Monday, January 05, 2015
new year, new me?
Nope, same old same old. Which suits me fine. As Stephen Maturin says, often, in Patrick O'Brian's novels, "May no new thing arise." (New things being generally suspect and usually disruptive.) Thus in the coming year I am hoping for more of the same - reading, writing, painting, gardening. Oceans of quiet.
To that end I have cleared my decks, not for action necessarily, but for clarity, certainly. This is the time of open horizons. My painting studio is clean and awaiting the arrival of new work. Nothing remains on my bedside table except my current reading in ancient authors. I am making headway in one book in particular, The Norton Book of Classical Literature edited by Bernard Knox (Norton 1993). I brought this home from my book booth at the antiques mall. I see from my bookseller code inside the back cover that I've owned this book since 2005 and bought it for two dollars at a library sale. I had it priced at eight bucks, then marked it down to six. And still no buyers, after all this time, so home with me it has come once again. And glad I am, since it has proved to be a perfect extended introduction to the ancient writers of Greece and Rome. Bernard Knox says in his preface (p.23):
"This book is no more than a sampler. The texts have been chosen with one idea in mind: to whet the reader's appetite for more."
He does just that, giving us a chronological anthology from Homer in the late 8th century B.C. up to Marcus Aurelius and Saint Augustine in the early centuries A.D. Since I'd already read The Iliad and The Odyssey some years back, I skipped over his selections from those and began with Hesiod (7th century B.C.?), and since then, a week ago, with the help of a mild cold picked up at Christmas and lots of subsequent rest time, I've logged over five hundred pages in this wonderful book. And encountered so many authors I'd never read anything to speak of, unless quoted briefly elsewhere - Hesiod, Archilochus, Alcman, Solon, Anacreon, Simonides, Herodotus, Aeschylus, Thucydides, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, well, the list goes on and on. I have read bits of Sappho, Pindar, and Plato before, but never with any kind of sustained attention. And in this particular book I still have the literature of Rome ahead of me - Lucretius, Catullus, Horace, Virgil, Livy, Ovid, Juvenal, etc. I thought this was going to be a textbooky kind of collection, classics-lite, but no, not at all.
Why read all this dusty old stuff, anway? Does it matter? Does anything matter? I dismiss these as January thoughts and instead look at the beautiful language I'm encountering, and its relevance. I will be forever grateful to Bernard Knox for bringing to my attention lines such as these:
"... it is best to do things
Since we are only human, and disorder
is our worst enemy" - Hesiod, The Works and Days, "When to Plow" (p.195)
"The fox knows many tricks, the hedgehog only one.
One good one." - Archilochus, 14 (p.206; thoughts of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle naturally arise)
"...oh I wish, I wish I could be a seabird
Who with halcyons skims the surf-flowers of the sea water
with careless heart, a sea-blue-colored and sacred waterfowl." - Alcman, 1 (p.214)
"...In the honey and spice of a summer night." - Alcman, 2 (p.215)
"She was in love with what was not there; it has happened to many.
There is a mortal breed most full of futility.
In contempt of what is at hand, they strain into the future,
hunting impossibilities on the wings of ineffectual hopes." - Pindar, Third Pythian Ode (p.260)
"I will be small in small things, great among great.
I will work out the divinity that is busy within my mind
and tend the means that are mine.
If it were luxury and power God gave me
I hope I should find glory that would rise higher here after." - Pindar, ibid (p.263)
My skin prickles, hedgehog-like, as I read along - human nature seems to have changed so little over the centuries. What interests us? Love, fate, death, war, travel, humor, nature, human relationships, divine relationships. Ways and means have changed, but the essentials remain. And great writers remind us of this, again and again, no matter how long-ago they are. (I know I say this regarding almost all the books I mention here - please bear with me as I continue to err on the side of praise.)
As I got into reading the tragedies and drama, Homer came back to mind, and I remembered how repelled I was at all the blood and thunder of his epics. But that, along with every type of murder and mayhem you can imagine, is a huge part of these old stories, and judging from what's on tv at the moment (not that I have a tv...), we like a certain amount of this as entertainment, and always have. I find myself usually falling on the side of the pastoral, instead. I am loving the poets, their lyrics about nature, love, and the twists and turns of fate. I am grimacing my way through Antigone and Thucydides. The ancient gods set up terrible situations for hapless mortals and let them play out, intervening or not, if justice or whim calls for it. They are worth looking at too (obviously, not to sound like a complete simpleton here), squarely in the face, although maybe just once. That might be all I can stand.
The work of the translators Knox has chosen from must be mentioned, for it is their choice of language I am responding to, as well as the storylines. His choices are old and new, including Lattimore and Fagles, and some are more poetic and some more severe, but all readable in the best ways. The long introduction by Knox and his brief paragraphs introducing each author throughout the book are also so well-written and interesting, they left me wondering (as happened with Moses Hadas in his Ancilla to Classical Reading a few months ago) who he was and why he was championing the classics. I've seen his books before but never read any, so I had no idea. His 2010 New York Times obituary enlightened me, as did this New Republic essay by G.W. Bowersock, "The Warrior-Humanist."
I'll ask myself again, Why read the classics? Well, winter is a severe time, and a beautiful time. Life itself is severe and beautiful. These ancient authors mirror that state of affairs and I long for it, it feels like water and food and sunshine. In fact when my sister was ill last fall, I read some passages from The Consolation of Philosophy (Boethius; 524 A.D.; the book that got me started on this year's winter reading project) aloud to her, and at one point asked if she wanted me to continue. She said "YES, it's like cool water in the desert."
As usual, I could go on and on, and another day, I'm sure I will. Until then:
"...the great unwritten, unshakable traditions.
They are alive, not just today or yesterday:
they live forever, from the first of time,
and no one knows when first they saw the light." - Sophocles, Antigone (p.374)