Thursday, December 31, 2015

How to Shock the Bourgeoisie

The urban elite has seen everything. You can barely disturb them anymore from a stage, which is a problem for anyone who thinks that you go to the theater to be disturbed. (I’ve always thought this is a curious belief. The outside world is grotesque and cold; can’t at least the theater be comfortable?)

Nevertheless, if shocking the bourgeoisie is your goal, there are still three ways of doing it. One, even this deep into modernity, is extreme indecency. Don Giovanni won’t shock anyone anymore just for being a womanizer, but surround him with naked prostitutes in Act II’s finale, and you’ll still draw gasps from the crowd. (Alternatively, stage the Dance of the Seven Veils the way it’s meant to be done.) And there’s always incest: the climax of Act I in Die Walküre, in which Siegmund pledges himself to his twin sister, is only just old enough for its shock to have worn off. Horrible violence can be harrowing too. But thanks to Hollywood, it’s pretty hard in this century to make anyone blush except the most naïve.

An easier way to shock the bourgeoisie is to offend its principles—but the liberal principles which are alive in 2015, not some imagined Victorian prudery. A hundred years ago, you could be edgy by portraying anarchism or irreligion. Now that the establishment has swung heavily to the left, edginess means showing off the godliness of kings or the kingliness of God. Racism, of course, is the one principle that today’s bourgeoisie will never compromise on. The public in 1915 would have been aghast to see a black man onstage. These days it’s aghast at blackface onstage: a swarm of bloggers forced the Met to modify its makeup for this season’s production of Otello. Meanwhile, we will never see another major production of The Mikado in our lives. It’s been judged to be Orientalist, and that’s the New York elite’s last word on the subject. Anti-Semitism is tolerable to the cultural authorities in small doses, but only if it’s in the service of experimental art.

This isn’t necessarily bad: there’s nothing inherently wrong with a culture insisting on moral standards in its art. But moral standards they are, and they’re waiting to be flaunted by a cultural dissident. Joining the avant-garde of 2015, that is, means doing something that gets seen as racist, misogynistic, anti-Semitic, or homophobic. You’ll suffer for it, because political tolerance at the theater is even lower than it was two centuries ago. Wagner, after all, was able to get away with spitting on Christian mores, and Lorenzo da Ponte skewered the nobility with impunity. If you’re an opera director in 2015, you’ll be banished for doing anything that makes Peter Gelb and his board squirm.

Of course, there’s usually no good reason to cause an artistic scandal for political reasons: it costs you popularity and employment, and in the end it’s no less boring to shock elite leftists than it was to shock elite conservatives. What’s more, there’s no guarantee that your politics are worth anything. (You might just be a racist after all, or a harebrained leftist, or both.) Finally, a political scandal is harmful to art, for the simple reason that politics—even for a good cause—are unmelodic. Political manifestoes are better read outside the opera house in Lincoln Plaza, or sung in some campy Broadway theatre.

There is, though, one kind of scandal that might be worthwhile: you can studiously refuse to be shocking. The modern superstition (embodied by the New York Times’ senior music critic) is that anything traditional is safe and therefore boring, and that anything radical is brave and important. But this belief is not based on reality. Since you can be sure of a good review in the Times with something hideous or spare or politically relevant, the tamest thing possible is to mount a postmodern production.

What, meanwhile, will bring out dismayed howls from conceited reviewers? Stage a Ring that portrays the gods in their ancient splendor, with an armored Brünnhilde riding a horse into the fire. Fill the victory march in Aida with elephants, generals on litters, slave-dancers, and some triumphal animal sacrifices. Or have Ceres’ pageant in The Tempest outstrip an opium-dream in its sumptuousness. Shout fire in a crowded theater, and give the audience a dreadful spectacle that will break their cold contempt for raw beauty. If you run an opera company, refuse to show an opera unless it’s in Italian or German, and written before World War I. If you run a theater, stage no plays that aren’t in verse.

A little lovely wholesomeness works too.
This is the right way to mount productions, but that’s not why I bring it up here. I bring it up because imaginative traditionalism is the fastest way under the skin of the gluten-free, Hamilton-listening cultural authorities.

—Or forget the whole tired business of being shocking. I for one, thank God for YouTube and my mp3 player, which lets me do the best thing possible to the stale crowd: ignore it it.

Only Connect

Lucretius, ancient author of the poem De rerum natura, is one of only a few people in literary history to combine the search for truth with poetry. This is for good reason: poets tend not to be levelheaded enough to see things as they are, and scientists tend to lack both taste and patience for decoration. (In the last couple centuries, with respect to Ms. Frizzle and Neil deGrasse Tyson, we’ve learned anyway that reality is gray and monotonous rather than poetic.) But once in a while you get a poem like De rerum natura, which is no less insightful into the reality of things than it’s decked with metaphor and poetic grace. Here is an example of this coupling: in the middle of his first discussion of atoms, Lucretius makes a basic scientific point: like matter clings to like. Atoms of a certain kind stick to other atoms of their kind, and that gives order and form to what would otherwise be a spinning mass of inert particles. These connections, he argues, are present on every level of resolution. Flat atoms join to flat, water to water, trees to the forest, and a mother to her son. It all seems too prosaic to be said in a poem. Then all of a sudden, we get this illustration:

For often, when before the splendid gods
A calf is slaughtered on a smoking mound
And sputters out a stream of tepid blood,
His mother wanders through the leafy woods
Tracking the hoof-prints of his cloven feet,
Casting her glance all around, as if somewhere
She’ll find her missing son. She fills the woods
With moans. She stops, she wanders to his stall,
Speared with feeling for her little calf.
Nor tender willows now, nor the dew-flecked grass
Nor swollen rivers gliding in their banks
Can pacify her soul in sudden care.
Nor can the sight of other frisking calves
On happy lawns give solace or relief:
So far do mothers know and seek their own.
(II.352–66, my translation)

This illustration is obviously painful in its own right: Lucretius feels almost human pity for animals throughout his poem, and this is probably the clearest example of that. But the philosophical point that the example serves is actually just as poignant. Lucretius, as I said before, has set out to prove that atoms do not spin randomly in the void—they in fact are connected to each other by a tangled, subtle, and of course breakable net. And so, out of nothing more than an unfeeling mass of matter, every single one of our tender attachments is born: to our home, our land, and the people we know. This thought can be solace to the materialist nihilist. He will always remain a materialist—but his nihilism might be warmed and diffused by the thought that friendships, memory, and love are all legitimate children of chaos.

Our happiness, in other words, is no less real for the fact that it’s constituted on the accidents of atoms. It is certainly fragile because of that fact, but not false. More than just happiness, meanwhile, can come out of the atomic shuffle. So can deep sorrow, which is a far profounder feeling than simple joy. Or even mystical transport: I first heard Tallis’s Spem in alium when it came on WQXR at 3:00 in the morning. The feeling of simultaneous horror and divinity that it produced seemed too profound to have come from anywhere except the finger of a god. But it came from dumb matter, just like everything else.

Here’s something else: if you happen to be one of the very few people to have a real friend, it is cause for divine wonder that the random dice of geography, birth, time, language, etc. have determined that this should happen. If it had been intended by a forethinking god—like the marriage of Adam and Eve—then gratitude might be appropriate, but not this sort of wonder. In just the same way as a glowworm finds another glowworm, you have found a fellow. (Of course, the glowworm might not have found its mate, nor you your friend. But you did.) There is something sweet in the knowledge that your friendship has been snatched, against all likelihood, out of the storms that make up the natural world.

Now, as Lucretius makes so clear, the disquieting flipside of atomism is the danger of failing to find any meaningful connection. A spiritualist, for his part, can believe in the underlying oneness of things, so that any separation is an illusion. That way, he can pass his entire life sunk in loneliness, which is just a temporary appearance of being out of the swing of things. Everything will be alright, because the universe gives a warm home to all her children.

To an atomist who believes in the supremacy of division, loneliness is the general rule and connectedness a strange exception. It’s nothing special if the universe happens not to have made an exception for you. You’re just screwed, and you will remain screwed until you go to the grave just as friendless and unwept as you were on earth. And you’re even worse off if, like Lucretius’ cow, you are first connected, and then cut off. You can get used to perpetual solitude—even rationalize it—if it’s the only thing you’ve ever known. But once you know connection, there’s no pain quite like being thrust out into endless friendlessness. This is why atomists ought to be savagely jealous of whatever ties they do have to places and people. Like Hector, pleading uselessly to Achilles:

Then the powerless helmet-shaking Hector spoke to him:
“I beg on your soul, and on your knees and your parents,
not to let me be pray to the dogs of the Achæans,
for you’ll receive a ransom of bronze and gold
from my father and my noble mother.
Only let my body be carried back home again, so that
the Trojans and the Trojans’ wives can have me dead upon the pyre.

 We should all feel Hector’s terror. The universe does not give a damn about leaving us to the dogs—there is, after all, no thinking “universe” that could feel anything, much less prevent anything. There is only hard reality, which can cause unspeakable suffering as readily as it can give us delight. Like Hector or the cow, we can delight in the joyful connections we have, and then weep without pious consolation when they’re torn apart.

Mystical Sirens

It’s fine to despise this world as long as there’s another one that you love more.

Say you’re an ancient Christian. To you the visible world is a grotesque play, filled with pointless suffering and gaudy frivolity. But that’s okay, because you are dead with Christ to the world. Since you have a new life in a higher world, you can gleefully suffer a violent death as a martyr, or dismiss food and clothing as pointless luxuries. The knowledge that there is a deeper reality behind the world’s banality can make you happy even in your temporary life of flesh.

But Christian mysticism is just one example of a general phenomenon. Appalled at the grimness of supposed reality, human beings have spent their entire history chasing alternatives. A buddha, for instance, understands that the phenomenal world is illusion, and flees from it into a heaven of tranquility. Moses, an Egyptian prince, was disgusted with the fleshpots of civilization and fled to the empty desert, where he found God in a speaking fire. Odin, leaving his home, crucified himself on the branches of a great tree to be initiated into the higher mysteries of the cosmos. And the Athenians had their yearly feast for Dionysos, which threw off the rigors of agricultural labor for a chance at ecstatic communion with the gods.

“Upwards! / embraced while embracing!
Upwards to your breast, / all-loving Father!”
Ralph Waldo Emerson is the mystic that Americans take the most seriously. He was so convinced of an underlying spiritual reality, and the falseness of earthly pain, that he was able to discuss the death of his son in words as optimistic as these:
The only thing grief has taught me, is to know how shallow it is. That, like all the rest, plays about the surface, and never introduces me into the reality, for contact with which, we would even pay the costly price of sons and lovers. … Grief too will make us idealists. In the death of my son, now more than two years ago, I seem to have lost a beautiful estate, — no more. I cannot get it nearer to me. (From “Experience.”) 
With this flight into philosophy, the sufferings of life waver and disappear.

Now, the truth is that our world is worth fleeing from. It is a grey prison for almost every creature that breathes in it. If you’re powerless enough to find yourself underneath the world’s heel, there is no profit to be had from taking the light show seriously. Instead of chasing after nonsense, it’s far better to declare everything vanity and find something firmer than reality to hold onto. Mysticism—an attempt to escape the world while you’re still alive—seems like the best way of coping if you happen to be excluded from the lucky few who are safe from suffering and starvation.

Mysticism is really a two step experience: first you renounce this world, and then you find another. First the mystic comes to despise the world, realizing that it’s just dust and shadow. This insight throws him into a cloud of confusion and ignorance, since he has thrown off the only reality he has ever known. But he says to the darkness:
Chaos and ancient Night, I come no Spy
with purpose to explore or to disturb
the secrets of your Realm, but by constraint
wand’ring this darksome Desert, as my way
lies through your spacious Empire up to light.
The Christian, Jewish, Buddhist or Transcendentalist mystic finds a brighter world after losing the first one. It is not enough to spurn the phenomenal world: a mystical journey must have its end in a safe spiritual paradise. Escapist mysticism is a healthy and sane instinct as long as you reach that paradise. Once you flee from this world, that is, you must escape into another, truer one. But mysticism is a seductive evil if you find no such higher world. It is possible to flee from the world on tides of mystical feeling, but then to spin off into chaos.

Music can do this to you. Its emotional intensity is enough to lift you away from earthly life, and teach you to despise the real world, which is wan and dull in comparison to music’s awful beauty. If you’ve listened properly to Lohengrin, the subway train you listened to it on seems like a meaningless heap of dust. But Lohengrin takes away your love for real things without giving you anything in return. You will be convinced that reality is stupid and painful—but you will have nothing to replace reality with except passion and anxiety.

(Religious mystics, for their part, have made their own use of music’s otherworldly power. Palestrina’s Missa Papæ Marcelli, for example, gives off such a powerful sense of God’s splendor that it forces you to claw at the visible world to have even a chance of hanging on. But when music leads you into nothing but fright and confusion, like Bellini’s, Wagner’s, or Donizetti’s tends to do, it can damage your soul.)

What a fate for the halfway-mystic! He is homeless in the world he lives in, and though charged with demonic restlessness, he knows that this feeling comes from nowhere in particular. His world is unreal, but there is no reality to escape into. Any spiritual flight turns out to be a fairy-dance, which evaporates at dawn. To him, though, everyday life is no less a fairy-dance.

My point is that mysticism is beautiful and perhaps necessary, but it is not for atheists. A believer can fall through darkness into the hands of a loving God; but an atomist materialist can fall only into Chaos and ancient Night. With no prospect of another spiritual home, he should shrink from emotion and stick to the rocky earth. It might be ugly and evil, but it’s at least solid.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

How to Protect Idols

If my Facebook feed is any clue, most Westerners think that ISIS shouldn’t have destroyed the Temple of Bel in Palmyra. The temple ought to have stayed up, we think, because it’s part of humanity’s patrimony, which no ignorant thug has the right to insult much less destroy.

But in the first place, it's clear that ISIS had far more reverence for the temple than us. They understood that it was a temple of a god; and that since idolatry is evil it had to be destroyed. This opinion is far ruddier—and understands more of the spirit the temple was built in—than our own stuffy antiquarianism. For us the temple was a pile of broken columns, useful merely because old things are titillating.

You say that ISIS had no right to destroy the temple, because it belonged to humanity, not to them. Well, who is humanity made of? It is made of you and me, plus Javanese miners, and Greek monks, and San hunters.  Only some of this huge herd gives a damn about an old temple in Palmyra. The people who do care are either professors, or wide-eyed Facebooking idealists, or gunslinging Islamist iconoclasts. Shall we have a pageant to decide which of these groups is most representative of “humanity”?

You also say that we, not the terrorists, are the rightful stewards of Near-Eastern civilization. After all, we study the cuneiform languages, we do careful archaeology, and we have a sense of the region’s history. But for all we know, the ancient Palmyrenes themselves would have preferred ISIS to us. They might have recognized more of themselves in men who still live with holy terror, and who still have a sense of the awesome grandeur of heaven. (But the Palmyrenes are all dead, I guess, and it’s pointless to speculate about the opinions of that impossibly ancient people.)

In short, there’s really no argument to make for us having the Temple of Bel and not ISIS. Please don’t get me wrong: I am not drawing a moral equivalence here, just a logical one. I am not one of the relativists who throws up his hands and says that we’re just as much in the wrong as ISIS because we bear a legacy of colonialism or something. No: I think that it is vulgar and hideous to destroy antiquities, and noble to preserve them.

But I am sure that ISIS will never see it that way, because there is no convincing a man who lives by religion religious fanaticism. And I don’t think the Palmyrenes would have seen it that way either: they meant their temple for Bel, not us. We cannot produce a will to prove that the temple ought to belong to educated professors, not evil thugs. And there is no god of history who wants the treasures of Syria to be preserved. There are only men and women who will preserve them if they have the power.

If they have the power: in the end, there is something that antiquarians can do about the destruction of antiquities. They do not need to convince devout Islamists that history must be preserved. It is only necessary to overpower the barbarians by force. You need not demonstrate rationally, for example, that the Buddhas of Bamiyan must be left standing; you’ve just got to make sure that an iconoclastic Islamist regime never takes control of Afghanistan. Or, if there’s something you really want to keep safe, you can nick it. The British and French did just that in the nineteenth century, hauling the treasures of Greece and the Middle East home to the Louvre and the British Museum.

These would be sitting placidly in Bloomsbury if they hadn’t been so damn hard to move.
So no, we humanists don’t have more of a claim to Palmyra than ISIS. That’s because ISIS rules over Palmyra. But only for now—by the grace of God they will be destroyed, and the past of the Middle East will be safe from people who want to obliterate it.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

A Ruthless Conquerer

Omnia vincit amor has a place alongside veni vidi vici and cogito ergo sum as one of the Latin phrases that everyone knows. Which isn’t surprising: “Love conquers all” is, after all, a joyous thought. By the popular understanding, it suggests that no matter what obstacles the world throws up, relationships founded on true love will always succeed. Think Romeo and Juliet, whose protagonists go to the grave together in happy defiance of society. Or Pride and Prejudice, in which Darcy and Elizabeth take a saw to the musty conventions of the Regency gentry.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with interpreting the sentence this way; it just happens not to be what it originally meant. In its proper context, it’s awfully disquieting. It comes from Virgil’s tenth Eclogue, in which Gallus, an Arcadian shepherd, sings about Lycoris, a woman who has married someone else and gone away to frozen Germany. He says (Ecl. X.57ff.):

Iam mihi per rupes videor lucosque sonantis
Ire; libet Partho torquere Cydonia cornu
Spicula; tamquam hæc sit nostri medicina furoris,
Aut deus ille malis hominum mitescere discat!

Iam neque Hamadryades rursus nec carmina nobis
Ipsa placent; ipsæ rursus concedite, silvæ.
Non illum nostri possunt mutare labores…
Omnia vincit Amor: et nos cedamus Amori.

And in my prose translation:

I seem to wander through rocks and whistling groves,
and to enjoy shooting Cydonian arrows from a Parthian bow,
as if these were cures for my madness;
as if this god could be persuaded to soothe human ills!
Nor wood-elves, nor songs themselves
are pleasant to me anymore: farewell, ye woods!
My sufferings can never sway Him,
for Love conquers everything: let us yield to Love. 

For one reason or another, people don’t tattoo all eight of these lines onto their skin. But if they did, it would be clear to them that Virgil is not mouthing the comforting platitude that they’re familiar with. He is, to be sure, stating a platitude, but it’s an ancient, not a modern platitude, which makes it far more interesting. A little bit of exposition is required to make what Virgil meant clear.

Gallus is not talking about reciprocated love, a theme that comes up only rarely in ancient poetry. His beloved is beyond the known world, and she is obviously gone forever. But love for her still holds him fast: no activity can distract him from his sorrow. In the same way Polyphemus languishes in doomed love for the sea-nymph Galatea: born as a hideous cyclops, there is nothing that he can ever do to sow affection into her heart. The same goes for Corydon in the second Eclogue.

This sort of love was as pointless in the 1st century BC as it is now, because it always leads to nothing. But where the experience is sublime to us, it was literally divine to the Greeks and Romans. The ancients, that is, saw love as an attack by a heavenly being. This is not a metaphor: Love was in fact a god, or at least a numinous creature of some sort, whom the Greeks called Erôs and the Latins Amor or Cupido. (A “great demon” is what the priestess Diotima calls Love in the Symposium.) The point is that love was not a strictly internal affect. It was an encounter with an external, cosmic force. By no means was this a benevolent force—just like the rest of the cosmos’ real rulers, it was by turns blind, indifferent, strangely beautiful, and evil.

It’s tricky to know sometimes when the ancients are talking about amor the feeling and Amor the god. (Making it trickier, the Latins and Greeks made no distinction between capital and small letters, so it’s hard in general to tell when they’re referring to a concept or its divine personification.) And certainly, even the atheists of Virgil’s day were capable of appropriating old religious language to lend pathos to their prose or poetry. But the fact that this religious language was available in the first place is a mark of the ancient mind’s tendency to see gods and demons behind every phenomenon. This instinct lingered far into the Christian era—and still exists in pockets today.

“Love conquers everything,” sings Gallus: “let us yield to Love.” This is not an encouragement to lay other business aside in order to enjoy true love. It is a statement of fatalist resignation. To Virgil’s shepherd, Love is an unmovable, unpitying god: and instead of opposing that god, he resigns himself to enslavement. The only alternative is a life haunted by false hope.

The comedian Cæcilius Statius is our last spokesman for the ancients:

“Whoever thinks that Love is not the highest god
is either stupid or knows nothing of life.
For Love can drive anyone he lists mad
and make one wise, another insane, and another sick.
He decides who will be loved, who longed-for, who sought.”

[Amorem] deum qui non summum putet,
Aut stultum aut rerum imperitum existum[o].
Cuius in manu sit quem esse dementem velit,
Quem sapere, quem insanire, quem in morbum injici,
Quem contra amari, quem expeti, quem arcessier.

Eros Farnese MAN Napoli 6353.jpg
The Eros Farnese, discovered in Pompeii.
Not a friend.

Monday, November 9, 2015

To Anacreon in Heaven

Three translations. For the title, cf. this video.

Mimnermus (7th century BC), Fr. 1

What life, what joy without the golden goddess
Venus? I’d die before I lost these things:
my secret loves, my gentle gifts, my bed.
These sweetly luring flowers of youth burst forth 
in men and women.
                                      But in painful age,
the handsomest succumbs to ugliness,
and bitter worries dig into his heart.
The light of the sun is no more joy to him.
He’s hated by fair boys, and scorned by maids:
so cruelly does the god torment the old.


τίς δὲ βίος, τί δὲ τερπνὸν ἄτερ χρυσέης Ἀφροδίτης;
τεθναίην, ὅτε μοι μηκέτι ταῦτα μέλοι,
κρυπταδίη φιλότης καὶ μείλιχα δῶρα καὶ εὐνή,
οἷ᾿ ἥβης ἄνθεα γίνεται ἁρπαλέα
ἀνδράσιν ἠδὲ γυναιξίν· 

                                       ἐπεὶ δ᾿ ὀδυνηρὸν ἐπέλθῃ
γῆρας, ὅ τ᾿ αἰσχρὸν ὅμως καὶ καλὸν ἄνδρα τιθεῖ,
αἰεί μιν φρένας ἀμφὶ κακαὶ τείρουσι μέριμναι,
οὐδ᾿ αὐγὰς προσορέων τέρπεται ἠελίου,
ἀλλ᾿ ἐχθρὸς μὲν παισίν, ἀτίμαστος δὲ γυναιξίν·
οὕτως ἀργαλέον γῆρας ἔθηκε θεός.

Anacreon (5th century BC) 360

You, whose glance has a virgin’s grace,
You don’t know that I burn for you.
Don’t you know that your chariot
holds my soul by a bridle?
ὦ παῖ παρθένιον βλέπων
δίζημαί σε, σὺ δ᾿ οὐ κοεῖς,
οὐκ εἰδὼς ὅτι τῆς ἐμῆς
ψυχῆς ἡνιοχεύεις.

Horace (1st century BC), I.38

Boy, I hate gilt and sickly things from Persia.
Don’t bind me either with a linden garland,
Nor stop to wonder where the autumn roses
          Bloom out of season.

Don’t strain to please me, but bring simple myrtle:
That I command you. For a little myrtle
Suits you just fine, just like me the drinker
          Under the trellis.


Persicos odi, puer, apparatus;
Displicent nexæ philyrâ coronæ.
Mitte sectari, rosa quo locorum
          Sera moretur.

Simplici myrto nihil allabores
Sedulus curo: neque te ministrum
Dedecet myrtus neque me sub arta
          Vite bibentem.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Out into Surging Streams

This is what gets called a love poem, but that’s a misnomer. A love poem is about your beloved. This is a poem by Horace and about Horace. That makes it no less stirring, of course.

Carminum IV.i, my translation.

          Do you call me to war again,
Venus, out of my peace? Spare me, oh please, I pray.
          I’m not him who I was before
When good Cinera ruled, mistress of all my life.

          Savage mother of honeyed loves,
Loose your reins from my neck, now that I’ve lived so long,
          And am hard to your rule. Begone!
Go where youths call you near, praying in tender moans.

          Paullus Maximus’ house is where
You’d be welcome to ride, winged by your gleaming swans,
          Where you’d revel in high delight,
If you’re looking to warm some pleasant heart with flame.

          For he’s high-born and handsome too,
And a lawyer who speaks openly in the court.
          He’s a lad of a hundred arts
Who will carry your flag out to the farthest lands.

          And triumphant in war for love,
When he laughs at the one who had outspent him far,
          He’ll raise marble to you, the god,
In the orangery down by the Alban Lake.

          There you’ll waft to your waiting nose
Burning incense. The lyre and Berecyntian pipe
          Will be bliss to your happy soul,
Mixed with songs of the young, chanted to wild reeds.

          There the boys and the tender maids
Morn and eve will shout praise up to your holy name.
          And with white and unsullied feet
They’ll dance gaily to you, striking the dusty ground.

          Nor a woman now, nor a boy
Nor faint, credulous hope—hope for a soul to share—
          Gives me joy, nor a wine-drunk night,
Nor to bind to my head garlands of bursting blooms.

          But why—ach, Ligurinus, why?—
Why this strange tear that slides down off my trembling cheeks?
          Why do silences stutter my speech,
Why this weak tongue that trips, blocking my polished words?  

          In my dreams, when I rave at night,
I have seized you, cruel lad. Out on the Field of Mars,
          I have followed your wingèd flight:
And I’ve followed your steps out into surging streams.

Hans Thoma, Endymion, 1886

          Intermissa, Venus, diu
Rursus bella moves? parce precor, precor.
          Non sum qualis eram bonæ
Sub regno Cinaræ. Desine, dulcium

          Mater sæva Cupidinum,
Circa lustra decem flectere mollibus
          Jam durum imperiis: abi,
Quo blandæ iuvenum te revocant preces.

          Tempestivius in domum
Pauli purpureis ales oloribus
          Comissabere Maximi,
Si torrere jecur quæris idoneum;

          Namque et nobilis et decens
Et pro sollicitis non tacitus reis
          Et centum puer artium
Late signa feret militiæ tuæ,

          Et, quandoque potentior
Largi muneribus riserit æmuli,
          Albanos prope te lacus
Ponet marmoream sub trabe citrea.

          Illic plurima naribus
Duces tura, lyraque et Berecyntia
          Delectabere tibia
Mixtis carminibus non sine fistula;

          Illic bis pueri die
Numen cum teneris virginibus tuum
          Laudantes pede candido
In morem Salium ter quatient humum.

          Me nec femina nec puer
Jam nec spes animi credula mutui
          Nec certare juvat mero
Nec vincire novis tempora floribus.

          Sed cur heu, Ligurine, cur
Manat rara meas lacrima per genas?
          Cur facunda parum decoro
Inter verba cadit lingua silentio?

          Nocturnis ego somniis
Jam captum teneo, jam volucrem sequor
          Te per gramina Martii
Campi, te per aquas, dure, volubilis.

Friday, October 30, 2015

In Praise of Fall

Spring has a lot to recommend it. Aside from warmth and color, its happiest aspect is memory: in April you smell things for the first time in months, which can drag you back in time to springtimes gone by. But for me, at least, the spring is also a bitter and sad season. This is difficult to express in words, though I’ll try anyway.

The world in April and May is convulsed by frantic, sunny energy. People, animals, and even plants are prodded by their inner heat to expand and reproduce, which they do feverishly. This can have sickening effects. All life blooms in the spring, which goes for mosquitoes, maggots and mold as well as frisky lambs. An abundance of life can be disgusting and disquieting: almost any northerner I know who’s been to the tropics has described being slightly disturbed by the lurking thought that the earth is a little too quivering and alive. My own body turns into something slippery in April, when my immune system decides that pollen—trees, that is, in the act of copulation—is alien to it. The world as a whole turns into “a cistern for foul toads to knot and gender in.”

What’s more, even though people tend to be chipper in the long afternoons, spring carries the frightening anxiety of being cut off from the happy throng. Every peasant wedding in May has its gloomy spinsters. But whether the hunt for love and fellowship ends in success or despair, nervous activity precludes almost any tranquility.

But these aren’t damning charges against the spring. This is: the season is false and deceitful. First, because it’s such a passing event. Blossoms are transient, fading quickly into an undifferentiated green. And that’s part of a broader deceit. Youth, life, color, and beauty are all trumpeted by the spring as the essential, irrepressible facts of existence. But any soul with a glimmer of insight sees through this disguise. Death, obviously, is what’s essential and irrepressible, and no one who knows this can take innocent delight in wafting scents and perishing flowers. The spring spatters bright paint onto the underlying stuff of the world, which is dust. The resulting façade is grotesque if you remember to think about what’s underneath it.

The best poets for a thousand years have therefore dwelled on death and decay in the springtime. This goes for Horace, who writes in the warm air that we’re shadow and dust, or Eliot who writes that April is the cruellest month, or Housman, who sees a white cherry tree and remembers that he won’t see too many more. The Christian mind takes this attitude too. Though Easter celebrates a sort of cosmic happiness, the liturgical calendar treats most of the spring as a season of mourning and disquiet. Good Friday takes place in the same balmy weather as Easter Sunday. The word Lent, meanwhile comes from the words “long days;” that is, springtime.

So in short, I find the spring to be mocking and false, making promises that are never kept. Adding to the indignity, everyone around me seems to be gleeful in it. This makes me feel like one of Dante’s souls, condemned to Hell for their morosity, who groan:

...Tristi fummo
nel’aer dolce che dal Sol’ s’allegra
portando dentro accidioso fummo.

We were sad
in the sweet air, which rejoices in the sun,
carrying a gloomy fog within ourselves.

The autumn, though, is genuinely, wholesomely sweet, because it owns its sadness. It covers up nothing. It makes no attempt to disguise the fact that everything is tending towards grayness and death. But it’s beautiful regardless. Sure, the trees are turning into brown husks, but there are apples, which yield to pumpkins. Lakewater is cold and tranquil. You can weep in the autumn without feeling harried: you’re simply sad, which is calm and natural. And whereas loneliness in the spring makes me feel utterly cut off from any comfort, loneliness in the fall makes me strangely peaceful, and puts me in communion with the soul of the world.

The springtime, meanwhile, is a season of of vain hopes; whether for love, Resurrection, or for escape from whatever Egypt we imagine ourselves to be in. It fills me with longings that can’t quite be fulfilled. But an autumn delight is always in your hands. You can eat the apple that you’re holding, and never worry that you’re missing out on some future pleasure. Everything is real and bound to the earth: cool air, golden light, fat cows, smoke from the bonfires.

And death is present in the fall too, but since it's undisguised, it feels far less sinister than in the spring. The most deepest beauties, in fact, are the ones that are flanked on every side by death. The colorful forest is beautiful the way that a funeral pyre is.

Fall’s most important lesson, in fact, is the harmony of happiness with the inevitability of annihilation. Because of that, it is much gentler than any other season: its soul is melancholy, but filled with a tranquillity that’s the foundation of any lasting comfort. Unless you believe in the resurrection of Christ and yourself, the only possible happiness is one that’s filled with this sense of doom. When one is happy in this way, one sighs and doesn’t pant.

Maybe I’m only judging the seasons by the extent to which they embody my own soul. In fact, that’s obviously what I’m doing. Take this essay for what it is.

Friday, October 23, 2015

The Mets and the Messiah

The New York Mets might win this year’s World Series, which hasn’t happened since 1986. For my entire life, I’ve been surrounded by fervent believers in their ultimate redemption. But cruelly crushed in 2000, 2006, and again in 2007, the Mets have done nothing but lose, whether with a bang or a whimper, since I was born. They have been perpetual underdogs. The only thing to do was to root for them, but the lives of my friends and family were built on a sense of eternal denial.

This comment from Yeshayahu Leibowitz is apt here:

I am one of those who believe that the Messiah will come. He will come. The Messiah who has come is a false Messiah, and any Messiah who comes is false as well. The essence of the Messiah is that he is always going to come.
This is Jewish history in a paragraph. Exiled from Jerusalem, Jews have built their entire spiritual existence on a dream of future redemption. The stone which the builders rejected will become the cornerstone, and Jews have prayed that it would happen in their lifetimes for generations. The dream of a rebuilt Temple and the end of the exile shapes Jewish existence, together with a fervent insistence that redemption has not yet arrived. The cruel paradox is that the actual coming of the Messiah would ruin the character of Judaism, which is perpetual waiting. Jews long for a state of affairs that would destroy Judaism.

Ya gotta believe, say Mets fans. But just like with the Jews, the belief that they’re talking about (from my post-1993 perspective) is belief in spite of constant suffering and defeat. The great irony of rooting for the Mets is that victory would spell the end of that suffering; and with it, the team as anyone under thirty has known it.

A comparison: There’s no physical desire more powerful than love, no worse pain than its torments, no happiness sweeter than the hope for its fulfillment. But the entire poetry of infatuation is contained in expectation: as Lucretius shows so luridly, actual sexual experience is a frustratingly lowly counterpart to the fervent dreams that lead one into it. The fate of a successful lover is to pass from love into strange disquiet. How many songs have been written on flattering hope, on outrageous desire, on fervent longing? Unrequited love is perhaps the single most common theme of music and poetry, and certainly the one that gives rise to the most beauty. How many sublime poems, meanwhile, are about love fulfilled? I’m having trouble coming up with three. The essence of poetic love is that its fulfillment is not here yet.

So Leibowitz’s paradoxical statement touches a deep truth. A Mets fan has to cross his fingers for the Mets to win the World Series, or else he’s no true Mets fan. But like a bee stinging a bear, success means spiritual self-destruction. For the sake of our souls, the Messiah cannot actually arrive.

Thursday, October 22, 2015


I don’t listen to any modern music, at least not willingly. This used to embarrass me: I never admitted to anyone I knew in high school that I could sing The Marriage of Figaro from beginning to end, or that I was bored by Radiohead and the Rolling Stones. But I’m happy saying it now: with the exception of some folk music, I find almost anything written in the last hundred years to be either vaguely pleasant, or annoying, or just noise. Whenever I get asked whether I prefer Hamilton or Rent, I can only shrug my shoulders indifferently. The only genre that I heartily enjoy is what people today call Classical.

But the label “Classical” is ridiculous and ignorant, since it puts a thousand different kinds of wildly diverse music into just one bin. And even though my music comes from only that bin, I’ve always maintained that my taste is broader than that of nearly anyone I know. I listen to music from the early medieval period, stretching to Gregorian chant and beyond. And I listen to music from every period between then and the early twentieth century. The breadth of my taste is geographical as well as chronological. My two great loves are Italian and German music, but Corsican polyphony is one of the most moving sounds I’ve ever heard. English madrigals are also delightful. Czech romanticism is warm and enchanting to me, and I even find a small amount of French music heartfelt enough to tolerate. Almost everyone I know, meanwhile, has a vanishingly narrow taste in comparison. Most members of my generation stick exclusively to the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and mostly to the twenty-first at that. American music tends to be heavily privileged; anything foreign isn’t necessarily forbidden, but classified as edgy and niche. It’s clear, in other words, that the music I listen to covers a far wider spectrum. In a just world, there would be bins in the store for every kind of real music, with a box in the corner reserved for contemporary American fare. But the opposite is the case. (I once saw a rental store in Spain stocked entirely by American movies, with one small shelf in the back labeled Cine español. I feel the same sense of doom whenever someone asks me what genres of music I like.)

Now, what’s obviously going on here is that I’m applying a very different understanding of breadth than my friends are. And that’s exactly the point that I’m writing this essay to make. Breadth is a pliable and relative concept, despite giving the illusion of being firm and absolute. Let me give a few more examples of its fickleness.

First, take the century-old debate over the content of high-school curricula. To one faction, the traditional liberal-arts course of study is deficient. It leaves out, for example, any contribution from women or people of color. Its history courses focus inordinately on the West, ignoring Africa, Asia, and the pre-Columbian Americas. It does not put enough emphasis on stem fields. It is, in a phrase, too narrow, and needs to be made wide enough to encompass the subjects that are relevant in a modern society. On the other side, though, the conservative faction thinks that these reformers seek to deprive high-school students of any true scholarly depth whatsoever. Few students, they point out, have any knowledge of English literature before the second half of the twentieth century. Whereas their predecessors could intelligently compare Chaucer to the Pearl Poet and Carlyle to Johnson, modern students can write impressionistic, almost-grammatical five-paragraph essays on Kurt Vonnegut. They know no Latin or Greek or French. They cannot tell you about the main battles of the English or American Civil Wars. They cannot tell you what a Gothic church looks like, or what nineteenth-century romantics imagined them like. They wade in the shallowest pools of half-learning, their minds closed to any sense of secular history or the immense sweep of literature through the centuries. Here, it’s clear that each side in the debate has appropriated the language of breadth and diversity to its own purposes. What looks like depth to one is pointless repetition of the same to the other.
Portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale
This man’s library was entirely stocked by the works of European men.
Talk about every flavor of vanilla.
A second example: diversity in universities and workplaces. To the social-justice left, diversity can be measured from the proportion of women, lgbt people, and people of color in the room. But the response to that is a simple negation: that race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. are are irrelevant criteria for deciding whether you have real diversity. Intellectual breadth, for example, is sometimes held to be far more important—a diversity that has little to do with the accidents of personal identity. If we really want helpful diversity by this standard, we should make sure we’ve got liberals, libertarians, neoreactionaries, and Thomists; the devil mind who these people are in their private lives. Or one might want to ensure religious diversity, or international diversity, or class diversity, and so on. Like before, I want to emphasize that I’m not taking a side in this debate, at least not here—I am just pointing out that every side has managed to claim the banner of diversity with what I think is equal logical justification.

Finally, take religious morality. There’s nothing more common in Cambridge, MA to say about an moralizing Evangelical than that he’s narrow-minded. He has failed to imagine the full sweep of human experience. He has failed to consider that there are other attitudes to morality out there, some perhaps as valid—or more valid—than his own. But let’s listen to an Evangelical for a minute. “All your multiplied moralities,” he’ll say, “are just meaningless variations on a rebellion against God. They’re all just writhings on the floor of the court of Sodom. And what’s real open-mindedness? It’s openness to spiritual truths. There’s an infinite number of divine experiences—repentance, for one—that you can’t possibly conceive of in your narrow-minded attachment to the passing fashions of the moment.” Who is right? I think that question cannot be answered empirically, only with reference to values that we hold independently of our logical judgments.

It ought to be obvious by now that the language of breadth can be applied with firm logical backing to nearly any rhetorical purpose imaginable. But as I suggested before, the concept of diversity gives off a seductive aura of absoluteness. When we imagine a person as narrow-minded or a room as non-diverse, we have characterized him or it as cosmically irrelevant. The leftist who talks about “dead white men” implies that one only comes to grips with what ultimately matters when one’s view is wide enough to include living women of color. When Jesus and Plato describe love of the world as petty shadow-chasing, they imply that they are open to the range of things that really matter. And a Haredi Jew does the same thing when he laments that most Jews couldn’t tell you the difference between an Amora and a Geon: he implies that the Jewish intellectual tradition is what goes deep, and that everything else is shallow and goyish. Calling something narrow is to dress up contempt in intellectual clothing.

What should we conclude from this? Not, certainly, that we should stop using the words “broad” or “diverse”, or that we should stop caring about the sort of diversity that we do want to foster. But we should be humbler: we should stop believing that the worth of own concept of diversity can be logically demonstrated to our ideological opponents. They might have their own, after all, which might be wrong, but definitely not incorrect. (This distinction is lost on nearly everyone.) If we're going to contemn and despise our ideological enemies, let's go ahead and do that, but not assume that we have crystalline logical proof on our side.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Naturalization Method

It’s common knowledge that the best way to teach a language is by the natural method. No one—except grad students learning how to skim German, English or French—should ignore this advice. You can’t properly know a language unless you have plenty of experience hearing and listening to it—and learning it from other people, not mathematical grammatical tables.

It’s controversial, but true, that this goes for Latin too. I’ve seen firsthand that when you teach Latin in Latin, you can get students to learn far faster and far more thoroughly. The usual objections raised to teaching Latin this way—that we don’t know how Latin really sounded, that it ignores rigor, that there’s no point speaking a dead language—can be easily answered.

First, that we don’t know how it sounded. This is nonsense. We have a very good idea of what classical Latin sounded like, which we have from comparative phonology, borrowings from Latin into other ancient languages, and recorded spelling errors. Even without those witnesses, though, there is—believe it or not—a tradition of spoken Latin handed down to us from the Middle Ages. This is what gets referred to as “Church Latin” at urban American parties—but it’s kept up today by modern humanists much more than by the post-Vatican II Catholic church. Anyway, anyone who doubts that Latin can be spoken should visit the Accademia Vivarium Novum in Rome, where it’s the language of everyday life. (Here’s Luigi Miraglia, its director, giving a speech; lamenting, incidentally, the decline of spoken Latin as only he can do.)

Second, it’s objected that the natural method is a sloppy way to teach Latin. In the hands of a shoddy teacher, this is of course true. But shoddy teaching spoils the non-natural method just as much as the natural. Bad teaching is bad teaching—and rigor has far more to do with the quality of a teacher than the methods used. Jiří Čepelák, one of the few truly gifted teachers that I’ve met, is a master of the natural method. And he’s more exacting than any other Latin teacher I’ve come across. Though he conducts his classes exclusively in Latin, he insists that his students master the most maddeningly minor details of the language, to their profit. It’s because of him that I can rattle off mordere-momordisse-morsum like I can tie my shoelaces.

Third, it’s objected that Latin is only read nowadays, not spoken, so there’s no point in training students in a skill that will never serve them. This prophecy fulfills itself so enthusiastically that it barely needs the help of hapless mortals. If students are only taught to read Latin, then of course they will never come across a situation in which it’s helpful to know how to speak it. But if you teach Latin as a spoken language, you’ve given a common language—and thus a common community—to students from France, Finland, Malawi, England. Even without this perk, speaking ability helps reading so much that it’s worth cultivating entirely as a means to an end.

The natural method, in short, is the only sensible way of teaching Latin (and Greek!) properly. But it does not go far enough. As any language-learner knows, there’s only one way to really master a language: to move to the country where it is spoken. What’s more, going to the language’s homeland supplies a point as well as an aid to learning it. Learning Kyrgyz is a wonderful exercise, but you’re better off going on other intellectual adventures if you have no itch to visit Central Asia.

Yuri Gagarin was not, in fact, born in Kyrgyzstan.
To really master a language in both the linguistic and the cultural sense, what you need isn’t natural teaching but naturalization. To lose your accent and the creeping sense that you’re lingering on the outside of things, you need to be a fully adopted subject of your new motherland.

The only rub is that Latin has no sovereign homeland. It has a homeland nevertheless: the res publica litterarum, or “republic of letters.” In other words, the enormous body of literature, poetry, prayers, and philosophy recorded in what used to be Europe’s common tongue. This is an incredibly deep well of human feeling tappable by anyone with a little language training. One learns grammar by reading in Latin, but in the company of historical Latin writers, one also learns the real soul of the language. From antiquity through the eighteenth century, the subtlest and most passionate thoughts of mankind have been recorded in Latin. And we’re eligible ourselves to join this ancient train of sorrow and contemplation. We can be like Machiavelli:

When evening has come, I return to my house and go into my study. At the door I take off my clothes of the day, covered with mud and mire, and I put on my regal and courtly garments; and decently reclothed, I enter the ancient courts of ancient men, where, received by them lovingly, I feed on the food that alone is mine and that I was born for. There I am not ashamed to speak with them and to ask them the reason for their actions; and they in their humanity reply to me. And for the space of four hours I feel no boredom, I forget every pain, I do not fear poverty, death does not frighten me. I deliver myself entirely to them. 
(Letter XI to Francesco Vettori, trans. by Harvey Mansfield.)
This is what neo-humanism is for: to allow a new generation—this time women as well as men—to join the fellowship that gave so much peace and delight to Machiavelli. If you’re interested in Latin by the natural method, Hans Ørberg’s Lingua latina per se illustrata is by far the best place to start. If you’re interested in Latin by the naturalization method, your countrymen are waiting for you on library shelves.