Category Archives: Classics

Lucretius on Dispelling Fear

De Rerum Natura 2.55-61 (translation is my own):

Just as small children tremble and fear everything in the blind darkness, so do we, as adults, fear in broad daylight things that are just as irrational as the fears of children in the dark when they imagine things before their eyes. Therefore, it is necessary for us to shake off this terror and gloom of the mind, not by the rays of the sun or the brightness of daylight, but by the appearance and reason of nature.

These lines from Book II of De Rerum Natura are quoted by the Marquis de Sade (although they are mistakenly said to be from Book III) in the introduction to his “philosophical novel” Aline & Valcour which will be published in a new English translation at the end of the year by Contra Mundum. The epistolary style novel, written while Sade was imprisoned in the Bastille, is described as owing “a special debt to the ancient Roman poet Lucretius, whose Epicurean and materialist philosophy lends it a contemporary feel wholly missing from many 18th century novels.”

Needless to say, I’m very intrigued. This will be my first Sade novel.

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Otium Divos Rogat: Horace Ode 2.16

For @Noxrpm whose Tweet yesterday inspired me to translate this Horace Ode.

2.16

While being caught on the rough Aegean, as a black cloud
hides the moon and the fixed stars are not shining for him,
the sailor begs the gods for peace;

The Thracians, frantic in war, beg for peace;
The Parthians, decorated archers, beg for peace,
dear Grosphus, a peace that cannot be bought with
gems or with purple or with gold.

Neither royal treasures nor political power can
erase the wretched anxieties of the mind or the
cares flying around the paneled walls of the home.

He who lives modestly lives well—the type of man
who is proud of an inherited antique salt dish that
shines on his modest table, the type of man who does
not let a little fear or sordid desire disturb his sleep.

Why, when we have such a short life, do we strive to
accumulate wealth? Why do we exchange our current
clime for a foreign one that is hotter? Can the man who is
an exile from his own homeland also flee from
himself?

Corrupted care climbs aboard bronze ships and
it keeps pace with a squadron of cavalry, and is
swifter than deer, and is swifter  than the East Wind
that drives along the clouds.

Let the soul, which loathes worrying about the
future, be happy in the moment and assuage any
bitterness with a calm smile. Nothing in this
life is completely perfect.

Swift Death snatched away that renowned Achilles
and Old Age greatly diminished Tithonus; perhaps
the hour will offer to me what it has denied to you.

One-hundred herds of Sicilian cattle bellow around you
and horses fit for the chariot raise up their neighing
to you, and you dress yourself in wool dyed twice with

African purple; The Fates, never false, have given me
a modest country estate, and the tender spirit of
Greek Song and the ability to reject the spiteful mob.

 

Horace’s Ode, written to Grosphus who was a wealthy Sicilian rancher, reflects his tendency towards Epicurean philosophy as he advocates for a simple life without cares or anxieties.  The sailor and sailing images, typical of Horace, also bring to mind Lucretius 2.1-19 where the stresses of a shipwreck are compared to the calm of the Epicurean spirit.  In addition, the anaphora with otium (peace) in this Ode must have been influenced by Catullus’s Carmen 51 which is also composed in Sapphic strophe meter.  Catullus, however (whom I’ve always thought of as a bad Epicurean), thinks otium is a negative thing—it is what keeps him from approaching the woman he loves (I translate the lines here and discuss them in relation to Flaubert).  I also bought a complete set of Montaigne’s essays so I can read “Of Solitude” which Nox quoted on Twitter in relation to this Horace Ode.

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Grande Mortalis Aevi Spatium: Freedom and Servitude in Tacitus and Proust

After the death of the Emperor Domitian, the Roman historian Tacitus decides to write a biography of his father-in-law, Agricola, who suffered through this tyrannical, oppressive and cruel regime.  Agricola, who served as a general and governor of Roman Britain under Domitian,  was an example of a virtuous man who stood up against the Emperor’s despotism.  In the opening of his Agricola, Tacitus lays out the guiding themes for his biography and, in particular, he contrasts the freedom (libertate) of the previous generation with the servitude (servitude) of his contemporaries under the reign of Domitian (Latin translations are my own):

We have provided a great deal of evidence of the suffering that was perpetrated; and just as the previous epoch saw what would be the extremes of freedom, so now in this age we see the extremes of servitude, especially since our ability of speaking and listening has been taken away through interrogations.  We would have destroyed our memory itself along with our voice, if it were as easy for us to forget as it was to keep silent.

Now that Trajan is Emperor, Tactius explains, freedom is slowly returning, but it is difficult to forget this disease to which a generation of Romans were subjected.  Although it was a span of only fifteen years, Tacitus calls Domitian’s reign of terror grande mortalis aevi spatium (a large interval of human life).

It’s no coincidence that Proust chooses to quote Tacitus’s opening lines of the Agricola in the penultimate volumes of In Search of Lost Time.   The Fugitive and The Captive, as the names imply,  are similar to Tacitus’ biography in contemplating freedom and servitude, memory and speech, and the effects these things have on our lives.   In Proust’s narrative, the tyrant to which both the narrator and his mistress are subjected, which curbs their freedom, is their terrible behavior in relation to Love.  The narrator is at a party given by the Verdurins whose faithful clan of followers of their salon at one time included Odette and Swann.  Brichot, an academic who has been part of the little clan for twenty-five years comments to Marcel about the drawing room at the Verdurins: “There look at this room, it may perhaps give you and idea of what things were like in the Rue Montalivet, twenty-five years ago, grande mortalis aevi spatium.”  To Brichot the old furnishings connect past and present, they remind him just how long he has been part of this little clan.

But there is a deeper level of meaning here when this passage is examined in light of Tacitus’s influence.  The Verdurins, for all these years, have acted like tyrants towards their followers from whom they expect constant attendance at their gatherings.  If one of their band falls in love and is thus in danger of abandoning their weekly parties, the Verdurins immediately step in and do everything in their power to break up the couple.  It is in the midst of one of these forced break-ups–that of Charlus with his lover Morel–that Brichot makes his remark about the large interval of human life.  Not only do the Verdurins have control over their group, but they relish in their bad deeds and their tyranny.  Even Charlus becomes their victim when their false accusations cause the Baron’s lover to break with him in front of everyone: “The fact remains that, in this salon which he despised, this great nobleman…could do nothing, in the paralysis of his every limb as well as his tongue, but cast around him terror-striken, suppliant, bewildered glances, outraged by the violence that was being done to him.”

The narrator himself, while being drawn into the Verdurins’ little plot against Charlus, is having his own struggles with servitude.  He has been keeping his mistress, Albertine, in a room in his parents’ apartments and he only allows her to go out if she is with him or otherwise supervised.  He knows that what he is doing is not right and suspects that he is making her unhappy.  He thinks about the days before she was his “captive” when she was the very embodiment of libertate (freedom) in her life of biking, golfing, and visiting friends at Balbec: “And it was curious to remark how fate, which transforms persons, had contrived to penetrate the walls of her prison, to change her in her very essence, and turn the girl I had known into a dreary, docile captive.”

But the narrator himself also feels as if he lacks freedom because of his feelings of extreme jealousy and his incessant plots to keep Albertine captive.   He oftentimes refers to his own situation as “my servitude” and tries to convince himself that he doesn’t love her or is indifferent to her: “That vague fear which I had felt at the Verdurins’ that Albertine might leave me had at first subsided.  When I returned home, it had been with the feeling that I myself was a captive, not with that of finding a captive in the house.”  What is most maddening to read in these episodes is the narrator’s attempt to manipulate her by doing and saying the opposite of what he thinks and feels.  In the face of his amorous dilemmas, he keeps silent, the same sin that Tacitus finds fault with in his contemporaries.  Marcel pretends he wants Albertine to leave when all he really wants is for her to confirm her feelings for him and to stay with him indefinitely.  He won’t admit his jealousy, he won’t admit his love for her, and most importantly, he won’t admit that he wants her to stay with him forever.

When all of his ridiculous, manipulative plans fail and he manages to drive Albertine away, he finds that his memories are the most painful things to endure.  She was a constant, reassuring presence in his life and he must go through the grieving process and hope his memory fades now that Albertine has regained her freedom: “The bonds between ourselves and another person exist only in our minds.  Memory as it grows fainter loosens them, and notwithstanding the illusion by which we want to be duped and with which, out of love, friendship, politeness, deference, duty, we dupe other people, we exist alone.  Man is the creature who cannot escape from himself, who knows other people only in himself, and when he asserts the contrary, he is lying.”

As he tries to grieve and he tries to forget, Marcel painfully realizes that his time with Albertine, her presence in his life, no matter how much he tries to deny it or feign indifferent, was a grande spatium.  As I read Proust’s chapter “Grieving and Forgetting,” I can’t help but think that, as he was writing, he was keenly aware of another phrase in the same passage of Tacitus’s introduction to his Agricola: — Non tamen pigebit vel incondita ac rudi voce memoriam prioris servitutis ac testimonium praesentium bonorum composuisse.  “It will not pain me to have recorded the memories of my prior servitude, albeit with a crude and disorganized voice, nor  to have  recorded the circumstances of my present good fortune.”

 

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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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My First Encounter with Proust

Charles Swann, the eponymous character of Proust’s first Volume of In Search of Lost Time,  is an old acquaintance of the narrator’s family and, although he has connections to the upper classes and the royals in France and Britian, he never forgets to visit with his middle class friends.  Swann is also very quiet about these other, important social circles to which he has access, and a knowledge of this would have shocked the narrator’s great-aunt:

But if anyone had suggested to my great-aunt that this Swann, who, in his capacity as the son of old M. Swann, was “fully qualified” to be received by any of the “best people,” by the most respected barristers and solicitors of Paris (though he was perhaps a trifle inclined to let this hereditary privilege go by default), had another almost secret existence of a wholly different kind; that when he left our house in Paris, saying that he must go home to bed, he would have no sooner turned the corner than he would stop, retrace is steps, and be off to some salon on whose like no stockbroker or associate of stockbrokers had ever set eyes—that would have seemed to my aunt as extraordinary as, to a woman of wider reading,  the thought of being herself on terms of intimacy with Aristaeus and of learning that after having a chat with her he would plunge deep into the realms of Thetis, into an empire veiled from mortal eyes, in which Virgil depicts him as being received with open arms.

This short passage in Proust brought to mind my very early days as an undergraduate, when taking a Vergil course and being handed these lines from the Georgics and asked to produce a polished translation and commentary.  I carefully and lovingly labored over this Latin text for weeks.  Aristaeus chases Eurydice through a field where she is bitten and killed by a serpent.  Orpheus, in his intense grief, asks the ruler of the Underworld to allow him to bring his wife back, but, by not following the only rule—not to look back at his wife—he is unsuccessful.  As a punishment for his indiscretion Aristaeus’s bees are destroyed and he is allowed to visit his mother and the other nymphs in their underwater lair to get advice on how to resurrect his bees.  I remember the part in which Arisaeus enters this watery realm because there were certain Latin words I keep thinking about and adjusting in my translation.  My mother would call me every week and ask, “How are the bees coming along?”  Although I had studied Latin in high school, I viewed translation as just another acquired skill, but it was due to this Vergil class that I decided to be a classicist.

So many memories.

I have spent the last weekend sitting in my garden, soaking up summer and completely immersed in Proust.  I have no doubt that this experience of summer will be forever linked with my first encounter with Proust’s extraordinary masterpiece.  I had expected something special, but nothing quite like this.  Walter Benjamin, in his essay “The Image of Proust” states it perfectly, “The thirteen volumes of marcel Proust’s À la Recherche du temps perdu are the result of an unconstruable synthesis in which the absorption of a mystic, the art of a prose writer, the verve of a satirist, the erudition of a scholar, and the self-consciousness of a monomaniac have combined in an autobiographical work. It has rightly been said that all great works of literature found a genre or dissolve one—that they are, in other words, special cases.  Among these cases this is one of the most unfathomable.”

One of the most astute and erudite readers I know remarked to me that Proust was a turning point in his reading life—-there is a distinct difference in reading and literature before Proust and after Proust he said.   Even after finishing only the first volume of In Search of Lost Time I think he is absolutely right.

 

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