Reading Catullus

With the extra time to read on my hands these days, I’ve been dipping again into the poems of Gaius Valerius Catullus, Roman poet around the time of Julius Caesar. I’ve written in the past about reading Horace, a somewhat later Roman poet whom I greatly admire. I like to pick up a translation of Horace’s Odes or Epodes and read a few lines, maybe a whole poem, every now and then. Horace can be quite insightful and inspirational. Not so much Catullus for me. He’s entertaining in so many different ways. If Horace is a letter to the editor or an op-ed opinion, then Catullus is, for the most part, the editorial cartoon.

That may be a trifle unfair. What we have left of Catullus’s work is a collection of a mere 116 poems, although my translations leave out numbers 18, 19, and 20 as falsely attributed (there is some scholarly debate around them, especially 18). Most are short; some are love poems to his anonymous lover Lesbia (identified later as Clodia Metelli, a bit like Shakespeare’s Dark Lady of his sonnets), some are comments about or to other Romans, or on current events, some are scatological, some satirical, others obscene (or obscenely funny depending on your sense of humour). And a few are long, deep, and complex (like the elegaic Poem 64).

Obscene? you ask. Well, yes — by the uptight moral standards of suburban-consumerist-WASPish North American culture and that of the 19th century British school curriculum where he as required reading in Latin classes. Not by Roman standards – they were far more relaxed and open about many aspects of sex and sexuality, including homosexuality, in Catullus’ time. It’s one of the reasons Augustus tried (mostly unsuccessfully) to impose a straight-laced moral code, laws and all, on his own Roman culture. Even his own daughter failed to live up to his ideals and ended up being exiled for her wanton ways. But I digress.

Earlier translators of some of his poems tried to water down, bowdlerize, or even exclude the dirty bits. Others tried to mold his words to more sensual or erotic (and less explicit) forms. Even today some translators struggle with verbs like irrumare and try to soften them.  Me, I suppose I’ve come to the age when little in the classical world shocks me — that effect is reserved for the stupidity, selfishness, and corruption of today’s world (especially in the USA). Catullus’ frankness I find amusing.

Seen in the light of our online, easy-access-pornography culture,  I suspect Catullus’ words have less opportunity (or ability) to shock and titillate today. Many recent translations grapple to find a modern, yet linguistically accurate way to express Catullus’ sexual and scatological imagery, varying between euphemism and metaphor to outright obscenity. But Catallus, too, wrote in metaphors that one needs a critical guide to fully understand (I’m also reading Charles Martin’s Catullus, Hermes Books, Yale University, 1992, which offers an academic analysis of the works).

Perhaps the thing that strikes me most in his work— and in reading any of the classical authors — is that it shows how little human behaviour, reaction, passions, and emotions have changed in the intervening millennia. Catullus is at times horny, lustful, angry, lovesick, sad, blustering, thoughtful, friendly, and snobbish. He’s so very human in his writing, and in that he’s much like Horace.

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Don Quixote times three

Don QuixotesAt roughly the same time Shakespeare was writing and performing King Lear, Measure for Measure, Othello and Macbeth (1604-1605), Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra was publishing the first part (52 chapters) of his satiric novel, Don Quixote, or more properly titled (in English), The Ingenious Gentleman Sir Quixote of La Mancha. The second part (another 74 chapters) was published in 1615, roughly two years after Shakespeare’s final play, The Two Noble Kinsmen (co-written with John Fletcher).

While it was probably always intended as a single novel, the decade of time between the publication of the two parts has suggested to some scholars it is really two novels (although Part 2 starts only a month after the events that close Part 1). And perhaps it should be marketed as such; the fat combined volume could easily deter readers. I know, I know: there are people who are deterred from reading by any document regardless of its length, and not just local politicians.

Both Cervantes and Shakespeare died in April, 1616, Cervantes a mere day before the Bard, a notable coincidence. Four hundred years later, their contributions to literature and culture still affect us. I heard a local resident comment on “tilting at windmills” only last week. And I still find references to Sancho Panzo in my online reading.

Don Quixote is considered the first “modern” novel. I suppose that means it was not a morality tale, a Christian allegory or written as an ethical training guide to nobility. But also it’s because of the narrative thread and the complexity of the characters.

It achieved international fame almost immediately – the first part was translated into English in 1612 and has been translated many times since. The most recent translation was 2012 (Gerald J Davis). In my own library, I have three translations: John Ormsby (1885, my edition was published 2015), J. M. Cohen (1951, in Penguin books 1985) and Edith Grossman (2003 – which achieved bestseller status that year, remarkable for a book 400 years old). A fourth, translated by Montgomery (2006) is on order.
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Cicero, Seneca and Confucius

As I wrote in my last post, I have been reading a lot of the classic philosophers of late, particularly the Stoics. And I’ve been going further afield.

My classical readings have included a lot of Seneca and Cicero of late (plus Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius), as well as interpretations of same. While Seneca was a confirmed Stoic, Cicero seems sympathetic if not entirely convinced, and may have had strong sympathies for the Epicureans as well. 

My reading also includes what I’ve found is the best single book explaining Confucius and his views: Confucius and Confucianism: The Essentials, by Lee Dian Rainey (Wiley, 2010). If you want to understand the most important philosopher and political commentator in China’s history, this is the place to start. This book has shown me some common threads between the Stoics and the Confucian philosophers, and highlighted shared themes in the Analects. I’m also reading a translation of The Analects by Annping Chin (Penguin, 2014), which is not only in clear, modern English, but is accompanied by very useful explanatory notes. Both books I highly recommend.

(N.B. I’ve been engaged in an email correspondence with Prof. Rainey about source material, translations, and other issues. She has been most gracious and patient in responding to my layperson’s comments and questions I’ll come back to her.)

I suppose I’m looking for a sort of universal field theory for philosophy to help me sort them out, establish the common ground, and then find my own balance within this eclectic melange. While I currently lean toward the Stoics, I like to look outside the confines of Western thought in my humble effort to develop a synthesis of ideals and views that makes personal sense both intellectually and emotionally.

Not an easy task, I admit, since despite some parallel concepts, East and West were (are) separated by great gulfs of spirituality, governance, language, and culture that affect the interpretation and understanding. Language in particular is challenging since everything I read is a translation and the meaning is highly dependent on the translator’s choice of words and phrases to convey the original ideas (you have probably read my earlier comments on translation as an art).*

Still, the journey is the thing, isn’t it? And, of course, the reading to get there is enjoyable, as reading to learn always is. I’ve found a lot of seriously relevant material, some of which also parallels what I’ve learned in my studies of, and on-again-off-again practice of, Buddhism. So there are connections here; I just need to sort them out.
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Gilgamesh four thousand years later

GilgameshGilgamesh continues to enthrall us, even after more than 100 years of translations and interpretations. The story continues to be told and retold and even re-imagined. There’s even a children’s version of the tale.

You can read a version here, in PDF format or an online version here.Translations and transliterations (if you know your Akkadian…) are here. There was likely an oral version shared even before writing was invented – if you really want to know what that might have sounded like, listen to some modern recordings of old Babylonian poetry here.

Gilgamesh is not simply humankind’s earliest written legend – it’s also a powerful story that tells us about what it means to be human, to be part of a greater community. It’s about growing up, about friendship, fear, loss, death, sex, magic, faith, pride, finding wisdom and the meaning of life.

Several texts of the Gilgamesh epic have been found, all of them fragmentary, so part of the retelling is collecting the pieces and assembling them into a whole. They are also in other languages including Elamite and Hurrian. It is also a personal tale based on a man many archaeologists believe to have been real: the King of the city-state of Uruk,* some time between 2750 and 2500 BCE.

While the story itself dates back to the late third millennium BCE, the earliest tablets – Sumerian versions of the epic – date come from the city of Ur around 2150-2000 BCE. The Akkadian version is from about 1900 BCE.

The Gilgamesh story is the earliest work of literature known, and was so popular it spread throughout the great Mesopotamian civilizations of Sumeria, Babylon, Akkad and others. The great epic was still being repeated and written down on clay tablets during the Hittite rule a thousand years later. That alone shows the power of its storytelling.

Some parts – like the Flood myth – even made their way into the Bible, albeit wrapped in a different religious blanket.Four thousand years later, this story still captures our imagination.
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Malory then and now

Caxton's MaloryI recently started reading Malory in the original – that is, the language that Caxton printed in. Not the typeface Caxton used, since that would be harder to read, but rendered in a modern serif face. Caxton initially used black letter type (aka gothic) – pretty much all the early printers used it, although each printer had his own dies and styles. However, he did move to a more easily-read, more-rounded typeface by around 1490, a few years after he printed Malory’s book. Still, the early typefaces used in all incunabula take a bit more mental effort to decipher because they are not as familiar to us as our modern letter forms and often the type is set more densely than we would today, often without the same punctuation and the paragraph breaks we use today.

Malory’s themes are remarkably modern: heroism, faith, love, sex, betrayal, scheming,  politics, war… the stuff of life. Change from swords to light sabres and you’d have a scifi novel or space opera; to six-shooters and you’d have a western. That’s one of the reasons to read him: to remind ourselves that while technology advances, humans are still motivated by the same emotions and behaviour that have been around since the Stone Age.

I’m quite enjoying the reading, especially when it makes me stop and think about a word that has caused me to stumble. Not to mention the story is one I know well, and have read in many forms and seen in movies, too. Perhaps the best known and most readable of the works he inspired is T.H. White’s Once and Future King, which I’ve read at least twice. It’s one of the few books that have moved me to tears.

William Caxton was, as you know, England’s first printer, but he was also a translator and editor with a passion for sharing what he considered the greatest English literature. And he was also England’s first retail bookseller. The first book he printed at his Westminster press, was Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, in 1476. In all, he printed more than 100 books.

He printed Malory’s famous work, Le Morte d’Arthur (aka Le Morte Darthur) in 1485, and of that first printing only two copies survive. Malory’s story proved a bestseller, and created a passion among readers for the Arthurian Romances and the tales of the Knights of the Round Table that continues today. It influenced later writers like Tennyson, Twain, T.H. White and Steinbeck (and, yes, Monty Python…).

There were five editions printed before 1500. Caxton’s successor, Wynkyn de Worde, reprinted Le Morte D’Arthur in the first illustrated edition, 1498. That’s a beautiful work even today.
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Reading The Histories

Greek hoplitesI hadn’t always wanted to read Herodotus. He has a mixed reputation among historians, often cited as an unreliable source, gossip monger or simply as a fantasist. Sure, he’s the “father of history” as Cicero called him (or at least of historical writing) and penned the earliest surviving work of non-fiction, but he often doesn’t get the respect that, say, Thucydides gets for his efforts (dry as they might be at times). Herodotus has even been called the ‘father of lies‘ by some modern historians.

Steve Donoghue noted:

Herodotus’s widely acknowledged vulnerability has always been his affection for thomata, the amazing marvel-stories that fill his account and are so scorned by Thucydides.

Yet, you cannot dismiss him lightly. Twenty-five hundred later, his voice still rings out: The Histories is an entertaining, sprawling masterpiece that is referred to and remarked on even today. As Edward Gibbon – the author of the great Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, wrote,

Herodotus sometimes writes for children, and sometimes for philosophers.

I had downloaded Dan Carlin’s lengthy, three-part podcast series on the Persian Empire and its wars with Greece (King of Kings at Hard Core History; great, rambling stuff by the way) for a drive to and from Windsor, last month. I found his enthusiasm for Herodotus was contagious. I decided to buy a copy to see for myself. But which one?

Here’s the problem: translation. Which one(s) to choose of the dozen or more available? I say ones because I am often as likely to buy more than one translation of any work simply to compare them. And yes, I did buy two versions of The Histories (see below).

Almost everything I read written prior to about 1550 is a translation. Greek, Latin, Italian, French, Egyptian, Aramaic, Hebrew, Sumerian, Chinese… languages which I don’t speak. Which means I have to depend on the accuracy and style of the translator. And these past few years, I’ve been reading a lot more material from the classical era (i.e. Greek and Roman). So translation is a very important topic for me.

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