Glagolitic Reflections

The so-called “Glagolitic Path,” or, as the locals name it, the Aleja glagljaša, runs for a little more than four miles through the idyllic countryside of Istria’s Mirna Valley Basin between the villages of Roč and Hum. Nowhere near so well-traveled as the coastal towns just to the west, it is no less picturesque. Hilltop villages speckle the landscape, which has a fairy-tale quality that has often induced in me the anxious sensation that some unexpected, stunning surprise lies waiting just over the next incline. It often does.

In this wide, relatively open, sunny expanse the waters of the Mirna (or “peaceful”) River gather together before making their way down to empty, also quite humbly, into the Adriatic some twenty-five miles to the southwest near the town of Novigrad. Local legends suggest that the river was named after the wife of the giant Dragonja, who, when out tilling his fields one day, dug an especially deep trench all the way from the heights of the Ćićarija plateau to the sea. It is unclear from the stories whether Dragonja was happy or frustrated that the water that filled in his furrow moved slowly and steadily, for which quality he gave it his wife’s name.

The Path, which is probably best understood as a public art project or perhaps a modest ethnopark, was created between 1977 and 1983 to commemorate the heritage of Glagolitic writing, which featured prominently in the religious and cultural history of Istria, the Kvarner Gulf, and Dalmatia. As I note this, using words like “commemorate” and “heritage” and “featured,” it occurs to me that some might be inclined relegate the script, with its exotic sounding name and, to them at least, obscure history, to the category of bygone curiosities, artifacts of material culture significant primarily for their developmental value. It is a common way of thinking and categorizing among scholars of cultural history. We read and consider every artifact along historical timelines, it is true, and the categorizing and interpreting impulses tend to make everything of equal interest, a little like the underwater archeological prism I have noted elsewhere. But then some things catch our attention by jumping out of line, as it were, suggesting in fact that they might be of interest somehow outside history, not just because they are part of a chronology and lead to some subsequent stage but for other reasons that seem to speak to us directly, outside the context of our search for items of “developmental significance.” On this basis we sometimes switch our approach completely, seeing wonders and masterpieces in these exceptional cases, thinking that because they speak so to us they must also speak to others in the same way and not just in our own time. Perhaps, we think, they are of some intrinsically human interest.

The Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin accounted for this phenomenon by suggesting that some cultural inventions incorporate not just content but “potential” inside them, such that they can live on beyond the time in which they were created and continue to grow, as future generations open them up and find new things that past generations might not have seen, all while continuing to recognize that the things earlier generations saw must also be “in there.” It is a brilliant solution to the generations-old question of how multiple interpretations of one and the same cultural artifact can be equally valid.

I suppose from a certain perspective, Glagolitic must appear as what Jan Morris, in her Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere calls “another kind of arcanum” (155) whose presence “so close to the city center of Trieste” is “like an unsuspected spell or exorcism, left in the attic.” It is thus mysterious and exotic, a remnant of a dark past that lingers in unknown places, hidden amid the dust of forgotten documents, and then creeps out to dazzle us with its unexpected shapes and squiggles when we are busy looking for something else. Or perhaps we must travel far to find it, venturing down into peripheral or interstitial territories about which we have only heard stories. Thus Glagolitic is “like no other European writing” and “for centuries… defied the intrusion of the Latin alphabet” (Ibid., 156). This is basically true. It is also thick with perspective, partly Morris’s (whose subject is Trieste, after all, not Istria, let alone the eastern Adriatic), partly that of the members of the Istrian émigré community who made their home in Trieste following their departure from Istria after World War II. I have felt the thickness of this perspective, its palpability, which is based on real and hard-lived experience, and so I cannot say that it is wrong. But it is certainly limited and incomplete.

While many outsiders know about the use of two writing systems in the Balkans, Latinate and Cyrillic, fewer are aware of Glagolitic, which is in fact older than the latter though not so old as was once believed. For hundreds of years Glagolitic was thought to have been invented in the fourth century by St. Jerome, whose now legendary birthplace somewhere on the border between Dalmatia and the Pannonian plain combined effectively with his spiritual authority as the translator of the Latin Vulgate Bible, on the one hand, and the most learned of the Church Fathers, on the other, to shore up support for the alphabet’s continued use over the centuries, particularly as part of the liturgical language. In addition to “Illyrian” and “Slovenish,” the script is thus often referred to in medieval manuscripts as “Hieronymian,” after Jerome’s Latin name, Eusebius Sophronius Hieronymus. Jerome’s skill with numerous languages and the fact that the letters of Glagolitic appear to derive from a variety of ancient scripts, including Phoenician, Greek, Hebrew, Armenian, Samaritan, and Coptic, helped to keep the story alive, and it is easy to sense the power of the tradition behind doing so, as the clerics told themselves and others that they were continuing along the path forged a thousand and more years before, preserving the great Jerome’s legacy in its purest form, the system of writing down the sounds of their language that he had created. Unfortunately, this just isn’t true.

Bastards All

Mixture has turned out to provide an especially fruitful path of inquiry in researching this book, while its relationship to intimacy has furnished one of my central themes.

I am aware that there is another sense to the term in question, but let us begin with this.

A Baster is a member of a racially mixed group of frontier people who live in Namibia and North West South Africa. The name appears to come from the Afrikaans baster, meaning “half-breed.” They were once also called Bastaards—a spelling that, I suppose, means the a is long as in father—and are believed to be descendants of eighteenth-century Dutch and French fathers and Khoi-Khoi (Hottentot) mothers. They speak a dialect of Dutch but have some knowledge of Khoi-Khoi. They long lived in autonomous hybrid communities founded in the nineteenth century, which blended a variety of traditions and practices of their parent cultures. The early Basters were proud of their White ancestry, which they would emphasize to justify claims of superiority over their aboriginal neighbors.

This is a way of seeing one’s own skin color that most white people never experience, an instrumental and objectivized approach to some part of yourself, a little like being proud of having a car that’s better than your neighbor’s, only it’s not a car you drive, it’s one you wear, or better one that’s attached to your body as a kind of automotive appendage that you see every time you look in the mirror, from ever since you were aware of yourself as a distinct person, a constituent self-object inherited from your mother, or your father, or some distant, great great Bastaard relative.

“Bastard toadflax” refers to small annual or perennial herbs of the sandalwood family. They have narrow leaves like true toadflax, but they are not true toadflax. In the same way, “bastard saffron” is not true saffron, “bastard pimpernel” not true pimpernel, and “bastard balm” not true balm. It might seem on the surface that these names all refer to, and so in a sense benefit from, the association with the true. But in effect their names all define them fundamentally by their difference from something else, the absence of something in them, their impurity, falseness, inauthenticity. They resemble but are not some other thing, something other and better because it is called what it is and it is that, not something other and worse because it is not that.

This puts them together in a surprisingly productive category of things defined by what they resemble but are not, as for instance most things termed faux—faux leather, faux pearls, faux fur, though faux is not always the same as bastard. Faux bois is not real bois, it’s imitation, like all the other imposters. We can put a faux memoir, which is not to be confused with a false memory—why does everything change so much when you translate it into French?—in this category as well. But a faux pas really is a pas, it’s just a really bad one. In some ways a faux pas might be a more distinctive pas than a non-faux pas. We perform a thousand non-faux pas every day, and no one ever notices. They are the mundane details of life, rather boring and forgettable. But a faux pas is unique, memorable, the stuff of stories, though not of the heroic sort. The faux pas finds its place in the salon rather than on the field of battle. Nevertheless, it has a bold authenticity that a mere pas can never hope to achieve.

A “flat bastard” is a type of metal file specific to the North American system of pattern coarseness. It refers to the tooth spacing, or number of teeth per inch, on a file, usually a metal one but wood is also possible. This file renders a “bastard cut,” which is the result of having the fewest number of teeth per inch. The more teeth there are on the file, the smoother the finish after filing. Which means that the obverse is also true: the fewer the teeth, the rougher the finish.

This usage is analogous to the bastarda script that was used for less formal, vernacular texts in France and Germany during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, bastarda being synonymous with less refined, less polished, less sophisticated. Presumably a liturgical text (in Latin) would not have been printed in such a bastard script, just as a fine wood would not be subjected to a course bastard file, flat or otherwise. Both these uses reassure in their democratic implications, their roughness marking a natural authenticity, an absence of elitism, exclusion, or snobbery. Applying the word faux to your flat bastard or claiming that your flat bastard was better than someone else’s flat bastard because it had, say, even fewer teeth than his—distorts the very idea of the bastard in all its purity.

Bastard appears numerous times in the King James Bible. In Zechariah 9:6, “And a bastard shall dwell in Ashdod, and I will cut off the pride of the Philistines”; in Hebrews 12:8, “But if ye be without chastisement, whereof all are partakers, then are ye bastards, and not sons”; and in Deuteronomy 23:2, “A bastard shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord; even to his tenth generation shall he not enter in to the congregation of the Lord.” The usage is rather inconsistent from one Bible translation to another, where “mongrel,” “mixed” might be preferred, while in several more recent translations, instead of “bastard,” terms like “foreigner,” “half-breed,” and phrases like “born of a forbidden marriage” appear. The confusion appears to center around the Hebrew concept mamzer. According to rabbinic law, this name refers to offspring of individuals unable to contract a legal marriage, especially if it would be incestuous. The child of parents genealogically free to marry is never understood as a mamzer, regardless of how few teeth it might have.

The Venetian galea bastarda, or “bastard galley,” was a cross between the galea sottile and the galea grossa. It was characterized by its relatively fuller hull and stronger built, which allowed it to accommodate a fourth, and later a fifth, rower per bench. Some of these rowers would eventually be captured Turks, others enslaved Morlachs from Dalmatia, but the Venetians held out against the practice of slave rowers on their military vessels for as long as they could, preserving, it seems, the practice of citizen rowers from the Ancient World. The increased size and strength of the bastard galley made it especially suitable for use as a flagship in both military and commercial expeditions. A bastard sail is also known as a lateen mainsail, that revolutionary design that allowed sailors to maneuver both upwind and down and was especially popular among the islands of the eastern Adriatic, where even today there are special “lateen” regattas.

The English word bastard appears to derive from the Medieval Latin word bastum, meaning a pack saddle used by muleteers traveling from inn to inn. Calling someone a “fils de bast,” or “son of the bastum,” was a euphemistic manner of suggesting a child not born of marriage bed. The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that bantum is related to “bantling,” a corruption of the German “bänkling,” from bank, or bench, suggesting a child begotten on a bench rather than a bed. These words thus at some earlier point in their histories carried subtle allusive qualities that the contemporary usage of bastard makes rather ironic, bastard having been coarsened over time. Bastard, in fact, was once a relatively common name. Its bearers include a minor French composer of the sixteenth century, a Devon family established at Kitley near Yealmpton in the late seventeenth century, and a geographical district of Canada, in the Province of Ontario. With the term’s descent into abuse, many former bearers of course changed their names, leaving most descendants ignorant of their true origins.