An Interview with Stephen Berard

by Diane Louise Johnson

Reprinted with permission from “An Interview with Stephen Berard” by Diane Louise Johnson, editor. The World's Muse 1.1 (Spring 2003): 45-82. Copyright 2003, Department of Modern and Classical Languages, Western Washington University, Bellingham, WA. Print.

While the World's Muse editor was attending the 2002 Conventiculum Latinum—Terence Tunberg's colloquial-Latin conference held annually at the University of Kentucky—she had the unique privilege of interviewing Stephen Berard, professor of World Languages at Wenatchee Valley College. A man whose scholarly scope and profoundly intellectual vision are set like gems in his warm personality, Stephen discusses with us the extraordinary Latin monumentum he is in the process of creating.

WM: Stephen, the West Coast of the USA is not known for its commitment to Latin and Classical Greek, and yet in the city of Wenatchee, in central Washington, at the beginning of the third millennium AD, we have a poet creating an immense magnum opus in Latin. Talk to us a little about what you're doing at WVC .

SB: I teach German and Spanish on a regular basis, and Latin. I taught Greek at WVC once. And Classical Studies: I often teach a course called the Greek and Latin Elements of English—we call it Classics 100.

WM: Your institution is fortunate to have a Classics component. May I ask you what your academic goals are in terms of your teaching?

SB: Well, they’ve changed over the years. Right now I’m so very much involved in Latin, that that’s pretty much all I’ve been thinking of…

WM: Okay. Fair enough. Developing a Latin Program and…

SB: Trying to have a Latin Program there both because I think it’s a service to the community, and also because I want to use my students as guinea pigs, so to speak, for developing my materials, and, maybe I can eventually send somebody to Terry [Dr. Terence Tunberg] for his Institute so that they can study there.1 He’d like to have us send people.

WM: You’re referring to Vita Nostra , the text you’ve been composing to develop colloquial skills in Latin. We’ve used this in the classroom at Western Washington University, and I can’t praise it highly enough. Stephen, you really are a man of many parts in the classroom: German, Spanish, Latin and Greek. Do you hold advanced degrees in all these languages?

SB: I have a bachelor’s degree in Classics from UCLA and a master’s in Classics from UC Berkeley; I was an ABD, passed my doctoral oral exams in Classics at Berkeley, but didn’t finish my dissertation, which I was writing on Lucan. I then taught for quite awhile, mostly in Latin, and eventually went to the Monterey Institute of International Studies, where I took a second master’s degree, this time in German. I took my doctoral degree in Germanic Philology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

WM: What about Spanish?

Spanish I teach just because I know it. You know how that goes.

WM: Your busiest classes, the ones most in demand, are in the Spanish language, even though you have no graduate training in it. How ironic! You hold the doctorate in German…

SB: Germanic philology, which I often call Germanic linguistics, both so that people can understand what I’m talking about and also because it was more linguistics than philology, I think.

WM: But I’ve heard you speak on linguistics, and I’ve looked at your creative work. You strike me as a writer who is on very familiar terms with many languages. In your work you quote Turkish and Hungarian, you use vocabulary drawn from Old and Middle Indic. You’re a true polyglot. Do you feel comfortable writing in all of your languages?

SB: (Laughs) No, I don’t feel comfortable in all of them.

WM: In German, Spanish and Latin certainly…

SB: Definitely! I do a little bit of English once in awhile too.

WM: A little bit of English! … Stephen, I hope you won’t mind talking about your creative work. As you know, people who handle world languages with creativity and flair are featured in The World’s Muse . You’re the head of the language department at Wenatchee, you could be doing scholarship—or rather, you could mainstream your scholarship, as most academics prefer to do. Because you certainly do do scholarship, and I’ve seen some of your published work in linguistics. But you find time and opportunity to create in Latin, although you have German and Spanish as other “registers” in which to compose. Please tell our readers something about the work you’ve entitled Capti . You’ve begun the composition of a work ultimately to consist of twenty-one books of Latin verse and prose. At the moment I’m holding in my hands eight completed books—cantos, if you like, volumina in the classical sense. Do you feel that these first eight cantos are finished now, ready to leave your hands?

SB: Well, once I get the whole thing down on paper, and get feedback from other people, I’ll make a final version.

WM: So a work in progress, then. You’ve composed the table of contents for the entire work, and as I read through this I see that all of the books, both completed and projected, have intriguing titles. You’ve clearly got what the unwritten portions of your final text are pretty firmly in mind. We’ve got books that have a ring of the ancient world, such as the “Apocolocyntosis”; then a twisted cliché like “A Mind’s a Terrible Thing to Lose”. Here’s “Iungala Attalica”…The Satin Jungle? This sounds like a Mickey Spillane novel! It really promises a rich variety of themes and styles. Where can we begin discussing the overall pattern, the ideas that shape the work? Can we start with the form?

SB: The genre is called Menippean satire, or Menippean fable, and there are various authors from antiquity associated with this kind of work. The fundamental thing about Menippean fables is that they are written in prose and in verse, alternating, and they tend to be satirical. So that’s why I’m starting out with it. I’m writing a heptology of seven novel-length books, and this is the first one I’m writing in Latin, because….

WM: Now, wait wait wait wait! You mean Capti is one…

SB: This is the first of seven.

WM: Ay yai yai! Then you’d better think about performing some long-life sacrifices to the gods, because…

SB: I know, I know. (Laughs) Well the writing is going a little faster, and I’m hoping that I’ll get to where I virtually have to look up nothing, and I can have the huge vocabulary that I want right in my head instead of having to look things up. So that I can eventually finish the heptology.

WM: Each of your novels, seven projected, are all going to be in the Menippean form?

SB: They’re all going to be in the same genre, although they will…ah, you see, what I’m trying to write are works that are simultaneously in classical genres but also in modern genres, so that they reflect both the modern and ancient worlds. Seneca wrote his Apocolocyntosis as an ancient satire; I’m trying to work into it a modern kind of satirical meaning, an ancient mind-set in a modern setting. The satires I’m writing are not really just satires. There’s a philosophy, a whole program behind what seems like a medley of themes and references. There’s a reason for the number of chapters in every book, there’s a reason for the number of books. Basically the philosophy underneath all is a kind of Neo-Platonism for the modern world. Let me explain this in a little more depth. If you were to divide philosophy, at least metaphysics, into two really large areas, you’ve got Platonism and Aristotelianism. Plato would have us believe that the essence of everything is what he would have called Mind. In modern terms we would, I think, call this “meaning” or “information”; in other words, information is the ultimate reality. Physical reality is simply an extension, projection or holographic image of ideas. The other end of the spectrum is materialsm or Aristotelianism, or what has traditionally been called nominalism. The nominalist believes that the world out there, what we are looking at right now, is reality; any ideas that we form about the world are just names, are just categories for our convenience. But I believe that modern physics, especially quantum mechanics, has almost already proven that Plato was right, not Aristotle. We’re on the verge of proving it. This material is all coming together in the ninth book of Capti that I’m getting ready to write. I’ve been reading scores and scores of texts preparing for this ninth book. That’s where I’m actually going to “put in” the physics, and in dialogue form! It’s going to take the form of an email conference, I guess we’d call it a video conference via computers, and that’s where the discussion’s going to involve physics.

WM: Really, this is extraordinary, extremely complex…

SB: But I’m not doing it to be confusing or erudite. I’m doing it because I believe that it is an important idea, one that has preoccupied me for a long time.

WM: An ancient form, used to convey modern physics in a modern technological setting with a soupçon of medieval scholasticism. And I haven’t even asked you about the poetry yet. So far I’ve been reading dactylic hexameter.

SB: That will evolve. I had already planned out the heptology before I decided to write this one in Latin. I had already written very rough versions of three and one-seventh of the seven novels. Just to sort of get the ideas down. Well, I decided to do this one first. There will actually be no chronological order; they’ll all be sort of chronologically equal.

WM: They’ll exist in a timeless space?

SB: Yeah, sort of a Quantum Idea. In fact it fits into the philosophy I’ve been talking about.

WM: All potentials existing simultaneously.

SB: Exactly. Well I’ve just been reading several interesting books, one of which deals with the possibility that there is not time, that time is only a psychological, not a physical, phenomenon. So that’s one of the things that I’m trying to reflect here, through the fact that there’s no order to the novels.

WM: So you’ve dissolved the man-on-the-street’s concept of ancient world, medieval, modern, into a kind of ever-present Being. Let’s talk a little more about influences, this time more contemporary trends. Earlier today, over lunch, you identified your style as “Fantastic Realism.”

SB: I would call it Fantastic Realism more than Magic Realism, because the fantasy is more in-your-face than in Magic Realism.

WM: And you’ve identified E.T.A. Hoffman as a major inspiration.

SB: There’s no question about it. As a matter of fact I started out this novel with a quote from Hoffman: and not just any quote from him, it’s from one of the two novelettes that form the basis of the first novel. Capti is a kind of “bicephalous” book, there are two different parts, and that has a reason too. Basically, if you want to understand quantum mechanics, you have to understand dimensions. And every time you go to a higher dimension you have an impression of a double image of whatever you’re looking at, until you start seeing it in the next dimension. So this is what’s actually behind the bi-form book. Everything they’re talking about is double.

WM: From what I’ve looked at so far—the first four books and a quick skimming-through of the fifth, my impression is that we have several carefully drawn characters, yet we move in and out of subjects, see reality from a variety of points of view, some of them occasionally difficult to grasp. At the center of this first novel is the figure of the “Wooden Prince Fava,” whom you call Vudius and identify as autistic.

SB: Yes, autistic. Autisticus, as we say in Latin.

WM: Is autism a subject particularly close to you? There’s a personal connection or commitment to exploring this topic?

SB: No, it’s a device I’m using. Partly because one of the messages in this book is going to be…well, it’s a subtle message, I don’t spell it out in any one place. Animals appear here and there throughout the book. And in different ways. Autistic people tend to communicate better with animals than do people who don’t suffer from autism. They feel something in common with animals. And partly it’s because there is a part of the brain that enables people to understand social nuances, a part which doesn’t exist in many autistic people. This lack allows autistic people to empathize and communicate with animals in some ways. A lot autistic people are especially attracted to—feel very comforted by—cattle. We all have some of that. In fact, there’s really no single disease called autism. What we call autism is really some twenty-four or more types of symptoms. I characterize Woody as a fairly high-functioning autistic person, one who has what you might call “idiot savant” traits. He’s a ballet dancer and one of the physically active types. There are children, you know, who when they are old enough to walk, don’t: they run and swirl and dance, and Woody’s one of those. But he’s been able to structure his pathology into a career.

WM: You’ve suggested that this state is to be attributed to his mother’s desire to create an artist.

SB: Well, not the state of autism. His mother tried to instill in him a love of the arts.

WM: So he was predetermined to be artistic…and yet becomes autistic. Because his mother read to him in the womb, and played music to him—but there’s so much more complexity to this figure than I’m suggesting, so I’d better let our readers look at the text themselves. Another feature of these early books is a focus upon Hungarian culture and Hungarian characters. From what I’ve seen so far, you seem fascinated by the Hungarian personality.

SB: Well, I knew I wanted a connection with Béla Bartok: The Wooden Prince was a ballet of his. I have the Hungarian substrate there too, and what it exactly means I’ll probably work out more as I’m writing.

WM: Do you have plans for composing in Hungarian as well as Latin?

SB: No no. This is just the story, I mean it’s one of the aspects of the story. There will be chapters that take place in Budapest. I guess it’s a symbol, because Buda and Pest were two different cities, originally, so it’s the continuation of the binary aspect.

WM: Stephen, as you know, the primary goal of our journal is to promote creative work in languages which may be slightly distant, slightly threatening to us; languages that we may not have learned “naturally,” but under academic circumstances. I’m always looking for words and ideas that will enlighten, inspire and encourage people creating in other languages. Could we discuss some of the problems you’ve had writing in a language which by most people would be considered…oh, the “d” word…I hate that word…what we’d call a lingua iam vitā defuncta in Latin. So, just a few words about the vocabulary that you’ve created. Obviously one cannot write such a complex and nuanced work, so full of matter, using a vocabulary drawn solely from Classical Latin. I can’t help thinking that German would have been a better vehicle.

SB: (Laughs) I’d thought of it.

WM: You’ve had to create Latin words for modern phenomena, and you’ve even added a glossary to this work, a kind of vocabulary under construction, still growing and developing, and I’ve selected some categories of vocabulary to illustrate for our readers what you’re doing. You have words for familiar modern concepts, such as “quotiens intelligentiae”…IQ… There are popular names: “Miculus Mus”—Mickey Mouse—“Bevis Pygocephalusque”—Beavis and Butthead. “Bracae genuenses” for blue-jeans…

SB: I didn’t invent that.

WM: “Aquifolia” for Hollywood…

SB: I didn’t invent that, either.

WM: You use words from other languages as well and supply Latin equivalents: “Avatara” and “ungala” from Old Indic….

SB: I think that every language needs to import some words without changing them, simply because those words are unique, and they have all the connotations that you want. Why can’t Latin do the same thing?

WM: I agree with you totally, and this is one of the delightful surprises, a bonus, if you like, that we get while reading your work: not only do we get the intellectual, emotional, and aesthetic content of the poetry and the prose, but we get the almost adolescent thrill of recognition when we comprehend one of the words. ‘My gosh! He’s talking about a jungle … or Disneyland … or Tylenol.’ We could talk about your work in a Latin tradition of vocabulary acquisition, starting at least with Cicero if not earlier….

SB: I have lots of different things in mind, lots of different motives and justifications for the lexical items I work with. Sometimes I use words that other people have already come up with for things that are modern, sometimes I have to figure out my own, just for practical purposes. And sometimes it’s, I mean gee, a lot of these things are humorous.

WM: As befits a work that calls itself Menippean Satire, I suppose. Is this “satire” in the sense of a bitter satire, a Juvenalian satire?

SB: No, this is satire tongue-in-cheek, in the tradition of Horace. Actually, as I said before, there’s a serious philosophical reason why I’m writing these books.

WM: You’re not commenting on the foibles of human existence?

SB: I am, in part. Actually, this is probably going to be one of the two more satirical novels of the heptology, the others won’t really be satires, although they will have satirical portions. Two of them are going to be historical, they’re going to take place in the ancient world. Two of them are going to be science fiction, they are going to be very, very far-out science fiction. So I’m going to be doing a lot of work on vocabulary.

WM: Stephen, you’ve got your work planned and organized, a clear vision of your purpose and goal, a sense of what you want to accomplish in this enormous undertaking. Many of our readers must be asking themselves—as I’m doing right now—how you do it, the attitude you have when you sit down to write, the motives that lead you to select any one language and literature as a source for data, for lexical substrata, for communication. Could you describe for me a typical work session? You sit down at your computer, and how do you begin? Is your desk filled with piles and stacks of dictionaries and other reference works? Bits of paper and notecards stuck in your hair, your pockets?

SB: Yeah, I have books all around me, I have books on chairs surrounding me. My office is the most cluttered office at my college. I like to work in my office, whenever I have free time.

WM: So this is a project that is capable of being fit into the cracks and chinks of a busy career? No waiting for a sabbatical?

SB: Yeah, I work away at it almost every day. On a typical week day, I’ll get maybe three hours of writing down in the afternoon. And then in the evening I’ll go home and correct papers or do other reading.

WM: Do you find yourself having a sudden brainstorm and having to ask the class to wait while you rush to get it down on paper?

SB: Oh, no. In fact I’m kind of almost too much in the other direction. I feel as though when I write I want to be spontaneous. So I tend not to jot down my ideas enough, probably I should. Sometimes I’ll have a great idea, and I think, ‘Oh, I’ll remember this.’

WM: I find it amazing that you talk about being spontaneous in Latin. You are thinking, then, in Latin?

SB: Oh, I have to be thinking in Latin. But you know, just a side comment, I’m really glad I’ve worked on so many languages. Because each language gives you new kinds of categories in which to think, which you don’t have in one single language. So that very often ideas will come to me, and I will think ‘That would be very good in German. Now how am I going to do this in Latin?’ In English I wouldn’t even have that idea, as a way of expressing something. So the more languages you know, the more ways you think. Which is extremely helpful to me in writing Latin. Learn languages!

WM: I cannot think of a more stimulating way to conclude our discussion. Thank you so much!

1 The Institutum Latinum, a newly developed graduate program in Latin and Latin Studies at the University of Kentucky.

© 2013-18 Stephanus Berard  | "Vae dinosauris!"