Love and Transformation: My Translation of Ovid Amores 1.3

My reading of Proust has me thinking a lot about Ovid, especially his Amores. I offer here my translation of Amores 1.3:

I pray for righteous things: may the girl who was just snatched

away from me either love me or show me why I should always

love her! Ah, I ask for too much—if only she would allow

herself to be loved, then Venus will have heard all my prayers!

Accept a lover who would devote himself to you for many years;

Accept a lover who knows how to love with pure loyalty!

If my upper class family does not impress you, and if my

equestrian lineage does not impress you, then neither will

my impeccably plowed fields nor my thrifty parents who

regulate my expenses. But Apollo, and his nine Muses,and the

inventor of the grapevines, Bacchus himself, all act on my behalf,

as well as Love itself who has given me to you, and Loyalty which

yields to no one, and morals without a flaw, and naked

simplicity and blushing modesty. A thousand lovers would not

satisfy me, for I’m not the horse-jumper of love; You alone will be

my forever cure, if there is any loyalty. Whatever number of years

the threads of the Fates have spun out for me, let me spend them with

you and may I die first, with you grieving for me. Offer yourself

to me as material fitting for my poems. Brilliant poems will be

produced from your inspiration. Io, frightened by her silly

horns, and the one whom Zeus tricked by pretending to be

a water bird, and even that famous virgin, carried away across the

sea as she held on to the horns of the disguised bull, have all had their

names made famous through poetry. Poets will sing about us

throughout eternity, and my name will always be linked with yours.

There is no way that Proust could not have known and appreciated Ovid’s poetry. I can imagine Proust swooning over Ovid’s treatment of love, indifference, social position, etc. in the Amores.

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Intellectual Narrowness: Proust on the Dreyfus Affair and Anti-Semitism

The Dreyfus Affair, opinions about which divided French society from 1894 until 1906, is a topic that Proust keeps returning to throughout In Search of Lost Time. Dreyfus, a captain in the French army of Jewish descent, was accused of spying for the Germans. After a sham of a trial, even when new evidence came to light exonerating Dreyfus, he was sentenced to life in prison. Proust was a Dreyfusard, and, in fact, referred to himself as “the first Dreyfusard,” the term for defenders of the captain who campaigned for a new trial. In a letter to his friend Mme Strauss, who was the model for his character of the Duchesse do Guermantes, Proust attempts to ask her for help in the fight to free Dreyfus: “I haven’t seen you since the Affair, once so Balzacian… has become Shakespearean with the accumulation of its rapid denouements.”

A large portion of the beginning of Sodom and Gomorrah, the sixth volume of Proust’s magnum opus, is devoted to a party at the home of the Prince and Princess Guermantes. Although discussions about The Dreyfus Affair are scattered throughout the previous five volumes, the scene at this party especially brings out the ignorance and anti-Semitism of the shallow upper classes with whom the narrator has been spending a great deal of time. The narrator has been a frequent guest at the dinner parties of his neighbors, the Duc and Duchesse Guermantes but he is still incredulous when he receives an invitation to a party at the Princess’s. What he encounters at this get together is more pretension and shallowness and mixed in with these awful qualities is the tendency of these social elites to embrace racist rhetoric.

Swann, whose mother is Jewish, is considered fully “assimilated” and is even accepted as a member of the Jockey Club, despite his Jewish ancestry. In this scene, however, Swann is gravely ill and it seems that in his last days he chooses to become a staunch defender of Dreyfus. The ugliness and bigotry that the upper class display towards Swann, a man whom they used to hold in the highest esteem as long as he kept his “Jewishness” hidden, is disgusting.

Moreover, and above all, a considerable period of time had elapsed during which, if, from the historical point of view, events had to some extent seemed to justify the Dreyfusard thesis, the anti-Dreyfusard opposition had greatly increased in violence, and from being purely political had become social. It was now a question of militarism, of patriotism, and the waves of anger that had been stirred up in society had had time to gather the force which they never have at the beginning of a storm. ‘Don’t you see,’ M. de Guermantes went on, ‘even from the point of view of his beloved Jews, since he is absolutely determined to stand by them, Swann has made a bloomer of incalculable significance. He has proved that they’re all secretly united and are somehow forced to give their support to anyone of their own race, even if they don’t know him personally. It’s a public menace. We’ve obviously been too easy-going and the mistake Swann is making will create all the more stir since he was respected, not to say received, and was almost the only Jew that anyone knew. People will say: Ab uno disce omnes.”

This scene, and the words of the Duc de Guermantes in particular, reminded me of a letter George Eliot writes condemning anti-Semitism which topic she also made as the center of one of her novels:

There is nothing I could care more to do, if it were possible, than to rouse the imagination of men and women to a vision of human claims in those races of their fellow-men who most differ from them in customs and beliefs. But towards the Hebrews we western people, who have been reared in Christianity, have a peculiar debt, and, whether we acknowledge it or not, a peculiar thoroughness of fellowship in religious and moral sentiment. Can anything be more disgusting than to hear people called “educated” making small jokes about eating ham, and showing themselves empty of any real knowledge as to the relation of their own social and religious life to the history of the people they think themselves witty in insulting? They hardly know that Christ was a Jew. And I find men, educated, supposing that Christ spoke Greek. To my feeling, this deadness to the history which has prepared half our world for us, this inability to find interest in any form of life that is not clad in the same coat-tails and flounces as our own, lies very close to the worst kind of irreligion. The best that can be said of it is, that it is a sign of the intellectual narrowness—in plain English, the stupidity —which is still the average mark of our culture.

Up to this point in the story the Duc is a silly, laughable womanizer who jumps from one mistress to the next. But his racist, ignorant comments make him downright despicable.

A racist womanizer? That might sound familiar to Americans and to British.

Will we ever cast off such stupidity and ignorance?

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Filed under British Literature, French Literature, Proust

Summer 2019: Reading and Reflections

Last year was the most difficult in my 20+ year teaching career.  I was burned out and exhausted by June and decided that, except for a quick trip to Boston, I wasn’t going to do any traveling over the summer.  In order to recharge and refocus I spent my time at home sitting in my garden which has a beautiful view and I alternated between reading, getting some sun, and swimming.

I began the summer by reading Virginia Woolf’s The Waves which I brought with me on my long weekend to Boston in late June.  Of all her books this one seems to get the least attention, but I enjoyed it, in a different way of course, as much as any of her other novels I’ve read.  One can see the beginnings of her stream-of-consciousness style for which she is so well-know.  The story is heart wrenching and tragic and not an easy read, but so worth the effort.  It’s not surprising, now that I look back on the summer, that I chose Horace’s Carpe Diem poem, Ode 2.11  to translate and spend some time with after reading The Waves:  “Why would you exhaust your soul making plans for the future, a soul that is not up to the task?”

After this I was in the mood for more Tolstoy, especially after I saw @levistahl post on Twitter that Hadji Murat was one of his favorite summer reads.  (Levi is great to follow, by the way,  if you like books, cats, dogs, baseball, 70’s movies and Columbo.)  Tolstoy is one of those authors whose writings I savor and am rationing the few remaining books of his I have left.  J.L. Carr’s novella, A Month in the Country was also on Levi’s list and I read the book and saw the film.  Carr’s story was the perfect book for the summer setting in my garden.

I spent all of July reading Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities I was so happy to connect with @genese_grill on Twitter who has translated Musil and who had wonderful insights into this enigmatic magnum opus.  (Genese is also great to follow on Twitter for books, literature and translation.)  The Man without Qualities, both Volumes I and II , were the most challenging books I have ever read.  I’ve seen them described as philosophical novels and the combination of Musil’s complex sentences and thought demanded my focus and concentration.  Reading Musil’s Diaries alongside the novels also provided valuable insights into some of the threads that run throughout his narrative.

My final summer reading was spent on the first three volumes of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time.   On Friday night I finished Volume III, The Guermantes Way,  which felt like it ended on a sad note.  The narrator finally gains admittance into the Guermantes’ inner circle and, like many other things, is disappointed by what he finds.  The petty gossip and the shallowness of the characters he meets are sad and pathetic.  I’ve been thinking a lot about indifference, which word Proust uses continually throughout all three books in a variety of contexts.  If I can pull my thoughts together I might write something about this after I finish all six volume. Needless to say, this is one of the most intense, illuminating, pleasurable reads I’ve ever had.  It was a wonderful summer, indeed, and I feel refreshed and recharged and ready to inspire my new classes to appreciate an ancient language.  Wish me luck!

For the rest of this year I will be occupied with finishing Proust and would also like to finish Schmidt’s Lives of the Poets which I’ve gotten half way through.

(By the way, Henry, my black and white cat, who is quite annoyed that I’ve gone back to work, insisted on sticking his nose into my book photo.)

 

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The Resurrection of the Voice: Proust on Sound

When we are away from those we love, our senses of touch and sight suffer the greatest deprivation. But in The Guermantes Way, Proust reminds us that our sense of sound, hearing someone’s voice, or not hearing that voice in a period of complete silence is equally as striking. The narrator decides to leave Paris for several weeks and visit his friend Robert who lives in an army barracks at Doncieres. As he stands alone in Robert’s barracks he contemplates the wildly different effects that sound have on us depending on time of day, mood, season, etc:

Only yesterday the incessant noise in our ears, by describing to us in a continuous narrative all that was happening in the street and in the house, succeeded at length in sending us to sleep like a boring book; today, on the surface of silence spread over our sleep, a shock louder than the rest manages to make itself heard, gentle as a sigh, unrelated to any other sound, mysterious; and the demand for an explanation which it exhales is sufficient to awaken us. On the other hand, take away for a moment from the sick man the cotton -wool that has been stopping his ears and in a flash the broad daylight, the dazzling sun of sound dawns afresh, blinding him, is born again in the universe; the bultitude of exiled sounds comes hastening back; we are present, as though ti were the chanting of choirs of angels, at the resurrection of the voice.

It is through sound that we attempt to understand and connect with others:

The withdrawal of sound, its dilution, rob it of all its aggressive power; alarmed a moment ago by hammer-blows which seemed to be shattering the ceiling above our head, we take pleasure nwo in receiving them, light, caressing, distant, like the murmur of leaves playing by the roadside with the passing breeze. We play games of patience with cards which we do not hear, so much so that we imaging that we have not touched them, that they are moving of their own accord, and, anticipating our desire to play with them, have begun to play with us. And in this connexion we may wonder whether, in the case of love (to which we may even add the love of life and the love of fame, since there are, it appears, persons who are acquainted with these latter sentiments), we shouldn’t act like those who, when a noise disturbs them, instead of praying that it may cease, stop their ears; and, in emulation of them, bring our attention, our defences, to bear on ourselves, give them as an object to subdue not the external being whom we love, but our capacity for suffering through that being.

I’ve always been prone towards quiet and solitude; I like to read and think and even sleep in complete silence, But, as is typical with Proust, he made me think of silence is a different way:

It has been said that silence is strength; in a quite different sense it is a terrible strength in the hands of those who are loved. It increases the anxiety of the one who waits. Nothing so tempts us to approach another person as what is keeping us apart; and what barrier is so insurmountable as silence? It has been said also that silence is torture, capable of goading to madness the man who is condemned to it in a prison cell. But what an even greater torture than that of having to keep silence it is to have to endure the silence of a person one loves!

And as stunning all of these passages on sound and silence are, the one that had the most impact on me was that in which Proust describes talking on the telephone for the first time and the person to whom he speaks is his beloved grandmother. The shock of hearing her voice without seeing her elicits an unexpected emotional response:

And because that voice appeared to me to have altered in its proportions from the moment that it was a whole, and reached me thus alone and without the accompaniment of her face and features, I discovered for the first time how sweet that voice was; perhaps indeed it had never been so sweet as it was now, for my grandmother, thinking of me as being far away and unhappy, felt that she might abandon herself to an outpouring of tenderness which, in accordance with her principles of upbringing, she usually restrained and kept hidden. It was sweet, but also how sad it was, first of all, on account of its very sweetness, a sweetness drained almost—more than any but a few human voices can ever have been—of every element of hardness, of resistance to others, of selfishness! Fragile by reason of its delicacy, it seemed constantly on the verge of breaking, of expiring in a pure flow of tears; then, too, having it alone beside me, seen without the mask of her face, I noticed it for the first time the sorrows that had cracked it in the course of a lifetime.

After this phone conversation the narrator immediately packs his things and runs how to his grandmother. When she is sick, he understands the severity of her illness when her voice changes and he can no longer understand her.

I keep thinking about this last paragraph I quoted and the fact that we don’t talk on the phone very often anymore. In the age of texts, DMs, PM.,etc. those long conversations, hearing the voice of someone we miss, are no more. I’m sitting in my garden listening to the birdsong, the ducks splashing on the pond and trying to remember how the voices sound of those lost voices…

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Filed under French Literature, In Search of Lost Time, Proust

The Assembly of the Gods: Expectation in Proust’s Guermantes Way

My reading of the first part of The Guermantes Way has me thinking about expectations and how we are constantly needing to adjust expectations that are set too high or too low.  From the Latin verb expecto, meaning “to await” or “to wait for”, expectation implies looking to the future and a sense of anticipation.  The narrator in Proust’s novel has been invited to the opera where he will see Berma, who once was his favorite actress, in a production of Racine’s Phedre. As a child he couldn’t wait to see Berma—his expectations were full of that sense of anticipation which the word implies—but he is bitterly disappointed by her performance.  But this time he is a bit older and he has no expectations for his second experience with her.

As a young adult, the narrator now sits in the opera house and, as the play unfolds, he realizes that his earlier expectations as a child, were unrealistic and even silly.  Now that he is older he understands that her craft, which includes subtleties of the inflection of her voice and gestures, clearly set Berma apart from other actors. He reflects:

I realized that my original desire had been more exacting than the intentions of the poet, the actress, the great decorative artist who directed the production, and that the charm which floated over a line as it was spoken, the shifting poses perpetually transformed into others, the successive tableaux, were the fleeting result, the momentary object, the mobile masterpiece with the art of the theatre intended and which the attentiveness of a  too-enraptured audience would destroy by trying to arrest.

This more mature and thoughtful version of the narrator also realizes that he similarly had unrealistic expectations that he placed on Gilberte, Swann’s daughter with whom he was in love in the previous book.  While watching Berma perform, he thinks about the myriad of factors that influence the foundation of one’s expectations:

It had just occurred to me that if I had not derived any pleasure from my first encounter with Berma, it was because, as earlier still when I used to meet Gilberte in the Champs-Elysees, I had come to her with too strong a desire.  Between my two disappointments there was perhaps not only this resemblance, but another, deeper one.  The impression given us by a person or a work (or an interpretation of a work) of marked individuality is peculiar to that person or work.  We have brought with us the ideas of ‘beauty,’ ‘breadth of style,’ ‘pathos’ and so forth which we might at a pinch have the illusion of recognizing in the banality of a conventional face or talent, but our critical spirit has before it the insistent challenge of a form of which it possesses no intellectual, in which it must must disengage the unknown element.

But just as Berma walks off stage, the focus of the narrator’s attention is diverted to other, important, and captivating audience members,  the Princesse de Guermantes who is seated with her aunt, and, incidentally, Proust’s new neighbor, the Duchesse de Guermantes.  It is this encounter that causes him to become smitten with the Duchesse for a good part of this book.  Germaine Bree argues in his essay “Proust’s Dormant Gods” (Yale French Studies No. 38, 1967) that Proust likes to apply Greek myths when discussing the metamorphosis of nature and persons.  I think Proust also has a penchant for comparing the women who become the object of his love to Greek myth and ancient goddesses (in the previous volume he compares Albertine and her friends to nymphs), thereby setting his expectations for his interactions and relationships with these women rather high.  He observes and thinks about the Duchesse and the Princesse as they sit in their theater box:

The costumes of these two ladies seem to me like the materialisation, snow-white or patterned with colour, of their inner activity, and, like the gestures which I had seen the Princesse de Guermantes make and which, I had no doubt, corresponded to some latent idea, the plumes which swept spangled bodice seemed to have a special meaning, to be to each of these women an attribute which was hers, and hers alone, the significance of which I should have liked to know: the bird of paradise seemed inseparable from the wearer as her peacock is from Juno, and I did not believe that any other woman could usurp that spangled bodice, any more than the fringed and flashing shield of Minerva. And when I turned my eyes to their box, far more than on the ceiling of the theatre, painted with lifeless allegories, it was as though I had seen, thanks to a miraculous break in the customary clouds, the assembly of the Gods in the act of contemplating the spectacle of mankind, beneath a crimson canopy, in a clear lighted space, between two pillars of Heaven.

When one sets one’s expectations as high as Mount Olympus, one is bound to be disappointed. But, as the narrator reminds himself while watching Berma, sometimes we just can’t stop ourselves from setting lofty and, perhaps,  unrealistic expectations. Proust is reminding us, I think, in this theater scene that life is a series of expectations, ones we must constantly adjust and readjust.

 

 

 

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