Writings

Water under straw

Danish. I discuss the remarkable story of a prophecy spoken by a priestess of Dagan some 3,800 years ago, which was recorded by three people who interpreted it in three different ways but all noted a crucial, cryptic phrase: “under straw runs water.” After presenting the historical context of the prophecy, I suggest that it aptly describes our relation to the past: even with three independent witnesses, we will never know what really happened, for the events of the past flow in all their complexity under the surface of our sources, like water running under straw.

“Hvad betyder vand under siv?” (“What does ‘water under straw’ mean?”), Politiken Historie (August 2021). Link.

What is philology?

The article proposes a new definition of philology as a systematic attempt to undo crises of reading, resolving whatever difficulties prevent readers from accessing a given text, all the way from scrubbed signs to obscure ontologies. In short, philology is the product of an inability to read a given text combined with an unwillingness to turn away from it in incomprehension.

“What is philology? From crises of reading to comparative reflections.” The article is slated for publication with Poetics Today in December 2022; please do not cite or share it before then without my permission.

Health v. records

Danish. In the wake of the American gymnast Simone Biles’s decision to withdraw from the gymnastic final at the 2021 Olympics, the short essay argues that sport is defined by a tension between two ideals: it is about renewing the body and caring for one’s health; but also about breaking records and striving for extremes. These ideals sometimes merge, and just as often clash. (I make the same argument here.) Today, the ideal of extremes too often trumps that of well-being, which is one reason why we should celebrate Biles’s decision.

“Sejr vs. sundhed” (“Victory v. well-being”), Weekendavisen (5 August 2021). Link.

Yay to language

Danish. In my second entry for Weekendavisen’s lexicon, I discuss the Danish word jo, which all Danes knows how to use, but which almost no one would be able to explain. Like yes and yay in Shakespeare’s English, Danish has different words for replying to a question depending on how it was framed. This is just one example of the great mystery of grammar—that native language users can easily follow rules that they would struggle to articulate. I muse on this fundamental sense of dispossession in relation to language, and, by extension, to culture.

“Jo” (“Yes”), Weekendavisen (7 July 2021). Link.

The upward-curving line

Danish. In a review of a new Danish translation of Orosius’s fifth-century masterpiece, History Against the Pagans, I look at the templates we use to make sense of history: the circle, the pendulum, the ladder, the downward slope. The template that Orosius pioneered with groundbreaking conviction remains the most prevalent today: a smoothly upward-curving line. In Orosius’s Christian retelling of universal history, we find the massively influential proposition that, however slowly and unevenly, the world is getting better year by year.

“Jamreoptimisten fra Braga” (“The pessoptimist from Braga”), Weekendavisen (11 June 2021). Link.

B is for House

Danish. In my first entry for Weekendavisen’s new lexicon, this short essay discusses the home that hides within our words. The twenty-two signs that make up the earliest known alphabet all began as drawings of objects commonly found in Middle Eastern households three thousand years ago. I discuss the homey story inside our signs, starting with B for bēt, “house,” and ending with a surprising plot twist: T, the sign for signs.

“Bēt,” Weekendavisen (14 May 2021). Link.

Neanderthal love

Danish. The review of two books that discuss separate, but intriguingly interconnected topics: Rebecca Wragg Sykes’s acclaimed introduction to the world of Neanderthals, and Ole Høiris’s cultural history of the figure of the “savage.” Both books explore how humans relate to beings that are perceived as almost but not quite humans. Høiris uses the dehumanization of indigenous populations to reflect on how the notion of “human” was constructed, while Sykes invites us to abandon our sapiens-centric bias and consider other ways of being human.

“Fortaler for neandertaler” (“In defense of Neanderthals”), Weekendavisen (7 May 2021). Link.

The two-act structure

The majority of Babylonian epics are organized according to the same narrative structure: the story is divided into two acts, where the second act mirrors and expands the first. The essay shows that this structure applies to Atra-hasis, Enuma Elish, Gilgamesh, Etana, and more, for a total of nine texts.

“The two-act structure: A narrative device in Akkadian epics,” Journal of Ancient Near Eastern Religions, vol. 20, no. 2 (2020 [April 2021]), p. 190–224. Link. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1163/15692124-12341315

Gorman, take two

Danish. Responding to the controversy that surrounded the Dutch translation of Amanda Gorman’s poems, the op-ed argues that many commentators focused on the wrong topic. What matters is not the choice of a white translator, but the systematic neglect of black translators. As all translators know, every choice implies a range of options that were not chosen. When we discuss the politics of translation, we must note who or what was not chosen, and remember that it is structural patterns of repeated choice, not individual decisions, that make a difference.

“Alle valg er fravalg” (“Choosing one leaves out another”), Weekendavisen (26 March 2021). Link.

Thresholds in Gilgamesh

The essay explores the representation of time and space in Gilgamesh. The figure of the threshold is a key aspect of the epic, separating highly different, but internally homogeneous kinds of time and space—a structure that also affects its depiction of characters and textuality.

“The chronotope of the threshold in the Epic of Gilgamesh,” Journal of the American Oriental Society, vol. 141, no. 1 (April 2021), p. 185–200. Link. DOI: https://doi.org/10.7817/jameroriesoci.141.1.0185