Then there was nothing to do but wait for the end.
How did one make peace with one’s own death? According to the accounts of the Crito, the Phaedo, and the Apology, Socrates went to his death without distress, with such preternatural calm that he refused multiple entreaties to escape. In fact, he’d been so cheerfully blasé, so convinced that dying was the just thing to do, that he beat his friends over their heads with his reasoning, in that insufferably righteous way of his, even as they burst into tears. Robin had been so struck, upon his first foray into the Greek texts, by Socrates’ utter indifference to his end.
And surely it was better, easier to die with such good cheer; no doubts, no fears, one’s heart at rest. He could, in theory, believe it. Often, he had thought of death as a reprieve. He had not stopped dreaming of it since the day Letty shot Ramy. He entertained himself with ideas of heaven as paradise, of green hills and brilliant skies where he and Ramy could sit and talk and watch an eternal sunset. But such fantasies did not comfort him so much as the idea that all death meant was nothingness, that everything would just stop: the pain, the anguish, the awful, suffocating grief. If nothing else, surely, death meant peace.
Still, facing the moment, he was terrified.
They wound up sitting on the floor in the lobby, taking comfort in the silence of the group, listening to each other breathe. Professor Craft tried, haltingly, to comfort them, surveying her memory for ancient words on this most human of dilemmas. She spoke to them of Seneca’s Troades, of Lucan’s Vulteius, of the martyrdom of Cato and Socrates. She quoted to them Cicero, Fiorace, and Pliny the Elder. Death is nature’s greatest good.
Death is a better state. Death frees the immortal soul. Death is transcendence.
Death is an act of bravery, a glorious act of defiance.
—Rebecca Kuang, Babel: An Arcane History (2022).
Stephanie Jo Kent: Our guest today on Structures of Interaction is Glynis Jones. Glynis is both a professional and hobbyist language learner, a linguist, translator, and teacher by trade. She is proficient in English, Chinese, and Russian. Glynis, welcome to the show.
Glynis Jones: Hello. Thank you for having me.
Stephanie Jo Kent: You bet. The mode here is we just dive in.
Glynis Jones: Okay.
Stephanie Jo Kent: This reading, there’s a lot going on in it. What immediately strikes you about it? Just in terms of the story or the interactions among the characters.
Glynis Jones: The way that their teacher is reading to them from these passages, both in the original and then the author is providing us the translations, and that they’re finding comfort not only in the text, which is what we’re seeing through the English translation, but they’re finding comfort through their teacher’s voice, saying it in the original. I immediately noticed that as highlighting the power of both of those things; of both the original and the translation and what that brings to us.
Stephanie Jo Kent: Oh, that’s cool. Right. What do we know about the characters? If this is the only part of the whole book that we know, what can we piece together about there? So there’s a teacher, and —
Glynis Jones: But, yeah, there’s this team of this teacher and students who are clearly a close-knit team and they’re facing something horrific together. We don’t know exactly why it’s the end for them, and this is my only exposure to this novel so far. But yeah, they’re facing this horror together and trying to understand death, trying to find comfort in their teacher’s philosophy around death.
They’re clearly doing it with some kind of heroic intention. I get the sense that there’s something they’re protecting, something that they’re standing for as they’re making this choice.
Stephanie Jo Kent: Do you have a thought about the memories of the people that he talks about, or is that too distant because of not knowing the story?
Glynis Jones: I mean, it’s pretty distant from not knowing the story, but they’re clearly, these lovely concrete, almost like sensory vignettes of his experience with these people. I think it illustrates that closeness and gives us a taste of why they’re willing to make this sacrifice together.
Stephanie Jo Kent: Yeah. I’m trying to think of how this moment, or series of moments, encapsulates three levels of a structure of interaction with the interpersonal stuff at the base, these immediate and palpable relationships. And then I think where you went with your first take was more, I would say, at the level of discourse of the importance of language and languages and valuing them. And then at the level of the social practice and the context that they’re in, is it an offensive decision that they’ve made or a defensive decision that they’ve made? What position do you think they’re in in this conflict?
Glynis Jones: I certainly get the sense that it’s a defensive position. As so often happens in stories like these, the only offensive choice they have in the face of what I’m reading to be an insurmountable enemy, something — the only offensive action they can take is self-destruction, and then that seems to be protecting something because the only way they can protect it from the enemy is to destroy it and take it with them.
Stephanie Jo Kent: Could you make parallels, then, from this bit to the world we’re living in now?
Glynis Jones: Sure, if I was a little more educated on news and recent history. Unfortunately, the only examples I can think of are not ones that we think of fondly because they were taken out against “our side”, so I won’t draw those parallels. I mean, kamikaze isn’t the right metaphor because it’s not taking out the enemy. It’s the like, if I can’t protect this, nobody can have it.
Stephanie Jo Kent: Is there any hint in this passage what it is they’re protecting? Can we tell at all? Are there any clues?
Glynis Jones: I think the clues I picked up on would be it’s a tower. I know that the name of the book is Babel, and so that makes me think of the Tower of Babylon. And then we have these references to — at the very end where we paused for this section, Robin is seeming to activate some kind of power through a force of translation.
So that gives me a sense that like — immediately makes me think of Library of Alexandria. There is some kind of linguistic, and I use that word to mean language, academic knowledge that’s being protected here or some kind of language power.
Stephanie Jo Kent: Tell me about the Library of Alexandria, I don’t know.
Glynis Jones: Library of Alexandria; I am not an Egyptologist so my history is going to be full of holes. The Library of Alexandria is one of the great losses of ancient history. It was a library; it was a very large collection of texts on papyrus that was burned by an opposing force, it was not burned by choice of those protecting it.
Now that I’m telling this story, though, I can think of a slightly modern parallel to what this makes me think of in terms of destroying something to protect it. The example that’s coming to mind is that during the Siege of Leningrad, of course, there’s the Hermitage in what we now know is St. Petersburg, this massive extensive collection of art and artifacts from all over the world, some acquired legally, some through theft, like any good art museum run by a monarchy.
But this had to be protected when Leningrad was being invaded. What happened was all of the docents and museum employees rolled up paintings, packaged up sculptures and shipped them off to Moscow, which was not currently being invaded so that they were protected. But then those docents and employees stayed, they lived at the museum.
They lived in the basement, they ate rats, and they continued to give tours to anybody who came with empty picture frames. They would describe what they remembered to be in those picture frames in great detail because they had spent years looking at them and talking about them so they could. So there’s accounts of people going to the Hermitage just after the Siege of Leningrad that art had not come back yet and having these profound experiences of experiencing art that wasn’t even there. That comes to mind in terms of like when you have to destroy something in order to protect it.
Stephanie Jo Kent: Yeah. And then let’s trace back then to the comment you made about the power of language.
Glynis Jones: Sure.
Stephanie Jo Kent: What is that power that we might guess from this very tiny window into this huge story?
Glynis Jones: I mean, the clue that we get is what the teacher is saying; she’s giving these quotes in the original Latin to try to comfort them as they confront their end. But that’s all they have to hold onto in that moment; that and their memories of each other. So the power of language is how we can transcend time in that way.
I read a theory about, because dogs have such powerful smell, they can smell things that are no longer there, and so they’re having this time traveling experience by being able to smell something that was there yesterday, but to them it’s still there because they’re smelling it.
There’s some kind of parallel there to this experience of language of — and especially language in a library sense, language from the ancients, it is this time travel experience. We are connected to somebody who was alive 2,000, 3,000, 4,000, or 5,000 years ago as though we’re talking with them.
Stephanie Jo Kent: That’s awesome. So the things they said traveled to us through this vehicle of language across this incredible distance of time, also, through an interpreting process or a translation process from one language to another, it’s another movement that establishes a connection, a relationship.
Glynis Jones: Yeah.
Stephanie Jo Kent: Thank you for giving this a shot with me.
Glynis Jones: Sure.
Stephanie Jo Kent: I look forward to having you back for Part 2.
Original music written and performed by Richard Guild Kent.
Transcript by Esther Wokabi.
Shownotes and Transcript are published at www.reflexivity.us.