Monday, December 18, 2023

Ovid's Metamorphoses, Canto I, "Of shapes transformde to bodies straunge"

Some notes on Canto I of Ovid’s Metamorphosis (8 CE).  Just some of the things I am looking for or enjoying while reading Ovid’s epic of “forms changed / into new bodies.”  (tr. Charles Martin, 2004, p. 15).  Or, per Arthur Golding (1567, p. 3 of the Paul Dry paperback) “Of shapes transformde to bodies straunge.”

I’ve been reading Charles Martin first, then Arthur Golding, who is difficult due to archaic words and twisty syntax but also his long fourteen syllable rhyming couplets, which perhaps contribute to the twistiness.  Golding is occasionally magnificent.  Martin, in modern blank verse, is much clearer.  As I write about Ovid, I’ll hop from one to the other.

Canto I begins, after Ovid’s brief statement of purpose, with the creation of the world, an imitation of Hesiod, a metamorphosis on the grandest scale, not the usual mode of the poem.  “No kinde of thing had proper shape” (AG, 3), a violation of Ovidian principles.  The way Ovid describes Chaos – “a huge rude heape” and so on (3) – will look familiar to anyone who read the pre-Socratic philosophers with me long, long ago.  Chaos resembles the featureless, motionless sphere of Parmenides and Zeno, while its transformation by a surprisingly vague and unnamed God seems borrowed from Empedocles and perhaps Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things.  Later, after the great flood, Ovid describes the generation and evolution of animals in a way that also sounds something like the weird eyeball monsters ofEmpedocles.  As in Heraclitus, in Ovid “everything flows.”

Next up is the Golden Age, where Martin has the pre-agricultural people living off of

                                          fruit from the arbutus tree,

wild strawberries on mountainsides, small cherries,

and acorns fallen from Jove’s spreading oak.  (19)

Martin is staying close to Ovid’s text.  Golding has

Did live by Raspis, heppes and hawes, by cornelles, plummes and cherries,

By sloes and apples, nuttes and peares, and lothsome bramble berries,

And by the acorns dropt on ground, from Joves brode tree in fielde.  (6)

Raspberries, rosehips, cornelian cherries.  This is a great example of Golding’s tendency to expand, but also, charmingly how on occasion he becomes very English, blending Ovid’s Roman landscape with his own green and pleasant land.

Let’s see.  Here’s the monstrous Lycaon turning into a wolf, the first of so many human to animal metamorphoses.  Ovid loves the details of the transformation, a good part of his tendency to expand the old story, adding “foam… at the corners of his mouth” (24) and so on.  Note that the Lycaon story is narrated by a character, by Jove.  Ovid uses every narrative device he knows, direct narration, speech, songs, stories within stories (although not to the depths of A Thousand and One Nights), anything.  The transformation of poor Syrinx into reeds is told within the story of how poor Io turned into a cow.  We met her on stage long, long ago in Prometheus Bound. 

The transitions, the metamorphoses of one story into another, are central to Ovid’s art.  He is not writing a catalogue but rather a single continuous story built from many seamlessly linked stories.  Well, the move from Io to Phaethon, where Phaethon is friends with Io’s son, seems thin to me.  But some of Ovid’s transitions are themselves beautiful, marvels of storytelling.  Related is how he ends cantos in the idle of a story, the interruption just another way for the narrative to flow.  The story has just begun, so I have to come back to it.

I feel I have skipped a thousand interesting things, just in the first Canto.

With the holiday near, I will likely not write anything for a couple of weeks at least.  I have read all the way through Canto II, so there is no need to worry about catching up.  Daryl Hine’s Ovid’s Heroines and Christopher Marlowe’s youthful Ovid’s Elegies also kept me entertained; I should write note about each of them in January.  Ovid is my kind of fun.

Have a good holiday.

Monday, December 4, 2023

Let's read Ovid's Metamorphoses! And perhaps more.

Who would like to read Ovid’s Metamorphoses (8 CE) with me?  We have had some discussion of this good idea, and I feel I am up to it now.  Up to writing about it.

Metamorphoses is a compendium of Greek myths that feature transformation, which turns out to be hundreds of pages worth of stories.  Ovid’s poem is not a catalog of any kind, but rather an original weaving of the myths into a new form.  Ovid enacts the title of the poem.  A translation should flow.

The translations.  The appeal of the 1567 Arthur Golding translation is it is the Ovid that Shakespeare read.  I believe Jonathan Bate’s Shakespeare and Ovid (1994) is the place to go for the details.

The George Sandys translation (1621-6), in heroic couplets, is superb but sadly Shakespeare did not read it, so it loses the celebrity boost.  It is likely – a bit of trivia – the first English book written in the Americas (Sandys was for a time treasurer of the Virginia Company).

A 1717 version by many hands, including Dryden, Pope and other great poets of the time, as well as some of the duds, sounds interesting and was the default Ovid translation for a century but in my experience the translations of this period, like Pope’s Homer, wander pretty far from the original, and I would at least like to pretend I am reading Ovid.

Skipping way ahead, I have no opinion about the many modern translations.  Twenty years ago I read some samples of Charles Martin’s flexible 2004 version which I liked a lot, so I’m going to read that one.  But I am sure several of the other options are good.

I would advise against the many 19th and early 20th century Ovid translations written as trots for Latin students.  There are likely better and worse, but they seem like dull stuff.  Ovid should be translated by a poet.

What should the schedule be?  Metamorphoses has fifteen chapters that typically fill thirty to forty pages.  Normally I would read one a day with some breaks, but three weeks seems too fast.  Let’s say I read a couple cantos a week.  Perhaps I will read Martin and Golding, which will slow me down.  Eight weeks, with some slippage – December, January, maybe into February.  Or is that too long?  Please advise.

I’ll try to write something once a week. 

I also hope to fit in more – much of the rest of – Ovid, who I suppose is my favorite Roman poet. 

The Heroides are a collection of monologues or letters sent by Greek heroines (and Sappho) to their lovers.  They were written by a young, even teenage, Ovid, circa 20 BCE.  They, too, were a significant influence on Shakespeare, on his great heroines, and on the European novel generally.  Daryl Hine’s Ovid’s Heroines (1991) is the obvious recommendation.

I have Peter Green’s thorough Penguin Classics book The Erotic Poems (dated after Heroides and before Metamorphoses), containing his great love elegies the Amores, as well as The Art of Love – how to seduce – and The Cure for Love – how to break up, as well as a fragment about how to apply makeup.  180 pages of Ovid in a 450 page book.  I said Green was thorough.  And I remember the translations as good, but I plan to revisit Amores in Christopher Marlowe’s remarkable translation.  Marlowe was also likely a teenager when he did Ovid’s elegies.  Teenagers and their love poems.

I have not read Ovid’s calendar poem, Fasti, or the poems in exile, Tristia and the Letters from Pontus.  Christoph Ransmayr’s enjoyable fantasy novel The Last World (1988) explores this part of Ovid’s life.  We’ll see if I get this far.   Why wouldn’t I, Ovid is my favorite Roman poet.  Except maybe for Horace.

Please advise about anything I mentioned, or missed.  Good translations, a better schedule, supplemental books, favorite essays on Ovid, tips for learning Latin fast, anything.  It is all appreciated.

Friday, December 1, 2023

Books I read in November 2023

Recovery from surgery leads to a long list of books. (Everything is going well, by the way, thanks).  My idea of a “comfort read” is a book on a subject about which I do not know much – start me over at the beginning – thus my enthusiastic Indian literature project, which is ongoing, more slowly.

I need to write up an invitation to read Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and perhaps more Ovid.  Any minute now I will write that.  Please join me on Metamorphoses.



Interior Landscape: Love Poems from a Classical Tamil Anthology (1-3 CE) &

Speaking of Shiva (10-12 CE),  both tr. R. K. Amanujan – the pleasure is in the variations in the formula; the latter is especially strange.

Samskara: A Rite for a Dead Man (1965),  U. R. Ananthamurthy – an esoteric dispute about the burial of a corrupt holy man leads to a number of outstanding novelistic ironies.

Malgudi Days (1982),  R. K. Narayan – stories from the 1930s through the 1970s about Narayan’s famous town.  More Narayan, easy to enjoy, in my future.

Classical Indian Philosophy (2020),  Peter Adamson & Jonardon Ganeri – written at my level, the crucial thing, although I beg you not to test me.

Arvind Krishna Mehrotra (2020),  Arvind Krishna Mehrotra – an Indian beatnik gets more interesting.

After (2022),  Vivek Naryanan – “after” the Ramayana, an ambitious 600 page poetic response to the great epic, like Christopher Logue’s War Music, say, if not as focused or as strong.

Four of these books are from NYRB Classics or NYRB Poets.  Good for them.



Macunaíma (1928),  Mário de  Andrade – a surrealist picaresque looted from German anthropologists’ collections of Amazonian folklore, mixed with Afro-Brazilian traditions and modern Sao Paulo, the most purely Brazilian book I will ever hope to read, and also the most foreignizing translation I have ever read, even more than Leg Over Leg.  So many birds, insects, plants, and whatever else - so many non-English words - all explained in the notes.

The Man without Qualities  (1938),  Robert Musil – the 200 pages Musil almost published in 1938, making it the last coherent narrative piece of his monster.  The Burton Pike translation has 400 pages more of notes and fragments, containing some of Musil’s best writing, he says, but I will never know.  I think the action is in the satirical 800-page 1930 first volume, but some smart people prefer the more mystical unraveling of late Musil.

For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940),  Ernest Hemingway – this book was so famous, the epitome of the serious novel.  Now?  I wonder.  It is a mix of enjoyable kitsch, godawful kitsch (the love affair, the “Spanish”), and quite good action scenes.

H. M. Pulham, Esquire (1941),  John P. Marquand – another big best-seller, easy to read, with lots of Boston and Maine detail, and a good narrator of the perfectly reliable but utterly clueless type.

The Bridge over the Drina (1945),  Ivo Andrić – centuries of history flowing around a bridge that I could still visit today, often reading more like history than fiction.

Delta Wedding (1946),  Eudora Welty – rich, gorgeous, subtle.

The Common Chord (1947),  Frank O'Connor – doing his thing, writing about his people.

The Daughter of Time (1951),  Josephine Tey – the recovery classic, detection directly from the hospital bed, which is not where I read it.  Soon after, though.  Today the detective would have been sent home after a few days, destroying the conceit.

Collected Stories (1908-53),  Colette – I have been reading through Colette’s short writings for years, in French, but I finally gave up on finding the last few books, so I switched to English for about 60 pages.  The early work on the Cherí character is worth reading.  If you have a taste for Colette, it’s all worth reading, easily.

Andrienne Kennedy in One Act (1954-80),  Adrienne Kennedy – a new Library of America collection of a writer about whom I knew nothing inspired me to learn something.  A series of one-act avant-gardisms concludes with two stark adaptations of Euripides; how enjoyable.

Mort (1987),  Terry Pratchett – about a tenth as many good lines as Douglas Adams, but that many good lines justifies the project, the life.  Plus he's good with endings.

The Adventures of China Iron (2017),  Gabriela Cabezón Cámara – the gaucho epic as pan-sexual Utopia.

This Is How You Lose the Time War (2019),  Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone – perhaps the worst blurbage I have ever seen. The short novel about time traveling enemies who fall in love is neither “seditious” nor “dangerous” nor does it “ha[ve] it all.”  If I were not giving the book away (as a gift, not because it is bad) I would tear off the covers.



Body Rags (1968) &

Selected Poems (1946-80),  Galway Kinnell

Glass, Irony and God (1995),  Anne Carson

Things on Which I've Stumbled (2008),  Peter Cole

Zeno's Eternity (2023),  Mark Jarman



The Burning Oracle (1939),  G. Wilson Knight

Ear Training (2023),  William H. Pritchard – perhaps my favorite living critic, with a new collection of pieces going back to the 1970s, and not too many pieces that I had already read in The Hudson Review.



The Diary of a Young Girl (1947),  Anne Frank – I thought this was the most famous book I had never read, but that is not true anymore, is it?  Harry Potter is likely more famous.  I hate to think what else.



Les inconnus dans la maison (1940),  Georges Simenon – The Strangers in the House, a character study of an lonely alcoholic lawyer.  A stranger is murdered in his house.  And the lawyer is also a stranger in his own house!

Caligula (1944) &

Les Justes (1949),  Albert Camus – laughable as a portrait of 1905 Russian anarchists but likely an exact portrait of people Camus met in the French resistance.

L'Équarrissage pour tous (1950),  Boris Vian – in which Vian fails to “read the room,” as we might say now, setting his anti-war satire in Normandy on D-Day, just where and when the French are at their most anti-anti-war.  But it all works out.  Less outrageous than Catch-22, really.

Tête de Méduse (1951),  Boris Vian

A real sign of recovery, I have resumed my Portuguese study, starting over with an outstanding textbook written by and for high school teachers in southeastern Massachusetts.

Wednesday, November 1, 2023

Books I Read in October 2023

The five-day hospital stay breaking the month in half is likely invisible to anyone but me, but that is why the fiction list is so mystery-heavy, and for that matter so long.  Many of these books, the post-surgery group, are not just short but light, well-suited for the invalid's tired hand.  The invalid is feeling much better, by the way, in fact not much of an invalid, so perhaps I am ready for a heavier book.

I hope to get a little - or big - Ovid project going soon.  Metamorphoses and the early Heroides, but them why not the rest.  It would be pleasant to have company, so I will put up an invitation sometime soon.


Mahabharata (2 BCE-2 CE), the 1973 William Buck adaptation

The Bhagavad-Gita (1 BCE), tr. Barbara Stoler-Miller         

The Ramayana (3 BCE-3 CE, maybe), the 1972  R. K. Narayan adaptation

Marvelous books I read 25 years ago, once again great pleasures.  I will pursue this Indian literature line for a while. 


Selected Essays and Dialogues (1 CE), Plutarch - another book from 25 years ago.  I find Plutarch to be a genial voice, not unlike his great descendant Montaigne.



The Death of Ivan Ilych (1886) &

Collected Shorter Fiction, Vol. 2 (1885-1906),  Leo Tolstoy, the 400 pages or so I had never read, plus the above.  Lots of Christian fairy tales, plus “The Forged Coupon,” a clever chain of sin.

The Big Money (1936), John Dos Passos - I love the USA Trilogy in theory, particularly its collage-like construction, but find it dull in practice. Or I find the more ordinary novellish parts - characters, story - dull, perhaps because so much of it is written like a medieval chronicle ("and then... and then... and then...").  I do love the potted biographies of the famous - Henry Ford, Frederick Jackson Taylor, William Randolph Hearst - turned into prose poems.  Would an entire book of just those would become tiresome?

Rebecca (1938), Daphne Du Maurier

The Third Man (1950), Graham Greene - no zither, no kitten, but solid.

The Investigation (1959), Stanislaw Lem

The Wanderer (1964), Fritz Leiber - an odd although Hugo-winning science fiction novel from one of my longtime favorite fantasy writers.  It is an early "planetary disaster" novel, with characters all over (and off) the glove reacting to the catastrophe in different ways.  I was surprised how goofy the book was in places.  Leiber had perhaps been reading Vonnegut and Pynchon.

Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), Jean Rhys

At the Bottom of the River (1983), Jamaica Kincaid

The Black Book (1993), Ian Rankin

A Mountain to the North, a Lake to the South, Paths to the West, a River to the East (2003), Laszlo Krasznahorkai

The Forgery (2013), Ave Barrera



A Journey of the Mind: Collected Poems of Helen Pinkerton (1945-2016), Helen Pinkerton

Mast Year (2020), Katherine Hagopian Berry

Old Orchard Beach Cycle (2022), Robert Gibbons – these last two are Maine poems by Maine poets.  We hit a bad patch in Maine last week.  It felt healthy to read some Maine poems.



L'Art d'être grand-père (1877), Victor Hugo

La Cantatrice chauve (1950) &

La leçon (1951) &

Les chaises (1954), Eugène Ionesco

La Répétition ou l'Amour puni (1950), Jean Anouilh

En attendant Godot (1952), Samuel Beckett

A jolly little “French theater in the 1950s” run along with the great late-period Hugo poetry collection. 

Saturday, October 14, 2023

My cancer - "It can’t be true! It can’t, but it is."


Liver cancer.  That was a surprise.  I knew something was wrong, but I was not expecting that.

Since the diagnosis last summer, since it was known for a fact that I had something serious, things have moved fast.  It has been like boarding a train.  Once in motion there is no way off.  I guess I have seen plenty of movies where people get off of moving trains, often with bad results.  I am going to stay on and do what my doctors tell me.

Monday is my liver surgery, a major change of direction.  When I wake up, my tumor will be in the hands of the researcher who expressed almost too much interest in getting a look at it.  He can have it.  The subsequent year of immunotherapy treatment is to keep the tumor from returning.

I have great doubts about sharing personal information of any kind, much less medical information, with the internet, but my cancer is no secret in my real life, and I wanted to explain why the schedule of my Greek philosophy reading – no, not the reading, the writing – fell apart.  How fortunate to be reading Greek philosophy – Cynics, Stoics, and others – at just this time.  The perfect companions.  But my energy was not so good, and a lot of what was left went to health care appointments.  So, so many appointments.  My writing suffered, and will likely do so for some time.

My doctors, by the way, have been superb, as have the nurses, technicians, and everyone else.  The insurance company has behaved itself.  No medical horror stories, or even irritation stories, not yet.  My greatest suffering, at this point, has been the 900 calorie per day liver-softening diet that I am currently enduring, although not for long.  Have pity on this poor glutton.

Ivan Ilych, in “The Death of Ivan Ilych” (1886), worries about the cause of his illness.  The illness, which involves, the appendix, or maybe the kidney, sure sounds like cancer.  I wish he had had my doctors.  He once heavily bumped his side while hanging a curtain:

‘It really is so!  I lost my life over that curtain as I might have done when storming a fort.  Is that possible?  How terrible and how stupid.  It can’t be true!  It can’t, but it is.’  (Ch. VI, tr. revised Maudes)

Of course, however comforting it would be to know, poor Ilych has no idea.  I had a brief discussion with the surgeon about the cause of my cancer, ending in a shrug and a laugh.  Who knows?

Leo Tolstoy’s masterpiece is the only work on illness I have deliberately sought out.  I owe a debt, though, to Nanni Moretti’s 1993 anthology film Caro Diario, specifically to the extraordinary third part where he recreates his frustrating, circular experiences with the Italian medical system (which does save him in the end – he is now 70, with a new movie out).  It’s because of Moretti’s film, backed by some family history, that led me to push hard on my doctors to look for cancer.  “Be your own advocate” is the phrase people use.  Yes, do it.

I will be out of touch – out of everything – on Monday, and I have never been a recovering patient before so I have no idea when I might respond to any well wishes, kind thoughts, crackpot advice, or angry scoldings.  Many thanks, then, in advance for any of that.

Now back to the problem that makes me fret the  most: which books to bring to the hospital?


Friday, October 13, 2023

But the Moon rescues others as they swim from below - a glance at the essays and dialogues of Plutarch

The great ragged Greek philosophy readalong ends with Plutarch, famous for his extraordinary Parallel Lives but also the innovative author of a large mass of essays and dialogues which picked up the title Moralia (late 1st C.) along the way.  Plutarch was hardly an original philosophical thinker, but he invented the familiar essay, and most readers of Montaigne will find Plutarch to be a genial companion.  Of course Montaigne quotes Plutarch (and Seneca, and Lucretius) frequently.

Plutarch has retroactively become a “Middle Platonist,” one of a number of 1st century Greek writers creating a Plato revival, preparing for the eventual triumph of the Neoplatonism of Plotinus, who would be the next logical person to read if I kept going.  I suggested the Oxford World’s Classics Selected Essays and Dialogues (tr. Donald Russell) as a good place to see Plutarch in his more philosophical modes, but now I see that my premise was false.  Plutarch was always in a philosophical mode.  He lived in a social world suffused with philosophy, much like the community surrounding Socrates, except Plutarch’s mental world also includes Stoicism, Epicureanism (the enemy), and other movements we have encountered.  And although he himself is a priest at Delphi, as Greek a profession as I can imagine, his world also includes Rome, as he will demonstrate in his Parallel Lives where Roman history turns out to be a version of Greek history.

Essays like “Bashfulness” and “Talkativeness” are the Montaigne-like essays.  The argument of, say, “Talkativeness” is really a long string of examples of the dangers of the vice, pulled from a masterful knowledge of Greek and Roman history.  “These remarks are not meant as a denunciation of talkativeness, but as therapy” (218).  Virtue, but of the practical sort.

More impressive and difficult are Plutarch’s dialogues, modelled on Plato but with innovations.  “Socrates’ Daimonion” is a highlight.  Socrates openly said that he was sometimes warned against specific actions by a daimon, a friendly spirit outside of himself.  He was never advised to do anything but only warned against things.  In Plutarch’s dialogue a number of Thebans and others, including an old friend of Socrates, debate what he might of meant, complicating the concept of daimon, climaxing in the remarkable “Myth of Timarchus,” a wild vision of the afterlife where the soul and intellect are distinct, the latter actually being the outside daimon.  The stars are daimones being pulled to the moon.

But the Moon rescues others as they swim up from below. These are they for whom the end of Becoming has come.  The foul and unpurified, however, she will not receive.  She [the moon!} flashes and roars at them most horribly and will not let them near her.  They lament their fate and are borne away down there once again, to another birth, as you can see.  (108)

That’s up there with Plato’s late, weird visionary myths.  The discussion of the daimon is intermixed with the story of a political conspiracy to overthrow the tyrant of Thebes.  The philosophical discussion is part of what is really a piece of historical fiction (the conspiracy is 400 years in the past).  This is what I mean when I say the dialogues can be difficult – this is a dang complex text.

I tracked down an old translation of “On the ‘E’ at Delphi,” a cryptic title.  Alongside the famous “Know Thyself” inscription, Delphi had the an uppercase epsilon (the same as our E) inscribed on the temple of Apollo.  What does it mean?  Plutarch puts himself in this dialogue but does not give himself the last word.  Many theories are explored.  Fans of Thomas Browne’s magnificent The Garden of Cyrus (1658) will enjoy the long discussion of the meaning of the number five; others may well be baffled.

Don’t miss the other Delphic essays, “Oracles in Decline” and “Why Are Delphic Oracles No Longer Given in Verse?” or the short, heartbreaking “A Consolation to His Wife,” on the death of his infant daughter.  Don’t miss, if you like this book, the additional essays in the Penguin Classics collection.  Don’t miss Parallel Lives, at least the best parts – the life of Anthony! – whatever you do.

So that’s the Greek philosophy readalong.  I meant to write more and for that matter think more, but life interfered in a way that was almost ironic.  Still, a success as far as it went.  Many thanks to the people who helped me out by joining in, on the internet or in real life.

Just a bit more about real life tomorrow.

Tuesday, October 10, 2023

Seneca and Marcus Aurelius and their Stoic self-help books - I shall not be afraid when my last hour comes

The curious thing about Stoicism is its long-lasting survival in the self-help genre, curious at least until I read Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic (1st C.) several years ago and discovered that it was a self-help book, one of the founding self-help books.  The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius (170-180), which I read recently, has a different format, more of a commonplace book, but is similarly aimed at self-improvement.

I did not get much out of Meditations, but that is because I read it, one page followed by another until I finished.  Written in fragments, it is more of a book to keep handy and consult, perhaps randomly.  What wisdom will pop out?

Remember that what is hidden within you controls the strings; that is activity, that is life, that, if one may say so, is the man.  Never occupy your imagination besides with the body which encloses you like a vessel and these organs which are moulded around you.  They are like an axe, only differing as being attached to the body.  (Book X, 38, tr. A. S. L. Farquharson, Oxford World’s Classics)

Tough words, since I have been spending a lot of the last few months imagining one particular internal organ – I will write about my illness soon and be less cryptic – but the Stoics are generally bracing.  Cold baths, simple food, contempt for money and success, a “tough it out” attitude towards pain and adversity, and indifference about death, those are the Stoics.  One can imagine, for any illness, for example, times when a “tough it out” pep talk is useful.

Still, it is an odd book to simply read, except for the first chapter which is where the emperor lists what he learned from people in his past: “modesty and manliness” from his father, “piety and bountifulness” from his mother, and on like that through a dozen people.  A smart exercise I can imagine encountering in a contemporary self-help book, if I ever read such things. 

I did glance at a couple of Ryan Holiday’s books, since he makes a lot of explicit use of the ancient Stoics, and was pleased to find that he does not emphasize money and success – so much of the audience for these books is the business crowd, desperate to increase annual sales by 10% – but rather how to be happy.  A real Stoic tells me how to be virtuous, not necessarily the same thing, but I was impressed that Holiday is not trying to make his readers wealthy.

Seneca is more my guy.  He is the great Stoic hypocrite, since for the five years before Emperor Nero came of age he was effectively the domestic ruler of Rome (a general handled foreign policy) and became one of the richest men in the world.  Then again when he gave it all up without complaint when Nero took power.  The letters, including the selection I read in the Penguin Classics edition (tr. Robin Campbell), were written after his fall from power.  They are likely pseudo-letters, written for if not exactly publication than at least dissemination among interested readers.

I had better jump to Letter LIV, about ill health, and look for wisdom.

Even as I fought for breath, though, I never ceased to find comfort in cheerful and courageous reflections.  ‘What’s this?’ I said.  ‘So death is having all these tries at me, is he?  Let him, then!  I had a try at him a long while ago myself.’  ‘When was this?’ you’ll say.  Before I was born.  Death is just not being.  What that is like I already know.

The short sentences and conversational tone make Seneca pleasant reading, as if a friend has written me.  Perhaps they are artifacts of the translator; I don’t know.  “You can feel assured on my score of this: I shall not be afraid when my last hour comes – I’m already prepared, not planning as much as a day ahead” – now that is Seneca, that is Stoicism.

A pleasure of Seneca’s letters is that they are full of ordinary Roman life.  Letter LVI is about how to deal with noise:

But if on top of this some ball player comes along and starts shouting out the score, that’s the end!  Then add someone starting up a brawl, and someone else caught thieving, and the man who likes the sound of his voice in the bath, and the people who leap in the pool with a tremendous splash.  Apart from those whose voices are, if nothing else, natural, think of the hair remover, continually giving vent to his shrill and penetrating cry in order to advertise his presence, never silent unless it be while he is plucking someone’s armpits and making the client yell for him!  Then think of the various cries of the man selling drinks, and the one selling sausages and the other selling pastries, and all the ones hawking for the catering shops, publicizing his wares with a distinctive cry of his own. (109-10)

I’m sitting at a window in ancient Rome.  Love it.

Tuesday, October 3, 2023

Lucretius brings to light in Latin verse the dark discoveries of the Greeks

During the Hellenistic period, Epicureanism and Stoicism replaced Plato and Aristotle as the dominant philosophical movements (Plato would make a big comeback; Aristotle would have to wait for the great Arabic philosophers).  Both movements were popular in the Roman Republic as well as in Greece.  Thus although Epicurus had, until recently, survived only in three letters preserved by Diogenes Laertius, his ideas were preserved in one of the four (let’s say) great Latin epics, De Rerum Natura (1st century BCE) by the mysterious Lucretius, translated as The Way Things Are by Rolfe Humphries.

I am well aware how very hard it is

To bring to light by means of Latin verse

The dark discoveries of the Greeks.  I know

New terms must be invented, since our tongue

Is poor, and this material is new.  (Book I, p. 23)

The ash-engulfed library at Herculaneum contained a substantial collection of Epicurean texts, including at least one major lost work by Epicurus, but I do not know if that text is in condition for amateur readers to read.  I doubt I would enjoy it more than I enjoy Lucretius.

If I had kept to my schedule I would perhaps have walked through each of the six books of Lucretius, from his dismissal of the gods, absent from human affairs if they exist at all, through the surprisingly modern sounding atomic theory, the origin of the world and everything else, ending with a dramatic account of a plague in Athens that ends so abruptly one wonders if the book is unfinished.

                    Sudden need

And poverty persuaded men to use

Horrible makeshifts; howling, they would place

Their dead on pyres prepared for other men,

Apply the torches, maim and bleed and brawl

To keep the corpses from abandonment.  (Book VI, 236)

A grim end at least fitting the materialism of the book’s philosophy.  You’re on your own, folks.  The last book contains numerous science-like causes of natural phenomena, for example nine separate theories about how lightning works.  An actual scientist would care which theory is true, but all that matters to Lucretius is that the cause is not Zeus or Jove or any other god.  A more common translation of the title is The Nature of Things.  Nature is natural.

The most fascinating piece of pseudo-science is apparently an innovation by Lucretius.  Bothered by the determinism of the standard atomic theory, he adds an element of randomness or indeterminism, his famous “swerve.”  Atoms, and the things made of them, like humans, move along their deterministic paths until they don’t.  Thus free will is possible, or at least something indistinguishable from free will.  I take the physics as mostly poetic, but it sounds so modern, as if Lucretius intuited quantum theory.

De Rerum Natura barely survived to the Renaissance, but once rediscovered it became a favorite.  Stephen Greenblatt somehow wrote a popular book about the early modern love of the Swerve.  Lucretius was a favorite of Montaigne.  I will say the same about Seneca and Plutarch in my next few posts.  We are in Montaigne’s library.

Such a complex book, and this is what I have to say.  Good enough.  Some of us are in talks about an Ovid readalong later this year, taking on another of the great Latin epics, my favorite of the bunch.

Sunday, October 1, 2023

Books I Read in September 2023

Despite all evidence I hope to wrap up the Greek philosophy project within the next couple of weeks.  A medical deadline approaches.  That will help.

As usual, I read good books.



Letters from a Stoic (c. 60), Seneca - good timing for some Stoicism.



Collected Stories (from roughly 1930 into the 1960s, the second half of the book), Vladimir Nabokov

They Came Like Swallows (1937), William Maxwell

Joseph the Provider (1943), Thomas Mann, concluding a 1,500 page monster.  Evidence of graphomania.

Death of a Salesman (1948), Arthur Miller

The Aleph and Other Stories 1933-1969 (1978), Jorge Luis Borges, arranged and rearranged.  The genial New Yorker memoir that concludes the book is a great pleasure.



The Poems of J. V. Cunningham (1942-82)

Selected Poems (1944-73), Jean Garrigue

A Wall of Two (1947 / 2007), Henia & Ilona Karmel & frankly Fanny Howe too.  Please see Dorian Stuber’s 2021 review of this book and these poems, many of them literally written in the camps.  The story of how the poems, and the poets, survived is itself worth knowing.

The Kid (1947) &

Skylight One (1949), Conrad Aiken

Pisan Cantos (1948), Ezra Pound.  High level Modernist kitsch, I fear, including both Aiken and Pound.



The Situation and the Story (2001), Vivian Gornick, generous insights into essays and memoirs, more relevant to our moment than to hers, even.



Selected Writings (1913-48), Antonin Artaud, the 700 page Sontag selection, time well spent with an alien sensibility.



Journal, 1933-1939, André Gide

Notre-dame des fleurs (1944), Jean Genet, real French prison literature (although I read the less obscene 1951 revision) that with its rich French vocabulary that included but went well beyond slang was on the edge of my reading level.  It was so hard.  Between Genet and Artaud, it was French Weirdo Month for me.  That should be a regular event.

Friday, September 8, 2023

Lucian's satires - Frankly he's a blamed nuisance

The great 2nd century satirist Lucian was a great shock to me at one point, twenty-five years ago when I got serious about classical literature.  I had never heard of him, partly because of the odd historical artifact where what he writes is called “Menippean satire” even though nothing by the Cynic satirist Menippus has survived.  Menippus himself largely survives as a character in Lucian’s stories.  Confusing.

Thomas More’s Utopia, Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus, Jonathan Swift’s Tale of a Tub and my childhood favorite Gulliver’s Travels are all direct, conscious descendants of Lucian.  Most of fantasy and science fiction literature is at least distantly Lucianic.  When I read Arisosto’s Orlando Furioso and watched a character fly to the moon, I knew where I was in literary history.

Not that I recommend reading Lucian to learn about literary history.  The outrageous, inventive “A True Story”; the sharp “Dialogues of the Dead”; the various angry attacks on philosophers Lucian thinks are con artists, as in “The Death of Peregrinus” – these all stand on their own.  He’s still pretty funny.

Lucian was not himself a Cynic, but I thought he would be instructive because his heroes are so often Cynics.  Menippus, across a number of pieces, travels to heaven and hell, reacting as a Cynic might.  Menippus often features in the “Dialogues of the Dead” as the voice of uncommon sense, although sometimes Diogenes fills the role, as here where the dead Diogenes is sending messages back to the living, to Menippus, for example:

DIOGENES: Tell him that Diogenes says, “Menippus, if you’ve had enough of poking fun at things up there, come on down here; there’s much more to laugh at…  Especially when you see how the millionaires and the pashas and the dictators have been cut down to size and look just like everyone else – you can only tell them apart by their whimpering and the way they’re so spineless and miserable at the memory of all they left behind.” (194)

As for the rest of the philosophers:

DIOGENES: You can tell them I said they could go to the devil. (195)

The Cynics enjoy Hades because they had nothing to lose in the first place but can still wander around mocking everyone’s pretenses.

CROESUS: We keep remembering what we left behind, Midas here his gold and Sardanapalus his life of luxury and I my treasure, and we moan and groan.  Whenever we do, he [Menippus] laughs at us and sneers and calls us slaves and scum.  And sometimes he interrupts our moaning with songs.  Frankly he’s a blamed nuisance.  (212)

Wealth and pleasure are not just of no value in Lucian’s dialogues, but are actually (future) punishments. 

I haven’t touched on “Philosophies for Sale” or the fierce assaults on phony philosophers.  I will just say that it has been useful to have read some of these people.  As with any satirist, Lucian is funnier when I know what the heck he is talking about.

The Selected Satires of Lucian translated by Lionel Casson was my go-to Lucian (and the source of the page numbers), not that there is anything wrong with Paul Turner’s Satirical Sketches.  I also poked around in the old Loeb volumes, in particular reading the rest of the journeys of Menippus and finishing up the “Dialogues of the Dead,” all well worth reading.

Wednesday, September 6, 2023

"Socrates gone mad" - my hero Diogenes the Cynic

He lived in a jar, owned a staff and a cloak and nothing else, and was a sarcastic pain in the ass.  He took the example of Socrates to its limit.  Plato is the one who called him “Socrates gone mad,” but in a sense he is just the logical result of thinking through how Socrates lived.  It is the integrity of Diogenes the Dog, the Cynic, that is hard to distinguish from madness.

I am Athens’ one free man. (#13)

He often seems like a  proto-hippie.  The quotations are all from Guy Davenport’s Seven Greeks, which I find the most fun place to read about, or read, Diogenes, his surviving works in thirteen pages with no sources or doubts.  Some are likely jokes or misattributions from later Cynics.  There were never many Cynics, but it was clear enough who they were, ethical descendants of the legendary Diogenes.

In the rich man’s house there is no place to spit but in his face. (#56)

The curious thing is that Athens, perhaps feeling guilty about Socrates, seemed to like Diogenes.  In general, Roman Cynics would insult the emperor once too often (e.g., once) and be exiled to Greece, where they were adopted by one or another city.  I suppose they were thought of as holy fools, allowed to say and do things that other people could not.

I pissed on the man who called me a dog.  Why was he so surprised? (#73)

I love the performance art of Diogenes.  He would beg money from statues, since the result was the same as if he begged from people.  He wandered the marketplace in the daytime with a lamp, “looking for an honest man,” or more literally “a human being,” a hopeless task. He refuted the Platonic Academy’s definition of man as a “featherless biped” with his famous plucked chicken, a kind of deconstructionist joke.  I mean, he wasn’t the one who introduced the idea of feathers, which is what any comedian would latch onto.  People seemed to find Diogenes funny.

I am a citizen of the world. (#7)

Or perhaps a “cosmopolitan” is a citizen of the cosmos.  In context the concept is negative, a rejection of the narrow citizenship of Athens, but over time it has become something positive, if empty.  I worked for a while at a liberal arts college that actively encouraged students to think of themselves as citizens of the world.  It amused me that this was an idea that went back to crazy Diogenes.

I greatly enjoyed William Desmond’s Cynics (2008), a guide to the movement for college students, bizarrely well written for such a book.  The nine hundred years of Cynicism affords lots of good stories.  Eventually Christian asceticism, the hermits, stylites, and monks, replaced Cynicism for good.  Asceticism is a natural, if rare, human impulse, and a healthy society finds a role for its ascetics.  Mockery, prayer, something.

Diogenes and his followers did benefit from Mediterranean privilege.  I am thinking of the scene in Walden where semi-Cynic Henry David Thoreau spends a day desperately trying to recover the axe he dropped in the pond.  If all he had in Massachusetts were a jar and a cloak, he would freeze to death.  The New England Cynic has to own a lot more stuff.

Tomorrow I’ll turn to the great satirist Lucian.




Tuesday, September 5, 2023

Books I Read in August 2023

As I suspected my energy for writing in August was diverted to more important things.  Plenty of energy to read, though.

With a respite in September, I should soon be able to write a bit on the Greek philosophers I have been reading.  The Cynics, Epicureans, and Stoics work well as a cluster.  Then later a bit on Plutarch and the little philosophy project is a wrap.



Meditations (c. 180), Marcus Aurelius    

Philosophy in the Hellenistic & Roman Worlds (2015), Peter Adamson



A Universal History of Infamy (1935) &

The Aleph (1949), Jorge Luis Borges

Invitation to a Beheading (1936), Vladimir Nabokov

The Man Who Loved Children (1940), Christina Stead – all right I see why some readers can’t stomach this book, with its intensely annoying title character (and the mother is not much better).  I loved it, but I don’t blame anyone who gets a little ways in and says “No.”

The Wide Net and Other Stories (1943), Eudora Welty

The Leaning Tower and Other Stories (1944), Katherine Anne Porter

If on a winter's night a traveler (1979), Italo Calvino – I may have mentioned an upcoming trip to Italy.  Well, that ain’t happening.    But I’ve had a great time pawing through Italian literature this summer, whether revisiting a masterpiece like this one or:

1934 (1982), Alberto Moravia – laughing through a piece of nonsense like this one, which may be a good-bad book, most enjoyable as it becomes increasingly crazy.  How are Moravia’s other books?  I picked this one because of the time period in the title.



You Will Hear Thunder (1912-66), Anna Akhmatova

Poems (1935) &

The Earth Compels (1938) &

Autumn Journal (1939) &

Plant and Phantom (1941) &

Springboard (1944) &

Holes in the Sky (1948), Louis MacNeice – I was going to read the superb Autumn Journal, and  then why not his other poems of the 1930s, and since I enjoyed those so much why not his poems of the 1940s.  This is not a great way to absorb a poet – my retention will likely be terrible – but I had a good time.  The dangers of a giant, unwieldy Complete Poems.

With Teeth in the Earth (1949-85), Malka Heifetz Tussman – many thanks to an anonymous commenter for recommending this charming Yiddish-American poet.



Journal, 1928-1932, André Gide

Le Képi (1943), Colette – four late, long short stories, all good, all in the English Collected Stories.  Always a pleasure to hang out with Colette.

Tuesday, August 1, 2023

Books I Read in July 2023

How embarrassing that I did not write a thing this month, but I promise I had a good excuse.  Posts on Cynicism, Epicureanism, and Stoicism will appear this month, I swear, or at least hope.  My eventual excuse this month will be, I am afraid, even better.

Still, I read.



The Way Things Are (1st c. BCE), Lucretius

Selected Satires &

Dialogues of the Dead (2nd c.), Lucian



Little Novels of Sicily (1883), Giovanni Verga

Ulysses (1922), James Joyce – unlike thirty years ago, I just more or less read the novel like a novel, not that there was not plenty to look up.

The Death of the Heart (1938), Elizabeth Bowen

Ficciones (1944), Jorge Luis Borges

The Leopard (1958), Giuseppe di Lampedusa

Gee, these are good books.



A little Holocaust poetry unit on the syllabus.

Selected Poems (1921-71), Jacob Glatstein

Poems of Paul Celan (1947-76), Paul Celan

Art from the Ashes: A Holocaust Anthology (1995), just the poetry section

The Tradition (2019), Jericho Brown



The Periodic Table (1975), Primo Levi



La Pharisienne (1941), François Mauriac

Thomas l’obscur (1941/50), Maurice Blanchot, the short version, perhaps the most abstract novel I have ever read.

Paysages et Portraits (1958), Colette – posthumous, and Colette had some good stuff in the drawer.

No Portuguese study this month.  See above for the reason.  Perhaps it will resume in the fall.

Saturday, July 1, 2023

Books I Read in June 2023

If only I had the will to write something.  But I can read.


Fragments or Sayings or Tall Tales (4th C. BCE), Diogenes the Cynic, tr. Guy Davenport

Cynics (2008), William Desmond - for an entry in a series aimed at students, surprisingly well written.  It helps that the Cynics are entertaining.


Darkness at Noon (1941), Arthur Koestler

Between the Acts (1941), Virginia Woolf

Behind the Door (1964) &

The Heron (1968) &

The Smell of Hay (1972), Giorgio Bassani - the last half of the "Ferrara novel."  The Heron was my favorite, but all six books are worth reading.

Invisible Cities (1972), Italo Calvino


Trilogy (1944-6), H. D.

Collected Poems (1943-87), Primo Levi

Otherwise: First and Last Poems (1984), Eugenio Montale


The Art of Poetry (1958), Paul Valéry

Wonder Confronts Certainty: Russian Writers on the Timeless Questions and Why Their Answers Matter (2023), Gary Saul Morson - a major work.


“La jeune parque” (1917) &

Charmes (1922), Paul Valéry

Les armes miraculeuses (1946) &

Soleil cou-coupé (1948) &

Corps perdu (1950), Aimé Césaire

In Portuguese, I worked on grammar, although let’s not exaggerate how much.

Monday, June 26, 2023

The Nicomachean Ethics - moderate Aristotle - clarity within the limits of the subject matter


I will borrow the quotation from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics I found on p. 186 of Gary Paul Morson’s extraordinary new study of the ethics if Russian literature:

Our discussion will be adequate if it achieves clarity within the limits of the subject matter.  For precision cannot be expected in the treatment of all subjects alike, any more than it can be expected in all manufactured articles…  Therefore in a discussion of such subjects [the just, the good]… we must be satisfied to indicate the truth with a rough and general sketch…  For a well-schooled man is one who searches for that degree of precision in each kind of study which the nature of the subject at hand admits: it is obviously just as foolish to accept arguments of probability from a mathematician as to demand strict demonstrations from an orator.  (Bk I, Ch 3, tr. Martin Ostwald – Morson uses a different translation)

Aristotle will be surprised, and highly interested, in advances in mathematics that invalidate his last example, but aside from that what strikes me here is how Aristotle’s approach is so different than Socrates’s.  No pursuit of the perfect definition for Aristotle.  Close enough is good enough, even if the definition does not cover every weird edge case.  How much of philosophy is debate over weird edge cases?  Don’t waste your time, is Aristotle’s advice.  He has more interesting things to do than push fat people in front of trains.

I see one reason I have trouble writing this piece.  Aristotle is the philosopher of the moderate and the ordinary.  His ethical system is an extended argument for moderation in almost all things.  His arguments are too complex to label them common sense, but they are generally commonsensical.  He rarely says anything too strange or wildly imaginative.  He is not the philosopher to argue that nothing exists or to write a proto-novel about the pre-historic war between Athens and Atlantis.

In other words, I find Aristotle a little boring, in part because I am mostly sympathetic.

The material world exists.  It exists pretty much as you perceive it – close enough.  The epistemological  problems that bothered so many philosophers are nonsense.  Pleasure is real, so enjoy it, but don’t overdo it.  True happiness and true friendship are founded on virtue and contemplation, but other kinds of happiness and friendship are valuable, too.

Sounds good to me.

Someday I will read the hard stuff, Metaphysics and so on.  Not this time round.

The philosophers for “next month,” which is now, are the Cynics.  I have been enjoying a surprisingly well-written guide for students, Cynics (2008) by William Desmond, and enjoying even more the writing of Lucian, the great, unique 2nd Century satirist.  The fragments of my hero Diogenes the Cynic will fit in there somewhere.

Then we will turn to Epicureanism and its sublime poetic exposition The Nature of Things (or whatever title your translator chooses) by Lucretius.

Thursday, June 1, 2023

Books I Read in May 2023

I had a good time.


The Nicomachean Ethics (4th C. BCE), Aristotle - a post, however shallow, should appear soon.


Joseph in Egypt (1936), Thomas Mann

The Long Valley (1938) &

The Grapes of Wrath (1939), John Steinbeck - I last read this probably forty years ago.  The great turtle chapter is still great.  It's not Moby-Dick, but the mix of rhetorical modes is brilliant and sophisticated.  I have read five Steinbeck books recently and have been enjoying them a lot, kitsch, propaganda, and all.  

The World and All It Holds (2023), Aleksandar Hemon - look, a new novel.  Written at the usual Hemon level (high), but the subject is grindingly depressing.  Hemon shoves his poor protagonist into the world's worst places.  Be warned.


Selected Poetry (1940-73) &

Peasant's Wake for Fellini's Casanova and Other Poems (1986-8), Andrea Zanzotto

To Each His Own (1966), Leonardo Sciascia - this is the only book actually related to where I am going.  Another anti-Mafia anti-mystery.

If Not Now, When? (1982), Primo Levi - an adventure novel about Russian Jewish partisans, with barely any Italy in it at all.

Eldorado (2006), Laurent Gaudé - no, this one is about Sicily, too, if distantly.  The state of Mediterranean immigration circa 2006.  I read it in French, since the Portland, Maine, public library has a copy in French.  Good library.


More Was Lost (1946), Eleanor Perényi - a memoir of love and bad timing.  A 19 year-old American marries into the Hungarian nobility in 1937.  Events ensue.  Bad, bad events.  Only in her mid-twenties when she wrote the book, her youthful voice is a pleasure amidst the crises and tragedies. 


Adonis (1657), Jean de La Fontaine

A Harpa do Crente (1838), Alexandre Herculano - the great Portuguese Romantic poet, his ostentatious tomb dwarfing the Modernist tomb of Fernando Pessoa in the Jerónimos monastery in Lisbon.

Le bleu du ciel (1935/1957), George Bataille

Le Mont Analogue (1944/1952), René Daumal - I have been catching up on mid-century French weirdos.  The current Wiki for the Bataille novel says it "deals with necrophilia."  The book is in the French decadent tradition, but boy does that give the wrong idea.  As metaphor, not wrong.

I still owe a post on Gide's anti-novel The Counterfeiters.  

Wednesday, May 17, 2023

Plato's Republic - justice, fantasy and censorship - We'll ask Homer not to be angry

I had ambitions to write about Plato’s Republic with some thoroughness, but I guess I will just pursue one point.  Good enough.

I have been separating Socrates from Plato, an imaginative exercise based on circular criteria.  The more Socratic of the Socratic dialogues are shorter, feature proto-novelistic details about settings and characters, and end without resolving the question at issue.  The first book of Republic is one such proto-novel.  With the second book, though, the characters and details fall away, and Socrates, rather than interrogating the ideas of his listeners, directly presents his own ideas.  Perhaps the first book was written earlier, or perhaps Plato was signaling with self-parody that he was shifting to a new rhetorical mode.  The topic is classic: what is justice.  Here, he shows, is how I used to answer the question, and then here is the new way.

Socrates’s enemy in the first chapter asserts that justice is the pleasure of the strong and the suffering of the weak – what most of us would call injustice – with any other definitions simply the special pleading of the weak.  An ugly position, but a strong one, hard to refute without a number of arguable assumptions.

Plato – Socrates is speaking, but I now think of the speaker as ironic Plato – shifts the discussion to political justice and the ideal city-state, where specially trained philosopher-kings, selfless because they share property and even sexual partners, run a city based on a fictional racial caste system and eugenics.  It is not quite a version of “You know who should be in charge – we should be in charge!” but it is close, and the radical policies are of course, to anyone who remembers the twentieth century, appalling, the setup for mass murder and the destruction of human rights.

Socrates is, I find, an appealing if aggravating figure (and aggravation is part of his appeal), but in The Republic Plato becomes The Enemy, the intellectual ancestor of a lot of later ideological catastrophes.

His radical censorship, for example:

Then we must first of all, it seems, supervise the storytellers.  We’ll select their stories whenever they are fine or beautiful and reject them when they aren’t.  And we’ll persuade nurses and mothers to tell their children the ones we have selected, since they will chape their children’s souls with stories much more than they shape their bodies by handling them.  Many of the stories they tell now, however, must be thrown out.  (Book 2, 377c, tr. G. M. A. Grube)

Socrates / Plato particularly dislikes stories where gods act like humans or where there is some kind of icky sexual aspect.  He is a bit of a Puritan.  He wants to bowdlerize Homer.  Presumably Sophocles, too – “we’ll be angry with him, we’ll refuse him a chorus” (2, 383c), and Euripides and Aristophanes will likely be wiped out.  I wonder how much of Homer will be left.

We’ll ask Homer and the other poets not to be angry if we delete these passages and all similar ones (Book 3, 387b).

This is a bit of the Odyssey  in which the souls of the killed suitors are compared to bats.  The objection of Socrates is that it is too scary for a future philosopher-king!  “[S]hudders” will make them “softer.”  Hilarious.

I am aware of Leo Strauss’s argument that The Republic is satirical, a travesty, meant to be outrageous.  I don’t know.  I don’t dismiss the idea, but I have trouble following it while reading the actual text.

An irony is that late in life, as I order his works, Plato becomes a great storyteller, an early master of fantasy fiction.  The rich, bizarre Parable of the Cave in The Republic is the ancestor of endless science fiction stories, most famously, I suppose, The Matrix movies.  Plato ends the book with an elaborate afterlife fantasy.  The late dialogue Timaeus vividly describes the creation of the universe.  The unfinished Critias describes Atlantis and suggests that the bulk of it, if Plato had lived to finish it, would detail the long war between Atlantis and the Athens of 9,000 years ago.  How is this anything but a fantasy novel?  Two recent blockbuster movies have featured wars with Atlantis, and I believe a third is coming this summer.  To think that these goofy superhero movies are direct descendants of Plato.

Our next philosopher is the down-to-earth Aristotle.  We won’t find so much fantasy in the commonsensical Nicomachean Ethics, which I hope to write up in early June.

Wednesday, May 10, 2023

Thou hast devourd thy sonnes - some notes on Seneca's horror plays

My Seneca reading in March:

Medea, tr. Frederick Ahl

The Trojan Women, tr. E. F. Watling

Thyestes, tr. Jasper Heywood

Hercules Furens, tr. Heywood

The Madness of Hercules, tr. Dana Gioia

The plays themselves are all from the mid-1st century, perhaps written when Seneca was in political exile and had time to kill.  The Heywood translations are form the 16th century, pre-dating Shakespeare and so on, and are landmarks in the history of English theater and poetic translation.  The other translations are more recent; the Gioia is brand new.

It is Gioia’s fault that I have delayed this post for so long.  His new translation includes a 57 page essay on Seneca that is the best thing I have ever read on the playwright, even better than the great T. S. Eliot essay that precedes the 1927 edition of Seneca: His Tenne Tragedies, the 1581 anthology that so strongly influenced English theater.  Gioia is clear, efficient, and worst of all thorough.  He even has insightful things to say about Eliot’s essay.  The translation is also good.  He kinda discouraged me from writing anything.  Just read him.  You’ll have to buy a copy of the book, since it is from a little publisher, Wiseblood Books, that most libraries won’t know.  They also just published Marly Youmans’s strange, beautiful new poetic fantasy Seren of the Wildwood.  Buy them together!

So what is my simple thumbnail Seneca like?  Let’s see.

He adapted Greek plays, themselves all adaptations.  Mostly Euripides.  Seneca minimizes the characters and moves the chorus into a new role, providing thematically-related songs that connect the five acts.  He has five acts; that is also new.  Sometimes, The Trojan Women being a good example, structure and function of the play is not so different than the Greek original, nor so different than modern ideas of dramatic structure.  But sometimes Seneca is more radical.

Thyestes is the appalling story of King Atreus feeding his two nephews to their father, his brother King Thyestes, a classical horror story, one of the many curses underlying The Oresteia.  In Seneca’s version, in the first act the fury Maegera incites Tantalus, himself a monster, to curse his nephews, Thyestes and Atreus.  Tantalus and Magera are never seen again.  Most of the rest of the play is essentially a series of monologues.  This is static rather than dramatic.  Anti-dramatic. The main characters barely meet until the end, when Atreus displays for his brother the heads of his devoured children.

ATREUS: Thou hast devourd thy sonnes and fykd thy selfe with wicked meat.

THYESTES: Oh this is it that sham’de the Gods and day from hence did dryve

Turn’d back to east, alas I wretche what waylinges may I geve?  (p. 90)

Then there’s some gruesome stuff about severed heads and hands and rolling bowels.  Note the rhyming fourteen syllable lines, an innovation of Heywood’s that did not catch on.

However cruel Euripides was, Seneca is crueler.  Medea murders her two children onstage.  If you have ever wondered why Shakespeare wrote Titus Andronicus, this is the answer: he was imitating and perhaps even trying to outdo Seneca.

The entire English revenge tragedy tradition is founded in this way on Seneca, although my understanding is that Italian theater absorbed Seneca first and some of the English gore is actually borrowed from Italian theater, so Senecan but at second-hand.

Meanwhile, French theater dropped the murdered children and kept the anti-drama, keeping the motionless full-act monologues.  Please see Mary Sidney’s outstanding 1592 translation of Robert Garnier’s Marc-Antoine (1578) or The Hebrew Women (1583), with the warning that as drama they are tedious.  Soon enough Jean Racine will figure out how to fill the static structure with emotional and poetic intensity.  Hard to believe that the pure Phèdre and the sloppy, mad Titus Andronicus both derive from the same source.

I mentioned that Seneca’s Medea kills her children onstage, but that is false because there was no stage.  Seneca’s plays were not performed in that sense.  Yet the act of reading, for Seneca and his peers, meant reading aloud – meant having a slave or servant read aloud to him – and thus any reading was a kind of performance.  It is easy to imagine groups of friends gathering to hear talented servants read the plays.  Still, there would be no masks or dragon chariots hanging from cranes or severed heads or murdered children.  All of that would be in the text and the imagination.  The Italians, and Shakespeare, putting that onstage, were distorting Seneca.

Elizabethan plays are crammed with paraphrased quotations of Seneca.  I won’t go into that.  There are books, as they say, entire books, some of which are just catalogues of the quotations.  Reading for the sententiae is probably lost to most of us today.

Nevertheless I enjoyed my return to Seneca, to the extent that his horrors are enjoyable, and hope to read them again someday.  Maybe I will try Emily Wilson’s recent translation.  I will certainly reread Dana Gioia.

This concludes my little Roman play project.  Thanks to anyone who read along or commented.

Monday, May 1, 2023

Books finished in April 2023

 I continue the practice of posting a list as a substitute for real writing.

Coming soon: a long overdue loot at Seneca's plays, a glance at Gide's Counterfeiters, and some messing around with Plato's Republic.

If I did not write in April, I at least read:


The Republic




Critias, 4th C. BCE, Plato

Classical Philosophy, 2014, Peter Adamson


The Storm and Other Poems, 1956, Eugenio Montale

Sicilian Uncles, 1958, Leonardo Sciascia

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, 1962, Giorgio Bassani

Midnight in Sicily, 1996, Peter Robb - many thanks to those who recommended this book. The big surprise was the literary criticism, outstanding chapters on The Leopard and the place of Sciascia in Sicilian politics and culture.


Kristin Lavransdatter: The Cross, 1922, Sigrid Undset

Surfeit of Lampreys, 1940, Ngaio Marsh

A Streetcar Named Desire, 1947, Tennessee Williams



When I Sleep, Then I See Clearly: Selected Poems, 1917-85, J. V. Foix

As for Love: Poems and Translations, 1987, M. L. Rosenthal - contains some good Foix translations

Complete Poems, 1934-44, Keith Douglas - the curse of the war poet

Transport to Summer, 1947, Wallace Stevens

This Afterlife: Selected Poems, 2022, A. E. Stallings - a major work

Meet Me at the Lighthouse, 2023, Dana Gioia



La Légende des siècles (Première Série), 1859, Victor Hugo

A Nova Califórnia e Outros Contos, 1910-22, Lima Barreto - a second-rate Machado de Assis, which is not a bad thing to be. Perfect for the language learner.