Category Archives: Books

Posts about books.

Cultural references and making class relevant

Q, a highly evolved being who does not, strictly speaking, have a body

I recently shared on Facebook about how I — without planning to — worked Star Trek into a lecture on Ovid, Metamorphoses 1. The context was a discussion of the ‘divine spark’ in human persons, and how this idea is part of many ancient philosophies and religions, and in some cases ties into the idea that we need to release this divine spark through ascetic discipline, setting it free from the confines of the material world. This led to the statement that many philosophies accordingly believed that the material, physical world was bad, and the metaphysical was good.

‘This belief,’ I said, ‘can even be seen in Star Trek.’

Student: Which Star Trek?

Me: Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Student: Good.

Me: [Something about how every time we meet a highly evolved race in Star Trek: The Next Generation, they have shed or are about to shed their physical bodies.]

Student: Like the Q.

Me: Yes, like Q, who is there at the beginning and there at the end.

A friend on Facebook says that tying material into their own lives in this way is a good method for helping ideas stick in students’ minds. And I agree.

The problem for me is figuring out which cultural references actually work.

Later in that same lecture, I was talking about the sea, and how ancients did not like travelling by sea, because it was very dangerous, etc., etc. This concern about the sea is played out in A Merchant of Venice, for the play begins with Antonio losing his wealth because he had sunk it into merchant vessels. And I got blank looks.

So, Star Trek before Shakespeare, I suppose. But the lecture I gave where I brought in the debate about whether Battlestar Galactica is based on The Aeneid also go blank looks.

Thankfully, though, the Three Amigos works, sometimes even for those who’ve not seen it.

Student: Professor, how should we translate famosus?

Me: What do others think? (In Latin class, I like to ask the rest of the room first.)

Other student: Notorious.

Me: That’s right, fama in Latin often has a negative association, unlike the English word fame. So famosus can be more like infamous than famous, like the infamous El Guapo. ‘In-famous? What does in-famous mean?’ ‘It means this guy’s not just famous, he’s in-famous! He must be the biggest star in Mexico!’

Another student: *laughs*

Me: That’s The Three Amigos.

Student who laughed: Best movie ever.

Me: You should all go home and watch it. It’s on Netflix.

They will all now, hopefully, remember that famosus does not mean famous.

It is hard to know where to go with cultural references. Some of them creep out of me, and sometimes they work. Sometimes they don’t. I’ve never been hip, but it seems that enough Classics students watch Star Trek that I can get away with a few references as part of my pedagogical practice.

What successes or failures have you ever had?

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Loving Horace

Horace’s Odes by William Morris

I recently finished teaching Horace, Epistles, Book 1, to my fourth-year Latin poetry class. One of the things I like about my current position is that I get to teach texts that have no direct bearing on my research. I research late antique Latin prose letters written by bishops of Rome. The fact that they are letters in Latin is the strongest link these texts have to Horace.

I get to teach literature that I simply like with no wider vision in mind. I even got to choose — Horace’s Epistles, Ovid’s Letters from Pontus, one of Ovid’s Heroides, and some of Ausonius’ verse letters (I couldn’t keep Late Antiquity out!).

Not all of my students enjoy Horace. For some, it’s simply that, compared with Ovid, Heroides 1, Horace’s Epistles are more difficult, both in terms of Latin grammar and vocabulary and in terms of grasping what he means. Horace is harder to interpret, at least here. Some dislike the moralist attitude he often adopts in the Epistles, others aren’t enamoured with his love of the countryside.

I, on the other hand, really enjoy Horace’s Epistles. In fact, I like Horace at large, even with ‘dulce et decorum est pro patria mori’ (it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s fatherland) and ‘odi profanum uulgus et arceo’ (I hate and shun the profane mob). I also have to admit that I don’t always agree with Horace’s philosophy.

The basic principles of Horace’s philosophy as spelled out in the Epistles seem okay to me — live a contented life whatever the circumstances; each man is the measure of his own freedom; indebtedness to others is no true freedom; live in accordance with your own nature, even if that means you differ from other wise men; Homer offers more wisdom than the philosophers.

Nevertheless, his own self gets in the way. Sure — live a contented life wherever you are. But wouldn’t you rather live in the country like me? Isn’t it better to avoid the City (Rome) in August and September? I can see how some people, reading always with suspicion — especially with suspicion of wealthy aristocrats — would dislike Horace for this, let alone his two famous phrases above.

Nonetheless, I did see students coming around. One student loved how beautiful his verse is. This is a statement that cannot be borne out by an English blog post. Read it yourself. It is beautiful. Horace is a consummate poet. We could also balance out some of his hard edges with his fables that always surprise the reader used to different modes of poetic voice — suddenly, as if out of nowhere, he tells the story of the horse and the stag doing battle …

But for an individual reader, balancing the positive and negative will not always work. Can we love Horace without having to like him?

Well, we can theoretically love our neighbours and enemies without always liking them.

Perhaps we begin with the balance — the fables, the beauty, the philosophy, the syntax, the morals. Uneven. Unequal. Human. Rather than trying to allow the good to outweigh the bad, simply acknowledge this situation.

Maybe then seek empathy. His inconsistencies in philosophy, for example, merely make him human, not a bad poet. Consider why he loves the country. Consider the strengths and weaknesses of his philosophical and moral statements. Then read the Latin aloud for its sonorous beauty. Parse a sentence and see his art, grammar, syntax, all at work at once.

Read Horace as high art, beautiful poetry, created by a flawed human, as weak and feeble as all of us.

Maybe then the resistant reader can come to love him.

Finally — loving Horace is different from loving Ovid, and different again from loving Virgil, let alone from loving Shakespeare or T S Eliot. And that’s okay.

But I think you could try this with any author.

Full disclosure: The inspiration for this post was Alan Jacobs, A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love.

Quick thoughts on Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts 1 & 2Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts 1 & 2 by John Tiffany
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Some brief, spoiler-filled thoughts.

This book is a couple of plays. It reads like plays, and it moves at the pace of plays. That is, plot development is not especially deep. That said, it seems like it would have been brilliant to watch live. It is highly entertaining. As a person who enjoys Harry Potter but not the Harry Potter phenomenon, and who thinks there are other, better children’s fantasy books, it gave me what I wanted.

But what, really, does this add to the Potterverse? Almost nothing. We see an outlandishly happy ending for all the good guys — they grow up to be influential bureaucrats and civil servants, which I think is supposed to be a good thing? And the play basically ends status quo ante bellum.

What does it provide us, then, besides a bit more fun and Voldemort’s daughter? It gives us what plays are good at. Plays — and, really, I only know Greek tragedy and comedy and Shakespeare besides Murder in the Cathedral — are more about characters and psychology than plot. Epics and novels and romances are for plot, films as well.

That’s what this play gets us — we see insight into what it means to be the man who was the Boy Who Lived, to be his son. We have fathers and sons. We have themes of friendship and loyalty and depth of love. We see Draco and Harry become friends because their sons are friends.

So, no, this book won’t really add an ‘eighth story’ like the first seven. But it adds something, some depth as well as glimpses of what life could have been.

View all my reviews

Atonement

Today I taught Virgil, Aeneid 12 — the final book of the epic. Mostly I lectured about

**SPOILER ALERT**

the death of Turnus. When Aeneas kills him, he says (Frederick Ahl’s translation):

Pallas gives you this death-stroke, yes Pallas / Makes you the sacrifice, spills your criminal blood in atonement!

In Latin this is:

Pallas te hoc uulnere, Pallas / immolat et poenam scelerato ex sanguine sumit.

I hadn’t checked the Latin before class, but as I read Aeneas’ declaration out to my students, I said to them that I did not like this use of atonement. In the context, Aeneas is essentially killing out of revenge, possibly seeking propitiation for Turnus’ killing of Pallas. Now, atonement is often used in contemporary English in the place of propitiation, but its wider use implies something bigger and potentially very different.

Without looking at the Latin, we decided on retribution — propitiation usually involves the gods, after all.

Ahl has a difficult task throughout his translation, because he is trying to translate verse into verse across different languages. But at least he is not trying to match the same number of English iambic pentameters to ancient dactylic hexameters like Emily Wilson does in her Odyssey, since that is essentially impossible without more cutting than usual.

Anyway, ‘spills … in atonement’ renders the Latin ‘poenam … sumit’, which I would take to be ‘exact/inflict the penalty/punishment’.

This is retribution, not atonement.

How are we to differentiate?

Well, maybe this is just the philologist in me, but the English word atonement, while it often comes out meaning ‘retribution’ in contemporary English, does not always mean that today, nor has it historically. Moreover, it is more often used in terms of ‘reparation’ today — that is, one ‘atones for’ one’s crimes.

Atonement, as you likely know, is about the only word in the English theological vocabulary descended from neither Latin nor Greek. It looks like its original meaning — ‘making at one’ or even, dare we try?, ‘one-ing’ or ‘onement’. It comes to take on ideas from propitiation, retribution, reparation, because of its use to refer to how Jesus oned humans and God by taking on human sin, guilt, punishment, etc., and dying.

But because of its use in Christian theology, it strikes me that we should be careful how we use the word atonement, regardless of popular uses. Does Turnus atone for his sin with his death, or does Pallas simply take retribution from Turnus’ blood?

Dido, Queen of Carthage

I have the privilege this semester of teaching Virgil’s Aeneid (on which I’ve blogged here) in English (translation by Frederick Ahl). Last week, we covered Book 4. This is the section of the Aeneid in which Aeneas and Dido have an affair that Dido considers marriage, and in the end, Dido kills herself on a pyre of her stuff, after raging through the streets of Carthage like a bacchante.

In his Confessions, Augustine admits to weeping at Aeneid 4 as a boy.

Normally, when we read the tragedy of Dido, we cannot help feel for her as a woman maltreated by a man. Servius, the fourth-century commentator on Virgil, says that Virgil modelled Dido on Apollonius of Rhodes’ account of Jason and Medea — a love story that, had Apollonius got to the end, closes with the woman abandoned by the man and getting violent revenge. Another parallel, perhaps, is Theseus abandoning Ariadne on Naxos, as recounted in one of Virgil’s intertexts, Catullus 64, a mini-epic about the marriage of Peleus and Thetis.

Elaine Fantham says that Dido is more like Hypsipyle than Medea, of all of Jason’s women, and perhaps even more like Phaedra in Euripides’ Hippolytus — a woman driven to love by scheming divinities whose real target is a man.

Fantham, in her introduction to Ahl’s translation, makes an important point about our reading of Dido:

‘Rather than relive Dido’s sufferings, we must note that she stands for the future of her city. When Dido stabs herself upon the funeral pyre Rumour, the same destructive spirit that precipitated the lovers’ separation, now raves through the city as if all Carthage (like Troy) was falling to enemy occupation and being consumed by flames. The greatest wrong done by Dido’s love for Aeneas was arguably to her own people. –Introduction, xxvii

Normally, we see Dido as a poor woman who has fallen for and succumbed to her womanly passions. I think we should, rather, see Dido as a queen, who has been targeted by Venus and Juno for their own ends, leading to disaster.

We do not, for example, read Turnus the way we read Dido. When he calls for war and rages against the Trojans, we do not say that he has succumbed to his manly passions for war and violence. We rightly acknowledge the role that the Fury Allecto has in Turnus’ turning.

Dido, who first appears being likened to the Goddess Diana and is seen as a self-strong, self-assured political player in Africa who has rejected marriage not only out of loyalty to her dead husband but out of political shrewdness for the future of Carthage, should not simply be reduced to a woman succumbing to the passions of romantic love. She should be seen as a character and a player in her own right.

This changes it. She becomes like Turnus, a victim of Venus and Cupid, and then also of Juno, who meant to favour her. Her wrong, her culpa, also shifts from the private to the public. Dido has not merely had an affair but has endangered the entire Carthaginian enterprise.

In a poem full of political players, this should not be lost.

Reading a manuscript as a whole

Related to my last post of medieval musings, the other important methodological concern that characterised my research this year was not simply paying attention to paratextual elements in manuscripts but to their contents as a whole. It may be a gross oversimplification to say this, but in a great many studies of canon law, there is an ever finer process of definition and cutting away. Thus, someone who studies decretals will look at the first 18 folios of a manuscript and pay no heed to the copy of Gratian to which the decretals are attached. Or someone who does canon law will look at the ‘canon law’ section of a miscellany but not its theological section.

Once again, however, when we put ourselves in the reader’s seat, we cannot look at the manuscripts in this way. When I study Durham’s six glossed copies of Gratian’s Decretum, I am interested in what else I may find. Durham Cathedral Library MS C.III.1, for example, begins with a ‘homemade’ canonical collection with excerpts from a variety of sources, including a papal catalogue, an arbor consanguinitatis, and a decretal collection. And then a glossed copy of Gratian of similar date but a different hand. If these were bound together early, most readers will have had their reading of Gratian shaped by this other material, not just the glosses.

One result, for example, is the emphasis on papal authority that comes from the papal catalogue and the decretal collection. Also, the ongoing controversy in canon law about marriage is cast into sharp relief by the arbor consanguinitatis.

That is just one example.

Another example that my boss told me about two days ago is the fact that, once the Latin translation of John of Damascus De fide orthodoxa is complete, Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo finds itself always transmitted with the Damascene. Somehow, people found a resonance between these two documents. Those who read the texts would inevitably be influenced by this editorial decision.

I once queried why notitiae of Roman provinces find their way into canonical collections. The answer is that Carolingians in the ninth century created a system whereby the bishop of the Roman province number Prima in those notitiae was the Primas, the Primate, with certain rights and responsibilities to those below him. So the administrative structure of a long-dead empire was suddenly of great interest, and people copied these texts. If all I did with a manuscript was read the ‘canon law’ material, I would miss this important nuance in the reader’s experience.

Rosamond McKitterick, in History and Memory in the Carolingian World, has argued that by collecting papal letters alongside church councils, the authority of the popes in matters of canon law was reinforced. It makes sense when you read the whole manuscript together, doesn’t it?

Examples abound. This is a useful approach, and it certainly helps one understand some texts when they don’t seem to make sense in any other way.

Violence in Literature

The death of Pentheus on an Attic red figure kylix, c. 480 BC

Not too long ago, I was reading a historical novel and wondering if it would be a good present for someone I know. My one concern was the violence — this was a novel about the Roman army, and there were a few battle scenes. And then, maybe the next day (?), I was reading the Aeneid, which includes such passages as this:

Tarquitius next set himself in the path of Aeneas’ fury.
Born to a nymph, Dryope, and fathered by Faunus, the woodlands’
God, he was prancing, proud in his blazing armour. Aeneas,
Hefting a spear, pinned the massive weight of his shield to his breastplate.
As the man begged in vain and prepared to keep pleading, Aeneas
Slashed off his head. When it fell to the ground, he rolled over the headless,
Still warm trunk with his feet… -Aeneid 10.550-556, trans. Ahl

This, I concede, is probably not the most violent scene in the Aeneid, but I hope it suffices as an example. This poem is violent, filled with many grim deaths. But overall, it is worth reading — the violence is part of the story, part of the art, and contributes to the bigger themes I discussed when recommending that you read this epic.

The Aeneid is not the grimmest of Latin epics when it comes to violence. From what I have read so far, that goes to Lucan’s Civil War:

One of the twins dared grab a Roman vessel
from his Greek stern when oars were interlocked
in slanting comb; but a heavy blow from above cut off
his hand, which clung there still, such was the pressure of its grasp
and, holding on with tightened muscles, it grew stiff in death.
In adversity his courage grew: mutilated, his noble wrath
increases and with strong left hand he renews the battle
and leans across the waters to seize his own right hand:
but this hand too with all the arm is severed.
Now without his shield and weapons, he is not hidden deep
inside the ship but exposed, and as he protects with naked breast
his brother’s shield, he stands firm, though pierced by many a spear,
and in a death already well earned he receives the weapons which
in their fall would have killed many of his own people. Then he gathered
into his tired frame the life that was departing by many wounds
and braced his limbs with all the blood remaining
and, though his muscles were failing in their strength, he leaped
on to the enemy ship, to damage it by his weight alone.
-Civil War 3.609-626, trans. Braund

Not the most gruesome death, but possibly one of the most bizarre as Braund observes. This death, which continues on the blood-soaked ship until it sinks, like the others in Lucan, highlights the monstrosity of civil war. There are no heroic deaths here, for the order of the world has been cast awry.

One more example from Latin epic, the death of Pentheus in Ovid, Metamorphoses 3:

… The whole mad throng
Rush at him, all united, and pursue
Their frightened quarry, frightened now for sure,
Now using less fierce language, blaming now
Himself, admitting now that he’s done wrong.
Wounded, he cries, ‘Help, Aunt Autonoe!
Mercy! Actaeon’s ghost should move your mercy!’
Actaeon’s name’s unknown. She tore away
His outstretched hand, and Ino seized and wrenched
The other off. With no hands left to stretch
Out to his mother, ‘Look, mother!’ he cried,
And showed the severed stumps. And at the sight
Agave howled and tossed her head and hair,
Her streaming hair, and tore his head right off,
And, as her bloody fingers clutched it, cried,
‘Hurrah for victory! The triumph’s mine!’
-Trans. A. D. Melville

The Expendables films having nothing on Ovid.

Each of these poems has its violent moments. But each also has wider themes — love, destiny, the wrath of the gods, freedom, glory, right behaviour. The violence and death are not there to be glorified or revelled in. They are subservient to the wider purpose of great poetry. And, whether you like them or not, these three are consummate poets.

Turning back, then, to a modern historical novel, the question should be the same, even if the artistry is not Virgilian, Ovidian, or Lucanian. What does the violence do? Does it propel the plot? Does it deepen a character? Does it expand a theme? Or is it merely titillation for the violent side of males who live in a society that prevents most of them from being legitimately violent?

Once these questions are answered, the rest should fall into place.