Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Lucretius, On the Nature of Things, Books I-III

On the Nature of Things (De rerum natura), by Titus Lucretius Carus. Penguin Classics (2007). Translated by A.E. Stallings. 336 pages. Written circa 50 BCE. Read at Barnes and Noble.

...Who can hold sway
Over the measureless universe?
Who is there who can keep
Hold of the reins that curb
The power of the fathomless deep?
Who can juggle all the heavens?
And with celestial flame
Warm worlds to fruitfulness?
And be all places at the same time for all eternity,
To cast a shadow under dark banks of clouds,
Or quake a clear sky with the clap of thunder?
What god would send down lightning
To rend his own shrines asunder?
Or withdraw to rage in desert wastes,
And there let those bolts fly
That often slay the innocent and pass the guilty by?

Every year, in at least one class I teach, I try to squeeze in an activity where we create a timeline -- to scale -- of the history of the universe. It takes a very long strip of paper indeed (lengths of entire hallways) to have increments that accurately show us the difference between billions, millions, thousands, and then decades of years. Even a classroom's length is not enough to zoom in a thousandfold, and then a thousandfold again. And then to think that all of human existence comprises a mere millimeter there! All those generations, all those lives! Billions of souls we do not know, who, as Updike wrote, blanketed the earth -- tiny beads of ego, like coral, whose lights have winked out before us. Lucretius reminds us: that is the simple reality of the future, for both good and bad. It is as neutral and as complete as the eons before our lives.

Nothing can befall us, we who shall no longer be,
Nor more our senses, no, not even if earth and sea
Were confronted with one another...

Also loved this translation, excerpted in a New Yorker article:

So, when our mortal frame shall be disjoin’d,
The lifeless lump uncoupled from the mind,
From sense of grief and pain we shall be free;
We shall not feel, because we shall not be.
Though earth in seas, and seas in heaven were lost,
We should not move, we only should be toss’d.
Nay, e’en suppose when we have suffer’d fate
The soul should feel in her divided state,
What’s that to us? for we are only we,
While souls and bodies in one frame agree.
Nay, though our atoms should revolve by chance,
And matter leap into the former dance;
Though time our life and motion could restore,
And make our bodies what they were before,
What gain to us would all this bustle bring?
The new-made man would be another thing

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Virgil, The Aeneid, Books VII-XII

The Aeneid, by Virgil. A New Prose Translation, by David West (Originally composed approximately 29-19 BCE). Penguin Classics Edition (1991). 332 pages, excluding appendices. Bought for $1.00, Half Price Books.
As a whole, The Aeneid has been one of my favorite readings so far. Such fantastic narrative, such emotion and heroic descriptions of men and women "the earth [does not] now produce" on every page!

But what did the ending mean? There is so much build up, and then things abruptly end when Aeneas brutally kills Turnus. Turnus is pleading to Aeneas, and it seems that Aeneas would show mercy -- perhaps this would've shown a compassionate side to this supposed ancestor of Augustus -- but after some quick rethinking, Aeneas impales and kills Turnus; and then it's over. Some 10 years of writing, just like that. What does it mean?

On one hand, Aeneas has acted exactly as he had done until then -- fulfilling his duty (justice for Pallas). On the other hand, it seems that Aeneas has 'carried his hatred further': this is not like that fight between Hector and Achilles, Virgil seems to imply, when Priam begs for Hector's body and Achilles is finally moved.

The full ending:

...Aeneas came swiftly on leading his dark army over the open plain. Just as when a cloud blots out the sun and begins to move from mid-ocean towards the land; long-suffering farmers see it in the far distance and shudder to the heart, knowing what it will bring, the ruin of trees, the slaughter of their crops and destruction everywhere; the flying winds come first, and their sound is first to reach the shore -- just so the Trojan leader from Rhoeteum drove his army forward against the enemy in wedge formation, each man shoulder to shoulder with his neighbor... The shouting rose to the sky and now it was the Rutulians who turned and fled over the hills, raising the dust on their backs. Aeneas did not think fit to cut down men who had turned away from him, nor did he go after those who stood to meet him in equal combat or carried spears. He was looking for Turnus, and only Turnus, tracking him through the thick murk. Turnus was the only man he asked to fight...

...He lowered his eyes and stretched out his right hand as a suppliant. 'I have brought this upon myself,' he said, 'and for myself I ask nothing. Make use of what Fortune has given you, but if any thought of my unhappy father can touch you, I beg of you... take pity on the old age of Daunus, and give me back to my people, or if you prefer it, give them back my dead body. You have defeated me, and the men of Ausonia have seen me defeated and stretching out my hands to you. Lavinia is yours. Do not carry your hatred any further.'

There stood Aeneas, deadly in his armour, rolling his eyes, but he checked his hand, hesitating more and more as the words of Turnus began to move him, when suddenly his eyes caught the fatal baldric of the boy Pallas high on Turnus' shoulder with the glittering studs he knew so well. Turnus had defeated and wounded him and then killed him, an now he was wearing his belt on his shoulder as a battle honour taken from an enemy. Aeneas feasted his eyes on the sight of this spoil, this reminder of his own wild grief, then, burning with mad passion and terrible in his wrath, he cried: 'Are you to escape me now, wearing the spoils stripped from the body of those I loved? By this would which I now give, it is Pallas who makes sacrifice of you. It is Pallas who exacts the penalty in your guilty blood.' Blazing with rage, he plunged the steel full into his enemy's breast. The limbs of Turnus were dissolved in cold and his life left him with a groan, fleeing in anger down to the shades.'

I'm reading a book titled, All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age, and in it the authors bring up an interesting point about how the ancients felt meaning because they attribute all their actions - both successes and failures - to the gods: an external agency (and they go on to talk about the problems created when there is a vacuum of this agency, as in the modern secular world). To an extent, this applies to even the Roman Aeneas. In fact, there was so much external agency in Aeneas's life that he barely had a choice in anything he did ; there were merely things that he should do. His life was like a succession of forked roads where, at each fork, there isn't any real decision necessary; the signs are already there. It was not like that more modern conception where he is on a boat in the middle of a foggy lake, with a whole range of possible paths and consequences before him -- paths to be discovered and dealt with, and improvised to, by himself. He had to leave Dido and continue to found a new city. He had to find the golden bough to pass safely though the underworld. He had to find his father. He had to wage war against Turnus. And he had to avenge Pallas, in the end, and kill Turnus.

And so, Aeneas was actually not a self-made hero, as we would like to see our characters be; he is a pre-made vessel of the gods' wills. And perhaps the ending is both a justification and condemnation of the Roman Empire at the same time: they are both blessed and brutal, and they cannot help it.

Anyway, I am moved by this world where everything has its place, where the gods are alive and everywhere, and the events of life connect so intimately with Their unfathomable wills.

It is you who are favoured of the Fates for your years and your descent. You are the man the gods are asking for. Go then, O bravest leader of all the men of Troy and Italy...

...the goddess
Venus, bringing her gifts, was at hand, shining among the clouds of heaven... 'Here now are the gifts I promised you, perfected by my husband's skill. When the time comes you need not hesitate, my son, to face the proud Laurentines or challenge fierce Turnus to battle...'

Aeneas rejoiced at these gifts from the goddess... He turned them over in his hands, in his arms, admiring the terrible, crested, fire-spurting helmet, the death-dealing sword... the spear and the fabric of the shield beyond all words to describe. There the God of Fire, with his knowledge of the prophets and of time that was to be, had laid out the story of Italy and the triumph of the Romans, and there in order were all the generations that would spring from Ascanius and all the wars they would fight.

He had made, too, a mother wolf stretched out in the green cave of Mars with twin boys playing round her udders, hanging there unafraid and sucking at her as she bend her supple neck back to lick each of the them in turn and mould their bodies into shape with her tongue.

...In the middle were the bronze-armoured fleets a the battle of Actium. There before your eyes the battle was drawn up with the whole of the headland of Leucas seething and all the waves gleaming in gold. On one side was Augustus Caesar, leading the men of Italy into battle alongside the Senate and the People of Rome, its gods of home and its great gods. High he stood on the poop of his ship while from his radiant forehead there streamed a double flame and his father's star shone above his head...

Such were the scenes spread over the shield that Vulcan made and Venus gave to her son. Marvelling at it, and rejoicing at the things pictured on it without knowing what they were, Aeneas lifted on his shoulder the fame and the fate of his descendents.


Thursday, June 24, 2010

Virgil, The Aeneid, Books I-VI

The Aeneid, by Virgil. A New Prose Translation, by David West (Originally composed approximately 29-19 BCE). Penguin Classics Edition (1991). 332 pages, excluding appendices. Bought for $1.00, Half Price Books.

Loved these opening lines:

"I sing of arms and of the man, fated to be an exile, who long since left the land of Troy and came to Italy to the shores of Lavinium; and a great pounding he took by land and sea at the hands of the heavenly gods because of the fierce and unforgetting anger of Juno. Great too were his sufferings in war before he could found his city and carry his gods into Latium. This was the beginning of the Latin race, the Alban fathers and the high walls of Rome. Tell me, Muse, the causes of her anger. How did he violate the will of the Queen of the Gods? What was his offence? Why did she drive a man famous for his piety to such endless hardship and such suffering? Can there be so much anger in the hearts of the heavenly gods?"

In just a few lines, he describes: immense struggle (“the great pounding he took"); the pantheon of powerful and extremely emotional gods that we already are assumed to know (the “fierce and unforgetting anger of Juno"); the beginnings of a great people that we also know and are invested in (Rome); the greatness of our protagonist (“a man famous for his piety"); and a philosophical questioning of the gods, for the reader: “Can there be so much anger in the hearts of the heavenly gods?"

I am refreshed by the contrast between the enormous scale of Virgil's writing and the more inward-looking, lonely quality of today's writing - say, fiction pieces on The New Yorker (they have a different kind of beauty). After, say, 19th century Russia, you don't seem to get this kind of writing where men agonize about the gods and justice and love and their entire nation's existence beneath them.

The Aeneid apparently served to legitimate the rule of the Caesars by cementing a founding myth of Roman civilization that linked them to the legendary heroes of Troy, and to the gods themselves. Aeneas (himself the son of Venus), says:

"Whatever chance may bring, however many hardships we suffer, we are making for Latium, where the Fates show us our place of rest. There it is the will of God that the kingdom of Troy shall rise again... There will come a day, as the years glide by, when the house of Assaracus will reduce Achilles' Pthia and glorious Mycenae to slavery and will conquer and rule the city of Argos. From this noble stock there will be born a Trojan Caesar to bound his empire by Oceanus at the limits of the world, and his fame by the stars. He will be called Julius, a name passed down to him from the great Iulus."

I'm reminded of a fascinatingly similar passage from Luke 1 (written after Virgil):

"But the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end."

The first six books of The Aeneid contain some of its most famous scenes: the Trojan Horse, the subsequent sack of Troy by the Greeks (“never trust a Greek bearing gifts"), the suicide of Queen Dido (who poisons herself because Aeneas cannot reciprocate her love), Aeneas's Odysseus-like encounters on the seas, and finally, his visit to the underworld. Virgil writes these scenes with such heart-shuddering emotion.

Loved the Trojan Horse scene. It is opened “when rest, the most grateful gift of the gods, was first beginning to creep over suffering mortals." Thousands of Greeks "gratefully" pour out of it. While the city burns, the anguished ghost of Hector appears to Aeneas, “full of sorrow and streaming with tears. He looked as he did when he had been dragged behind the chariot, black with dust and caked with blood…"

In the chaos, there is a glimpse of the God of War:

“It was as though a whirlwind had burst and opposing winds were clashing, the west, the south, and the east wind glorying in the horses of the morning, with woods wailing and wild Nereus churning up the sea from its depths…. We saw Mars, the irresistible God of War, Greeks rushing to the palace, men with shields locked over their backs packing the threshold, ladders hooked to the walls…."

Aeneas, the paragon of Roman virtue, is a hero, fearless, full of manly emotion, but above all, a man of duty - to his men, to his father, to his nation, and to the gods. Though Queen Dido is in a violent agony because of him, he “was faithful to his duty. Much as he longed to soothe her and console her sorrow, to talk to her and take away her pain, with many a groan and with a heart shaken by her love, he nevertheless carried out the commands of the gods…." He travels to the underworld in search of his father, and finds him in Elysium, the paradise among the underworld's different places, which are fascinating in their own right.

Duty. The word conjures up my father's most heralded virtue, his fierce loyalty, and his actual way of living life. Beyond him is the cherished virtue of a community-oriented culture - both in my religious and ethnic upbringing. Order. Self-restraint. The believed solutions for any community's longevity.

* * *
Beyond the plot, I think that, in these first books, Aeneas's dead father's words are the most significant with regard to Virgil's themes and agendas. In them we see a detailed view of the afterlife, the transmigration of souls, overlaps with Christian ideas of sin and redemption and punishment, the association with souls and the “fire "that “has its source in heaven," cosmogony ("In the beginning Spirit fed all things from within…"), and of course, the highly specific prophecies regarding the rise of Rome and its rulers (including a glimpse of the future Augustus Caesar, the “son of a god, the man who will "bring back the golden years to the fields of Latium once ruled over by Saturn…").

I end this entry with these beautiful thoughts of Elysium - heaven - in the book. A physical place where a poet, Pindar, describes:

And those that have three times kept to their oaths,
Keeping their souls clean and pure,
Never letting their hearts be defiled by the taint
Of evil and injustice,
And barbaric venality,
They are led by Zeus to the end:
To the palace of Kronos,
Where soothing breezes off the Ocean
Breathe over the Isle of the Blessed:
All around flowers are blazing with a
Dazzling light:
Some springing from the shining trees,
Others nourished by the water from the sea:
With circlets and garlands of flowers they
Crown their hands,
Ruled by the steadfast councils of
The great Judge,
Whom the Father,
The husband of Rhea,
Whose throne is higher than all