Not all Greek: A pandemic-inspired addiction to language courses

Journalistic ephemera are a running theme in Ulysses, starting with the scene in Leopold Bloom’s outdoor toilet

The bust of James Joyce in St Stephen’s Green, Dublin. Photograph: Frank Miller

The bust of James Joyce in St Stephen’s Green, Dublin. Photograph: Frank Miller

 

In what may be the latest instalment of a Covid-inspired descent into Duolingo addiction, I have recently taken up Greek. I still believe I can put it down again, voluntarily, as I can the other (er) six languages I’m now learning or relearning via the app. But addicted or not, if the pandemic persists much longer, I’m at risk of becoming a polyglot.

It’s partly the game-based nature of the thing that, every so often, encourages you to start yet another course. As the languages you’re already studying get harder, and each module more time-consuming, the temptation is to begin another new one, in which you can take baby steps for a time and score lots of points quickly.

Then the latest language sucks you in. Before you know it, you’re emotionally involved. I’m still in low infants with Greek, for example: I can barely read the alphabet yet. But I’m already fascinated by its many echoes in English (including “alphabet”), and by the familiar sounds that lurk behind the strange script.

One of the first sounds I heard was “ego” (meaning “I am”), for example, which is fundamental to so much. And less profoundly, but my new favourite thing, is the Greek word for “newspaper”, which in Roman script is written as “efimerida”.

This, clearly, is a close relative of the word we know in English as ephemera, which my dictionary reminds me means first “an insect that lives for only a day”, and from there extends to describing anything short-lived, including newspapers. Of course that same point used to be made – all too pithily – by fish and chip shops, with their charming habit of wrapping their products in the previous day’s newsprint.

More reassuringly for journalists, the word ephemera also refers to printed material that, while originally intended to be disposable, can end up in collections, sometimes highly valued. Only this year – speaking of ego – a 1968 civil rights sign bearing the message “I am a man” sold for $6,500 at an ephemera auction. The original had been carried by a striking black sanitation worker in Memphis, Tennessee, the day before Martin Luther King’s assassination.

None of this would have been lost on the Hellenophile James Joyce, who modelled his portrait of Dublin in 1904 on a Greek epic. Indeed, journalistic ephemera are a running theme in Ulysses, starting with the scene in Leopold Bloom’s outdoor toilet.

Never mind fish and chip wrapping, Bloom puts popular journalism in even less flattering perspective by reading the prize story in an issue of Titbits magazine while seated on the jacks. Almost simultaneously, he admires the story’s neat construction and then the similarly neat result of the project he himself is working on. Finally, he tears the page out and wipes himself with it.

Later that morning, his copy of the Freeman’s Journal becomes the vehicle for a comic misunderstanding that will be exacerbated by the day’s events. The paper is borrowed from him on the street by one Bantam Lyons, who Bloom tries to dismiss by telling him to keep it, because he was going to “throw it away”.

“What’s that?” asks the distracted Lyons as he checks the racing pages, causing Bloom to repeat the “throw-away” phrase. Then, half-hearing, Lyons hands him back the journal and, thanking him for the tip, disappears. Unwittingly, Bloom has predicted the winner of the 1904 Ascot Gold Cup, which history records was won in suspicious circumstances by the ephemerally named “Throwaway”, the 20-1 outsider in a field of four.

After the race, the popular but wrong assumption that the “jewman” Bloom was in on this secret, followed by his perceived failure to share the winnings, inspires a localised outbreak of anti-semitism.

In the meantime, on his rambles, he encounters another piece of ephemera when a YMCA man approaches and “places a throwaway” in his hand. The leaflet advertises the appearance of an evangelist with the headline “Elijah is Coming”. And confirming the usual fate of ephemera, Bloom crumples it up and throws it off O’Connell Bridge.

But from there, it becomes part of the incidental detail to one of the most celebrated passages in literature, during which almost all the book’s characters criss-cross Dublin and each other in a carefully choreographed sequence. Joyce planned the times and distances like an engineer. The crumpled throwaway is just one of the many moving parts in his tour de force, as “Elijah” proceeds down river, coming and going in the episodic action, past the Loopline bridge, John Rogerson’s Quay, and other landmarks, en route to the sea.

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