Non-Linear B

by Theodore Dalrymple (June 2013)


Such was the state of historical knowledge, or perhaps I should say ignorance, of my young patients that I was most favourably impressed whenever a young man deduced by his own unaided efforts that there must have been a First World War because there had been a Second.

However, everyone’s knowledge is always finite, while everyone’s ignorance is always infinite: so the comparatively learned have little cause to look down their noses on the unlearned because of their ignorance, which after all is only equal to their own. Indeed, in so far as one of the objects of learning is the attainment of wisdom as well as mere knowledge for its own sake, pride in learning is especially vulgar and reprehensible. The learned above all people should appreciate the eternal appropriateness of modesty.

Therefore I do not blush to record that I once made a deduction very similar to that of my patients who concluded from the fact that there had been a Second World War that there had been a first: namely that, if there had been a Linear B script of Minoan writing there must have been a Linear A. Of neither did I know anything.

Nevertheless, the phrase ‘Linear B’ that has always resonated in my mind in a way that the phrase ‘Linear A’ has not. Is it merely that the former is more euphonious than the latter? Or could it be a faint echo from my very early childhood, not so much a memory as a shadow of a memory, when Linear B was first deciphered and the man who did it enjoyed, or rather did not enjoy, sudden fame and prominence? Could it be that, when I was 3 years old, everyone talked about it and that it left some very faint residue in my mind? 

The decipherment of Linear B was a tremendous intellectual achievement of the kind completely beyond my powers, or the powers of an almost incomparably enormous proportion of mankind. Linear B was a form of writing found on tablets at Knossos in Crete in the early part of the last century by the distinguished archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans. The writing consisted of 89 characters, spindly in form, some of which clearly resembled ideograms. They were of pre-Homeric date; what sound the characters represented, what language whose written form they were, was completely unknown. There was no Rosetta stone to assist in the decipherment of the writing; it resembled somewhat writing discovered in Cyprus, and later some very similar inscriptions were found in Greece, but otherwise there was no clue.

The man who deciphered Linear B was called Michael Ventris. The brilliance of his achievement, a combination of dogged persistence, great learning and well-informed leaps of the imagination, was recognised at once: the BBC, for example, asked him to give a talk on the radio as soon as he had deciphered Linear B (which certainly would not happen nowadays).

Ventris’ story is a most interesting and indeed moving one, of triumph and tragedy intimately comingled. Personally, for reasons that I cannot fully explain, I find such stories greatly more affecting than those of men who move from triumph to triumph and who, after initial success, are the precise opposite of Lot’s wife and never look back.

Ventris was born into a family in which privilege and tragedy, convention and rebellion, were in constant tension, a tension which proved in his case to be a highly creative one, though also with an ultimately tragic outcome.

Ventris’s father was an army man, as was his grandfather; but his father never reached the rank (general) of his own father. Already, in that fact, one senses deep if unexpressed misery and disappointment: perhaps it is easier to be the successful son of a failed father than the successful son of a more successful father.

In any case, Ventris’s father suffered from tuberculosis and went with his wife to live in Switzerland where Ventris was brought up for the first part of his life. Born in 1922, he was a brilliant linguist both by natural endowment and circumstance, and learnt French, German and Swiss German; his mother was Polish, the daughter of wealthy landowners, and Ventris learnt Polish from her. Later in his life he added languages to his repertoire as others buy appliances. He was able to correspond with Swedish academics in their own language and to write to Russian emigrés in Russian. He received a classical education at a relatively unconventional school called Stowe.

His mother moved in artistic circles, and Ventris grew up with Picassos on the walls of his home. From this he developed a taste for modernism which influenced (balefully, in my opinion) his choice of career. Of reserved and modest demeanour, even as a child, his appearance became that of an extremely refined man. Physiognomy is an inexact science, no doubt, but no one who saw him could have doubted his high intelligence and intellectual ability.

Tragedy, though, irrupted into what might otherwise have been a gilded youth. His father died of his disease in 1938, when Ventris was 16; two years later his mother committed suicide by overdose of barbiturates, depressed by the war, the destruction of her country and the loss of income from her family estates.

Ventris joined the RAF and became a navigator for bombers. This, of course, was extremely dangerous work; the death rate in Bomber Command was very high. After the war he worked in Germany as an interpreter, but he soon resumed the architectural studies that he had started on leaving school. His mathematical and logical mind led him to think of architecture in principally intellectual or abstract terms, although he was also driven by an ideologically puritan loathing of decoration, which was deeply conventional at the time though not recognised as such (it can take a number of years, even decades, for ideas that take themselves to be revolutionary to be recognised as conventional). I have seen only one of his buildings, the house that he built for himself and his family, and the fact is that Venturis was a bad architect. Intellectual brilliance is not an advantage in arts when not allied to other qualities; if Ventris had been born in another age, with other conventions, he might well have been a very good architect.

He first became interested in the problem of Linear B at the age of 14, when he heard a public lecture by Sir Arthur Evans who had discovered it. After the lecture, Ventris asked him, ‘Did you say the tablets haven’t been deciphered, Sir?’ He was gripped for the rest of his life and worked at the problem intermittently but with great concentration, doggedness and determination. His first paper on the subject was printed when he was only 18 years old, in the premier American archaeological journal of the time.

At first Ventris thought, and hoped, that Linear B might be a form of Etruscan, a non-Indo-European language about which little was known. He hoped this was so partly because it would be one in the eye for the theory, then prevalent in much of Europe, that all that was valuable in culture was of ‘Aryan’ origin. The temptation to think that everything good or valuable in the world must emanate from people related in some way or other to oneself is very tempting; it might be interesting for a scholar one day to trace the history of this persistent and pernicious temptation in all its myriad or hydra-headed forms, whether religious, cultural, political, economic or artistic.

But Ventris was a man who could overthrow his own ideas, a virtuous characteristic that is by no means common. By a series of brilliant deductions and leaps of the imagination he was able to show incontrovertibly that the language of Linear B was a form of early Greek. Of course, just because something is incontrovertible does not mean that it will not be controverted; there was some fierce rearguard opposition to him by people who, perhaps, were infuriated that a mere amateur had succeeded where they, the professionals, had failed.

World renown came to Ventris very suddenly: in those days celebrity was less independent of achievement than it is now. But Ventris was not interested in fame or fortune and his end was tragic. Only four years after his great achievement, aged 34, he was killed in a motor accident. In the middle of the night, on a journey whose purpose was unknown, he drove at full speed into a truck parked at the side of a road and was killed instantly.

A man of emotional detachment – such detachment might seem a wise precaution if you lose your parents early and are sent to war with a high chance either of being killed yourself or seeing everyone around you killed – Ventris was somewhat estranged, or at any rate distant, from his wife and children. (Tragedy continued to haunt the family: his son Nikki died of a heart attack aged only forty.) He had solved the problem that he had set out to solve half his then lifetime before; Linear B inscriptions turned out not to be very interesting from the literary point of view. He had alighted on no similar project upon which to engage his great intellect, and his prospects as an architect were limited.

There has been speculation as to whether or not he committed suicide, whether his death was truly an accident. The driver of the truck insisted that his lights were illuminated and that there was no reason, therefore, why Ventris should not have seen it clearly. This does not settle the matter; accidents occur by inattention as well as by circumstances such as invisibility.

I think that Ventris did commit suicide. His mother did so and suicide runs in families. Two weeks before he died he wrote a letter to the editor of the Architects’ Journal which is clearly that of a very depressed man. The owner of the Journal, the Architectural Association, had earlier awarded Ventris a fellowship which he still held, and Ventris wrote:

 I have had a couple of weeks abroad, and had a chance to get into perspective the hash that I’ve been making of your Fellowship; I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s quite unrealistic for me to pretend to you or to myself that I’m going to be able to finish off the work in the way that it should be done… you’d be justified in writing me off in a way that will make it difficult to hold up my head in the ranks of architects again, and bring pain to my family. All I can ask you is to temper your justified anger with a little compassion.

I have rarely read so painfully melancholic a letter (it is quoted in an excellent book on Ventris by Andrew Robinson, with the title The Man Who Deciphered Linear B). Also quoted is another painful letter, written by Ventris’ son, Nikki, only two days before he died himself:

My father was a private person and shared few of his concerns with us. In fact he seemed rather remote and very absorbed in his work to the exclusion of family life. This is not to say that he was incapable of enjoying himself: on occasion he took his part in family outings and games with obvious pleasure and we were pleased to have his company… I did not know my father at all well, and it was only at and after his death that I realized how much I had missed in not getting to know him better.

The son was only 13 when his father was killed or killed himself. One cannot help by think of Philip Larkin’s verse:

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.

But a beautiful epitaph on the life of Michael Ventris by a French archaeologist, Professor Dumézil, counters this radical despair. Devant les siècles son oeuvre est faite: Down the centuries his work is done. There is no simple measure or yardstick of a life, or of life itself.  

Theodore Dalrymple's latest book is Farewell Fear.


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