3 A.M. Philistines

So I decided to try a writing exercise from a book called The 3 A.M. Epiphany by Brian Kiteley. Kiteley suggests taking a sentence from a writer whose work you admire and to write a short bit of fiction using only the words in that sentence. (You can repeat them, but not add to them.) For practical reasons, Kiteley suggests you select a long sentence with a lot of words in it.

I’ve been quite interested in Oscar Wilde’s The Decay of Lying. His defense of the art of lying seemed a propos as I am flogging a novel right now in which one of the main characters decides to play the role of a rock star on line and starts to think of lying as a creative act– a kind of art.

I chose this wordy phrase for my writing exercise:

“Bored by the tedious and improving conversation of those who have neither the wit to exaggerate nor the genius to romance, tired of the intelligent person whose reminiscences are always based upon memory, whose statements are invariably limited by probability, and who is at any time liable to be corroborated by the merest Philistine who happens to be present, Society sooner or later must return to its lost leader, the cultured and fascinating liar.”

I thought the lost leader, the romance and reminiscences and tedious genius might yield something interesting. Alas, they did not:

A bored, tired romance

limited by probability

based on reminiscences

neither improving nor fascinating

wit lost

return to the present

improving happens sooner or later

So I gave up on that.  One word in the sentence did manage to capture my imagination, though. The word “Philistine.” I was certain the Philistines were being slandered and that they could not have been the base oafs their name would now suggest. Was this an ethnic slur from Biblical times that had survived to this day?

I looked up the Philistines on that great repository of knowledge, Wikipedia. They were known, in Biblical times, as threatening invaders. Their name translates into something like “of another tribe.” This makes sense. Historically, nearly every tribe called themselves by a name that meant something like “the people.” When they came into contact with another tribe, they invariably dubbed those guys something like “the others,” “the invaders,” “the foreigners,” or “those idiots over there.”

I read once that the Russian word for Germans essentially calls them stupid people who can’t speak Russian and the German word for Russians calls them stupid people who can’t speak German.

Anyway, the historical Philistines apparently had a nice, well-organized town and they were major traders in olive oil. The Wikipedia entry did not explain how their name had come to mean what it does to us today.

I found the answer to that on a blog called Yuletide, in a post that seems to be well-researched.  (it is certainly persuasive enough for my current purposes, which is musing about something for no particular reason.) According to Yuletide, the idea that Philistines were backward does not go back to Biblical times but to a university in Germany. In the year 1693 a student and a non-student got into a fight and the student ended up dead.

A minister delivered a funeral oration which included a verse that mentioned the Philistines. The sermon must have been memorable because the students started to refer to it and eventually to use “Philistine” as an insider reference to non-students.

So “Philistine” meaning an uncultured boor was not racist. It was classist.

In 1797 “Goethe and Schiller, Enlightenment men who valued aesthetics, use the word ‘philistine’ (in the modern sense) for the first time in print. They use the term to derisively describe their critics, ‘old fashioned rationalists…who had no feeling for contemporary poetry,’ a definitively modern usage.”

This made its way to England via writings about German authors. It started to gain currency in the 1860s. Matthew Arnold may have popularized it.

In a follow up article, Yuletide showed a graph that traces the frequency of the use of the term over time.

What I found interesting in this, beyond my general interest in etymology (that’s the word one, right? entomology is bugs? I get them confused) is to think how modern an expression this must have been when Wilde wrote his essay. I tend to think of Wilde’s language as quite proper and a bit old fashioned, but he was a thoroughly modern guy.

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