Latin Hell (for Halloween)

Getting to Hell is supposed to be easy. Yet, if one were to take a survey of popular culture, it seems rather a difficult task. A not insignificant part of this difficulty is the necessity of knowing Latin to get there.

At the beginning of Christopher Marlowe’s Tragedy of Dr. Faustus, we find Faustus in his study surfeited with the sorts of learning available to mere humans. Opening up books of theology, medicine, and law, he casts them aside and, having first claimed that Aristotle’s Analytics had ravished him, changes tack and says that it is magic and necromancy which occupy his soul.

Perhaps we should be more inclined to think that his famous bargain had already been struck in order to outfit him with the kind of heroic polymathy which could encompass three such disparate and apparently endless subjects. But Faustus is tired of the merely human, and decided to consult with Cornelius and Valdes, two dabblers in the demonic, about the procedure for summoning spirits from Hell. These two characters equip him with the requisite conjuring knowledge, but it is surprising that someone of such apparently limitless erudition would require help to be initiated into this art. Nevertheless, they provide him with the necessary incantatory formula, and later than night, Faustus expends a fair amount of breath on his Latin invocation of Mephistopheles:

Sint mihi dei Acherontis propitii!  Valeat numen triplex Jehovoe! Ignei, aerii, aquatani spiritus, salvete!  Orientis princeps Belzebub, inferni ardentis monarcha, et Demogorgon, propitiamus vos, ut appareat et surgat Mephistophilis, quod tumeraris: per Jehovam, Gehennam, et consecratam aquam quam nunc spargo, signumque crucis quod nunc facio, et per vota nostra, ipse nunc surgat nobis dicatus Mephistophilis!

We, in our own state of enlightenment, know that the Demogorgon invoked by Faustus is an entirely fictive deity, conjured into existence by a scribal error for demiourgon. Perhaps Faustus should not have abandoned book learning so early. But to return to the point: Mephistopheles appears after this lengthy invocation, but informs Faustus that the incantation was merely incidental to his appearance – the real trick being to abjure God and the Trinity:

     MEPHIST. That was the cause, but yet per accidens;

     For, when we hear one rack the name of God,

     Abjure the Scriptures and his Saviour Christ,

     We fly, in hope to get his glorious soul;

     Nor will we come, unless he use such means

     Whereby he is in danger to be damn’d.

     Therefore the shortest cut for conjuring

     Is stoutly to abjure the Trinity,

     And pray devoutly to the prince of hell.

There is something slightly suspicious in this claim, given that Faustus first needed to seek out two known conjurers to learn the incantation, and received no visit from Mephistopheles earlier despite making clear his intentions to indulge in necromantic art at the potential price of his soul. Later, when Faustus is waiting for the return of Mephistopheles, he bids him to come, but Mephistopheles only arrives after Faustus delivers the command in Latin:

     FAUSTUS. Of wealth!

     Why, the signiory of Embden shall be mine.

     When Mephistopheles shall stand by me,

     What god can hurt thee, Faustus? thou art safe

     Cast no more doubts.—Come, Mephistopheles,

     And bring glad tidings from great Lucifer;—

     Is’t not midnight?—come, Mephistopheles,

     Veni, veni, Mephistophile!

          Enter MEPHISTOPHELES.

Given that he conversed with Faustus earlier in English, the problem cannot simply be chalked up to a linguistic barrier. Devils, demons, and spirits appear to respond far more readily to Latin invocations. Though Mephistopheles claimed that abjuring God would suffice, he yet does seem to be a stickler for the niceties of a learned language.

In the utterly execrable film, The Ninth Gate, rare book detective Bob Corso is enlisted by antiquarian and Satan enthusiast Boris Balkan to validate the authenticity of his demon summoning tome:

BALKAN: Nemo pervenit qui non legitime certaverit.

CORSO: You only succeed if you fight by the rules?

BALKAN: More or less. Ever heard of the Delomelanicon?

CORSO: Heard of it, yes. A myth, isn’t it? Some horrific book reputed to have been written by Satan himself.

BALKAN: No myth. That book existed. Torchia actually acquired it. The engravings you’re now admiring were adapted by Torchia from the Delomelanicon. They’re a form of satanic riddle. Correctly interpreted with the aid of the original text and sufficient inside information, they’re reputed to conjure up the Prince of Darkness in person.

Here we have all of the prerequisites for talking about the demonic: a little bit of Latin, a book of incantations with some fictive erudition to trace its history, and a couple of assholes engaged in dialogue which would embarrass even the most pretentious undergraduate. (Why would two people with fluent understanding of Latin would translate it to each other like they’re in an intermediate reading class?) The plot of the movie is ridiculous and in no way worth recounting, but much time and money has been spent and many lives have been lost before Corso finally has the engravings necessary for conjuring the Devil himself. But why should it be so hard?

Of all the cinematic or literary treatments of soul selling, only The Simpsons has caught the true spirit of the enterprise. One day, Bart casually remarks that he would sell his soul for a Formula 1 race car, at which point the Devil appears and tells him that it can be arranged. That’s it. No book hunting, no incantations, no experts on demonology, and most importantly no Latin.

We are reliably informed that the Devil is preeminently concerned with enlarging his kingdom as much as possible by ensnaring souls to drag to Hell. Indeed, in certain lines of Christian thought, going to Hell is for all practical purposes the default fate for most of humanity. And so, it strikes me as peculiar that admission to Hell is guarded by something resembling an entrance exam to an elite college in the 19th century: the formulaic repetition of recondite knowledge couched in a learned language. Surely, the Devil is multilingual, or at least has a translation team at hand. Indeed, if the plan were to ensnare souls, one would expect that there would have been a shift away from official demoniacal use of Latin to guarantee broader and more democratic access to eternal damnation. Maybe Satan should have taken a cue from Vatican II.

As it stands, there are still firm believers in Latin both on this earth and below. Consider this little bit of pompously introspective douchebaggery from The National Catholic Register:

I felt like a bit of a fraud that day. Any idiot can pray in their native tongue. And given the panoply of televangelists, it seems like many idiots do. Moreover: our Church HAS an official language: Latin—hence the term, “The Latin Church.”

[…]

“Well, so what?” a reader might well ask. Well, for one thing: it takes effort to pray the Office in Latin. The pre-Vatican II Liturgical Hours are all longer than the post-Vatican II vernacular version (and there are more of them), so more time is spent in prayer.

Plus, I think God appreciates effort. […]

I am no more conversant in Latin today than I was the first day I picked up the Latin-English Little Office. However, I am convinced that the Devil, whom we are constantly being told does not exist, must truly hate anyone who, with a sincere heart and extra effort, prays in the official language of the Church—a language which traces itself back to the great Fathers of The Church and their inestimable writings. For that matter, I’m pretty confident that the Devil hates prayer in language of any sort, but I like to think Latin drives him absolutely crazy—and keeps him away.

Well buddy, I have some bad news for you: it seems that the Devil appreciates the extra effort, too. All of the Latin one learns for hymnals and the Vulgate is really just jeopardizing young souls who could easily turn conjugations in to conjurations. Worse still, they could then read all of the smutty parts in Ovid. Perhaps we ought to counsel an abstinence-only educational approach to ancient languages. Indeed, if its effectiveness for sexual education is a reliable indicator, we may still be able to save most university Classics programs by letting high school students know that the only way to safely avoid bodily and spiritual damnation is to avoid studying Latin. This has the inestimable benefit of not even being a lie.

Latin’s association with both the liturgical and the demoniacal is likely too firmly rooted now ever to be shaken, and I suspect that as Latin recedes farther and farther both from public life and from general educational accessibility, its association with the dark arts will likely become stronger. When Jerome translated the Bible into Latin for his Vulgate edition, Latin was still a living, vital, spoken language. Consequently, there was no sense at the time that Latin was the particular language of the Devil and his dark arts. Indeed, it is only after Latin ceased to be a language for daily speech and began to be used only among ecclesiastics and other highly learned functionaries that it took on its associations as especially apt for liturgy, exorcism, and conjuration. The farther Latin recedes into dusty obscurity among the archives of arcana, the more potent its current cultural associations will become. For those of us who have taken the time to master it, we can take comfort in the fact that we have earned ourselves a special spot in Hell.

Stolen Voices and the Specters of Domestic Violence

We are happy to have this guest-post by Idone Rhodes (bio below) reflecting on classical texts and lives lived outside of them

“Bind my hands in chains (as they merited fetters),
Until all madness departs, if any friend is present:
For madness brought thoughtless arms against my mistress;
She cries, injured by my frenzied hands.”

Adde manus in vincla meas (meruere catenas),
dum furor omnis abit, siquis amicus ades:
nam furor in dominam temeraria bracchia movit;
flet mea vaesana laesa puella manu.

Ovid’s Amores 1.7 starts out with Ovid’s apparent guilt over beating his lover. He details the “madness” that drove his “thoughtless arms” against his mistress and now proclaims that his hands “merited fetters” for the crime of passion.

As we find out later on, this behavior stemmed from his desire for sex and his lover’s unwillingness to provide that. Although readers hear Ovid apologize for this behavior straight off the bat, this first passage reeks of the poet’s trying to make himself feel better for what he did, as opposed to an actual recognition of the error behind his actions and a genuine expression of contrition. This understanding shines through particularly in his parenthetical, “(they [have] merited fetters).”

A response like this one is not uncommon in modern examples of domestic abuse. The abuser will promise to get better, to mend his ways, as a way to get back into the good graces of his partner. Moreover, he will blame his behavior on “madness” and claim that it wasn’t the “real him” doing such things. “Abusers often apologize a lot and buy gifts and make big, sweeping excuses, and promise things will be different. And maybe they mean it, or it least it feels like they mean it. Some even try to seek help for their abusive behaviors. But it’s also important to remember that apologies can be part of the manipulation cycle,” as one Bustle article by Teresa Newsome points out. By outlining his abuse and his penance in this way (articulating that he deserves to be locked up while also ascribing his crime to furor), his victim (or a victimized reader) might take his apology at face value and forgive him.

***

Each day she wakes up, showers, and heads downstairs to make her son breakfast. Bustling around her, other mothers do the same for their young children, who remain fast asleep in their apartments above. She rouses her son from bed, dresses him, and finishes getting ready for the day. The woman and her two-year-old walk 25 minutes to the nearest bus stop. Hopping off the bus a few stops later, she leaves her son at his daycare and heads to her GED program. At the end of the day, she picks him up, and they return home.

As in the morning, a flock of mothers swarms the kitchen at six pm, but this time children dance around them, yelling and playing. After dinner, the woman meets with her career counselor while volunteers watch her son in the play room. This is the daily the life of a survivor of domestic violence, and her son bore witness to the events that brought them to need the services of this shelter. Her story—and his—is certain to be as old as civilization.

In recent years in the United States, the conversation about domestic violence and abuse (defined by the National Domestic Violence Hotline as “a pattern of behaviors used by one partner to maintain power and control over another partner in an intimate relationship”) has become more public, and laws have evolved—though not everywhere—to further protect victims and survivors of intimate partner violence. New York State’s Family Protection and Domestic Violence Intervention Act of 1994 finally recognized “domestic violence as a violent crime” and “protects victims of domestic violence by creating mandatory arrest policies and requirements that police responding to domestic violence complaints prepare and file incident reports.”[1]

In many states, standards have existed and still exist which require that a victim’s injuries be visible or permanent at the time of her trial in order for any case to be brought against her abuser; no bruises, no conviction, as one Atlantic article by Rachel Louise Snyder notes. Not only does this practice discount non-physical forms of abuse, such as mental or emotional manipulation, it doesn’t consider the fact that these trials often occur weeks, months, or even years after a woman has left her abusive situation.

Nonetheless, stigma around the issue (arising in large part from societal expectations about gender roles and the nuclear family) often dissuades or downright prevents victims from coming forward or leaving abusive relationships. Victims would rather endure their abuse than potentially disrupt their expected family role (as an obedient and loyal wife, for instance, or, more complicatedly, as the primary caregiver), as well as their family’s reputation in general.[2] Loveisrespect, an organization that works with young people to raise awareness for domestic violence, lists “believing abuse is normal,” “cultural/religious reasons,” and “pregnancy/parenting” as some of the deciding factors for remaining in an abusive relationship.

The normalization of violence against women is deeply ingrained in our society, and it’s become tough for women to disrupt the pretense of a “perfect” family and risk facing the perceived shame of coming forward. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, “On average, nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner in the United States. During one year, this equates to more than 10 million women and men.” We all likely know people from all of our communities who have dealt with domestic abuse, but the issue is still considered so taboo that it goes undiscussed, remains hidden in the shadows.

As a volunteer and youth board member at an organization working to end domestic violence and aid those affected by it and as a student of the Classics, I found myself curious about the antiquity of domestic violence as a concept, as a part of cultural grammar. I wanted to see how ancient sources revealed the experiences of survivors, not just of physical violence, but also of psychological abuse in all its forms.

I have long turned to Classical literature when searching for a better understanding of a modern issue. For instance, when learning about democracy in the present, I look back to Ancient Greece to understand how the notion and practice of dêmokratia has evolved over time. In many ways, these stories represent a previous iteration of where and who we are now. By struggling with works from antiquity, we have the opportunity to grapple with what has changed and what needs to change between then and the present; we might see how domestic violence, rather than actually evolving out of society, has just grown into it to such a point that abuse is no longer a recognized issue.

Before I dive in, I want to add a caveat to my article. I would like to fully acknowledge that men, just like women or any other person, can and do experience domestic violence. In fact, one in nine men are reported to experience such abuse. Moreover, domestic violence impacts LGBTQ relationships as well, with the compounded factor of finding safety in communities or families that are not accepting. For example, the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey found that 44% of lesbians and 61% of bisexual women have suffered “rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner,” in contrast to the 35% of heterosexual women. Ancient examples, however, almost exclusively feature female victims and male perpetrators, so that dynamic will occupy much of this discussion.

Given my interest in the civic life of Athens, which is often hailed, rightly and wrongly, as a model of American civic and political life, I figured I’d start there. While tragedy is a more obvious choice in looking for examples of violence, I’ve started with comedy, as it connects more closely with the how society can hide (from) and rationalize domestic abuse.

Lysistrata: οὐ γὰρ γρύζειν εἰᾶθ᾽ ἡμᾶς. καίτοὐκ ἠρέσκετέ γ᾽ ἡμᾶς.
For you did not allow us to mutter, and you do not appease us.

Magistrate: κἂν ᾤμωζές γ᾽, εἰ μὴ ᾽σίγας.
You would cry out in pain, unless you kept silent.

As Llewellyn-Jones points out, the reference to domestic violence is obvious in this excerpt from Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, an Ancient Greek comedy giving insight into the ways women “control” Athenian politics.[3] Lysistrata illustrates that, although Athenian men do not please their wives, the wives voice no complaints about their treatment. In most circumstances, a situation like this might indicate only a dysfunctional relationship, not an abusive one; however, the use of the verb ἐάω (to allow) indicates that these women have not chosen to remain silent; they simply have no other option. The magistrate further drives home this reality with his response, where he essentially suggests that if women were to say something out of turn to their husbands, they would face some sort of physical attack. By pointing out her husband’s error, Lysistrata would undermine his authority; by speaking at all, she has challenged his masculinity by feeling she has the right to voice her mind, so he responds violently. He further perpetuates a cycle of psychological abuse by “stealing” her voice, and he attempts to gaslight her by suggesting that her prevention from speaking is actually for her own benefit! Looking back on Latin and Ancient Greek texts reveals a culture accepting of domestic violence, a situation which can be expected from a society deeply committed to patriarchy.[4]

Today silence, or lack thereof, can play a similarly integral role in domestic abuse. As much as we like to believe we’ve progressed culturally since antiquity, our understanding of gender roles has actually not much changed. A woman who is too loud or “mouthy” or open with her opinions is seen as a threat to the men around her, especially in a situation when she is seen as in danger of equaling, let alone outstripping, her husband or partner.

In short, women in abusive relationships learn to keep silent to avoid upsetting their partners in a way that might incite violence or repercussions. This cycle creates a situation in which the woman loses her autonomy (as the man becomes her mouthpiece). I have observed that some of the women I work with have found opportunities for education only after leaving their abusive homes; their partners or situations inhibited them from educating themselves, possibly as a means of keeping these women quiet and unable to speak for themselves, just like the women of Lysistrata.

Moreover, as Kristen Lewis writes in an article for the Huffington Post, “victims often have family ties to or are financially dependent on their abusers,” as was certainly the case during the time period in which Lysistrata was written.[5] The silence extends beyond the relationship as woman has nowhere to turn to for aid or assistance. Her grievances fall on deaf ears conditioned by the belief that a man has ownership over, and can therefore do whatever he wants to, his wife. Although there are many more laws now protecting victims of domestic abuse (as opposed to the nearly zero laws regarding the issue in Ancient Greece and Rome), the learned pattern of silence creates an isolation tank, out of which many do not emerge for fear that they might lose resources from their partner or face harsher violence if the partner were to find out.

With so many sources depicting so many aspects of intimate relationships in the ancient world, Classicists have the opportunity, as well as the responsibility, to detect the indications and representations of abuse in these materials; by understanding this phenomenon’s roots in the past, we can equip ourselves with a more keen and precise lens for preventing, detecting, and combating intimate partner violence in the world around us today.

Women with a mirror. Fragment of an Attic white-ground vase, ca. 480–470 BC.

***

My name is Idone Rhodes. I am an 18-year-old senior at Milton Academy. Feel free to contact me at rhodesidone@gmail.com.

I would like to give acknowledgment and many thanks to @dreadfulprof for his guidance and editorial recommendations in the creation of this article.

Notes

[1] Nolder, Michelle J. “The Domestic Violence Dilemma: Private Action in Ancient Rome and America.” Boston University Law Review, vol. 81, 2001, pp. 1119–1147.

[2] “3. Causes and Complicating Factors.” SVAW – Domestic Violence: Explore the Issue, Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights, 2003, hrlibrary.umn.edu/svaw/domestic/explore/3causes.htm.

[3] Llewellyn-Jones, Lloyd. “Domestic Abuse And Violence Against Women In Ancient Greece.” Sociable Man, 2011, pp. 231–266., doi:10.2307/j.ctvvn9fm.16.

[4] Tuttle, Kate. “Tracing the Roots of Misogyny to Ancient Greece and Rome with Mary Beard.” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 28 Dec. 2017, http://www.latimes.com/books/jacketcopy/la-ca-jc-women-and-power-20171228-story.html.

[5] Kapparis, K. “Women and Family in Athenian Law.” Women and Family in Athenian Law, 22 Mar. 2003

Heraclitan Horror Show

“You cannot step into the same river twice.”

δὶς ἐς τὸν αὐτὸν ποταμὸν οὐκ ἂν ἐμβαίης.

Heraclitus

There is an old anecdote about John Dryden, illustrating both his bookish ways and his casual and malicious disregard for his wife:

Dryden himself told us that he was of a grave cast and did not much excel in sallies of humour. One of his bon mots, however, has been preserved. He does not seem to have lived on very amicable terms with his wife, Lady Elizabeth, whom, if we may believe the lampoons of the time, he was compelled by one of her brothers to marry. Thinking herself neglected by the bard, and that he spent too much time in his study, she one day exclaimed, ‘Lord, Mr. Dryden, how can you always be poring over those musty books? I wish I were a book, and then I should have more of your company.’ ‘Pray, my dear,’ replied old John, ‘if you do become a book let it be an almanack, for then I shall change you every year.’ [Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes, p.49]

As I considered telling my students this anecdote, I realized that while the reference to Dryden was likely to be incomprehensible to them, the joke itself would fall flat because they likely do not know what an almanac is. (Lest this seem too much of a stretch for my readers who do not work with teenagers, many of these students cannot tell time on an analog clock, have no knowledge of Roman numerals, and get entirely stumped by lexical curiosities such as pejorative or gubernatorial.)

The almanac is today both charmingly obsolete and quaint to the point of absurdity. To be sure, I have seen The Old Farmer’s Almanac for sale in the check-out lane at the hardware store every year, but I could not imagine people purchasing them for serious consultation. Nevertheless, I find that a fair number of online reviews for the 2020 edition of The Old Farmer’s Almanac combine a curious enthusiasm for its outmoded practicality with a sentimental nostalgia about the publication’s venerable old age.

Obsolescence occurs in two ways. The first may be readily observed in the world of classical scholarship by the rapid obsolescence of traditional dictionaries. Though I wrote before of my own tendency to fetishize the dictionary as a physical object, I nevertheless rarely use a physical lexicon anymore because I find Logeion so powerful and effective. But electronic lexical resources have not made dictionaries themselves obsolete – merely their physical forms. An online dictionary may aggregate entries from various lexica, but the basic premise of recording the definitions and uses of individual words in one place, used as a reference, remains fundamentally the same.

A more profound form of obsolescence occurs when the world itself changes in such a way as to make something wholly irrelevant or useless. Phone books, and even publicly available phone directories, are no longer necessary in an age of cheap web hosting, constant internet access, and efficient search engines; moreover, the evanescence and rapid mutability of cell phone numbers would render such a directory entirely unmanageable. Indeed, one need not be surprised that the Terminator, in the 1984 film of that name, was unable to kill Sara Connor – it looked her up in a phone book. Did the AI which orchestrated human extinction really have no better way of seeking her out? At any rate, it is clear enough that our timeline diverged sharply from that imagined future, since we have been treated to an endless string of increasingly horrible sequels, revealing that Skynet’s plan was actually just to bore us to death.

Phonebook Terminator

Occasionally I hear authors and critics speculate (usually with some show of ambivalent feeling) about the end of literary fiction. Closer to home, I know that it is fashionable to speculate about the end of Classics. The sense, in both cases, is that neither of these disciplines is particularly suited to a rapidly changing world, in which the memeification of culture has rendered attention, critical thought, and even history itself apparently irrelevant. My own students have told me that they would much rather spend ten seconds fully absorbing a post on Instagram than reading a book, because it is so “short and to the point.” I suppose that one cannot blame them, considering that the orange, suppurating mass which currently fills out a suit and a chair in the White House has bragged about his entire estrangement from books, which he thinks could be much more readily digested as sound-bite summaries.

Tweets and Instagram posts may be “short and to the point,” but so are aphorisms and epigrams. Nevertheless, I don’t see that anyone is lining up to buy copies of Martial. The appeal of these social media is not their brevity, as is made clear by the fact that no one reads old posts with any enthusiasm or fervor. Rather, social media creates a kind of Heraclitean horror show – an ever fluid and dynamic present in which we cannot even step into the same river once. In truth, nothing good actually happens on the internet, but I like many people often find myself transfixed, refreshing for the latest updates, most of which I gloss over entirely. This frenzied update and consumption cycle not only produces the impression that events in our world are occurring more rapidly than they used to, but also causes them to occur at a more rapid rate. News does not become obsolete because a story has been fully investigated or dealt with. Rather, it becomes obsolete because the very act of engaging with the news on social media (especially if it is powerful people who are engaging with it) in itself triggers more news. Even apparently “timeless” content like photos of cute dogs or silly cats has an internet shelf life of a day at the most. All of those dog videos just washed along by the endless stream of other dog videos.

To return to the outmoded almanac. While it would be tempting to say that these manuals have undergone the first kind of obsolescence thanks to real-time weather updates accessible on the internet, it is unfortunately the case that they have fallen victim just as much to the second form of obsolescence, in which the rapidly changing patterns of our planet’s climate have rendered traditional wisdom and climactic prognostication largely futile. Much the same can be said of traditional punditry. In an age of chaos, it seems frightfully masturbatory and absurd to sit behind a glass desk and deliver Pythian proclamations about the political landscape of next year when the entire geopolitical landscape is drastically altered every few hours, usually in response to something posted on a certain someone’s social media feed.

An old friend of mine used to say that he considered all literature published before the 20th century irrelevant. As repugnant as I found the notion, I could see that he had some point. Virginia Woolf once observed that, ”on or about December 1910 human character changed,” and a facile reading of the classics (whether construed as the Greek and Roman canon or old books more generally) may suggest that they have little to offer to someone after trench warfare, the Holocaust, the nuclear arms race, or any of the other horrors of the 20th century. If some of the horrors of the 21st seem less blatantly aggressive and horrific than those of the 20th, it may be because our passive acceptance of and complicity in them renders them so much harder to confront honestly. Yet it is perhaps because of the new existential horror of these two centuries that our older literature will not be rendered obsolete. As a classic example, Jonathan Shay’s Achilles in Vietnam draws on Homer to make sense of PTSD. One of my professors once sold his Greek and Roman civilization courses by arguing that anyone who had read ancient history could open the newspaper any day and say, “I’ve seen this bullshit before.”

But the chief value of literature (old and new) is its ability to allow us to engage with what is human. Ostensibly, social media presents us with our most human selves, but really it just aggregates a pullulating mass of swollen id shouting into the vacuous ether of a present which has already been lost. In a curious way, constant engagement with the present is the firmest assurance that we will never experience the present at all. Rather, a meaningful engagement with all of human experience – including its past, even or especially when mediated through the artificiality of literature – is essential to making sense of an accelerating and vanishing present.

People used to change their almanacs out every year, and the malice of Dryden’s joke is his suggestion that he would do the same to a person. Yet this is, in effect, what we do both to our culture and the people with whom we interact. I have inadvertently jettisoned a number of friends from my life by first turning them into social media correspondents and then simply forgetting to put in the minimal and largely passive effort of “keeping in touch.” So, too, relating with people personally or “IRL” has in some sense degenerated to friends asking each other whether they had seen the latest thing online. From Descartes on, philosophers were terrified by the fact that we have no immediate access to reality; in the 21st century, we have responded to this terror by adding new layers of mediation to it, which may explain why it all feels so unreal.

This is not meant as a manifesto, or a rallying cry for Classics, or even for literature more generally. Despite the apparently strident and indignant tone of what may be observed above, this screed ends with something in the old confessional mode. I find myself every day drawn more and more by the Siren song of nostalgia. Indeed, I find the continued viability of a published Farmer’s Almanac not just charming, but somehow deeply comforting. Reading actual books feels better as media update faster; older films and even old television attract me far more as YouTube gets better at predicting what kinds of mindless and insipid trash might seize my attention for a few minutes; and as the very idea of civilization seems to be collapsing into the dark and abysmal nullity of hypercapitalist moral and intellectual corruption, it is nice to remember that human civilization was once a thing, and that for all of its problems it occasionally produced things which were poignant or profound or beautiful. By the time we feel it, our step into the river has already been taken, but we can pause for a moment and watch as the water rushes on.

Johannes Paulus Moreelse, Heracltus

Shitizens United

“When asked where he came from, he said, ‘I am a citizen of the world.’”

ἐρωτηθεὶς πόθεν εἴη, “κοσμοπολίτης,” ἔφη.

Diogenes Laertius, 6.63

One could not with any propriety call what Victor Davis Hanson does “essay writing.” His preferred mode now appears to be something between posting on Twitter and old man yells at cloud. In his latest piece of sputtering semi-literacy, Hanson writes:

It is eerie how such current American retribalization resembles the collapse of Rome, as Goths, Huns, and Vandals all squabbled among themselves over what was left of 1,200 years of Roman citizenship — eager to destroy what they could neither create nor emulate.

Eerie, eh? This guy needs to slow his fucking roll, because it’s not even October yet and he apparently already has Monster Mash playing an endless loop in his head. But seriously – we wouldn’t let a freshman in an introductory survey class get away with such an egregious whopper as this. Collapse is a rather dramatic word for gradual decentralization of power. Hanson conveniently elides the difference between 1,200 years of citizenship and 1,200 years of imperial rule imposed by the sword. Many people living within the borders of Roman-controlled territory were not, legally speaking, citizens at all. Moreover, it is not clear that the concept of citizenship is even meaningful for the inhabitants of the more far-flung regions of any extensive empire, and one would be hard pressed to believe that the deposition of Romulus Augustulus in 476 made any immediate substantial difference in the lives of most people outside the senate or the army.

This would not be a VDH article if he didn’t mount some kind of concerted attack on his old enemy:

Multiculturalism has reduced the idea of e pluribus unum to a regressive tribalism. Americans often seem to owe their first allegiance to those who look like they do. Citizens cannot even agree over once-hallowed and shared national holidays such as Christmas, Thanksgiving, and the Fourth of July.

“Tribalism” is quite the fashionable word among conservatives today, the kind of thing that would inspire David Brooks’ wettest dreams. It signals that its user is dispassionate, objective, and serenely rational – a fount of reasonable analysis unclouded by dogma, ideology, or emotion. At the same time, we know what it is meant to evoke: the grim specter of the tribal, the uncivilized, the savage. That is, the word tribalism has become like so many other parts of conservative discourse just another racist dog whistle. Men like Hanson were at least astute enough to realize that glasses and an ill-fitting suit will capture a much wider audience than a white hood and robe, and so we see a parade of villains like Hanson, Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller, Richard Spenser, and the rest getting written up in “papers of record” as “intellectuals” while old David Duke has to rest content with a mere presidential endorsement. [As a side note: what the hell does he mean about citizens disagreeing over Christmas, Thanksgiving, and the Fourth? I have never witnessed a “disagreement about” these holidays. This guy has gone totally off the rails.]

Hanson here mentions the Goths, Huns, and Vandals to invoke dread among the other old white men reading The National Review because each of those ethnonyms has been received in our own language as a symbol for a violent and destructive behavior. The administrative talents of Gothic generals like Stilicho helped to keep the rotten corpse of the empire animated, and even Attila the Hun (the scourge of God himself) spared Rome at Leo I’s urging.

It is singularly disingenuous to invoke the fear of these peoples and their role in the fragmentation of Rome’s empire without considering the atrocities which the Romans perpetrated in acquiring it in the first place. Of course, a reactionary like Hanson has a fair amount of practice in this form of smug hypocrisy, since he seems to think that God himself drew the map of the U.S. without an ounce of suffering paid. It follows as a natural consequence of this curious admixture of Calvinism and Manifest Destiny that anyone born here would be in possession of a singular privilege which ought to be denied to everyone else.

Any narrative which frames the “collapse” of the Roman Empire as a bad thing is so deeply imperialist that it is hard to find a way to argue against it productively. Gibbon’s dark legacy was bequeathing to us a worldview in which the Roman Empire represented humanity’s most spectacular governmental achievement. Indeed, Gibbon himself fixed the period from Nerva’s reign to the death of Marcus Aurelius as the happiest in human history. Barbarians come in for their share of blame in Gibbon, but any perceptive reader of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire knows that Gibbon chiefly blamed the corruption and decadence of the emperors themselves for much of the empire’s decline. Amidst his broader reflections upon the human propensity for vice and degradation when given absolute power, he rails on at length against venal flatterers and courtiers – the type who might write An Encomium to Shitler. The supreme irony of Hanson’s hard-on for Roman imperialism is his scorn for the EU – the only organization, other than the Catholic Church, to have exerted a unifying influence over Europe similar to that of Roman conquest.

Because he is credentialed as a Classicist (though we all know that he clearly hasn’t read Greek or Latin in decades), Hanson’s point about the collapse of Rome is the most notable of his blunders, but it is also the only moderately coherent point he makes throughout the entire write-up. The rest is composed of strange ravings: people disagreeing about holidays, Brett Kavanaugh being bullied, people being denied their human rights because it was difficult to purchase ammo at Wal-Mart.

In a globalized world, the concept of citizenship is just one of a million bureaucratic fictions which we reify out of some admixture of habitual and hostile behavior. The most serious problems which face any individual country today are those which threaten humanity as a whole. We live in an age of global threats, an age in which human life will either be rendered wholly meaningless or wholly nonexistent by technology and greed. Arguing over lines on maps and turning them into actual physical barriers should automatically disqualify someone from contributing to discussions about the problems of today. Moreover, (and I wish that I could put this more eloquently), you have to be a vile piece of shit for the accident of someone’s birthplace to affect your ability to feel compassion for them. But perhaps it is time that we get off of Hanson’s lawn and leave him to continue his conversation with the clouds.

High Quality Old man yells at cloud Blank Meme Template

Latin Hell

Getting to Hell is supposed to be easy. Yet, if one were to take a survey of popular culture, it seems rather a difficult task. A not insignificant part of this difficulty is the necessity of knowing Latin to get there.

At the beginning of Christopher Marlowe’s Tragedy of Dr. Faustus, we find Faustus in his study surfeited with the sorts of learning available to mere humans. Opening up books of theology, medicine, and law, he casts them aside and, having first claimed that Aristotle’s Analytics had ravished him, changes tack and says that it is magic and necromancy which occupy his soul.

Perhaps we should be more inclined to think that his famous bargain had already been struck in order to outfit him with the kind of heroic polymathy which could encompass three such disparate and apparently endless subjects. But Faustus is tired of the merely human, and decided to consult with Cornelius and Valdes, two dabblers in the demonic, about the procedure for summoning spirits from Hell. These two characters equip him with the requisite conjuring knowledge, but it is surprising that someone of such apparently limitless erudition would require help to be initiated into this art. Nevertheless, they provide him with the necessary incantatory formula, and later than night, Faustus expends a fair amount of breath on his Latin invocation of Mephistopheles:

Sint mihi dei Acherontis propitii!  Valeat numen triplex Jehovoe! Ignei, aerii, aquatani spiritus, salvete!  Orientis princeps Belzebub, inferni ardentis monarcha, et Demogorgon, propitiamus vos, ut appareat et surgat Mephistophilis, quod tumeraris: per Jehovam, Gehennam, et consecratam aquam quam nunc spargo, signumque crucis quod nunc facio, et per vota nostra, ipse nunc surgat nobis dicatus Mephistophilis!

We, in our own state of enlightenment, know that the Demogorgon invoked by Faustus is an entirely fictive deity, conjured into existence by a scribal error for demiourgon. Perhaps Faustus should not have abandoned book learning so early. But to return to the point: Mephistopheles appears after this lengthy invocation, but informs Faustus that the incantation was merely incidental to his appearance – the real trick being to abjure God and the Trinity:

     MEPHIST. That was the cause, but yet per accidens;

     For, when we hear one rack the name of God,

     Abjure the Scriptures and his Saviour Christ,

     We fly, in hope to get his glorious soul;

     Nor will we come, unless he use such means

     Whereby he is in danger to be damn’d.

     Therefore the shortest cut for conjuring

     Is stoutly to abjure the Trinity,

     And pray devoutly to the prince of hell.

There is something slightly suspicious in this claim, given that Faustus first needed to seek out two known conjurers to learn the incantation, and received no visit from Mephistopheles earlier despite making clear his intentions to indulge in necromantic art at the potential price of his soul. Later, when Faustus is waiting for the return of Mephistopheles, he bids him to come, but Mephistopheles only arrives after Faustus delivers the command in Latin:

     FAUSTUS. Of wealth!

     Why, the signiory of Embden shall be mine.

     When Mephistopheles shall stand by me,

     What god can hurt thee, Faustus? thou art safe

     Cast no more doubts.—Come, Mephistopheles,

     And bring glad tidings from great Lucifer;—

     Is’t not midnight?—come, Mephistopheles,

     Veni, veni, Mephistophile!

          Enter MEPHISTOPHELES.

Given that he conversed with Faustus earlier in English, the problem cannot simply be chalked up to a linguistic barrier. Devils, demons, and spirits appear to respond far more readily to Latin invocations. Though Mephistopheles claimed that abjuring God would suffice, he yet does seem to be a stickler for the niceties of a learned language.

In the utterly execrable film, The Ninth Gate, rare book detective Bob Corso is enlisted by antiquarian and Satan enthusiast Boris Balkan to validate the authenticity of his demon summoning tome:

BALKAN: Nemo pervenit qui non legitime certaverit.

CORSO: You only succeed if you fight by the rules?

BALKAN: More or less. Ever heard of the Delomelanicon?

CORSO: Heard of it, yes. A myth, isn’t it? Some horrific book reputed to have been written by Satan himself.

BALKAN: No myth. That book existed. Torchia actually acquired it. The engravings you’re now admiring were adapted by Torchia from the Delomelanicon. They’re a form of satanic riddle. Correctly interpreted with the aid of the original text and sufficient inside information, they’re reputed to conjure up the Prince of Darkness in person.

Here we have all of the prerequisites for talking about the demonic: a little bit of Latin, a book of incantations with some fictive erudition to trace its history, and a couple of assholes engaged in dialogue which would embarrass even the most pretentious undergraduate. (Why would two people with fluent understanding of Latin would translate it to each other like they’re in an intermediate reading class?) The plot of the movie is ridiculous and in no way worth recounting, but much time and money has been spent and many lives have been lost before Corso finally has the engravings necessary for conjuring the Devil himself. But why should it be so hard?

Of all the cinematic or literary treatments of soul selling, only The Simpsons has caught the true spirit of the enterprise. One day, Bart casually remarks that he would sell his soul for a Formula 1 race car, at which point the Devil appears and tells him that it can be arranged. That’s it. No book hunting, no incantations, no experts on demonology, and most importantly no Latin.

We are reliably informed that the Devil is preeminently concerned with enlarging his kingdom as much as possible by ensnaring souls to drag to Hell. Indeed, in certain lines of Christian thought, going to Hell is for all practical purposes the default fate for most of humanity. And so, it strikes me as peculiar that admission to Hell is guarded by something resembling an entrance exam to an elite college in the 19th century: the formulaic repetition of recondite knowledge couched in a learned language. Surely, the Devil is multilingual, or at least has a translation team at hand. Indeed, if the plan were to ensnare souls, one would expect that there would have been a shift away from official demoniacal use of Latin to guarantee broader and more democratic access to eternal damnation. Maybe Satan should have taken a cue from Vatican II.

As it stands, there are still firm believers in Latin both on this earth and below. Consider this little bit of pompously introspective douchebaggery from The National Catholic Register:

I felt like a bit of a fraud that day. Any idiot can pray in their native tongue. And given the panoply of televangelists, it seems like many idiots do. Moreover: our Church HAS an official language: Latin—hence the term, “The Latin Church.”

[…]

“Well, so what?” a reader might well ask. Well, for one thing: it takes effort to pray the Office in Latin. The pre-Vatican II Liturgical Hours are all longer than the post-Vatican II vernacular version (and there are more of them), so more time is spent in prayer.

Plus, I think God appreciates effort. […]

I am no more conversant in Latin today than I was the first day I picked up the Latin-English Little Office. However, I am convinced that the Devil, whom we are constantly being told does not exist, must truly hate anyone who, with a sincere heart and extra effort, prays in the official language of the Church—a language which traces itself back to the great Fathers of The Church and their inestimable writings. For that matter, I’m pretty confident that the Devil hates prayer in language of any sort, but I like to think Latin drives him absolutely crazy—and keeps him away.

Well buddy, I have some bad news for you: it seems that the Devil appreciates the extra effort, too. All of the Latin one learns for hymnals and the Vulgate is really just jeopardizing young souls who could easily turn conjugations in to conjurations. Worse still, they could then read all of the smutty parts in Ovid. Perhaps we ought to counsel an abstinence-only educational approach to ancient languages. Indeed, if its effectiveness for sexual education is a reliable indicator, we may still be able to save most university Classics programs by letting high school students know that the only way to safely avoid bodily and spiritual damnation is to avoid studying Latin. This has the inestimable benefit of not even being a lie.

Latin’s association with both the liturgical and the demoniacal is likely too firmly rooted now ever to be shaken, and I suspect that as Latin recedes farther and farther both from public life and from general educational accessibility, its association with the dark arts will likely become stronger. When Jerome translated the Bible into Latin for his Vulgate edition, Latin was still a living, vital, spoken language. Consequently, there was no sense at the time that Latin was the particular language of the Devil and his dark arts. Indeed, it is only after Latin ceased to be a language for daily speech and began to be used only among ecclesiastics and other highly learned functionaries that it took on its associations as especially apt for liturgy, exorcism, and conjuration. The farther Latin recedes into dusty obscurity among the archives of arcana, the more potent its current cultural associations will become. For those of us who have taken the time to master it, we can take comfort in the fact that we have earned ourselves a special spot in Hell.

From Senecan’t to Senecan

Seneca, that champion essayist of antiquity, began his collection of moral epistles to Lucullus with an urgent plea:

Persuade yourself that the matter stands as I write: some time is stolen from us, some is drawn off, and some just flows away. The most shameful loss, though, is the one which occurs through negligence. If you wish to take note, you will see that a large part of life slips away from those who act badly, the greatest portion slips away from those who do nothing, and all of life slips away from those who are busy doing something else. What person can you cite who places a price upon his time, who takes an account of the day, who understands that he is dying every day? We are deceived in this, that we look forward to death: a large part of it has already gone by, and whatever part of our lives is in the past is death’s property now. Therefore, act as you claim to do, and embrace every hour; thus it will happen that you weigh out less of tomorrow, if you throw your hand upon today. Life runs away when it is delayed. All things, my Lucilius, are foreign to us: time alone is ours. Nature has granted us the possession of this one fleeting, slippery thing, from which she expels whoever wishes it. The stupidity of humans is so great that they allow the smallest, most worthless things (certainly, those which can be retrieved) to be added to their account when they have accomplished them, but no one thinks that he owes any debt when he receives time, though this is the one thing which no one is able to pay back readily. [Moral Epistles, 1.1]

If Seneca’s advice sounds modern and well-fitted to our age, it is perhaps only because one could easily imagine hearing it from any of today’s podiums of self-righteous assholery, from the TED stage to a podcast. Seneca was not, however, addressing a generation born into wage prostitution. Readers and audiences may be fascinated by accounts of the pleasure/utility maximizing routines of tech and finance bros, and Stoicism may have taken off among the aforementioned douchenozzles, but Stoicism as a practice can only ever really appeal to the wealthy. Anyone who can practice abstinence and denial must necessarily exist among some kind of surplus.

But to return to Seneca and that invidious monster, time. There is no doubt that many of us are wasting our time in the sense that we are employing it upon activities which we would not freely choose. Though we may have some apparent choice about what we do (though far less than we ostensibly do), the fact is that we must have jobs which will require a certain amount of time (not production) from us. As a teacher, I have sold my time to the school, and am paid regardless of how much students learn (or don’t) on the basis of the fact that I am there during my contract hours. Other career options may lie open, but how many of them would differ from my current job in this crucial respect?

Moreover, the very idea of the wage system is based upon the premise that no one would work entirely of their own accord. Consider this exchange from the most important cinematic creation of all time, Office Space:

PETER: Our high school guidance counselor used to ask us what you would do if we had a million dollars and didn’t have to work. And invariably, whatever we would say, that was supposed to be our careers. If you wanted to build cars, then you’re supposed to be an auto mechanic.

SAMIR: So what did you say?

PETER: I never had an answer. I guess that’s why I’m working at Initech.

MICHAEL: No, you’re working at Initech because that question is bullshit to begin with. If that quiz worked, there would be no janitors, because no one would clean shit up if they had a million dollars.

Elsewhere, Peter claims that if he had a million dollars, he would do nothing. Though many of us can surely think of something which we would do if freed from the dread bondage of working life, I doubt that many people would continue to work at their jobs if they did not have to. Seneca himself was rich, and though he held various official positions, these were not strictly necessary to his pecuniary survival. Seneca could afford for all of his time to remain his own. Moreover, Seneca’s leisure was built upon a system of brutal slavery, and so his life may not serve as the most edifying model.

Yet, independent of class concerns, the old clichés about time so popular among the old Roman elites are perhaps even more salient today than they were in antiquity. Consider for a moment those famous lines of our main man Horace:

Cut back long hope. While we speak, a hateful age will have escaped. Seize the day, trusting as little as possible to tomorrow.

spem longam reseces. Dum loquimur, fugerit invida

aetas: carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero. [Odes, 1.11]

This has always been good advice in light of the brevity of human life, but how much more compelling is it at the end of civilization? The further we stumble into the future, the more dire the warnings about the earth’s future inability to support human life become. That is of course wholly independent of the geopolitical shitshow in which any misstep in the carefully calibrated shit choreography could instantly precipitate a war of global extinction. In an increasingly globalized yet simultaneously fragmented world, one in which democracy is rapidly being subverted by authoritarianism and oligarchy, perhaps Seneca’s claim is true – perhaps the only thing which is truly ours is our time.

Thus it is that I declare myself a Plus-Temporist. What is Plus-Temporism? A general sense that in addition to rectifying other social injustices inflicted by capitalism, we should as a society reclaim our time – from employers, from advertisers, from the hucksters selling us time-sucking but vacuous entertainments. Computerization and, more recently, wholesale automation promised a reduction in human labor, but have instead resulted in greater working hours for those people with traditional jobs (i.e. not gigs), as they struggle to stave off the threat of being replaced entirely by soulless automata.

For my own part, I used to assign homework to my students on occasion, but I recently told them that I had come to the conclusion that homework is immoral. As it stands, they spend eight hours in school every day – is that not enough? Seneca oversimplifies the solution by suggesting that one should simply opt out and reclaim their time on their own, but the individual retreat from impositions on one’s time is a privilege exclusively reserved for the rich. Is the forty hour (or worse) work week not just an absurd anachronism? And so, perhaps we should make a larger cooperative effort to reduce the amount of time which people have taken from them. We may not know what tomorrow will bring, but once it arrives, we know that today has departed and taken with it another twenty four hours of our limited lives.