Saturday, January 07, 2012

Dreams of academia

After waiting for years on my To Read list, a library copy of Bill Bryson's The Mother Tongue: English and how it got that way is in my possession. I am reading it very slowly, either because I have been reading in bed and always conk out after a few paragraphs, or because it is dense and academic. It is, however, enjoyable and fascinating. The paragraphs I have been reading the last few nights (before conking out, shortly after announcing an interesting fact to Handsome Man), have dealt with the origin of language, the theories that languages are either all from a common source (an original Proto-Indo-European mother tongue) or that the world's languages are not all related to one another. Languages used as evidence both for or against are those such as Basque-languages of ethnic groups that had been for some time relatively isolated and thus, their languages now bear no resemblance to those of surrounding areas. For example, Basque is as different from Spanish and French as is Chinese (or so was explained to me by the roommate who first explained the existence of the Basque ethnicity in 2007. It either came up because he'd just learned that a place he'd visited in Europe was now no longer safe, plagued by Basque separatist terrorism, or because we had received another gift from my grandmere of Basque shepherd's cheese.) Anyway, this part of The Mother Tongue quite possibly stuck in my mind more because I have just been to a Basque restaurant in Boise, and I am supposed to write about the nice time I had there, but since I also want to include it in a larger post about Boise and Idaho and the entire road trip, I haven't gotten around to it yet.

Anyway, what I found fascinating was that, while many scholars assert that Basque bears no resemblance to any other living language, and that it's quite possibly the closest relative to the language spoken by Neolithic Europeans, other evidence shows unusual similarity between Basque and other outcast languages - languages of other until-recently-relatively-isolated ethnicities. These languages bear no resemblance to those of the areas geographically closed to their speakers, but they do resemble each other (and Basque.)

The result of this, and the reason I'm writing, is because I had a very odd dream last night in which I was coming up with my own theories about this. I announced in the dream that the first syllable of "Euskara" (which is Basque for "Basque") was a sign of its relatedness to other European languages, that it wasn't actually so different from Latin. In my dream I was rattling off word roots similar to "eu" that meant something like "ancient" or "origin" and that this was proof that those self-aware Basques named their language in a way that indicated its ancient, true closeness to the root of Latin and Sanskrit and other Indo-European languages. These word roots included "eu-" for true, as in "Eubacteria," and "ur," which, attached to German words, refers to the original, old root of something. Before you think I am some genius in my sleep, I was also listing some word roots that my subconscious mind completely made up, and I kept talking about "eu" as a Latin word root when it is actually Greek.

I'm not sure what it means, these academic dreams, where I am developing theories that are sort of nonsensical. I don't know if it means I'm mentally preparing for school to start on Monday, or if I don't know how to take a break even when I'm asleep, or if I merely fell asleep reading a dense book. This is not the only time this has happened; in 2003 or 2004, while enrolled in a very difficult chemistry class and some English classes, too, I had a complicated dream that it was 2005 or 2006 and that I was at the library doing research for my thesis. I was trying to combine my interests in science and literature in my thesis on the writings of J. D. Salinger. In the dream, I was intently researching the chemical and physical properties of Glass with the plan to make conjectures about its relationship to Salinger's choice for the last name of his reoccurring characters, Buddy Glass, Seymour Glass, and Franny and Zooey and the rest of the Glass family. This, too, would have been most likely bullshit; there's only so much Mr. Salinger could have intended, or perhaps he meant nothing at all. Perhaps there is no relation to the transparency and viscosity of glass to anything having anything to do with Buddy and Seymour.

I did ultimately write my senior thesis on J. D. Salinger, in what was supposed to be an in-depth analysis of the under-appreciated and unusual novella, "Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters." It was not on the role of science in the novella about which I wrote my thesis. I did not actually get to pick my thesis topic, and that is an interesting story about which I've planned to blog but always stop, thinking it might get back to my thesis advisor that I am trashing him or her on the Internet.

Against my will, I wrote about the role of religion in the text, which is such a common theme in literary analysis that I wonder if it's just a mold which some researchers just can't break out of. (I know I just ended a sentence with a preposition, but all of that "of which" was making me feel like an ass.) Fortunately, I wasn't made to hunt for some kind of Christian influence on the writing of Salinger--a Jew with a penchant for Eastern spirituality. Although I wouldn't doubt that more than one academic has cast Seymour Glass as a Christ figure, or something. I believe in the final draft of my terrible thesis, I ended up echoing the sentiments of some theorists who believed that the religious figure embodied by Seymour Glass was The Superlative Horse of the Taoist parable of the same name, and this may not be very different from casting Seymour as Jesus.

(If you really want to know, I think that the novella, which lacks a clear plot, is so much outside of standard English language short story structure that standard tools of analysis, such as quickly drawing lines between Seymour and positive-religious-figure-of-your-choice, do not apply. But I didn't get to write that thesis, so I have nothing else to say.)

Anyway, I had that glass/Glass dream when I was a sophomore in college and had not yet made the decision to double major in English and a science. I felt like this choice might be foolish or impossible, and I felt quite a bit of anxiety over it. Now that I think about it, I am feeling similar anxiety now about making an academic choice.

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