Writings

Moving images

Danish. In a review of the third Danish translation of Sappho to appear in ten months (!), I argue that one of the distinguishing features of Sappho’s poetry is their ability to create what I call moving images, in a nod to the oxymoronic force that this phrase once carried: the poems present pictures that are perfectly still, yet infused with motion. Nothing ever happens in the now of Sappho’s poems, but her words still shimmer with memories of the past and expectations for the future.

“Digter i måneskin” (“Writing in the moonlight”), Weekendavisen (21 August 2021). Link.

Atomic geese

Danish. A short essay reflecting on the title of my high school coursebook on literature: At omgås tekster (“How to deal with texts”), which the students quickly transformed into Atomgås tekster (“Atomic goose texts”). The best teachers of literature are those who treat texts as open to unexpected collisions of words that produce new and unsettling meanings, instead of presenting them as codifications of fixed allegories whose significance the students must decipher.

“Atomgås” (“Atomic goose”), Weekendavisen (19 June 2021). Link.

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 engagement with crises of reading, focused on the difficulties that prevent readers from gaining access to or drawing meaning from a given text, all the way from scrubbed signs to obscure ontologies. Responding to two recent interventions in the field—Philology by James Turner and World Philology by Sheldon Pollock, Benjamin Elman, and Ku-ming Kevin Chang—the article explores the practices, history, and current state of philology.

“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