Tag Archives: classics

Great Globs of Verbosity

She found this charming, and laughed. She looked so sweet—like the moon emerging from behind a cloud and showing her full face. Before long her words expressed what her wandering fingers were already demonstrating. 
—Petronius, translated by Andrew Brown,
Satyricon (122).

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Considering the fragmentary nature of Satyricon, with its myriad lacunae, absence of a clear narrative, compounded by seemingly jumping into the story mid-stream—it is quite fun to read.

And I think bees are divine little creatures; they puke honey…even though people do say they get it from Jupiter. And if they sting, well, that’s because there’s no sweet without sour (44)

The print I made above was partially inspired by the feast scene at Trimalchio’s in which the endnotes say that “damsons with pomegranate seeds” in the original Latin was “Syrian plums with Punic apple seeds.” In a long round-about way,  having to do with an annoying print I had made of apples, which I hated, and a lovely drawing my daughter had made for me of a pomegranate—the words “punic apple” simply solved all my frustration and  lit a minor fire under me until I ended up with the above.

Quite the astrologer.  And witty with it! We applauded (30).

Of course I am hardly the first to be inspired (however loosely) by Satyricon. After I finished the book I decided to watch Fellini’s Satyricon.  If I did see it in my youth all that was left in my head were still-images, which may have been all I had seen in the first place. But seeing it, perhaps again, I’ll just say—Fellini didn’t become an adjective for nothing. He takes the surreal aspects of the book and just runs with it. Unfortunately, in my opinion, he leaves the humor in the dust. The thing that I liked about the book was the youthful view of the hoity toities, those bitchy-shallow-people who one is so immaturely excited to be deigned an invitation  to dinner with, but which turns into a wacky bender that doesn’t end. All the bits and pieces of the book  have a hilarious ridiculously-bad-night-should-have-stayed-home quality to the thing.

115. We heard a strange low noise and a stifled roar, like a wild animal trying to escape, from under the master’s cabin. We followed the sound—and found Eumolpus sitting there, filling a huge piece of parchment with line after line of poetry. so, amazed to see him able to find time to compose poetry with death so close, we dragged him him off, in spite of his vehement protests, and begged him to be a sensible chap. But he flew into a rage at being interrupted.
“Let me finish my piece!” he shouted. “I’m having a bit of trouble with the last lines!”
What a maniac! I grabbed hold of him and Giton to help me drag the petulant poet ashore (103)

The recent 2013 Italian film La Grande Belleza is very much a Satyricon-influenced film, it retains the ridiculous humor but it adds an element of modern angst bemoaning the ultimate emptiness of it all. There is none of that in the original Satyricon, nor does Fellini bother with that sort of moralizing either, but Fellini’s over the top surrealistic film is so heavy in a way…the tedium of these sorts of people is never lifted in the way that Petronius and Paolo Sorrentino’s La Grande Belleza manage, even when truly awful things are happening.

The sun shines on everyone. The moon, with countless stars in attendance, even shows wild beasts the way to their food. Can anything be considered more beautiful than water? And yet it flows for everybody. So shall love alone be something to be stolen rather than openly prized? (86)

Petronius (if that is who really wrote this vulgar epic tale—by which I mean both senses of the word “vulgar”) captures a swirling world, that doesn’t seem that different from some of the circles people race about in this day and age. That is the truly remarkable thing—very little changes.

*Title from page 3: “It’s great globs of verbosity, smeared with honey: every word, every deed sprinkled with poppy and sesame seeds.”

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I am free for reading

For Epicurus, human suffering is always finite: “if it is slight, he [Epicurus] says, you may despise it, if it is great it will not be long.” 
—Stephen Greenblatt, The Swerve (101)

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Stephen Greenblatts’s The Swerve  beautifully illustrates a book’s ability to leap back into history. In one step the reader is taken back to 15th century Italy, into the life and letters of a talented scribe and secretary to the horrible Pope John XXIII. Poggio Bracciolini’s education and rise through the treachery that was the Catholic church at that time is fascinating. The slight indications he gives of rebelling against or resigning to such a corrupt and miserable time are both encouraging (phew! at least some people were alluding to the barbarism!) and deeply disturbing (oh damn, the horror of dogmatists and the rot of power-hungry institutions never ceases!). But Poggio, unlike so many, had a sanctuary: books.

In the north the powerful Visconti of Milan are raising an army; Florentine mercenaries are besieging Lucca; Alfonso in Naples is stirring up trouble, and the emperor Sigismond is applying intolerable pressure on the pope. “I have already decided what I shall do if things turn out as many people fear; namely, that I shall devote myself to Greek Literature…” (153).

I know the feeling…

Ah, the company and comfort of books, where the cosmic can commingle with the common. A book has such long reach—within our hearts and through time. They are a form of connective tissue that can touch us all.

With another step back, Greenblatt takes the reader to Lucretius, and a short hop back further to Epicurus. It will be Lucretius’ book that does the connecting. It is his De rerum natura, On the Nature of Things, that Poggio discovers and re-introduces into a world that has tried very hard to have nothing to do with the ideas, inspired by Epicurus, within. In fact it is a world that wants very little to do with ideas, period.

Even more than the theory that the world consisted only of atoms and void, the main problem was the core ethical idea: that the highest good is the pursuit of pleasure and the diminution of pain. What had to be undertaken was the difficult project of making what appeared simply sane and natural—the ordinary impulses of all sentient creatures—seem like the enemy of the truth (102).

While reading this book a sort of horror of realization washed over me. This fetish for misery and suffering, the glorifying of pain, or “cleansing power” of trials and tribulations which still permeate our culture is merely a controlling device, and a choice. For Epicurus, and his many followers, to choose pleasure in lieu was simply a more sensible choice. When Greenblatt describes the church’s suppression, through bone-chilling violence and a depraved gluttony for torture and punishment, of the “pagan” Epicurus, one can see how hard it would have been for a man of Poggio’s refined intelligence to ignore the logic. Be kind. Enjoy life. My god! What sort of a mind comes up that! —An evil mind— is the conclusion that the church comes up with. But that conclusion requires a divorce from thinking, thinking things over became tantamount to witchcraft as the story if Hypatia indicates.  Greenblatt tells the history of Hypatia to show the long struggle the church had in convincing people that suffering was where it’s at. She lived around 400 CE in Alexandria and had the misfortune of being smart. Still a liability in our world I’m sorry to say.

Rumors began to circulate that her absorption in astronomy, mathematics, and philosophy—so strange, after all, in a woman—was sinister: she must be a witch, practicing black magic (92).

What happens to her next is so disturbing I can’t bring myself to report and only wish I could remove it from my head.

Interwoven into this wonderful story is of course a small history of the writing and transcribing of books. It was a time when good handwriting could lead to a fairly secure existence, but it was also a time when ancient books were being discovered and dragged out of dusty monasteries where if by some miracle they hadn’t been purposely destroyed they had simply been forgotten after their defamation was complete. In my work digitizing medieval manuscripts for the Digital Scriptorium Project I have spent some time bent over very old manuscripts. The black face letterform is so difficult to read that I have often wondered if the books, mostly bibles after all, were really meant to be read (by which I mean understood and reasoned out). Perhaps, it was some purposeful obfuscation? Imagine my surprise to find myself in the company of Petrarch:

Petrarch complained that the writing then in use in most manuscripts often made it extremely difficult to decipher text, “as though it had been designed,” he noted, “for something other than reading” (115).

Why, Petrarch my friend! those are my thoughts exactly!

Greenblatt’s book is a wonderful exploration of the technical, practical, spiritual, and philosophical implications of knowledge. But it seems incredible to me that human history is riddled (still!) with people and societies that expend enormous energy in suppressing knowledge—suppressing the freedom to think. Lucretius referred to the swerve, “the swerve is the source of free will,” Greenblatt explains, “In the lives of all sentient creatures, human and animal alike, the random swerve of elementary particles is responsible for the existence of free will” (189). We are just here, in other words, by whatever random act of molecular organization, but still, here we are: thinking, acting, beings.

As frightening as it is to consider the horror of a religious tradition that actively worshipped suffering, and the inevitable conclusion that we are not yet very far from that mindset—and further still, that new crops of warped religious fundamentalists constantly threaten human dignity and intellectual freedom,  it is heartening to know that no matter how many steps back one travels in history there are always to be found a few that pause and say, “hang on a minute, why are we suppose to be miserable? After all, life can actually be pretty sweet, one doesn’t even need that much. And don’t worry about the what is beyond life—after all, you’ll be dead.” Lucretius, as Epicurus before him, was committed to the idea that this life, being all that we truly know, is worth enjoying, indeed it is meant to be enjoyed.

*Title from p. 153: “Your Poggio,” he wrote, “is content with very little and you shall see this for yourself; sometimes I am free for reading, free from all the care about public affairs which I leave to my superiors. I live free as much as I can.”

*Photo of one of the manuscripts I photographed for the Digital Scriptorium project, refreshingly not in gothic script, with charming doodles such as the above- Omnia Vincit Amor!

An Apology

Outside of academia I guess they’re aren’t too many people reading Augustine (particularly for non-religious reasons). But a dear friend of mine and I are the founders and, oftener than not, sole members of a book group in which we are now reading our way, in historical order, through classic poems, plays, histories and autobiographies (we completed the fiction section separately first, which began with Don Quixote). As you can imagine it has been a project spanning many years.

IMG_2585No-one knows the inner motions of man except the Spirit of the man that lies in him (81, XXVII) Augustine, City of God, Book 1

As in Confessions  the power of Augustine’s intellect is impressive. And yet, in this first book of City of God,  my intellect struggled with what he considered a response (apology) to the citizens of Rome that had just been decimated by the Visogoths. Needless to say it was brutal, and the newly converted Christians felt pretty swindled. After all wasn’t this new Christian God suppose to protect the converted worthy?

For among those whom you see wantonly and brazenly insulting Christ’s servants are very many who would not have escaped that death and disaster if they had not pretended that they too were Christ’s servants (19, I).

The circularity of his logic is surprising. There is no argument that he posits that can’t just as easily serve the Pagan’s and their Gods. No God (or Gods), it would seem, protect people from evil, Augustine argues that that is not the point, no matter what happens, one still has the serenity of God within. Whether or not that is true is outside the scope of my quibble, I only ask, isn’t that the same for a person who believes that Zeus is the father of all gods? Wouldn’t a pagan still have the comfort of their beliefs (if that is all one is to have as a comfort)? Furthermore, wouldn’t God know the truth of a person’s heart – can one trick God so easily by “pretending to be Christ’s servant.”

Death is not be thought of an evil preceded by life which is good; the only thing which makes death evil is what follows (45, XI).

Perhaps his is truly just a faith that is focused on the afterlife…but even there, Hades? Hell? Wouldn’t that be the same place to fear going to? But, then again,  what do I know, after all, I spent half my time through this book in state of some confusion: it was presented in Latin on the verso side and English on the recto. I swear, every damn time I turned the page I forgot and was more than halfway into a Latin sentence before saying, huh?

But still, I have to admit that Augustine’s ability to logically dissect any given dilemma is stunning and often, as in his discussion on suicide, or rape, with his conclusion (obvious in this day and age) of a woman’s moral innocence as the victim, leads him to some progressive, for his day, ideas. For Augustine, what is in the heart matters more than any given act.

I do not hear what answer your hearts makes when you question them (83, XXVIII)

But, I apologize, as lovely and stirring as some of his language can be, I am not sure if I want to spend my precious and limited reading hours continuing through the rest of the books, but I suppose I will have to consult the book group (of one). I fear Augustine led many people to states of blind faith, I take umbrage at his disavowal of the woman he loved and their child, and I feel he encouraged a disconnect between body and soul that I find an incomprehensible waste of all that is beautiful here and now. Nevertheless, although I find lacking some of his arguments, I deeply appreciate the depth to which he examines them and examines his own heart, while leaving others to their own.

*Aris and Phillips Classical Text, Augustine De Civitate Dei, edited, introduction, translation and commentary by P.G. Walsh

**photograph taken by Augustus Accardi

 

I ask you, my human mind…

The human intellect is full of its own emptiness, better at looking than at seeing. – Saint Augustine, Confessions (285)

IMG_1391It was necessary for me to weave several books in and out of Augustine’s Confessions. As long as we are in a confessional state of mind, I will say that I had to keep my foot, so to speak, in the door of my mind to make sure it stayed open, and the effort was fatiguing. I may have read ten or fifteen other books while reading this one.

Who, after all, made me? (139)

That is not to say that the words, ideas, struggles and sublime beauty of language are not all present in the telling.

I was loosened from error, but not fastened to truth (109).

Nor is it to say that I did not, rather generously, ignore the oft repeated insulting words directed at my inferior sex.

Do we remember happiness, then, as we remember mathematical truths? […] No, I ask simply if happiness is a thing remembered – for how could we love it if we could not recognize it? (230)

When Augustine exhausts his intellect considering, memory, time and the cosmos – it is a wonder to behold. His algorithmic approach is astonishing, and his language, the pure beauty of his language, is a marvel.

How could times pass before they were there for the passing? (266)

But I can not help returning again and again, as Augustine himself did, to the epic battle he created between the body and the spirit. Whywhywhy?

He gives up sex, he cannot give up food and drink without sacrificing his life, but he is determined not to enjoy it. And no smell, however sweet will tempt him  (there is something of the Mr. Darcy in Augustine: “she is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me”). In the end he closes all of his senses, even (although he is a bit of a cheater here) to the one thing that really tricks him up: music.

A delicious physical sound should not melt our reason (241).

Ah, but it does. His and mine. As a friend of mine said to me recently, “Music is one of things we humans get right.” And I suppose this brings me to the heart of my confusion. Who, after all, made us? Why these bodies that touch, these smells, tastes, feelings, sounds? Why this moon, this sun, our stars, the mountains, the ocean? Why make something if only to demand a complete renunciation? Why are men so hell bent on religions of deprivation?

Grant this thing I love, since my loving it was your grant (273)

I probably did help matters by listening to Mozart’s Requiem while reading the bulk of this book. But, I am preparing to sing it with my Glee Club and I have no hope or wish to extinguish the awe I feel when singing or listening to such profoundly moving music.

*title from page 268. Penguin edition translated by Garry Wills

We Of The Unpleasant Curiosity

 He was so much in love that he was unable to tear himself away from her, but since we hear that she was in love with him too, perhaps this was also a factor. (270)  – Plutarch, Roman Lives (Pompey)

IMG_0395I tried mightily to understand that sentence. Without success. It seems to me that Plutarch, as a mere afterthought or maybe it was  an act of condescension, suddenly decided  that perhaps it does make a difference to a man if the woman he loves loves him back. How gracious. Still, he leaves room- he can only commit himself to say “perhaps this was also a factor.” Well, don’t go out on a limb there, Man! Plutarch is never at ease discussing matters of the heart. How annoying it must have been for him to have had to acknowledge the relentless ubiquity of romantic subplots, or heaven forbid, plots!  His disapproval of Pompey’s overdeveloped interest in love is clear well before this quote appears, but it’s just such a bizarre thing to say. It makes me wonder a few things about Plutarch rather than question what I take to be a perfectly sensible and worthy interest for any man or woman to have. Between Pompey and Caesar (where I will be leaving the Noble Lives) there are more than the usual references to the various women in their lives, despite Plutarch’s efforts to downplay such frivolity, these men (more so, Pompey) were very much lovers as well as warriors.

Within the first few pages Plutarch relates a bit about the courtesan Flora. I was immediately put on guard as I love the account Lucretius gives of their famed affair, and I am sorry to say Plutarch rather bungles it. He dryly describes their love and some gossip surrounding it, but important details are conflicting (who left bite marks on whom?). And more importantly, the story is bled of all passion and fun. Plutarch would rather look for some reasonable explanation of Pompey’s seemingly busy and overwhelmingly satisfying love life. Speaking of one of the early wives (Caesar’s daughter Julia):

In all likelihood the love she bore her husband was inspired by his self restraint, since he never had any extra-marital affairs (270).

Yes, because there is no other reason why a woman might love a man. Geesh, Plutarch,  a little therapy might be in order. What kind of relationships did Plutarch have that led him to believe that that is the most a woman should aspire to or be inspired by? Given his opinion of women, I suppose he had very little hope of experiencing what came so easily to the charming Pompey.  When Pompey marries Cornelia, Plutarch allows that she is beautiful, talented and intelligent but then stupidly adds:

She also combined these qualities with a character that was free from the unpleasant curiosity which these intellectual interests tend to inflict on young women (273).

Hrmph. Now I’m starting to get irritated. But maybe that’s my problem. I too have been inflicted with unpleasant curiosity, and with no Pompey of my own to sooth my nerves I haven’t the verve to sustain the indulgent relativity that reading Plutarch has required of me.

*Oxford World’s Classics, Plutarch, Roman Lives. Translated by Robin Waterfield

Plutarch Part One: Lives, Noble or Not
Plutarch Part Two: Argue As You Please
Plutarch Part Three: An Accord Sown

An Accord Sown

The first thing [Alexander] did in Persia was pay the womenfolk their money, in accordance with the custom by which whenever Persian kings arrive in the country they give some gold to every woman there. This explains why some of them apparently did not go there very often.
Plutarch, Roman Lives (Alexander, 374)

DSC_0840I burst out laughing when I read the above quote. I was at work, but I couldn’t help myself. One of my jobs is the type in which I can read without getting in trouble.  I finished the, ironically, rather long “life” of Alexander and was a little depressed to discover that I hadn’t even done away with an hour of my five hour shift. A patron came in and asked me a question regarding the show that is currently being shown in the gallery and then he asked me what I was reading. I paused. “Plutarch,” I finally admitted. “Well, somebody should be,” he laughed and walked away. I tried to imagine poor Alexander’s reaction to the disinterest he (mostly) inspires, and I felt bad for him. He really tried very hard. A smart and honorable fellow, perhaps a slave to his ambition, but he wasn’t a scoundrel, and really, at a certain point isn’t that all that matters?

Darius was already on his way down from Susa, with his confidence boosted not just by the size of his army [..], but also by a dream which the Magi had interpreted in a manner designed to please him rather than to accord with probability (327).

I was planning to someday have a staff of Magi to interpret my dreams in a pleasing way, but even I can learn from history- accord with probability– I must remember that. It would make an excellent mantra, and as Darius would surely attest-  save a lot of pain. Plutarch would have been the man to do justice to the noble life of Darius had he a Persian section of Noble Lives, but even still, as he often does,  when he is ostensibly talking about one noble man, he can’t help but go on at length about that noble man’s most worthy foe. By Plutarch’s own measure, that sense of decency makes Plutarch himself something of a noble man.

And he used to say that there was nothing better than sleep and sex for reminding him that he was not a god (332).

Now I’ve never confused myself with a god, but I think I will agree with Alexander that there are not many better things than sleep and sex to remind you of your body. If perfectly sated both activities transport one away from their body, but in their unrealized incarnations there can be no mistaking of one’s mortal state whilst tired or pining. But besides such winning bon mots as that, the question of why anyone should read Plutarch is legitimate. After all, I have no reason other than fun and interest to slog through some of the many nobel lives of Plutarch’s opinion. But I suppose that is the very thing. Plutarch is fun. And he is interesting. Alexander is a fabulous character and the sheer storytelling virtuosity that Plutarch excels in makes it compelling reading. The passage in which Plutarch describes Alexander facing down the gossip of his friend’s supposed betrayal is so marvelous I had to stare out into space for a bit to revel in it. After receiving “news” that Philip (of Acarnania) is planning to poison him, Alexander says nothing; Philip comes to him with a potion to cure him of a minor illness, (but only after overcoming the fear of wrath and retribution should Alexander’s health worsen by his care)  Alexander hands Philip the incriminating letter of accusation:

The ensuing scene was wonderful and worthy of the stage: one of them was reading the letter and the other drinking the potion, and they both looked at each other, but not with the same significance” (328)

What faith in friendship. What wonderful stuff mankind can be made of. This is why one reads Plutarch. Aristotle’s rules of writing: discovery, peripety, and suffering are all on display in the lives of these mostly extraordinary men. The seeds of history: lessons can be learned, bon mots can be savored, models of nobility can be aspired to, and – good storytelling is good storytelling. Period.

*excerpts from Plutarch Greek Lives published by Oxford World’s Classics translated by Robin Waterfield

Plutarch part 1: Lives (Noble or Not)
Plutarch part 2: Argue As You Please
Plutarch segue: Blindfold Art

Argue as You Please

No amount of investigation of yours would succeed in attaining the proof, and yet, once seen, you immediately believe you would have discovered it; by so smooth and so rapid a path he leads you to the conclusion required.
-Plutarch (on Archimedes) Everybody’s Plutarch (322)

IMG_0831I find myself talking to Plutarch. I have a few questions for the man. I know he  worked very hard to make an academic study of the “nobel lives” of various Greek and Roman men. That would be question number one. Plutarch, come on, it wouldn’t have killed you to mention a woman or two. And no, I won’t give you credit for your one page on Aspasia (loved by the great and noble Pericles). We already heard tell from my drinking buddy Herodotus about her fabulousness. Well, alright, I’ll give maybe a partial credit, as it’s a sunny day, the sky is brilliant blue, and why not?  Aspasia’s ‘ill repute’ as a ‘Madame,’ is mentioned in a single sentence.  Her charm and status as a woman who taught great men the art of speaking, including “Socrates himself [who] would sometimes go to visit her, and some of his acquaintances with him; and those who frequented her company would carry their wives with them to listen to her” (180) in two more. But Plutarch flies through Pericles’ first marriage, (which ends by mutual consent) with such speed that we’ve hardly digested this rather reasonable and progressive version of divorce by irreconcilable indifference when he is finishing off the paragraph with a hilariously staid description of the passion between Pericles and Aspasia.

And he loved her with wonderful affection; every day, both as he went out and as he came in from the market-place, he saluted and kissed her. (180)

Well, it’s not much, but it’s all he gives, so there you have it-  hello and goodbye with a kiss. What are we to think by this account? Perhaps it was so very common for women of this day to be regarded with such respect for their intellect and allure that a longer mention would have seemed unseemly. But somehow, I doubt it.

The chapter on Marcellus seemed to me to be as much about Archimedes as it was about Marcellus. And that leads me to my second question. I find a blatant bias towards the Greeks in these writings. If anyone out there is reading Plutarch’s Lives then chances are good that you, like I, are reading an abridged version. But the original format was to take a Greek life and then a Roman life and compare the two. Most of what I have read thus far has been about the martial prowess of the Romans compared to the martial (of course- that’s pretty much how the “Nobles” get the title) but also, mental and moral acumen of the Greeks. In fact Plutarch openly questions Marcus Cato’s “nobel-ness.” After  spending far more time discussing Cato’s penny-pinching austerity mode of living than Aspasia’s “make love not war” modus operandi, he unusually inserts his own opinion into the matter by questioning Cato’s treatment, for one, of aging servants that have out-lived their usefulness and are cast out into the world in order to preserve Cato’s own bottom line and warped sense of economy.

Whether these acts are to be ascribed to the greatness or pettiness of spirit, let every one argue as they please (357).

And that is the fun of Plutarch. His histories are slightly more personalized and it is really his personality that keeps me interested in all the rest. And I love a good argument, as long as (and perhaps if Plutarch had told us more I could know if Aspasia would agree with me) no one gets hurt.

Everybody’s Plutarch arranged and edited by Raymond T. Bond, Drydan’s translation.

Plutarch part one: Lives: Noble or Not
Plutarch part three: An Accord Sown