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.