Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

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Delayed Gratifications and Ancient Ethnography
At my first Worldcon, in 2005, I attended a panel on sex in YA literature. One of the speakers complained that YA writers were too coy in describing sex: "Sometimes you can't tell whether sex has taken place or not." At which Terry Pratchett heckled from the audience, "My wife often says the same thing."

Being published's a bit like that. It's true that the day my first novel was published back in 1997 Orion sent me a bouquet, and that was lovely. I think I might have got a bottle of something from HarperCollins on one occasion, too, but generally publishers and agents don't think publication dates worthy of note, and (if you're not a headline author) they pass unmarked.

Hence, I'm not entirely sure whether Modern Children's Literature has been published yet or not. It appears to be for sale at Palgrave's own site, where the publication date is listed simply as December; at Amazon, which has today listed as the publication date, it is still only available for pre-order. I've not yet had my copies, but the Christmas rush may be to blame. Oh well, let's say it's out today - featuring LJ's own fjm, amongst other luminaries:

Modern Children's Literature

Also out this week, and this time I do have a paper copy, was The Author magazine, with an article by me featured on the cover:

Author cover

All this is very pleasing, of course, though the time lag on such things is such that they come like the ghost of Christmas Past, as a rebuke to present indolence. The Author article is just an edited version of a talk I gave more than a year ago, and I sent the proofs of Modern Children's Literature off in July. Meanwhile I've a chapter to write for someone else, and I just don't feel like doing it.

Instead, I've been re-reading Gombrich's Art and Illusion, a book which waved to me from my shelves yesterday, having lain mute for a couple of decades. Back in the day it did a lot to sensitize me to questions of interpretation, and may well help me now in my maunderings on intentionality (see previous post), but the first thing I was struck by was a passage from Philostratus's life of Apollonius of Tyana. Here the sage is travelling the world, engaging people in Socratic dialogue. In India, he finds himself talking to an artist about the shapes we see in clouds, and how far the resemblance to a centaur, wolf, etc., comes from the eye of the beholder rather than the clouds themselves. All very interesting. Then he adds, pointing to a nearby metal relief "in the Greek style": "Even if we drew one of these Indians with white chalk [...] he would seem black, for there would be his flat nose and stiff curly locks and prominent jaw".

Gombrich doesn't remark on this description, but doesn't it look awfully strange? Presumably Apollonius is standing somewhere in modern Pakistan or northwest India, given the Greek influence of the reliefs - i.e. within the bounds of the Seleucid empire. But by no stretch of my imagination at least are flat noses and stiff curly locks a feature of that population. (I'm not sure I've seen a prominent-jawed race anywhere, so I leave that aside.) Perhaps the most likely explanation is that Philostratus, inventing recording the story a couple of centuries after the event and being unfamiliar with the appearance of the inhabitants of India, has simply latched onto sub-Saharan Africans as the go-to exotic physiognomy. In Gombrich's terms, these define the schema he uses to describe - and perhaps to perceive - any unfamiliar race. Gombrich suggests that "What we read into these accidental [cloud] shapes depends on our capacity to recognize in them things or images we find stored in our minds." Ironically, he didn't find it worth mentioning the example just a little higher on the same page.


That is a fascinating passage from Gombrich you discuss. I have nothing pertinent to add, just that it's fascinating. Also of interest: sub-saharan African hair is not "stiff," as far as I know. Like all human hair sans gel, it's soft. Which also goes to show how perception shapes our understanding of reality.

Thank you. And yes, excellent point about the hair.

I did find another translation that said prominent cheekbones.

Maybe it was Gandhara Buddhist sculpture, which was influenced by Greek models and did feature stylized curls?

Interesting. Still no flat noses of course, though - and that's more wavy hair than curly, I'd say, though in the country of the straight-haired it might count, I guess. Actually, most ancient Greek statues of ancient Greeks also show their hair at least that curly...

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Thanks so much for all this extra information, which I certainly could not have found myself, being no classicist. The ambiguities in the vocabulary are fascinating. From what you say, I'm sure you're right that there is no confusion on Philostratus's part.

Of course, this shunts the puzzle forward some 1,700 years. At first I thought - well, Loeb is an American series, and an American of that date is more likely to have seen African Americans than Indians, so may have defaulted to that physical type; but I see that the translator of this particular edition was in fact a British orientalist, Frederick Cornwallis Conybeare. The British in 1912 were if anything an even less stay-at-home people than the Greeks, and certainly knew the difference between inhabitants of sub-Saharan Africa and the Indian subcontinent. Why he made up his mind that the passage was describing a black African when the text plainly tells him otherwise is still rather mysterious!

Helen Bannerman lived in India and still perpetrated Little Black Sambo.

Yes, though I've always assumed Sambo was a Tamil child, rather than African. ("Black" was applied to Indians too in Bannerman's day - and much more recently - at least in British English.)

Though, having just looked at the covers of some later editions of LBS, his appearance does seem to have been gradually changed to fit African stereotypes, from this in the first American edition to this and even this.

Edited at 2014-12-22 08:04 pm (UTC)

I think it's like pantomime "Eastern" things mixing Chinese and Arabian elements. It simply wasn't important to her to completely differentiate a Tamil child from an African child, and it certainly wasn't important to her American publishers (or rather the opposite: they were keen to take advantage of Sambo-as-piccaninny).

I don't think there's much in the text to indicate Africa. There are tigers, after all, and it even glosses the butter as "ghi". The main exception I can see is the names of Sambo's parents, Black Mumbo and Black Jumbo. Obviously it's racist, but more specifically "mumbo jumbo" is a phrase that appears to originate in Africa.


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