Don’t Borrow Money from Catullus…Or Rihanna

Editorial note: while you procrastinate for another few weeks on your syllabus, this guest post from Theodora Kopestonsky can serve up some essential inspiration.

When I listen to the radio in the car, I am struck by the way modern songs reflect the same concerns that we see in antiquity. Different poems come to my mind and sometimes, if my brain is really tuned in and I’ve been reading a lot of Latin poetry, I’ll start to translate the lyrics. U2’s One (1991) does this to me all the time… “Ūnus amor, Ūnus sanguis, Ūna vīta…”

This got me thinking about how to incorporate pop music into the classroom and led to a pedagogy article about Latin love poetry. Beyond romantic relationships, Latin (and Greek) poetry talk about many other relevant issues like violence, war, loss, and more.  Catullus, one of my favorite poets, also addresses a more mundane issue: lending money to a friend. In Catullus 103, the poet complains about Silus’ delay in repaying a debt.

aut sōdēs mihi redde decem sestertia, Sīlō,
deinde estō quamvīs saevus et indomitus:
aut, sī tē nummī dēlectant, dēsine quaesō
lēnō esse atque īdem saevus et indomitus.

Either give me back the ten grand please, Silus,
And then you can be a prick or whatever:
Or, if the money makes you happy, I beg you, stop
Being a pimp and be a prick again.

That’s a lot of money to trust to another person which explains why Catullus got so riled up and starts calling Silus names. Whether or not he actually lent the money or is just imagining a situation (which is very possible) is not important here. The point is the irritation and lack of funds at his current moment. Anyone who has given money to a trusted friend and then been burned can relate to the frustrating rage. I found that Rihanna echoes this concern more explicitly and violently in her 2015 song, Bitch Better Have My Money.[1]

Y’all should know me well enough.
Bitch, better have my money!
Please don’t call me on my bluff.
Pay me what you owe me.
………………
Don’t act like you forgot, I call the shots, shots, shots
Like brrap, brrap, brrap (0:11-0:19, 0:43-0:50).

In posturing lyrics like Catullus, Rihanna calls out her friend, threatening violence, if the money is not returned. The deliberate spoken words emphasize the frustration of the singer. If the sentiment is that same, why not try to echo it in Latin. So, of course, I did.

Nunc bene mē cognōvistī
Scelesta, mea tibi redōnanda est pecūnia
Mē nē iubē dēmonstrāre, sōdēs
Da mihi quod mihi debēs.
……………….
Nōlī assimilāre tē oblīvitam esse, indīcō
ictūs, -tūs, -tūs, -tūs.

The first line echoes Catullus’ language in poem 72.5 where he says he knows Lesbia (nunc te cognovi). Scelesta returns from Catullus 8.15 to act as the invective, though canicula or canis could also be used. This line and the title of the song also provides the necessary pejorative name-calling also present in Catullus’ poem. I used a passive periphrastic (redōnanda est) to show obligation for the return of the money. Stationing pecunia at the end of the sentence also then mirrors Rihanna’s original placement of money.  Imperatives in the next two lines express Rihanna’s demands. The short words create a nice staccato effect similar to the manner in which Rihanna sings. Constructing the negative command with nolle allows for a recognizable construction which eases into an indirect statement.  The use of an onomatopoeia for gunshots in English creates an ominous mood. In order to reflect the similar repetition and emotion, I translated shot as an ictus which implies an arrow or spear hit as seen in verse (e.g. Ov. Met. 12.74).

Jumbled pile of Roman coins
Roman Coin Hoard, Portable Antiquities Scheme from London, England [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D
The repetition of the shot and the sound of a strike is expressed with –tus which acts as an echo to the full word, but it also imitates the staccato of multiple projectiles hitting the mark or the recoil of a weapon such as a ballista after firing. Rihanna herself utilized syllable echoing at the end of a lyric in repeating “-ella” in her hit, Umbrella (2008). Moreover, the term ictus is used to indicate a rhythmic stress in poetry (or music) so it plays with the concepts already discussed (Becker). The repetition of me and mihi highlights the singer’s agency or role as it is highlighted in the original. Grammatically, this translation is deliberately straightforward (I am not a poet) but I think it is accessible for students of Latin still learning. Obviously, I’ve lost the meter here but, the placement of words and word choices can be relevant as I have shown.

While I did this as an example, just thinking about these transformations and translations can be really rewarding in or out of the classroom. It is a mental (or even class) exercise which challenges you to think beyond the Classical corpus. Why not give it a try or even ask your students to try? You can ask for song-poem parallels, simple translations done as a group, or more analytical reflections on composition. Stephen Kershner has provided excellent detailed guidelines on how to formally incorporate this type of Latin composition to a class. (He also furnishes a translation of Taylor Swift’s 2014 hit, Bad Blood.) Really, most songs can be converted into Latin, if you are willing to be creative. The process makes students understand better translation and word choices.

So next time you are in the car listening to the radio or reading poetry, maybe you’ll see a new connection. In creating and explaining adaptions, we all (students, teachers, enthusiasts) can learn a little bit more about Latin, our own culture, and the fact that no one likes late payment!

[1] Rihanna’s song is responding to a topic in rap music about pimps, but she is flipping the paradigm

Theodora Kopestonsky is a senior lecturer in Classics at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville where she is a supervisor for the Beginning and Intermediate Latin program. Her research focuses primarily on Greek religion and practice, Corinthian studies, and nymphs, but she regularly teaches Latin, Classical archaeology, myth, and ancient civilization courses. 

The Ninth Gate: Movie Hell

There are no good movies about books and bibliomaniacs. Occasionally, some lover of the written word will be featured as a character in a film, but the delight in books as aesthetic objects or repositories of wisdom or even simply as a source of pleasure is relegated to the triviality of being merely incidental to the plot. (In Beauty and the Beast, Belle could have easily been an enthusiast for anything other than books; indeed, their stories really serve only as a counterpoint to the boredom of her quiet and provincial life.) Of course, the truly bookish movie would likely be a total failure. Undoubtedly the topic lacks sufficiently broad commercial appeal to make it palatable for studio executives, and those who already have a pronounced proclivity for books would just as soon read a book about books rather than watch a film.

It was with this understanding that Joel convinced me to watch one of the most execrable films in our apparently infinite treasury of media products, The Ninth Gate. Though he live-Tweeted my reactions to the movie, I nevertheless thought it worthwhile to set down some more articulate and continuous thoughts on the movie and its relation to reading culture more generally.

The plot is straightforward enough, and even for one paying as little attention as I did, it is entirely predictable after a few minutes. Totally lacking in energy or commitment to the project, Johnny Depp plays the rare book collector (detective and evaluator?) Dean Corso. He is hired by the ultra-wealthy Satan enthusiast Boris Balkan to determine the authenticity of his copy of The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows, a manual written in the 17th century by Aristide Torchia or, as rumor has it, the devil himself. Though there are three copies remaining in the world, it is rumored that only one is authentic – that is, only one of them has the power to summon the devil himself.

Each of these books possesses nine engravings supposedly crafted by Aristide Torchia, but Corso learns in comparing them that three of the engravings in each copy are not only different from the corresponding engravings in the other copies, but are in fact the work of Lucifer. As you might expect, the owners of these copies are mysteriously murdered as Corso pursues his line of inquiry, and Corso himself is nearly killed a few times, saved only by a combination of stout plot armor and the intervention of a mysterious (and obviously supernatural) green eyed woman. No surprise, Balkan had the owners of the other copies murdered, and attempted after collecting the nine true engravings to summon the devil and pledge his loyalty to the dark lord, only to accidentally burn himself to death. Corso then locates the last authentic engraving and goes to carry out the ritual himself.

As a film, it’s a total flop. If Balkan were going to resort to murder anyway, why not just murder the owners of the texts in the first place? The pacing is horrible, and the fights are worse than what a few kids could stage with a cell phone camera and a YouTube account.

Corso’s growing obsession with the authentic book is the main thread of the thinly-worn plot, and it is in effect simply a re-tooling of the Faust tale. He is an expert book collector, and in the opening minutes of the movie we see that he is able to score extremely rare editions of coveted works with little effort. While Faust summoned the devil out of boredom with the earthly disciplines he had mastered and in order to pursue more knowledge, Corso becomes obsessed with the rarest book in the world, and the attainment of the goal leads him to the devil.

What this suggests about bibliomaniacs and book culture is clear enough. In an age where science has created weapons which could annihilate all of human civilization within minutes, the dread specter of occult knowledge still has a tenacious grip on the collective mind. There’s something about all of those old tomes bound in leather, with mysteriously horrific engravings and (most mysterious of all) their impenetrable arcana locked in the secret vault of a dead language.

I suspect that the cultural associations of Latin have much to do with its frequent recurrence in movies like this. Indeed, we may only think that the devil speaks Latin because he did such a damn good job of it in Marlowe’s Tragedy of Dr. Faustus. Perhaps it makes sense that, in an age when learned doctors were apparently eager to summon the devil, and when all learned doctors knew Latin, that the devil might find it expedient for his business prospects to trudge through a grammar or two. Nevertheless, the idea that Latin is uniquely suited to spells and incantations is in fact entirely arbitrary, a sheer historical accident. One would expect that the devil exists in a kind of supralinguistic state, but even then, there is no reason for him or his demonic posse to speak and respond to Latin beyond the fact that Latin was widely employed by the Catholic Church. I strongly suspect that in places which were under not just the spiritual but also the linguistic influence of the Greek Orthodox Church there is no strongly pronounced association between demonic communication and the Latin language. The sole merit of the movie is that the production team had the decency to use grammatically functional Latin, and not the strange medley of Latin-like words which one sees most frequently either on screen or inked to someone’s skin.

Yet, as I think over the movie, it occurs to me that it really isn’t about bibliomania. Corso hardly seems like an enthusiastic intellectual, and did not appear to do much reading beyond the strict requirements of his job. Moreover, Hollywood apparently conceives of rare books as things which are regularly manhandled by any interested party. Throughout the movie, Corso carries the book with him everywhere (even through the rain), and it is rarely handled without a lit cigarette and/or drink in hand. Even reasonably rare but uninteresting books put together by second-rate hacks are guarded more carefully than this in archival rooms, but the book possibly written by the devil himself can be carted around like the latest James Patterson you picked up at the airport. (Then again, they may be rough equivalents.)

And so, you have here a movie that isn’t really about books or book lovers, and certainly has no appeal for anyone who is into cinema. I only made it through because Joel put me to it and seemed to be amused by my criticisms, and his cat kept me more or less distracted for the last horrific hour. Maybe one day Hollywood will give us a movie about bibliomania, but for now we just have to settle for the devil. I’d rather read anyway.

2019-08-10_16-39-01

Of Ice and Fire I Sing

This text was discovered inside the hollow of a golden branch. On top was written, Pius Aeneas hoc scripsit (“Pious Aeneas wrote this”). On a separate document was a message written by one P.V.M. that said, carmen tam horribile est ut cum inhumata turba vagari malim.” (“This poem is so terrible that I prefer to wander with the unburied masses”). An earlier fragment seems obsessed with a certain Ioannes Nix.

It is thought that after Aeneas encountered Marcellus in the underworld, he received poetry lessons from Vergil himself. From a close reading of this text, we can also infer that Aeneas met the disembodied soul of George R.R. Martin and saw a performance of Game of Thrones. Edited by Dani Bostick.

“And just as constipated infants contort their miserable
Faces but cannot manage to liberate their bowels,
In this way, Jon Snow with a worried expression,
Miserable, looks on the overturned city and kills the
Mother of dragons in a sneaky way with his sword. Then, the
Unhappy monster carries her body on his toenail into the ether.
Snow speaks with these words: “Love is the death of duty.”
But Dido gave herself a wound voluntarily with a sword,
This queen is dead because of herself; it is not my fault,
For I am remarkable in piety, but Snow rules
In no kingdom.”

Ac veluti torquent ora infantes miseranda
Crudi sed nequeunt compressos solvere alvos.
Sic Nix sollicito vultu eversam miser urbem
Aspicit et matrem draconum ensi necat furtim.
Tum monstrum infelix corpus vehit ungula in aether.
Nix tali ore refert: “Amor est finis pietatis.”
At Dido vulnus dedit sponte sua sibi ferro,
Regina moritur propter se; non mihi culpa est.
Sum pietate insignis, et rex; Nix regit nullo
In loco.

« Messire Lancelot du Lac » de « GAULTIER MOAP ». « Messire Lancelot du Lac » de « GAULTIER MOAP ».
,

Ridiculous Etymologies: New York Times Edition

Folk etymology is a long-lived tradition empowering writers to fabricate etymological explanations to suit their current interpretive and argumentative needs.

Procrastinate: To be In favor of Being Out of Control from the New York Times, March 25, 2019.

NYTimesProcrast

Here’s what those joyless pedants of the Oxford English Dictionary have to say about it:

Procras OED

Akrasia

Just in case you were wondering, the ancient Romans and Greeks did have the concept of procrastination. Here are some passages I collected about it.

But where would we be without hermeneutically adventurous lexicography? Plato makes it a centerpiece of his Cratylus! And we have dictionaries dedicated to it:

“Lipless Achilles” Kallierges, Etymologicum Magnum 182

“Akhilleus: [this name comes from] lessening grief, for Achilles was a doctor. Or it is because of the woe, which is pain, he brought to his mother and the Trojans. Or it is from not touching his lips to food [khilê]. For he had no serving of milk at all, but was fed with stag-marrow by Kheiron. This is why he was hailed by the Myrmidons in the following way, according to Euphoriôn:

He came to Phthia without ever tasting any food
This is why the Myrmidons named him Achilles.”

᾿Αχιλλεύς: Παρὰ τὸ ἄχος λύειν· ἰατρὸς γὰρ ἦν. ῍Η διὰ τὸ ἄχος (ὅ ἐστι λύπην) ἐπενεγκεῖν τῇ μητρὶ καὶ τοῖς ᾿Ιλιεῦσιν. ῍Η διὰ τὸ μὴ θίγειν χείλεσι χιλῆς, ὅ ἐστι τροφῆς· ὅλως γὰρ οὐ μετέσχε γάλακτος, ἀλλὰ μυελοῖς ἐλάφων ἐτράφη ὑπὸ Χείρωνος. ῞Οτι ὑπὸ Μυρμιδόνων ἐκλήθη, καθά φησιν Εὐφορίων,

᾿Ες Φθίην χιλοῖο κατήϊε πάμπαν ἄπαστος.
τοὔνεκα Μυρμιδόνες μιν ᾿Αχιλέα φημίξαντο.

Odysseus Was Born on the Road in the Rain: Kallierges, Etymologicum Magnum 615

“The name Odysseus has been explained through the following story. For they claim that when Antikleia, Odysseus’ mother, was pregnant she was travelling [hodeuousan] on Mt. Neritos in Ithaka, and it began to rain [husantos] terribly Because of her labor and fear she collapsed and gave birth to Odysseus there. So, he obtained is name in this way, since Zeus, on the road [hodon] rained [hûsen].”

᾿Οδυσσεύς: Εἴρηται ἀπὸ ἱστορίας. ᾿Αντίκλειαν γάρ φασι τὴν ᾿Οδυσσέως μητέρα ἐγκύμονα ὁδεύουσαν τὸ Νήριτον τῆς ᾿Ιθάκης ὄρος, ὕσαντος πολὺ τοῦ Διὸς, ὑπὸ ἀγωνίας τε καὶ φόβου καταπεσοῦσαν ἀποτεκεῖν τὸν ᾿Οδυσσέα. Οὕτω ταύτης τῆς ὀνομασίας ἔτυχεν, ἐπειδὴ κατὰ τὴν ὁδὸν ὗσεν ὁ Ζεύς.

It is more typical to derive Odysseus’ name from the verb odussomai, which means something like “being hateful, being hated”.  Autolykos, Odysseus’ maternal grandfather, is reported to have named him in the Odyssey (19.407–409).

“I have come to this point hated [odussamenos] by many—
Both men and women over the man-nourishing earth.
So let his name be Ody[s]seus…”

πολλοῖσιν γὰρ ἐγώ γε ὀδυσσάμενος τόδ’ ἱκάνω,
ἀνδράσιν ἠδὲ γυναιξὶν ἀνὰ χθόνα βωτιάνειραν·
τῷ δ’ ᾿Οδυσεὺς ὄνομ’ ἔστω ἐπώνυμον…