Slow food, slow text

Once when I was in college I gushed about how AMAZING it was to read the Iliad in "the original Greek."

A friend swiftly shut me down: "I don't think any work of literature is really that much better in 'the original language.' I think people just need to tell themselves that to justify all the work they put into learning the language in the first place."

I wasn't sure then, and am even less sure now, that he was correct, but the notion rang true enough that it has stuck with me, causing me to second-guess any time I encounter, or make, a claim that a labor-intensive experience is really that much better than the more accessible means to a parallel end. Are hand-knit socks really that much more comfortable? Are home-grown tomatoes really that much better than the ones at the supermarket?

I can't say about the socks, but I am highly confident that home-grown tomatoes (on average) are demonstrably better tasting than supermarket tomatoes (on average). I believe that a double-blind taste test would bear this out. Supermarket tomatoes, after all, have to be cultivated for shelf-life and ease of transport, not just taste, so it stands to reason that a fruit that can be plucked at the height of ripeness and only has to be transported a few yards before it is consumed would have superior flavor.

But are they that much better? Are they better enough to justify the months of care that a backyard tomato gardener must invest in a plant before it bears a single fruit? Or do we just tell ourselves that so that we don't feel like we've wasted all those hours?

An economist of a certain bent might try to calculate the value of a home-grown tomato in terms of the labor taken to produce it versus the reported pleasure of eating it and tell us whether it is really worth it to grow our own or whether we would gain more happiness by hitting the farmer's market on our way home from Disneyland. But I suspect that there is something fundamentally wrong with such an approach.

Any such calculation is predicated on the assumption that the work involved in producing the labor-intensive result is a liability that must be counted against the worth of the thing, rather than an integral part of the thing itself.

A backyard tomato probably tastes more better to the person who grew it than it does to the person who they invite over for dinner, and the difference has everything to do with the experience of having cultivated the plant. But that does not make the experience false. It really does taste better, in a way that doesn't plug neatly into an equation.

It's not that all those hours of tomato-tending were themselves a barrel of laughs, but neither were they sheer tedium or agony. They were creative work that defies the binary distinction between the lucrative and the leisurely (c.f., e.g., Margaret Kim Peterson, Keeping House: The Litany of Everyday Life on the inadequacy of this division). Such things are worth doing, and have tangible results, but the worth of the work is not reducible to the tangible result. The work has value in its own right; indeed, it adds to the value of the result, rather than subtracting from it.

So with my reading of the Iliad. It is simply true that my experience reading sections of the Iliad in Greek was vastly richer than my earlier experience of having attempted to read it in English. My friend was just wrong to insist that there was no real difference. But he was probably on to something when he declared that the difference did not boil down to some magical property of the Greek text in itself.

Over years of studying Classical and Koine Greek, I have come to the conclusion that, for me, the most valuable thing about Greek as a tool for biblical study is precisely my non-fluency. It is not that knowing Greek gives me access to some lexical treasure trove with gnostic insights into what the words "really" mean, or even that parsing the sentence structure and grammatical niceties can give more precise understanding of a text's argument. It's that working through a passage in Greek forces me to slow down and consider every word. No matter how hard I try, I cannot get myself to read in my native language with this level of attention. (Except for some technical philosophical texts which are so abstruse that they might as well be in another language.) But working with the Greek text, I can't not do it.

This was probably a major factor in my experience of reading the Iliad. I had mastered the language just enough that the translation exercise was no longer entirely focused on the technical details of vocabulary and syntax. I was finally attending the story that these strange words were telling, but that story was unfolding with exquisite, even excruciating, slowness, as I picked my way through the lines of poetry. There was no racing ahead to find out what happens next, and at the end of the section, I was breathless at the emotional power of the scene I had just witnessed.

Was it worth three years of vocabulary memorization and grammar drills just to get to the point of spending an hour or more haltingly stumbling through a fifteen-line section of ancient poetry and having a more profound emotional reaction than I would have had reading a translation? Maybe not. But I don't think that's the right question.

Is slowness, in at least some parts of our lives, a gift to savor, and a source of gifts we can't properly anticipate in advance? To be sure.


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