The sense of nonsense

Danish. In my twelfth entry for Weekendavisens lexicon, I trace the origins of the Danish word “volapyk,” meaning nonsense: it comes from a predecessor of Esperanto, Volapük, an attempt to create a perfect global language (the current Danish meaning of the word shows how well that project went). I discuss my own teenagey dabbling in conlanging, and why languages cannot—as the creator of Volapük wanted—be kept in a state of permanent stasis: languages live in change, change is the mechanism that makes meaning possible.

“Volapyk” (“Volapük”), Weekendavisen (9 June 2023). Link.

Making the modern world

Danish. The subtitle “and the Making of the Modern World” has become an obsession for publishers of popular history books, being applied to everything from Gengis Khan to dynamite and the year 1946. The compulsive repetition of the subtitle—I list 33 examples shows us two things about the popular notion of history: a widespread disagreement about what “modernity” means, and a widespread agreement about the purpose of history, namely using the past to understand the present.

“Den moderne verdens mange, mange tilblivelser” (“The many, many makings of the modern world”), Weekendavisen (9 June 2023). Link.

Loathin’ n’ lovin’

Danish. I begin my review of Harald Voetmann’s new translation of Catullus with a close reading of poem no. 16: a rape joke that deconstructs itself to establish the difference between fictional persona and real author, combining a sophisticated literary self-reference with a genuinely shocking vulgarity. That’s Catullus in a nutshell, as I explain in this review, which draws on Danish pop music and the TV series Gossip Girl to explore his poetic self-contradictions: his earnestness and artificiality, his obsessive explorations of the self and the deeply social nature of his poems.

“Popdrengen vender tilbage” (“The pop boy returns”), Weekendavisen (26 May 2023). Link.

Medieval merriment

Danish. In a review of Kåre Johannessen’s book about leisure and amusement in the European Middle Ages, I argue that Johannessen’s fascination with play is an example to be emulated. Historians often explain premodern diversions in instrumental terms—as physical training or forms of subtle social control—but this reading of fun and games as always being “work in disguise” itself reveals our modern, capitalist, post-protestant work-bias, a bias we must set aside if we are to understand Medieval peoples on their own terms. Play can be its own purpose.

“Fritid er sit eget formål” (“Leisure is its own goal”), Weekendavisen (5 May 2023). Link.

A clash of Cleo’s

Danish. Weighing in on the controversy surrounding the 2023 Netflix docudrama about Queen Cleopatra, I briefly trace the history of her malleable, adaptable image, arguing that the queen’s legacy became a confluence of contradictions: she gathers in one figure East and West, sex and death, power and decline, excessive masculinity and excessive femininity. Talking about Cleopatra has always been a way to talk about the relation between women, ethnicity, and power, but when will we stop reducing her to her body—whether her skin or her sex life—and focus instead on her complex achievements and afterlife?

“Hvornår bliver vi klar til Kleopatra?” (“When will we be ready for Cleopatra?”), Weekendavisen (5 May 2023). Link.

Before the Flood

Danish. Are Danish museums prepared for the coming climate catastrophe? In this article, I survey the plans that Danish cultural institutions have made to protect their cultural heritage against extreme weather phenomena and social unrest over the coming decades, drawing a parallel between the situation we face today and the story of the Flood as relayed by the Babylonian writer Berossus.

“Før Syndfloden” (“Before the Flood”), Weekendavisen (21 April 2023). Link.

Long Ovid?

Danish. In a review of a new Danish publication of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, I connect the all-pervading change that is the subject of the genre-busting “epic” with the profound, violent transformation that Ovid himself lived through, from his birth one year after Caesar’s assassination to his own death in political exile under Augustus. A traumatic transformation can be repressed beneath the illusion that our lives are under our own control, or it can be elevated into a poetical and cosmological principle: Ovid chose the latter.

“Bestandigt i forvandligt” (“In constant change”), Weekendavisen (14 April 2023). Link.

The first Danish novel

Danish. In 2023, the first Danish novel, Den beklædte sandhed (The Veiled Truth), celebrates its 300th anniversary. Virtually forgotten today, the novel was written by a woman, Anna Margrethe Lasson, who was an ardent defender of women’s place in literary culture. A roman-à-clef with concealment as both its form and its topic, the book fell between two historical stools: it appeared half a century too late to be part of the vogue of baroque courtly novels that Lasson sought to bring to Scandinavia, and half a century too early to be part of the flourishing of Danish novels.

“Kærlighedens nye klæder” (“Beyond the Veil”), Weekendavisen (7 April 2023). Link.

A revolution in cuneiform

Danish. The recently launched portal of the Electronic Babylonian Literature projected, led by Enrique Jiménez, is a huge advance in the study of cuneiform cultures. The digital framework has allowed philologists to place fragments so small that humans would be unlikely to ever identify them; and while the fragments themselves are typically no more than a few lines, their combined effect—Jiménez’s team have so far processed 21.568 fragments—is revolutionary.

“Nyt fra Babylon” (“News from Babylon”), Weekendavisen (31 March 2023). Link.

To leave on read

Danish. In my eleventh entry for Weekendavisens lexicon, I discuss the peculiarly modern feeling—created by “read receipts” on messaging apps such as WhatsApp—of knowing that your words have been read, but not yet responded to. This state of communicative limbo gained a new intensity for me some two years ago, after I had written a meandering essay on the art of falling. My grandfather wrote to me to tell me how much he had enjoyed reading it, but the reply I sent him the morning after remained unseen: he had died in his sleep in the intervening hours. That my essay was one of the last things he read was particularly harrowing because the essays ends with a literary conflation of sleep and death.

“Læst” (“Read”), Weekendavisen (31 March 2023). Link.