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.

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