Category Archives: Classics

This Week in Latin Class: Kendrick Lamar, Elvis and Catullus

In order to prepare them for the selection of “Lesbia” poems that we translate, I ask each of the students in my upper level Catullus class to find a love song, play it for the class and to analyze the song in terms of the theme of love. This specifically is what I ask them to write about and discuss:

  1. 1. List the examples of poetic devices found in your song. Examples include alliteration, hyperbole, anaphora, personification and onomatopoeia.
  2. What is the purpose of your song? Why do you think the artist wrote this song? What stage of a relationship is this song describing?
  3. How is Love described in your song? What specific metaphors or similes are used to describe this Love? Are they affective?

I have about 2 or 3 students each day over the course of about a week play their songs and lead a discuss about it with the class. The range of music they choose is always interesting and exciting to me and my students. Discussions about music and culture always take place as a result of their presentations. Since I do this at the beginning of the course it’s also a good way for me to get to know my students better and for them to get more comfortable with each other.

This year some of the artists they chose included Kendrick Lamar, Elvis, Ed Sheeran, The Cure and John Legend. I put together a Spotify list so that we could play it in class throughout the semester and discuss these songs in comparison to the themes we see in Catullus. I inevitably get comments like, “Catullus is so whiny” or “Catullus is too melodramatic” or “Catullus needs to just get over this woman.” But then I remind that the emotions the Roman poet experienced more than 2000 years ago are still an part of human life and I point to specific songs that they played, and sang along to and identified with at the beginning of the class.

In addition, the students are able to recognize in their songs basic poetic devices such as hyperbole, alliteration, simile, etc. But I also use these songs along with the Catullus texts to teach them about and to help them understand more complex poetic devices like chiasmus, synchysis, zeugma, polyptoton, etc.

It is fun to watch them sing along. If you would like to do so, there here is our playlist on Spotify:

Catullus Class Love Songs

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Inertia Means Trouble for You: Some Thoughts on Flaubert’s Sentimental Education

Sentimental Education begins with Frederic Moreau, the pupil of said “education”, meeting, by chance, an older woman whose presence affects the rest of his life. Eighteen-year-old Frederic has been visiting a paternal uncle in the hopes of becoming the heir to his fortune when he encounters Madame Arnoux, Monsieur Arnoux and their young daughter on a steamship traveling out of Paris.  Although Monsieur Arnoux is a garrulous and outgoing man, it is his wife that captures Frederic’s attention (trans. Robert Baldick): “She was sitting in the middle of the bench all alone; or rather he could not see anybody else in the dazzling light which her eyes cast upon him.  As he passed, she looed up; he bowed automatically; and when he had walked a little way along the deck, he looked back at her.”  As he walks up and down the deck of the boat, he becomes inert and can concentrate on nothing an no one else but her. But he also hasn’t the courage to speak to such an incredible woman:

Never had he seen anything to compare with the splendour of her dark skin, the seduction of her figure, or the translucent delicacy of her fingers.  He looked at her workbasket with eyes full of wonder, as if it were a thing of beauty.  What was her name, her home, her life, her past? He longed to know about the furniture in her room, all the dresses she had ever worn, the people she mixed with; even the desire for physical possession gave way to a deeper yearning, an aching curiosity which knew no bounds.

Frederic moves to Paris where he attends law school and insinuates himself into the life Arnoux family.   He often visits the object of his desire, but the first half of the novel  describes his love for Madame Arnoux, yet his complete inertia, his inability to act in any definitive way to make her his lover.  I found the second half of the book more interesting as the pace of the narrative becomes quicker and more initeresting.  As the years slip by, this woman continues to be a presence in Frederic’s life and even though he takes up other mistresses he can’t get Madame Arnoux out of his heart or his mind.  He is incapable of committing to a marriage because there is always the hope of being with Madame Arnoux.   Furthermore, his inertia extends to his career since he doesn’t have the attention span to devote to a political career.  He lives on the inheritance from his uncle so he has no real need for a private income.  But having a serious occupation would have benefitted his otherwise unoccupied mind.  He let’s several professional and business opportunities slip through his hands because of his focus on his love and social life.

In the introduction to the Penguin Edition, Geoffrey Wall explains the autobiographical aspect of Flaubert’s novel and quotes the author’s letter to Amelie Bosquet:

I loved immeasurably, a love that was unrequited, intense and silent.  Nights spent gazing at the moon, dreaming of elopements and travels in Italy, dreams of glory for her sake, torments of the body and the soul, spasm at the smell of a shoulder, and turning suddenly pale when I caught her eye, I have known all that, and known it very well.  Each one of us has in his heart a royal chamber.  I have had mine bricked up, but it is still there.”

The object of Flaubert’s secret desire was an older, married woman named Elisa Schlesinger whom he meets as a teenager while on vacation on the Normandy coast.  He, too, would encounter her by chance throughout the years but never confessed his true feelings.

It seemed fitting that this week as I was reading Sentimental Education I was also preparing for my second semester Catullus course for my upper level Latin students.  Catullus is also smitten with an inaccessible, older woman and as I was reading about Frederic and Flaubert, Catullus’s Carmen 51 kept coming to mind.  It is the first, many argue, in the Roman poet’s series of Clodia (a.k.a. Lesbia) poems; Catullus sees Clodia at a party and the first sight of her instantly captivates him and he can only focus on her.  But, like Frederic and Flaubert, he is paralyzed by his feelings and cannot bring himself to approach her.  At the end of the poem, Catullus chides himself for his inaction:

Inertia, Catullus, means trouble for you.
You wallow in your inertia, and you carry it too far.
Such inertia has previously brought about the
destruction of kings and grand cities.

The Latin word otium seemed especially fitting, in my mind, for Fredric. I translated it here as “inertia”, but it can also mean “leisure.” It was originally used as a military term to describe the leisure of the army, when soldiers are encamped and experience boredom. If otium is translated as “leisure” in this Catullus poem then, I think, the meaning of the last few stanzas is completely changed, as it implies that too much leisure gets the poet into trouble. But I prefer to translate it as “inertia,” or “inaction” and see these lines as Catullus scolding himself for inaction which keeps him from being with his true love. This translation of otium also makes more sense in the context of the beginning of the poem during which he is literally and figuratively paralyzed by the site of this woman.

Both translations—“leisure” and “inertia” are equally fitting ways to describe Frederic. His inheritance allows him too much leisure time to get into trouble and his inability to act on his feelings for Madame Arnoux affect his entire life. Otium is the true cause of Fredric’s inability to attain true happiness at any point in his life.

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He Kept his Spirits Down on Purpose: Wolf Solent by John Cowper Powys

George Steiner has famously compared Powys’s writing to Tolstoy but when reading Wolf Solent I had the feeling I was occupying a world similar to those created by Dorothy Richardson or Virginia Woolf. The eponymous character of the novel, thirty-five year-old Wolf Solent, has been fired from his job as a history teacher at a grammar school in London. He finds new employment in Ramsgard as a literary assistant to a peculiar old squire who is writing a scandalous history of Dorset as well as a part time position in another grammar school. We view the world of Dorset and its quirky residents through Wolf’s private thoughts and meditations. The term “stream-of-consciousness” can be applied to the narrative, a central part of which is concerned with what Wolf calls his personal “mythology.” He enjoys taking long walks, communing with nature, and avoiding the complexities and entanglements of human society:

He asked himself lazily why it was that he found nature, especially this simple pastoral nature that made no attempt to be grandiose or even picturesque, so much more thrilling than any human society he had ever met. He felt as if he enjoyed at that hour some primitive life-feeling that was identical with what those pollard elms felt, against whose ribbed trunks the gust of wind were blowing, or with what these shiny celandine-leaves felt, whose world was limited to tree-roots and fern-fronds and damp, dark mud!

The aspect of Powys’s writing that particularly reminded me of Richardson’s Pilgrimage is the gaps or silences in the text that the reader must fill in. For example, Wolf’s newly discovered half-sister, Mattie, has a crying fit at a dinner just before her wedding. Another guest at the table mentions the wedding preparations and Mattie bursts into tears and calls for her long-dead mother. Wolf doesn’t ask any questions or wonder what is going on with his sister but, instead, he simply gets up and excuses himself from the house. So we are left, on our own, to wonder if Mattie is having a case of prenuptial nerves, is having second thoughts about her fiancé, or is just emotional because of the stress of planning a wedding. There are many such gaps in the text, some of the most interesting of which involve Wolf’s young wife, Gerda.

Wolf’s “mythology” which has kept him sheltered from the harsh realities of human life, is shattered when he settles into a rural, English town in Dorset. Hints of murder, suicide, incest, and love affairs disturb the quiet recesses of his mind into which he likes to withdraw. The various scandals in Dorset read like a Greek tragedy as Powys is fond of dabbling in the same taboo topics with which ancient mythology dealt. And whenever Wolf is upset he utters, “Ailinon!”, the ritual cry used by the distressed chorus in Aeschylus’s Agamemnon. But the greatest destruction to Wolf’s peace-of-mind is the result of his own choices: he decides to marry Gerda, the beautiful eighteen-year-old daughter of the local tombstone carver which he very soon regrets: “This killing of his ‘mythology’ how could he survive it? His ‘mythology’ had been his escape from life, his escape into a world where machinery could not reach him, his escape into a deep, green, lovely world where thoughts unfolded themselves like large, beautiful leaves growing out of fathoms of blue-green water.”

It is difficult to sympathize with Wolf, however, because he chooses to let go the one thing that would make his existence happy. Just after he marries Gerda, Wolf realizes that he is deeply in love with Christie the local bookseller’s daughter. Christie offers him all of the things his marriage is lacking—meaningful conversations with an intellectual woman who is also physically more of the type of woman to whom he is attracted. Even though he calls her his “one true love” and has the opportunity to build a life with her, his inertia and inability, and even unwillingness, to upset his carefully constructed, English life holds him back. When Wolf is speaking with a cousin, Lord Carfax who has visited from London, he notes about the man’s appearance: “His compact, sturdy figure, his formidable, level stare, presented themselves to Wolf like the embodiment of every banked-up and buttressed tradition in English social life.” Wolf is bogged down by and unwilling to throw off his own English social life–his wife, his neat cottage in Preston Lane, and his respectable but miserable job as a teacher. He quietly moves along in his wretched days in order to keep up the semblance of his neat, carefully ordered, little life: “He kept his spirits down on purpose, visualizing the innumerable moments of discomfort, of nervous misery, that lay before him. He stretched out his hand to pluck at those wretched future moments, so that he might appropriate them now, grabble with them now.”

My original plan was to read Powys’s Autobiography and his Glastonbury Romance but his writing is so rich that I need to take a bit of a break from it and continue to digest this first novel I’ve read.

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An Insatiable Craving for Books

“One unquenchable longing has the mastery of me, which hitherto I neither would nor could repress; ’tis an insatiable craving for books, although, perhaps I have more than I ought.” —Francesco Petrarch

I had the chance today to visit one of my favorite bookstores in New England.  Located in a small, shoreline community, it actually has five different locations spread throughout the town.  I only managed to visit two of the five locations today and even that took me a few hours.  The main store is a large, old farmhouse with a series of barns on the property, all filled from floor to ceiling with books.  None of the barns are heated so it was a bit rough going on this cold, wet day.  But, in the end, (even though I was cold and drenched and looked like a wet poodle) it was totally worth the trip.  Here is my haul:

Poetry:

I’ve become quite fond of collecting the Library of America editions—they look rather handsome on one’s shelves. I have been making a concerted effort to read more American authors, so this LOA edition of 17th and 18th century poetry was a great find. I was also pleased to add more Michael Hamburger, Marianne Moore and C.P. Cavafy to my poetry collection. The “Diaries of Exile,” translated from the Modern Greek and published by Archipelago Books, was also a pleasant find.

Essays:

I was so thrilled to find another George Steiner collection of essays that I don’t own, as well as another volume of Joseph Epstein essays.  The J.M. Coetzee essays look intriguing—topics include Cees Nooteboom, Translating Kafka, Robert Musil’s Diaries, Dostoevsky and the essays of Joseph Brodsky, just to name a few.  I already owned the paperback version of Michael Schmidt’s Lives of the Poets, and I was excited to upgrade to this hard copy edition that is in perfect condition.  Lord’s The Singer of Tales is a nice addition to my classics library as it deals with the orality of Homeric poetry.  And finally, the Hamburger and Colin Wilson essays will be a nice additions (or editions)  to my shelves.

Autobiography and Letters:

I am especially excited about this stack.  I’ve already started reading John Cowper Powys’s novels and I upgraded to this hard copy edition of his Autobiography.  My Powys reading project will take me into 2019.  I am also planning an Anthony Powell reading project for the new year and was exited to find this first volume of his autobiography.  I own a copy of the first volume of Flaubert Letters which is in tatters, so not only did I get a copy in perfect condition but I also found a copy of the second volume.  Finally, I found a wonderful early, hard copy edition (Yale Press, 1933, collected by Thomas J. Wise) of Robert Browning’s Letters.

Fiction:

Finally, I did manage to buy some fiction as well.  I want to read Anita Brookner in the new year.  I already have one of her books sitting on my shelves so these two will be nice additions.

Bonus: Today’s Book Mail

I’ve also become captivated by Andre Gide’s writing and these two gems arrived today in the mail.  (I thought my family was going to have a fit when I arrived home with all of these books and there were also more books waiting for me in the post!)  I am planning to explore Gide in the new year and I am also awaiting a copy of his Journals which I have already sampled and am eager to dive into.

As Petrarch says, perhaps I have more than I ought?

It doesn’t matter, I will still collect books and read them anyway.

(For what it’s worth I did cull three large bags of books from my shelves today so, overall, I broke even.)

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Filed under American Literature, Autobiography, British Literature, Classics, Essay, Letters, Literary Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry

We Each Create Our Own Labyrinth: Theseus by André Gide

When I teach my second year Latin students about ancient heroes, I always have to begin by explaining the distinctions between the modern and ancient concepts of the term hero.  Nowadays the word hero brings to mind first responders saving children from burning buildings,  a good Samaritan saving another person from drowning, and other selfless and kind acts.  Ancient heroes, however, are much more complex, controversial and are prone to carrying out acts of violence even if the end result is for the benefit of the community.  However, more often than not,  they are acting on their own behalf, they are seeking glory and honor and recognition for themselves.  Homeric heroes, for instance, are fighting at Troy for kleos, to be remembered and revered long after they are dead.  Hercules, Theseus and Jason save communities from various beasts and horrible monsters, but their true motivation is for glory and honor that comes with such brave acts.  But the ancient hero also suffers from loneliness, isolation and difficult relationships.

André Gide, in his short story “Theseus” reimagines the myth of the Greek hero Theseus and fills in the gaps where the ancient narratives are lacking.  Gide adeptly captures the pressure to perform that each hero experiences.  In the first chapter, Aegeus, Theseus’s father,  says to his son, “Your childhood is over.  Be a man.  Show your fellow men what one of their kind can be and what he means to become.  There are great things to be done.  Claim yourself.”  After Theseus defeats various, local monsters, he is eager to take on his biggest challenge yet, defeating the Cretan Minotaur.

In Gide’s story, when Theseus lands in Crete he visits the artist Daedalus who explains to him how his labyrinth works and the only way to defeat it.  This passage showcases Gide’s brilliance as a writer, an artist, and even a philosopher:

I thought that the best way of containing a prisoner in the labyrinth was to make it of such a kind, not that he couldn’t get out (try to grasp my meaning here), but that he wouldn’t want to get out.  I therefore assembled in this one place the means to satisfy every kind of appetite.  The Minotaur’s tastes were neither many nor various; but we had to plan for everybody, whosoever it might be, who would enter the labyrinth.  Another and indeed the prime necessity was to fine down the visitor’s will-power to the point of extinction.  To this end I made up some electuaries and had the mixed with the wines that were served.  But that was not enough; I found a better way.  I had noticed that certain plants, when thrown into the fire, gave off, as they burned, semi-narcotic vapors.  These seemed admirably suited to my purpose, and indeed they played exactly the part for which I needed them.  Accordingly I had them fed to the stoves, which are kept alight night and day.  The heavy gases thus distributed not only act upon the will and put it to sleep; they induce a delicious intoxication, rich in flattering delusions, and provoke the mind, filled as this is with voluptuous mirages, to a certain pointless activity; ‘pointless,’ I say, because it has merely an imaginary outcome, in visions and speculations without order, logic or substance.  The effect of these gases is not the same for al of those who breathe them; each is led on by the complexities implicit in his own mind to lose himself, if I may so put it, in a labyrinth of his own devising.

An interesting commentary for the 21st century where many are caught up in a labyrinth of their own choosing, a labyrinth composed of people and things that induce a “delicious intoxication” and are “rich in flattering delusions.”

Daedalus’s advice to Theseus is to keep hold of the thread that Ariadne will give to him and not let it go so she can pull him out of the labyrinth.  But the hero, who is used to fighting his own battles, doesn’t want to be tethered to anyone, especially a woman.  When he arrives in Crete, Ariadne throws herself at him and he views her as a silly girl whom he can use and toss aside.  Ancient heroes, in general, have a very hard time with women; they do not take well to marriage, settling down, domesticity.  In addition to Theseus and Ariadne, the relationships between Jason and Medea, Hercules and Megara end badly.

Gide, however, does linger on the story of one, special woman who is able to captivate Theseus precisely because she poses a challenge for him, the Amazon Antiope.  Theseus says of her, “An accomplished runner and wrestler, she had muscles as firm and sturdy as those of our athletes.  I took her on in single combat.  In my arms she struggled like a leopard.  Disarmed, she brought her teeth and nails into play; enraged by my laughter (for I, too, had no weapons) and because she could not stop herself from loving me.  I have never possessed anyone more virginal.”

Each person in the Theseus-Ariadne-Minotaur myth has his or her own unique point of view.  But, in the end, there really is no happy ending for any of them, is there?

This book has greatly piqued my interest in reading more Gide.  This slim volume that was sitting on my shelf also contains Gide’s Oedipus story, another interesting hero to explore.  Maybe in another post…

 

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