publishing company called Femina. I searched for their books in abebooks. They did a 1968 anthology of poetry by women... I think I looked at this before and it was too non-specific, not being contemporary women poets. It wasn’t the first women-only anthology but it deserves honour as being one of the first. The claim is that Femina was the first feminist publisher in Britain, and so far as I know that is true.

The archivist at the BFI interviewed in the radio documentary says in The Observer that “Simon and Laura” is the best British film of the 1950s. This is untrue. It is about two famous actors whose ideal marriage is the subject of a “reality TV” show while off camera they hate each other, and so there are two different stories happening simultaneously. I enjoyed it but it is still very 1950s, full of theatrical glamour, affluent people, and all about marriage. Is it really better than White Corridors, The Ladykillers, the Niven “Elusive Pimpernel”, Gideon's Day, The Cruel Sea, Ice Cold in Alex, The day the earth caught fire… no. But, let's go and watch them all again.