10 April 2006

Inflated Writing

You might not have made it to the end of Kathleen Coleman's 3000 word review of:

Andrew Bell, Spectacular Power in the Greek and Roman City. Oxford/New
York: Oxford University Press, 2004. Pp. viii, 289. ISBN
0-19-924234-8. $125.00.
In which case you would have missed the following paragraphs, which go to show how little, it seems, one may get these days for $125. (And, let's see, an iPod on ebay costs ...?)
Apart from numerous instances of faulty grammar, syntax, and
punctuation, and the recurrent obstacle posed by awkward parentheses,
the book is written in a very obfuscating manner, with a plethora of
abstract nouns (often employed in an otiose plural: "behaviours,"
"circumspections," "hungers," "needinesses," "persuasivenesses",
"rhetorics," etc.; even dignitates) and superfluous adverbs. Two
indications of Bell's failure to achieve clarity of expression are his
use of neologisms (of which "gladiatoriality" is the most egregious)
and his habit of embedding quotations from other scholars within his
sentences, where they often do not fit properly, instead of struggling
to say what he means in his own words; discounting conventional
quotations set off from the syntax of the surrounding discourse, in the
first chapter (23 pages) he embeds 29 such quotations. The second
chapter contains a particularly distracting example of this habit
(45-6): "Analysis of such coherence requires perhaps more emphasis upon
'how the elite were perceived by others' and not so much 'how they
perceived themselves' if one wishes to understand 'that deliberate
balance between individual ambition and common values' which served
'for four centuries to sustain aristocratic ascendancy';" a footnote
adds: "Thus contra Gruen 1996: 225." Bell presumably means that he
considers the e/lite's self-perception in Antiquity more important than
their perception by others, whereas Gruen thinks the opposite
(misquoted, incidentally: he wrote "delicate," not "deliberate"); but
straightforward formulations, alas, are hard to find among these pages.
Furthermore, numerous colloquialisms also smack of failure to think of
the right expression: "sexily charismatic" (37) seems a very unlikely
description of Sulla.

Curiously, the first footnote in the book, appended to the sentence in
which Bell states that Ceaus,escu's speech was delivered on 21 December
1989, claims inter alia that "Much of the following is based upon the
New York Times of 12 and 13 December 1989." Admittedly, since the
subsequent account of Ceaus,escu's fall ranges both backwards from his
catastrophic speech as well as forwards, news reports may have been
filed on those two dates that supplied Bell with some critical
information; but the apparent contradiction is, unfortunately, a
harbinger of much that is muddled or confusing in the book as a whole.
Division between paragraphs frequently seems arbitrary, betrayed by the
use of pronouns whose referent is buried in a previous paragraph; there
are distortions of detail;[[5]] translations from ancient sources are
sometimes so literal as to sound garbled;[[6]] the relevance of some
footnotes is not clear.[[7]] Frequently one suspects that Bell was not
thinking about what he wrote, otherwise how could he claim, for
example, that "the populus Romanus is accorded much greater symbolic
significance than in, say, the Grand Procession of Ptolemy
Philadelphus" (159), or refer to "the living, breathing Roman
constitution" (207)?

5. E.g. (to cite three different categories of distortion) the claim
(49) that Cicero was sufficiently familiar with the Iliad "not to need
to bother" to look up passages he quoted (quotation from memory was the
default position in Antiquity, the process of checking a papyrus roll
being so cumbersome; Gellius himself, whom Bell cites in n. 126, is
surprised not by Cicero's error but by Tiro's failure to correct it);
or the implication (167) that Pompey's theater was grafted onto an
earlier temple of Venus Victrix (the temple-complex, which indeed seems
to have been built upon the site of an earlier temple, itself contained
a shrine to Venus, whose grand stepped approach was a pretext for the
cauea); or a misdirected attempt (174) to register a supplement by
Baiter at Cic. Sest. 106.

6. "The city, cherish, my Caelius, the city and live in its light!"
(18), "he accomplished his plan by great effort and by great dangers"
(40), "he so demagogued the vulgar and the poor" (97), "when his rule
was being snatched away" (144). At Diod. 31. 16. 1 a crucial
ga/r must be translated if the train of thought is to be
clear (140).

7. E.g. 35 n. 59, 56 n. 20, 87 n. 169, 113 n. 299, 117 n. 14, 137 n.
110, 194 n. 180.