Latin, English, and Conquest in Abraham's Promise

George P. Landow, Professor of English and Art History, Brown University; Distinguished Visiting Professor, National University of Singapore, 1998-1999

Philip Jeyaretnam's teacher-protagonist, whose life has spanned colonialism, traumatic post-independence events, and the development of modern Singapore, makes quite clear the connection of Latin, the British Empire, and their implications for his country. He tells his new young student:

"Latin is a wonderful language. Like English, it is the language of conquerors. And like English, it has been the vehicle for the spread of the Gospel. . . . The Romans won for themselves a great empire. They started out as a band of wanderers, who escaped from the ruins of Troy after that city had been sacked by the Greeks. The story is told in The Aeneid, an epic poem by Virgil, which we will study. Part of it in any event. In the end this band of wanderers settled on the seven hills of Rome, a city no bigger than Singapore."

According to Walter J.Ong, the student of seventeenth-century literature, the history of rhetoric, and orality and literacy, learning Latin in British public schools served as a gender-based rite of passage for members of the ruling classes and those who staffed the Empire. Furthermore, by emphasizing The Aeneid and the qualities of epic, public schools also inculcated military virtues.

Such endorsement of colonialism and militarism comes a little strangely from the timid Abraham, who has loved classical poetry for its own sake, and in fact the novel's presentation of the teacher's words takes the form of a comic juxtaposition, for between the two halves of the passage above appears the following detailed description of Abraham's discomfort and general ineptitude:

The ceiling fan revolves slowly overhead, stirring the air just a little, without any great enthusiasm. This is my fault: I asked for the speed to be reduced, for nothing would make my task harder than having my papers fly hither and thither as I seek to address the boy in a calm, dignified and yet inspiring manner. In front of me a glass of cold water gathers drops of condensation. They swell until gravity sets them trickling down the side of the glass. Thankfully the mother-of-pearl coaster on which it stands has a rim which stops the pool of water from leaking out across the polished rosewood. If not, the Primer that I have opened between us would face a threat from a different element. And as usual my attempts at foresight would be rendered nugatory.

Abraham's "as usual" offers a characterization of himself as generally incapable of handling the details of everyday life, one which makes his love of Latin more a compensation for shortcomings than the embodiment of the ideal he wishes the young boy to emulate.

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