Tuesday, September 1, 2009

One Plus One Is ... Um ... Don't Tell Me, Let Me Figure It Out For Myself

So I found this new book at the library, Bending the Bow: An Anthology of African Love Poetry, edited by Frank M. Chipasula, published this year by Southern Illinois University Press. It began with a selection of ancient Egyptian poetry and extended to the present; looked worth a read, so I checked it out. I started reading it this morning, and am about a hundred pages along now.

But the introduction disoriented me. On the first page Professor Chipasula says that "the anonymously written Egyptian love poems of the New Kingdom ... predate the biblical love poetry of King Solomon by over two thousand years"; on the second page he assigns his Egyptian poems to "the Eighteenth through Twentieth Dynasties of the New Kingdom (roughly from 1300 to 1100 B.C.)". Now, it's not certain whether Solomon even existed, and no one really has any idea whether he wrote the Biblical Song of Songs, or when the Song of Songs was written. But according to Professor Chipasula's dates, Solomon would have to have lived between 700 and 900 A.D., centuries after the beginning of Christianity and nearly two thousand years after he's traditionally supposed to have reigned. We've all heard of the division between the Two Cultures, humanities/literature on one side and mathematics/science on the other, and never the twain shall meet, but really, Professor Chipasula goes a bit far in the direction of mathematical illiteracy.

Again, on page 4 he writes, "For more than five thousand years now, the Amazigh people of the Grand Atlas Mountains ... have expressed various versions of tayri (love) for one another in Tamazight, a very old African language." Unless Tamazight has been written for five thousand years (and it doesn't appear that it has), I doubt very much that Professor Chipasula or anyone else knows what the Amazigh people were saying to each other five thousand years ago. If they were composing love poems that long ago, their work would predate by over a millennium the Egyptian poems that Professor Chipasula claims are the world's first love poems.

So what is going on here? Once again I'm wondering how these weird errors in an academic text got past the editors, referees, and other gatekeepers that supposedly guarantee the expertise of our cultural exemplars and guardians. With scholarly standards like these, who needs Wikipedia?

Not that it affects the poems in the anthology, which are worth your time to look at. Just skip the introduction if you decide to read Bending the Bow.