Monday, May 30, 2011

Quo vadis

Quae nunc it per iter tenebricosum
illuc unde negant redire quemquam.

Fear no more the heat o' the sun,
  Nor the furious winter's rages;
Thou thy worldly task has done,
  Home art gone, and ta'en thy wages;
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.

Shakespeare, Cymbeline (Act IV, Scene 2)

Friday, May 27, 2011

Marsyas, in the Flesh

Statue of Marsyas, Capitoline Museum

Silent Despair

Jacob Burckhardt, ed. Oswynn Murray, trans. Sheila Stern, The Greeks and Greek Civilization (St. Martin's Griffin, 1999) p. xliii.
And finally, never go beyond one volume and remember the silent despair with which you and I regard some new three-volume monograph or biography, whose spiritual and intellectual contribution could have been put in four or five pages.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Indignata. Quia iuvenis erat.

  Galata Morente, in the Capitoline Museum

Two accounts of near death experience in the Spanish Civil War this evening, each recollecting the feckless fury of the doomed young warrior.  Knox reflects on the timelessness of the theme, while Orwell pins a rational disclaimer to the end of his description.   It is an odd coincidence that both were shot in the neck while fighting the Fascists.

Bernard Knox, "Premature Anti-Fascist"*
The order to withdraw soon came; we did so by sections, one covering the other with fire as it came back. As our section was moving back, dragging the gun, I felt a shocking blow and a burning pain through my neck and right shoulder and fell to the ground on my back with blood spurting up like a fountain. John came back, with David, our Oxford man who had been a medical student. I heard him say; "I can't do anything about that" and John bent down and said, "God bless you, Bernard" and left.

They had to go; they had to set up the gun and cover the withdrawal of our other crew. And they were sure that I was dying. So was I. As the blood continued to spout I could feel my consciousness slipping fast away.

I have since then read many accounts by people who, like me, were sure they were dying but survived. Many of them speak of a feeling of heavenly peace, others of visions of angels welcoming them to Heaven. I had no such feelings or visions; I was consumed with rage--furious, violent rage. Why me? I was just 21 and had barely begun living my life. Why should I have to die? It was unjust. And, as I felt my whole being sliding into nothingness, I cursed. I cursed God and the world and everyone in it as the darkness fell.

Many years later, when I returned to the study of the ancient classics, I found that my reaction was not abnormal. In Homer's Iliad, still the greatest of all war books, this is how young men die. Hector, for example, "went winging down to the House of Death/ wailing his fate, leaving his manhood far behind, his young and supple strength." And Virgil's Turnus goes the same road: vitaque cum gomitu fugit indignata sub umbras: 'his life with a groan fled angry to the shades below." "Indignata. Quia iuvenis erat," the great Virgilian commentator Servius explained. "Angry. Because he was young."

George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia (Harvest, 1980), pp. 186-7:
Everything was very blurry.  There must have been about two minutes during which I assumed that I was killed.  And that too was interesting -- I mean it is interesting to know what your thoughts would be at such a time.  My first thought, conventionally enough, was for my wife.  My second was a violent resentment at having to leave this world which, when all is said and done, suits me so well.  I had time to feel this very vividly.  The stupid mischance infuriated me.  The meaninglessness of it!  To be bumped off, not even in battle, but in this stale corner of the trenches, thanks to a moment's carelessness!  I thought too, of the man who had shot me -- wondered what he was like, whether he was a Spaniard or a foreigner, whether he knew he had got me, and so forth.  I could not feel any resentment against him.  I reflected that as he was a fascist I would have killed him if I could, but that if he had been taken prisoner and brought before me at this moment I would merely have congratulated him on his good shooting.  It may be, though, that if you were really dying your thoughts would be quite different.


Thursday, May 19, 2011

Laocoön Redux

I don't know who duplicated the famed statue in miniature, or when the scoundrel carried it out.  I do notice that Laocoön straightens his right arm to pull the snake away in this copy, while the Vatican displays the current construction with the elbow bent to reach behind himself.  (n.b. also of the precipitous decline in wang percentage)

Just a guy wearing a fig leaf, hanging out with his naked sons, being attacked by snakes.  Nothing to see here, move along folks.

The Anonymous Friend of the Crapulous Man

Plutarch, Antony 9.4
λέγεται γον, ς ν ππίου ποτ το μίμου γάμοις στιαθες κα πιν δι νυκτός, ετα πρω το δήμου καλοντος ες γορν προελθν τι τροφς μεστς μέσειε, τν φίλων τινς ποσχόντος τ μάτιον.

They say that after feasting the matrimony of the mime Hippias and gorging himself on wine for the whole evening, he (Antony) was called to the forum early the next morning by the citizens.   He showed up, still stuffed with such 'nourishment', and puked as his friend held out his toga.
That is a true friend.

Virtues of a Balanced Breakfast

Shakespeare, Coriolanus (Act V, Scene 1):
The veins unfill'd, our blood is cold, and then
We pout upon the morning, are unapt
To give or to forgive; but when we have stuff'd
These pipes and these conveyances of our blood
With wine and feeding, we have suppler souls
Than in our priest-like fasts;
I usually skip breakfast.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Sympathy for the Devil

Ought one to break the law to punish a bad man?  To seek vengeance for the deaths of innocents?  To frustrate the denouement of some evil plot?  I don't know.  Wise men and sophists have argued each answer eloquently.  I do know that Robert Bolt's interpretation of Thomas More persuades me contrariwise.

Robert Bolt,  A Man for All Seasons (New York: Vintage International 1990), p. 66:

More:  And go he should, if he was the Devil himself, until he broke the law!

Roper:  So now you'd give the Devil benefit of law!

More:  Yes.  What would you do?  Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

Roper:  I'd cut down every law in England to do that?

More: (Roused and excited)  Oh? (Advances on Roper)  And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you -- where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat?  (He leaves him)  This country's planted thick with laws from coast to coast -- man's laws, not God's -- and if you cut them down -- and you're just the man to do it -- d'you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then?  (Quietly)  Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of the law, for my own safety's sake.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011


Otium, Catulle, tibi molestum est:
otio exsultas nimiumque gestis:
otium et reges prius et beatas
     perdidit urbes.

Catullus 51.13-16

Leisure, Catullus, is your vexation,
too enamored of procrastination;
Lords and lands past it has led
     to obliteration.

Boo this man.