Strength Not Absolute

Simone Weil, The Iliad, or the Poem of Force (trans. Mary MacCarthy):

Perhaps all men, by the very act of being born, are destined to suffer violence; yet this is a truth to which circumstance shuts men’s eyes. The strong are, as a matter of fact, never absolutely strong, nor are the weak absolutely weak, but neither is aware of this. They have in common a refusal to believe that they both belong to the same species: the weak see no relation between themselves and the strong, and vice versa. The man who is the possessor of force seems to walk through a non-resistant element; in the human substance that surrounds him nothing has the power to interpose, between the impulse and the act, the tiny interval that is reflection. Where there is no room for reflection, there is none either for justice or prudence. Hence we see men in arms behaving harshly and madly. We see their sword bury itself in the breast of a disarmed enemy who is in the very act of pleading at their knees. We see them triumph over a dying man by describing to him the outrages his corpse will endure. We see Achilles cut the throats of twelve Trojan boys on the funeral pyre of Patroclus as naturally as we cut flowers for a grave.

These men, wielding power, have no suspicion of the fact that the consequences of their deeds will at length come home to them – they too will bow the neck in their turn. If you can make an old man fall silent, tremble, obey, with a single word of your own, why should it occur to you that the curses of this old man, who is after all a priest, will have their own importance in the gods’ eyes? Why should you refrain from taking Achilles’ girl away from him if you know that neither he nor she can do anything but obey you? Achilles rejoices over the sight of the Greeks fleeing in misery and confusion. What could possibly suggest to him that this rout, which will last exactly as long as he wants it to and end when his mood indicates it, that this very rout will be the cause of his friend’s death, and, for that matter, of his own? Thus it happens that those who have force on loan from fate count on it too much and are destroyed.

Love = Death

Jacopo Sannazzaro, Epigrams 2.56
(To His Own Soul)
“You burned, and the flame consumed your wretched marrow –
your desiccated bones dissolved into tenuous ash.
You wept, and your eyes poured forth a perennial dew;
Sebeto himself grew from your tears.
Why this unbridled desire for burning and crying?
O, my soul, you should learn to fear your funeral,
and not to go on seeking over and over for your destruction, your death.
Be happy that you have made it past the Sirens’ rocks.”
Image result for jacopo sannazzaro
Titian, Portrait of Jacopo Sannazzaro
Arsisti; et miseras consumsit flamma medullas;
Aridaque in cineres ossa abïere leves:
Flevisti; roremque oculi fudere perennem;
Sebethus lacrimis crevit et ipse tuis:
Ardendi, fledique igitur quae tanta cupido est?
O anime, exsequias disce timere tuas;
Neve iterum tua damna, iterum tua funera quaeras:
Sirenum scopulos praeteriisse juvet.

Love & Poetics & Immortality: Some Propertian Reflections

Propertius 3.1:

“Spirits of Callimachus, holy remains of Philitas –
please, let me enter into your grove.
I first, a priest from the pure fount,
set out to carry the Greek dances through Italic revelry.
Tell me, in what cave did you tighten up your poems,
or with what foot did you begin? What water did you drink?
Damn everyone who delays Apollo in war!
Let the verse go once it has been perfected with a slender eraser –
the verse by which Fame lifts me aloft from the earth,
and by which the Muse triumphs with crowned horses,
where little Cupids are coveyed with me in a chariot,
and a crowd of authors follows my wheels.
Why do you give the reins and vie with me in vain?
A wide road is not given for running to the Muses.
O Rome, many may add your praises to their Annals
and sing of Bactria as the future limit of our empire.
But this work, which you read in peace, was born down
from the Muses’ mountain on an untouched road by our page.
Daughters of Pegasus, give the soft crowns to your poet:
that hard crown will not do for my head.
But what the jealous crowd will take from me alive,
Honor will return to me with double interest after my death.
Age makes everything greater after its passing:
after the funeral, a name sounds grander on people’s mouths.
For, who would know about the citadels overturned by a wooden horse,
and how the rivers went head-to-head with Achilles –
the Idaean Simois and Scamander, son of Jupiter –
and how Hector stained Achilles’ wheels three times through the fields?
Their own ground would have hardly known Deiphobus and Helenus and Paris (however he may have appeared) in Polydamas’ arms.
You would now be the subject of small conversation, Ilion,
and you, Troy, captured twice by the will of the Oetaean god.
Yet that Homer, rememberer of your fall,
sensed his work increase with age,
and Rome will praise me in the age of her late grandsons;
I prophesy that that day will come after my bones have become ash;
it has been provided, with Apollo’s approval,
that a stone will not be the only marker of my bones upon a despised grave.”

Related image
Auguste Jean Baptiste Vinchon, Propertius and Cynthia at Tivoli

Callimachi Manes et Coi sacra Philitae,
in vestrum, quaeso, me sinite ire nemus.
primus ego ingredior puro de fonte sacerdos
Itala per Graios orgia ferre choros.
dicite, quo pariter carmen tenuastis in antro
quove pede ingressi? quamve bibistis aquam?
ah valeat, Phoebum quicumque moratur in armis!
exactus tenui pumice versus eat,
quo me Fama levat terra sublimis, et a me
nata coronatis Musa triumphat equis,
et mecum in curru parvi vectantur Amores,
scriptorumque meas turba secuta rotas.
quid frustra immissis mecum certatis habenis?
non datur ad Musas currere lata via.
multi, Roma, tuas laudes annalibus addent,
qui finem imperii Bactra futura canent.
sed, quod pace legas, opus hoc de monte Sororum
detulit intacta pagina nostra via.
mollia, Pegasides, date vestro serta poetae:
non faciet capiti dura corona meo.
at mihi quod vivo detraxerit invida turba,
post obitum duplici faenore reddet Honos;
omnia post obitum fingit maiora vetustas:
maius ab exsequiis nomen in ora venit.
nam quis equo pulsas abiegno nosceret arces,
fluminaque Haemonio comminus isse viro,
Idaeum Simoenta Iovis cum prole Scamandro,
Hectora per campos ter maculasse rotas?
Deiphobumque Helenumque et Pulydamantis in armis
qualemcumque Parim vix sua nosset humus.
exiguo sermone fores nunc, Ilion, et tu
Troia bis Oetaei numine capta dei.
nec non ille tui casus memorator Homerus
posteritate suum crescere sensit opus;
meque inter seros laudabit Roma nepotes:
illum post cineres auguror ipse diem.
ne mea contempto lapis indicet ossa sepulcro
provisumst Lycio vota probante deo.

Love Ruins Everyone in Baiae

Giovanni Pontano, Baiae 1.3:

“Batilla went to the baths of Baiae,
and with her went that gentle companion, Cupid.
They bathe together and keep each other warm
while they lie together on the soft bed –
she plays games and starts some naughty combats,
and when Cupid is tired – just worn out –
Batilla laughs and grabs his bow.
Soon she covers her side with the painted quiver
and she tosses off the gentle arrows here and there.
Nothing, o, nothing you wretched little lovers,
nothing remains impenetrable to these arrows:
Alas, Baiae is ruinous for old and young alike!”

File:Joseph Mallord William Turner - The Bay of Baiae, with Apollo and the Sibyl - Google Art Project.jpg
Joseph Mallord William Turner – The Bay of Baiae

Baianas petiit Batilla thermas
Dumque illi tener it comes Cupido
Atque una lavat et fovetur una,
Dum molli simul in toro quiescit
Ac ludos facit improbasque rixas,
Sopito pueroque lassuloque
Arcum surripuit Batilla ridens,
Mox picta latus instruit pharetra
Et molles iacit huc et huc sagittas.
Nil, o nil reliquum miselli amantes,
Nil his impenetrabile est sagittis:
Heu, cladem iuvenum senumque, Baias!

What Is Love?

Leonardo Bruni, Letter to Giovanni Marrasio:

The madness of poets, then, stems from the Muses, while the madness of lovers comes from Venus. This arises, however, from the contemplation of true beauty, looking at the image of which we are taken away by the sharpest and most violent of our senses, struck dumb and as though placed outside of ourselves, seized away with all of our senses focused on it. Therefore, it is no less truly than elegantly said that the mind of a lover leads its life in the body of another.

This inflamed occupation and seizure of the soul is called love: a certain divine alienation, or a forgetting of oneself, or a transfusion of one’s being into that whose beauty you admire. If you call this madness and insanity, I will concede and confess it, as long as you understand that no poet is good (nor can a poet be good) unless they be seized by madness of this sort; nor do they see the future when they deliver prophecy, unless it be through this kind of madness, or is God worshiped perfectly and gloriously unless it be through this kind of alienation from one’s mind.

comedy roxbury GIF

Poetarum ergo furor a Musis est; amantium vero a Venere. Oritur autem hic ex verae pulchritudinis contemplatione, cuius effigiem visu intuentes acerrimo ac violentissimo sensuum nostrorum, stupentes ac velut extra nos positi, totis affectibus in illum corripimur, ut non minus vere quam eleganter dictum sit amantis animam in alieno corpore vitam ducere. Haec igitur vehemens occupatio animi atque correptio amor vocatur: divina quaedam alienatio ac veluti sui ipsius oblivio et in id quoius pulchritudinem admiramur transfusio. Quam si furorem ac vesaniam appellas, concedam etiam atque fatebor, dummodo intelligas neque poetam bonum esse ullum posse nisi huiusmodi furore correptum, neque futura praevidere vaticinantes, nisi per huiusmodi furorem, neque perfecte neque eximie deum coli, nisi per huiusmodi mentis alienationem.

Sophoclean Sex Sententia for Valentine’s Day

Plato, Republic 329:

I was once with Sophocles when someone asked him, ‘O Sophocles, how do things stand with you in the old love-making line? Can you still lie with a woman?’ Sophocles responded, ‘Ah man, you should sing a song of triumph for me – for indeed, I have most gladly fled from love as though I had gotten away from a cruel and raving master.’ It seemed to me at the time that he had spoken well on the subject, and I think so no less even today. Indeed, we are granted a certain peace and freedom from such concerns in old age. When our desires relent and finally cease to draw us out, then indeed does Sophocles’ saying come true, and we are entirely freed from many a raving master. But respecting these things, and our relationships with our friends, my dear Socrates, there is one cause to consider – not old age, but rather the person’s character. If they have their lives well-ordered and are easily contented, then old age is a moderate burden. But to a man of the opposite character, both old age and youth happen to be burdensome affairs.

None of this nonsense for Sophocles!

καὶ δὴ καὶ Σοφοκλεῖ ποτε τῷ ποιητῇ παρεγενόμην ἐρωτωμένῳ ὑπό τινος· “Πῶς,” ἔφη, “ὦ Σοφόκλεις, ἔχεις πρὸς τἀφροδίσια; ἔτι οἷός τε εἶ γυναικὶ συγγίγνεσθαι”; καὶ ὅς, “Εὐφήμει,” ἔφη, “ὦ ἄνθρωπε· ἁσμενέστατα μέντοι αὐτὸ ἀπέφυγον, ὥσπερ λυττῶντά τινα καὶ ἄγριον δεσπότην ἀποδράς.” εὖ οὖν μοι καὶ τότε ἔδοξεν ἐκεῖνος εἰπεῖν, καὶ νῦν οὐχ ἧττον. παντάπασι γὰρ τῶν γε τοιούτων ἐν τῷ γήρᾳ πολλὴ εἰρήνη γίγνεται καὶ ἐλευθερία· ἐπειδὰν αἱ ἐπιθυμίαι παύσωνται κατατείνουσαι καὶ χαλάσωσιν, παντάπασιν τὸ τοῦ Σοφοκλέους γίγνεται, δεσποτῶν πάνυ πολλῶν ἐστι καὶ μαινομένων ἀπηλλάχθαι. ἀλλὰ καὶ τούτων πέρι καὶ τῶν γε πρὸς τοὺς οἰκείους μία τις αἰτία ἐστίν, οὐ τὸ γῆρας, ὦ Σώκρατες, ἀλλ’ ὁ τρόπος τῶν ἀνθρώπων. ἂν μὲν γὰρ κόσμιοι καὶ εὔκολοι ὦσιν, καὶ τὸ γῆρας μετρίως ἐστὶν ἐπίπονον· εἰ δὲ μή, καὶ γῆρας, ὦ Σώκρατες, καὶ νεότης χαλεπὴ τῷ τοιούτῳ συμβαίνει.


The Intoxication of Force

Simone Weil, The Iliad, or the Poem of Force (trans. Mary McCarthy):


Nevertheless, the soul that is enslaved to war cries out for deliverance, but deliverance 
itself appears to it in an extreme and tragic aspect, the aspect of destruction. Any other 
solution, more moderate, more reasonable in character, would expose the mind to 
suffering so naked, so violent that it could not be borne, even as memory. Terror, 
grief, exhaustion, slaughter, the annihilation of comrades - is it credible that these 
things should not continually tear at the soul, if the intoxication of force had not 
intervened to drown them? The idea that an unlimited effort should bring in only a 
limited profit or no profit at all is terribly painful. 

What? Will we let Priam and the Trojans boast 
Of Argive Helen, she for whom so many Greeks 
Died before Troy, far from their native land? 
What? Do you want us to leave the city, wide-streeted Troy, 
Standing, when we have suffered so much for it? 

But actually what is Helen to Ulysses? What indeed is Troy, full of riches that will not 
compensate him for Ithaca's ruin? For the Greeks, Troy and Helen are in reality mere 
sources of blood and tears; to master them is to master frightful memories. If the 
existence of an enemy has made a soul destroy in itself the thing nature put there, then 
the only remedy the soul can imagine is the destruction of the enemy. At the same 
time the death of dearly loved comrades arouses a spirit of somber emulation, a 
rivalry in death. 

Let Me Ease Your Grief with Horsesh*t

Petrarch, Epistulae Familiares 24.3 (Part I):

To Severus Apenninicola, a consolation on exile.

Exile, even if it the word derives as I think from exilire or, as Servius has it, from the fact that one goes extra solum (beyond their ground), is yet in my opinion not exile unless it happens to someone against their will. Otherwise, even kings have often been exiles from their own kingdoms, especially when a lot weighed on extending and defending the boundaries of one’s kingdom and on propagating one’s glory. No one dares to call them exiles (unless their own reason has gone into exile), especially since they were never more truly (or more truly called) kings than at that time. Some violence or sadness must intervene in order for it to be true exile.

If you take that, you understand that whether you are an exile or a traveler lies with you. If you went away crying, sad, and dejected, you undoubtedly consider yourself an exile; but if you have lost nothing of your dignity and were not compelled to it, but instead with a happy heart, with the same orientation of both face and soul that you had when at home you obeyed when ordered to leave, then you are definitely traveling, and not in exile.

For in all of the other kinds of things we fear you will find that no one is miserable unless they have made themselves miserable. Thus, it is not a lack of things but a cupidity for them which makes a man poor. Thus, in death (which is a lot like exile), the asperity of the thing itself doesn’t hurt as much as fear and the perversity of opinion.† Remove those things, and you will see many people dying not just with equanimity, but even happily and with a certain degree of felicitation. Thus we understand that the evil of death is not necessary but willed, nor is it entirely placed in the thing itself, but in the bent understanding of mortals. Were it not so, there would never be such a disparity of mental reactions to the exact same danger.

I see the same argument holding good for exile as for everything else. That by which we are conquered lies not in the thing, but in ourselves. To be sure, once opinion has bent a little bit away from the truth, is soon tossed about by innumerable errors so that it returns to the truth only with the greatest difficulty and unless it receives much help, does not straighten itself out to look upon the majesty of its actual origin.

cf. Hamlet:

Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovere’d country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action.
cf. Shakespeare, Julius Caesar:
Men at some time are masters of their fates:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.

Exilium, etsi ab exiliendo tractum rear vel, ut Servio placet, ab eo quod quis extra solum eat, non tamen exilium esse nisi invito accidat, annuerim. Alioquin, sepe a regnis suis reges exulant, eoque maxime tempore quod prorogandis tuendisque regni finibus et propagande glorie impenditur; quando nemo illos exules dicere audeat, nisi a quo ratio omnis exulaverit, quippe cum nunquam verius et sint et dicantur reges. Aliqua ergo vis dolorque aliquis interveniat oportet, ut exilium verum sit.

Id si recipis, iam cernis in tua manu situm, utrum exul an peregrinus sis: si lacrimans, si mestus, si deiectus exivisti, exulem te proculdubio noveris; si vero nichil proprie dignitatis oblitus neque coactus, sed libens et eodem habitu frontis atque animi quo domi fueras, iussus exire paruisti, peregrinaris profecto, non exulas.

Nam et in ceteris formidatarum rerum generibus invenies neminem esse miserum nisi qui se miserum fecit; sic pauperem non rerum paucitas sed cupiditas facit; sic in morte, que exilio simillima est, non tam rei ipsius asperitas, quam trepidatio et opinionis perversitas nocet, quibus amotis, multos aspicies non modo equanimiter, sed lete etiam ac feliciter morientes. Ex quo nimirum intelligitur non esse necessarium, sed spontaneum mortis malum, nec in re ipsa sed totum in obliqua mortalium existimatione repositum; quod nisi ita esset, nunquam in periculo pari tanta esset imparitas animorum.

Eandemque rationem exilii video quam ceterorum omnium; non in illo, sed in nobis esse quo vincimur: opinionem scilicet, que ubi paululum a veritate deflexerit, mox innumerabilibus iactatur erroribus ut ad verum difficillime redeat seque, nisi multum adiuta, non erigat ad intuendam proprie originis maiestatem.

A Republic of Horror and Chaos

John Williams, Augustus (Book 1):

[Maecenas writing to Livy]

My dear Livy, I chide you often for your Republican and Pompeian sympathies; and though I tease you out of affection, I am sure that you have understood that there is an edge of seriousness in my scolding. You came to manhood in the northern tranquillity of Padua, which had for generations been untouched by strife; and you did not even set foot in Rome until after Actium and the reform of the Senate. Had the chance occurred, it is most likely that you would even have joined with Marcus Brutus to fight against us, as our friend Horace did in fact do, at Philoppi, those many years ago.

What you seem unwilling to accept, even now, is this: that the ideals which supported the old Republic had no correspondence to the fact of the old Republic; that the glorious word concealed the deed of horror; that the appearance of tradition and order cloaked the reality of corruption and chaos; that the call to liberty and freedom closed the minds, even of those who called, to the facts of privation, suppression, and sanctioned murder. We had learned that we had to do what we did, and we would not be deterred by the forms that deceived the world.

Lost on the Stage of Life

John Williams, Augustus (Book III):

The young man, who does not know the future, sees life as a kind of epic adventure, an Odyssey through strange seas and unknown islands, where he will test and prove his powers, and thereby discover his immortality. The man of middle years, who has lived the future that he once dreamed, sees life as a tragedy, for he has learned that his power, however great, will not prevail against those forces of accident and nature to which he gives the names of gods, and has learned that he is mortal. But the man of age, if he plays his assigned role properly, must see life as a comedy. For his triumphs and his failures merge, and one is no more the occasion for pride or shame than the other; and he is neither the hero who proves himself against those forces, nor the protagonist who is destroyed by them. Like an poor, pitiable shell of an actor, he comes to see that he has played so many parts that there no longer is himself.