Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Language and Concepts: Writing The Sacred History of Being (I)

The draft of The Sacred History of Being which began in January 2011 had the working title of Being and Representation in Greece and Assyria. There are now three parts to the work, but originally there were only two.  The first of the pair explored the idea of Being in the context of Greece and Greek philosophical ideas. The second part was concerned with the culture and thought of Ancient Assyria, and the evidence for the existence of the concept of Being, and focussed mainly on evidence from the reigns of Esarhaddon and Ashurbanipal.

I've recounted something of the way my interests in philosophy and religion led me toward the subject of this project. The history of the project also is a subject of interest, which is worth exploring. Not all of it went smoothly. And indeed for three whole years, it ceased altogether, at a time when it should have been moving forward.

The idea of the project was in my head by the time I began studying ancient history and languages in London in 1989. It was very loosely constructed at the that time. Mostly it revolved around a number of key observations and some anomalous data. I knew about the use of philosophical terminology in civilizations earlier than the Greeks. I knew about the significance of the idea of totality, and that it was connected in some way with ideas of divinity. I knew also that ideas of the limit and of extremity were connected with a body of conceptions around the idea of the divine.

The experience at UCL was important in a great number of ways. I was given much wider experience of ancient cultures than I had, and lots of exposure to ancient texts, mostly within a critical framework. There was also a chance to explore iconography in some detail, particularly the Assyrian reliefs in the British Museum. I also had the opportunity to understand the theoretical framework for the study of history, and how it applied to the study of ancient history.

After UCL (I graduated in 1992) it was very difficult to work, simply because my energies were absorbed by the business of daily life, and the running of various projects. While working in Oxford I analysed the structure of Plato's Sophist, which I'd identified as a key document for understanding both Plato, and how his work might relate to both Greek religion, and the religions of other states around the mediterranean and the near east.

I also began to write on the subject of collection and division, which is the essence of dialectical practice in classical philosophy.  But it remained a sketch. I wrote plenty of words during the 1990s, but nearly all of it was related to what I was doing for a living. So I wrote about the internet, and the impact it might make on publishing, and the availability of research materials and text. I also wrote two extensive articles about the future impact of the internet on the distribution of TV and films (all of which has since come to pass). I can't say I wasn't having fun, because I was. But the nineties passed with the completion of only two significant works, and only one of them was related to the project. One of these was about Robert Graves' White Goddess; and the other was an extensive essay on J.G. Frazer, and his early study of Plato's theory of the forms (guess which is which!).

Between 1997 and 2003, I was editor of a regularly published magazine. Over those six years I dealt with and processed some five hundred articles, and was responsible for commissioning. It was a great and rewarding experience which taught me a lot. But it was hard to get anything else done, or even to think about the project at the time. I was also in a relationship with someone who wasn't particularly interested in philosophy, and had no idea at all that I had a project about the history of philosophy running silently in my head. I was happy, but I had a vague notion that I was not moving forwards, and that the project could be swallowed whole by the everyday demands of life.

From 2001 I travelled regularly at weekends with friends around the south, west and east of England, and eventually to some extent, north too, We got alternately sunburned, and very wet and cold.  Over three or four years we took in classic bits of landscape, and also much of the rich archaeology of southwest England.  We saw bronze age tombs with freshly cut flowers, and burning candles (at Wayland Smithy, near the Ridgeway). We also had great pub lunches in market towns in Somerset and Wiltshire, and at Cerne Abbas and in Avebury. We had truly great fish and chips in Lyme Regis and Blandford Forum. I have a rich collection of photographs of archaeological sites from this period.

But nothing much happened with the project. In 2003 I moved on from the magazine into research, which gave me a little more personal time to think once again about the project. I started to collect materials. Having a decent salary meant that I didn't have to think too much about buying books. The university library at Bath reflected the technical basis of the university, so things were a little thin. I bought the State Archives of Assyria series complete (via Abebooks) at this point, and also the State Archives of Assyria Bulletin.

I began to write the first draft of The Sacred History of Being.

1 comment:

  1. An intriguing account and timeline compressed with academia, editing, and archaeology. Fascinating.