Saturday, November 07, 2009

Radicalism as a Jumpstart to Historical Truth?

The Preface to Black Athena tells that Martin Bernal was trained in Chinese studies, that he taught and researched for twenty years on the intellectual relations between China and the West at the turn of the 20th century. He was also well-studied in Chinese politics. The year of 1962 saw him studying the war in Indo-China and he was concerned about the virtual lack of serious scholarship on Vietnamese culture in Britain. Therefore, he was obliged to study it, both to contribute to the movement against American repression there as much for the study of a fascinating subject. Vietnam and Japan, then served as models for his study of Greece.

It was in 1975 that Bernal came to a mid-life crisis. It was somehow related to the end of American intervention in Indo-China and the upcoming end of the Maoist regime in China. This shift from East Asia to the Eastern Mediterranean led him to explore elements of a personal Jewish ancestry, the relationship of the Israelites to surrounding peoples. It shocked him to discover that Hebrew and Phoenician were mutually intelligible, dialects of a single Canaanite language.

Looking at Hebrew, he found striking similarities to Greek. He knew many languages from Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, and some Chichewa, a Bantu language. He found it interesting that the striking parallels between Hebrew and Greek were not normal between languages developing out of contact. Hebrew/Canaanite was spoken across the Mediterranean, not just in the Levant. He believed that Greek borrowed from Hebrew and vice-versa.

Bernal became convinced that legends about the Phoenician Kadmos founding Thebes may have an element of truth. Still, he dismissed the notion of Egyptian settlement, that whatever Greeks might have written, the colonists were really Semitic speakers.

Four years later, he concluded that nearly a quarter of the Greek vocabulary could be traced to Semitic origins, 40-50% seemed to be of Indo-European origin, yet the remaining quarter, perhaps a third was unaccounted for. But, he remained puzzled as to what that origin might be. In 1979, while glancing through a copy of Cerny’s Coptic Etymological Dictionary, he found it. He determined that 20-30% of the remainder of Greek had origins in Egyptian as well as the names of their gods and goddesses.

Why wasn’t this seen before? Anti-Semitism explained the denial of Phoenician contribution. What about Egypt? Why hadn’t Bernal seen this before? It was so obvious to him, especially since Egypt was a tremendously powerful and nearby culture connected to Greece by a very short distance across the Mediterranean and, even more so because his grandfather was an Egyptologist. Still, he never even thought to look there. He concluded that profound cultural inhibitions must exist to deny the association of Egypt to Greece.

Bernal, armed with his theory, began to study the historiography of Greek origins. Bernal began to refer to his theory as the “Ancient model” and was very surprised to find that the modern model of Greek origins began 1840-50. Clearly, attitudes toward Phoenician influence had been profoundly influenced by anti-Semitism. Connections to Romanticism and tensions between the Egyptian religion and Christianity took “rather longer to unravel.”

Martin Bernal has worked for more than a decade on his theory and has become "a public nuisance in both Cambridge and Cornell." Many scholars have contributed their criticisms, some which Bernal concedes and some that he does not. Either way, he stresses a very good point. People see what they want to see. If a scholar turns out wrong, it may not get noticed for a very long time, especially if it’s politically useful to those in power at the time. In Mark Twain’s words, “It shows that that strange thing, the conscience--the unerring monitor--can be trained to approve any wild thing you want it to approve if you begin its education early & stick to it.”- Notebook #35. Twain almost announced Bernal’s arrival to the podium!

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