The Revival of Greek in Italy

Paolo Giovio, 

Elogia Doctorum Virorum: Chrysoloras

“Emanuel Chrysoloras, who first brought Greek literature back to Italy seven hundred years after it had been driven out by various barbarian invasions, was endowed with such humanity of liberal intellect in his teaching, that his famous image seems worthy of being placed first among the images of Greeks of exceptional merit, although no monuments of his weighty learning remain except some rules on the art of grammar. He was an indefatigable teacher, but he is open to the charge of having been lazy in writing, since the other part of the glory which we have chosen was sought by his useful profession.

He was sent from Byzantium by the emperor John to seek aid for Greece, which was on the verge of collapse, by pleading with all of the kings of Europe. He completed this task with such diligent traveling that he finally stopped in Italy when Greece was liberated from fear, since Tamerlane – the terror of the East – had captured alive near Mount Stella the Ottoman sultan Bayezid I (who had received the epithet of “Lightning” from the incredible swiftness of his movements). And so Chrysoloras, delighted that Greece had been freed from such an awful enemy, first in Venice, then in Florence, Rome, and finally in Pavia, which was under the rule of Giangaleazzo Visconti, managed to excite such a zeal for Greek literature that there sprang from his school minds worthy of the highest honor which on that account will never perish. Among these were Leonardo Bruni, Francesco Barbaro, Francesco Filelfo, Guarino Veronese, and Poggio Bracciolini. Later, when the synod which was called for resolving the controversy surrounding the pseudo-pontificate roused with desire to see such a spectacle, when Baldassare Cossa was deposed. Chrysoloras died in Constance. Poggio Bracciolini decorated his tomb with these lines:

‘Here lies Manuel Chrysoloras, the ornament of the Attic tongue, who came here to seek help for his afflicted country. Italy, this was a fortunate event for you, for he restored to you the grace of the Greek language, so long hidden. This was a fortunate event for you, Emanuel, for you found on Italian soil the honor which Greece never gave you – Greece, ruined in war.'”

chrysoloras3

A cyclops neighbor writes a poem

I Tried to Leave a Note….

I have eaten
The Achaeans
That were locked
In your cave

And which
You were probably
Saving
For a hangover breakfast

Forgive me
you could no longer see them
like puppies
And still warm

Polyphemos is cast as a monstrous giant in the Odyssey where he smashes the heads of Odysseus’ men “as if they were puppies“, but he receives a much more sympathetic treatment in Latin literature (as Erik has written about elegantly). But this critical reception goes back further to Theocritus’ Idyll 11, which, like Ovid’s treatment in the Metamorphoses (13.898-968) casts the cyclops as a rustic lover longing for the nymph Galatea. Even before this, there is Euripides’  Satyr play Cyclops which makes Polyphemos more a bumbling fool than an evil opponent.

(And, just in case this does not make sense, “This is just to say“)

Mirror of History (speculus majus), Ghent, Flanders, c. 1475

Mirror of History (speculus majus), Ghent, Flanders, c. 1475

And while we are doing Odyssey-themed versions of William Carlos Williams, there’s this:

So much depends
Upon

A winnowing fan
Stuck

In the dark
Furrows

Dusted with white
Dried salt

How Many Eyes Did The Cyclops Have? (The Answer Might Surprise You)

Erik has a beautiful post about the Cyclops Polyphemos. The scholia present some debates about what exactly a Cyclops looks like. 

Schol. ad Od. 9.106

“Aristotle examines how the Cyclops Polyphemos came to be a cyclops when neither his father nor his mother was a cyclops. He resolved the issue with a different myth. For, he asserted, horses came from Boreas but Pegasos was born from Poseidon and Medousa. Why, then, would it be strange that this wild beast be born from Poseidon? Similarly, other wild beasts were born from him in the sea, as well as marvels and unusual things.

Hesiod laughably etymologizes [the Kyklopes], saying “They were given the nickname Kyklopes / because they have one single circle eye in the middle of their forehead.” But Homer clearly describes  their nature.

For, if it was of that sort, just as he described the other particular features of the Cyclops, like his size, his cruelty, he would have also described his eye! Philoxenos says that he diverged from Hesiod in that the fact he could not see because he was blinded in one eye. For Homer does not say this about all the other Cyclopes. It is likely that Polyphemos lost his other eye for some other reason before Odysseus’ arrival.

Others oppose this, claiming that if he had two eyes and Odysseus blinded one, how would he say what is attributed to him, “Cyclops, if any mortal man asks you who is the blinder of your eye…” He does not say eyes. And in return the Cyclops says “My father is able to heal my eye.” For if he had another eye, properly, and Odysseus were speaking to him in this way, how would he not have taken care of the other eye? But he said “the earth-shaker will not heal [my] eye.” For this very reason people argue about his eye being completely pierced, because of what is said here, if he did not take care of the eye when it was first compromised, he would never be able to heal it.”

From the MFA in Boston, taken artfully on my phone.

 

ζητεῖ ᾿Αριστοτέλης πῶς ὁ Κύκλωψ ὁ Πολύφημος μήτε πατρὸς ὢν Κύκλωπος, Ποσειδῶνος γὰρ ἦν, μήτε μητρὸς, Κύκλωψ ἐγένετο. αὐτὸς δὲ ἑτέρῳ μύθῳ ἐπιλύεται. καὶ γὰρ ἐκ Βορέου ἵπποι γίνονται, καὶ ἐκ Ποσειδῶνος καὶ τῆς Μεδούσης ὁ Πήγασος ἵππος. τί δ’ ἄτοπον ἐκ Ποσειδῶνος τὸν ἄγριον τοῦτον γεγονέναι; ὥσπερ καὶ τὰ ἄλλα ἐξ αὐτοῦ ἀναλόγως τῇ θαλάσσῃ ἄγρια γεννᾶται ἢ τερατώδη ἢ παρηλλαγμένα. γελοίως δ’ αὐτοὺς ἐτυμολογεῖ ῾Ησίοδος “Κύκλωπες δ’ ὄνομ’ ἦσαν ἐπώνυμον, οὕνεκ’ ἄρω σφέων κυκλοτερὴς ὀφθαλμὸς ἕεις ἐνέκειτο μετώπῳ.” ὁ δ’ ῞Ομηρος φαίνεται φύσιν αὐτῶν λέγων· εἰ γὰρ ἦν τι τοιοῦτον, ὥσπερ τὰς ἄλλας ἰδιότητας τῶν ὀφθέντων ἔγραψεν ἐπ’ αὐτοῦ Κύκλωπος, τὸ μέγεθος, τὴν ὠμότητα, οὕτω κἂν τὸ περὶ ὀφθαλμοῦ ἔγραψε. φησὶ δὲ ὁ Φιλόξενος ὅτι ἐπλάνησε τὸν ῾Ησίοδον τὸ τὸν ἕνα ὀφθαλμὸν τυφλωθέντα μηκέτι ὁρᾶν. οὔτε δὲ περὶ πάντων τῶν Κυκλώπων εἶπε τοῦτο ῞Ομηρος, εἰκός τε τὸν Πολύφημον κατά τινα ἄλλην αἰτίαν τὸν ἕτερον τῶν ὀφθαλμῶν ἀπολωλεκέναι πρὸ τῆς ᾿Οδυσσέως ἀφίξεως. οἱ δὲ ἀντιλέγοντες τούτῳ φασὶν, εἰ δύο εἶχεν ὀφθαλμοὺς καὶ τὸν ἕνα ᾿Οδυσσεὺς ἐτύφλωσε, πῶς συμφωνήσει τὸ ὑπ’ αὐτοῦ λεγόμενον, “Κύκλωψ, εἰ καί τίς σε καταχθονίων ἀνθρώπων ὀφθαλμοῦ εἴρηται ἀεικελίην ἀλαωτύν” (502.); οὐκ εἶπεν ὀφθαλμῶν. ἔτι δὲ καὶ τὸ προκείμενον παρὰ τοῦ Κύκλωπος, ὅτι δύναταί μου ὁ Ποσειδῶν ἰάσασθαι τὸν ὀφθαλμόν. εἰ γὰρ ἦν ἑτερόφθαλμος ἤδη ὑπάρχων, ἔλεγεν ἂν αὐτῷ ᾿Οδυσσεὺς, καὶ πῶς τὸν ἕτερον οὐκ ἐθεράπευσεν; ἀλλ’ εἶπεν “ὡς οὐκ ὀφθαλμόν γ’ ἰήσεται οὐδ’ ἐνοσίχθων” (525.). δι’ αὐτοῦ δὲ τούτου ἀπολογοῦνται περὶ τοῦ εἶναι αὐτὸν διόφθαλμον, διὰ τοῦ εἰπεῖν, εἰ τὸν πρῶτον πηρωθέντα ὀφθαλμὸν οὐκ ἐθεράπευσεν, οὐδὲ τοῦτον ἰάσεται. H.Q.

These are, of course, the types of investigations for which Seneca would have the most disdain:

Seneca, De Brevitate Vitae 13

“It would be annoying to list all the people who spent their lives pursuing board games, ball games, or sunbathing. Men whose pleasures are so busy are not at leisure. For example, no one will be surprised that those occupied by useless literary studies work strenuously—and there is great band of these in Rome now too. This sickness used to just afflict the Greeks, to discover the number of oars Odysseus possessed, whether the Iliad was written before the Odyssey, whether the poems belong to the same author, and other matters like this which, if you keep them to yourself, cannot please your private mind; but if you publish them, you seem less learned than annoying.”

Persequi singulos longum est, quorum aut latrunculi aut pila aut excoquendi in sole corporis cura consumpsere vitam. Non sunt otiosi, quorum voluptates multum negotii habent. Nam de illis nemo dubitabit, quin operose nihil agant, qui litterarum inutilium studiis detinentur, quae iam apud Romanos quoque magna manus est. Graecorum iste morbus fuit quaerere, quem numerum Ulixes remigum habuisset, prior scripta esset Ilias an Odyssia, praeterea an eiusdem essent auctoris, alia deinceps huius notae, quae sive contineas, nihil tacitam conscientiam iuvant sive proferas, non doctior videaris sed molestior.

Mocking the quibbles of scholars is where the pejorative use of the term ‘academic’ comes. This is an ancient tradition!

Athenaeus, Deipnosophistae 1.22

“You know that somewhere Timo the Philasian calls the Museum a birdcage as he mocks the scholars who are supported there because they were fed like the priciest birds in a big cage:

Many are fed in many-peopled Egypt,
The paper-pushers closed up waging endless war
in the bird-cage of the Muses.

ὅτι τὸ Μουσεῖον ὁ Φιλιάσιος Τίμων ὁ σιλλογράφος (fr. 60 W) τάλαρόν πού φησιν ἐπισκώπτων τοὺς ἐν αὐτῷ τρεφομένους φιλοσόφους, ὅτι ὥσπερ ἐν  πανάγρῳ τινὶ σιτοῦνται καθάπερ οἱ πολυτιμότατοι ὄρνιθες·

πολλοὶ μὲν βόσκονται ἐν Αἰγύπτῳ πολυφύλῳ
βιβλιακοὶ χαρακῖται ἀπείριτα δηριόωντες
Μουσέων ἐν ταλάρῳ.

Screaming and Intemperance of Words: A Cruel Reign

Seneca, De Clementia, 7

“A cruel reign is churning and dark with shadows; meanwhile, people shudder and grow pale at the surprising sound, even as the one who causes the confusion trembles too. Someone is forgiven more easily in private affairs for seeking vengeance for themselves. For they can be wounded and the sorrow comes from the injury and they fear being scorned. It seems that it is weakness for the wounded not to return the favor rather than mercy.

But the one for whom vengeance is easy earns certain praise for clemency once vengeance is dismissed. It is for people in a humble place to use force, to feud, to rush into a battle and to give a free rein to wrath. When blows fall among equals, they are light; but for a king, screaming and intemperance of words are ill-fit to his majesty.”

Crudele regnum turbidum tenebrisque obscurum est, inter trementes et ad repentinum sonitum expavescentes ne eo quidem, qui omnia perturbat, inconcusso. Facilius privatis ignoscitur pertinaciter se vindicantibus; possunt enim laedi, dolorque eorum ab iniuria venit; timent praeterea contemptum, et non rettulisse laedentibus gratiam infirmitas videtur, non clementia; at cui ultio in facili est, is omissa ea certam laudem mansuetudinis consequitur. Humili loco positis exercere manum, litigare, in rixam procurrere ac morem irae suae gerere liberius est; leves inter paria ictus sunt; regi vociferatio quoque verborumque intemperantia non ex maiestate est.

Image result for medieval manuscript tyrant

Liber Floridus

Fake Cicero Quotation Alert!

The following post is making the rounds in favor of impeachment (thanks to my friend and former roommate Timothy Gerolami, the south shore’s biggest P. Clodius Pulcher fan and librarian extraordinaire for bringing this to my attention):

Image may contain: 1 person, text

I don’t want to disagree with the contents of the quote or the sentiments of using it (our current president is certainly impeachable and likely the worst and arguably the most corrupt president in our nation’s history). But this is a demonstrably false quotation on two counts.

First, Cicero died on the 7th of December in 43 BCE. So, the date of attribution is wrong, but that is not a big deal (for me). The bigger deal is that this passage is not a translation of anything in Cicero. It is from a modern novel by Taylor Caldwell called A Pillar of Iron (1965, 661) as documented by wikiquote. Another site documents how this quotation made the leap from historical novel to political discourse via a conservative judge. (For his speech, look here. And thanks again to Timmy G. for both links.)

When we quote the past, we appropriate it for modern purposes–which is fine. But when we use false quotations we attempt to assert a modern purchase with counterfeit currency. This is not about the aptness of the quotation or the rightness of the movement. Indeed, I don’t think it matters so deeply–but it is lazy and likely harmful to use a quotation in this way .

We seem to want the appearance of antiquity and propriety without wanting to do the work it requires. This laziness is not exactly the same as spreading false information (e.g. ‘fake news’) but emerges from the same meme-crazy, superficial information culture that makes fake news inevitable. It undermines our attempts to use history to understand our present events and attenuates the credibility of the very practice.

The Romans and Greeks have lots of great stuff to say about treason, why not just quote them? If Cicero’s quotation there is not good enough, why not some Cicero on hate or the glory of killing a tyrant on the Ides of March (which he loves to talk about, even though he did not help)?

If that’s not enough, here are some others.

Cicero, Philippic 13.21

“At this point, what crime, what betrayal has this traitor not committed? He attacks our colonists, an army of the Roman people, and a general, a consul elect! He despoils the lands of the best citizens. He is the most hostile enemy who threatens good people with crosses and torture.

What peace can there be with this man, this Marcus Lepidus? No punishment would be enough for him to satisfy the state!”

Postea quod scelus, quod facinus parricida non edidit? Circumsedet colonos nostros, exercitum populi Romani, imperatorem, consulem designatum: agros divexat civium optimorum; hostis taeterrimus omnibus bonis cruces ac tormenta minitatur.

Cum hoc, M. Lepide, pax esse quae potest? Cuius ne supplicio quidem ullo satiari videtur posse res publica.

Cicero, De Haruspicium Responsis 17

“Yesterday I noticed someone muttering, and people were saying that he denied I could be endured because, when I was asked by this most unholy traitor what state I belonged to, I responded to the applause of you and the Roman knights “to the state which is impossible without me”.

I believe that he groaned at this. How should have I responded? I ask this from the very man who thinks I am intolerable. Should I have declared myself a Roman citizen?”

Vidi enim hesterno die quemdam murmurantem: quem aiebant negare ferri me posse, quia cum ab hoc eodem impurissimo parricida rogarer cuius essem civitatis, respondi me, probantibus et vobis et equitibus Romanis, eius esse, quae carere me non potuisset. Ille, ut opinor, ingemuit. Quid igitur responderem? quaero ex eo ipso, qui ferre me non potest. Me civem esse Romanum?

Wednesday’s Wondrous Waters: Rivers from the Paradoxographus Vaticanus

Paradoxographus Vaticanus, 18-22

18 “There is a river Perinthos in Thrace where the city Perinthos is too. If anyone drinks from it, their internal organs swell [or develop tumors?]. The reason for this is that the drops from the Gorgon’s head flowed into it after it was carried off by Perseus.”

 ποταμὸς ἐν Θρᾴκῃ, ὅθεν καὶ Πέρινθος ἡ πόλις· ἐκ τούτου εἰ πίοι τις, τὰ σπλάγχνα ἐξογκοῦται. ῾Η δ’ αἰτία, ὅτι σταγόνες ἐκ τῆς κεφαλῆς Γοργόνος ἐν τούτῳ ἐρρύησαν βασταζομένης ὑπὸ Περσέως.

19 “Among the Kelainai of Phrygia there is a river Marsyas. When that one somehow hears an aulos, it crashes greatly; if it is a kithara, it flows in silence, since the the aulos-player Marsyas drowned in it.”

᾿Εν Κελαιναῖς τῆς Φρυγίας ποταμός ἐστι Μαρσύας· οὗτος ἔν πως αὐλοῦ ἀκούσῃ, βομβεῖ μέγα, ἢν δὲ κιθάρας, μετὰ σιγῆς ῥεῖ, ἀποπνιγέντος ἐν αὐτῷ Μαρσύου τοῦ αὐλητοῦ.

20 “The river Tauromenios is in Sicily near the city of the same name. When that river hears thunder, it is frightened and retreats into the earth; but when the thunder stops, it rushes back from the earth again like a spring.”

Ταυρομένιος ποταμός ἐστιν ἐν Σικελίᾳ παρὰ τὴν ὁμώνυμον πόλιν· οὗτος βροντῆς ἀκούων φοβεῖται καὶ καταδύεται εἰς τὴν γῆν, ἢν δὲ παύσηται ἡ βροντή, πάλιν ἄνεισιν ἐκ τῆς γῆς καθάπερ πηγή.

21 “A cold river named Akis flows through Sicily. It has muddy water during the summer, but during the winter it is fine and clear.”

Ποταμὸς ψυχρὸς ὄνομα <῎Ακις> διὰ τῆς Σικελίας ῥεῖ· οὗτος τοῦ μὲν θέρους ἰλυῶδες ἔχει ὕδωρ, τοῦ δὲ χειμῶνος καλόν τε καὶ διαυγές.

22 “Among the Lungkêsktai there is a spring. If anyone drinks from it, they get drunk.”

᾿Εν Λυγκήσταις κρήνη ἐστίν, ἀφ’ ἧς ἐάν τις πίῃ, μεθύσκεται.

 

Homeric Fantasy (Baseball)

In honor of the all-star game, I am re-posting this with minor changes. Thanks to everyone who played along the last time

I don’t want to attract the enmity of one part of the world even for the potential devotion of the other, but I have been a Red Sox fan as long as I can remember. In fact, I really can split my life up into four basic periods: before 1986, from 1986-2003; 2003-2007; and post 2007. And I am on the cusp of a fifth: now my children watch games with me. While they drift in and out of attention, they come back for every Mookie Betts at-bat.

But, beyond a particularly pathological obsession with a single team, I really love do baseball. One of my greatest regrets for my life is that I was not blessed with a good eye and fast hands: I did not record a single hit in my entire little league career.

During the spring, the author Guy Gavriel Kay (who hassles me before for loving the Red Sox and has suggested the authorities be notified of my brainwashing of children) was discussing the highs and lows of fantasy baseball on Twitter. I cannot play fantasy baseball because I can’t handle the stress. Somehow, our brief discussion turned into a contemplation of Homeric heroes as baseball players.

This conversation combines two things I love (Homer and baseball). It also comes close to an activity I wanted to run a few years back in a leadership course. My idea was that we would have students play basketball together in teams but in the personae of Homeric heroes. (The activity name was “Hero-Ball”.) Some ‘refs’ were going to randomly impose rules (gods); there would be fans, etc. The reasoning behind this lark was that we too often fail to think about how who we think we are shapes the way we engage with others.

(The activity was vetoed by my department chair at the time as exposing the university to too much liability. I have similarly considered a D&D style role playing game).

So, I spent all day trying to do other work and thinking about this absurd topic. Here’s what I have. First, if we try to select the best heroes from each side and give them positions somewhat akin to their ‘skills’, the Achaeans are clearly ‘stacked’. I made Odysseus a starting pitcher, but I am open to changing him out. The Achaeans have a DH, because they come from a wealthier, younger league.

This is an especially appropriate thought experiment for an All-Star Game because each side of the war is like a roster of All-Stars gathered from the best ‘teams’ all over Greece and Asia. Indeed, for ancient audiences the setting of the Trojan War was like a mythical All-Star game bringing together local heroes in one fantastic spectacle. Think of the catalogue of ships in the Iliad as an elaborate line-up announcement.

[N.B. For baseball haters or agnostics: one could play this game with any sport!]

Team Achaeans

SP Agamemnon
SP Odysseus

Closer Teucer

1B Diomedes
2B Thoas
SS Oilean Ajax
3B Ajax
RF Sthenelos
LF Patroclus
CF Achilles
DH Idomeneus

Catcher: Menelaos
Bullpen: Thersites
Disabled List: Protesilaus, Philoctetes

Bench: The Myrmidons; Epeios (PH), Antilochus (INF/OF)

Coach: Nestor; Pitching Coach: Calchas

Some details and justifications: I generally made those famed for missiles (archery or spears) into pitchers. Odysseus, as I tweeted, reminds me of a wily veteran who leans on junk and the knuckleball but can bend your knees and break your back when he wants to. Agamemnon, on the other hand, is a player coach who throws only garbage but thinks he’s got both power and finesse. The archer Teucer is, obviously, their best option for closer. Thersites is in the bullpen as a crazy specialist.

The hitters are as follows: Achilles, Idomeneus, Ajax, and Diomedes all have obvious power and are distributed according to strength and speed. Patroclus might not be a natural left-fielder, but he’s not standing any where but near Achilles. Sthenelos is a poor man’s Patroclus and Oilean Ajax is sneaky, nasty, and fast, so an obvious shortstop. Menelaos? Well, he is in the middle of everything, thinks he’s in charge, and is the only person the other Atreid will pitch to.

The Trojans have some heavy hitters and one high-priced free agent (Sarpedon), but their team is overwhelmingly stocked with sons and relatives of Priam.

Team Trojans

SP Paris
Closer Teucer

1B Hektor
2B Deiphobus
SS Dolon
3B Sarpedon
RF Glaukos
LF Polydamas
CF Aeneas

Catcher: Helenos

Manager: Priam
Bullpen: Asius, Lykaon, Pandaros

Bench: Sons and Sons-in-Law of Priam

Pitching Coach: Antenor

Disabled List: Troilus, Rhesus, Rhesus’ men

Batboys: Astyanax, Ascanius, Polites

The Trojans have some power with Hektor at 1B (after a shift from Center field to prolong his career), Sarpedon at 3B, and Aeneas in Center. Glaukos and Polydamas are good players, but I don’t see them making the HOF. Dolon, like his Achaean counterpart, is fast and smart. When he goes down with a ‘collision’ injury after facing Diomedes in the basepaths, the Trojans are going to have to put some random son of Priam in there. This won’t work out so well: Deiphobus is already second, but that was Helen’s decision. At Catcher we find Helenos–he sees everything on the field and calls it like it is (often spending the time on the bench talking over signs with his sister Kassandra).

The real Trojan weakness is pitching. Paris “The Prince of Troy” Alexandros throws the prettiest curve ball this side of the Skamander. His fastball is there too–but he can’t seem to keep his focus on the field. He also really kills team morale, and sometimes he disappears in between innings. Their bullpen is strong, but just wait until Achilles gets a chance to face Lykaon with the bases loaded. I am going to call that shot for him.

Lineups: (This is an issue of contention: Achilles wants to bat 3rd followed by Ajax. He also thinks Patroclus should bat 5th, but they have to keep the Cretan contingent happy. Agamemnon has different ideas: he wants to put Achilles in his proper place for his speed.) Note: The Achaeans use a DH because they have a younger league and more men.

Agamemnon, SP

Achilles (CF)
Diomedes (1B)
Menelaos (C)
Ajax (3B)
Idomeneus (DH)
Oilean Ajax (SS)
Thoas (2B)
Sthenelos (RF)
Patroclus (LF)

Bench: Ajax

Team Trojan

The Trojans just don’t have the late game flexibility of their opponents. They top the lineup with some shifty speed, followed by an unknown quantity, and then a trio of power who would intimidate anyone smarter than Agamemnon. The problem with their power-trio is that it is really hard to keep them on the field at the same time. Sarpedon and Hektor get injured; Aeneas’ mother keeps pulling him out of games.

Paris, SP

Dolon (SS)
Deiphobos (2B)
Aeneas (CF)
Hektor (1B)
Sarpedon (3B)
Glaukos (RF)
Polydamas (LF)
Helenos (Catcher)

Now who would like to give me a box score for this game?

Some tweets

The Achaean lineup in Linear B, Courtesy of .@e_pe_me_ri on Twitter

Thanks to everyone playing along on twitter with #HomericBaseball. I am sorry I did not include all of your contributions. @ Me and I will add you!

The World’s Saddest Book: A Review

No book, ancient or modern, serves as an apt comparison to Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy, a literary monster which not only defies summary or explanation, but is also nearly impossible to read in a traditional sense. There are two viable methods for approaching Burton’s work: one (and this is perhaps the sane and sensible method) involves simply flipping it open from time to time and perusing it for anything of interest. You may open to a random page; you may consult the index; you may find your way into this literary labyrinth anyway you like, knowing that you may extract yourself any time at your leisure. The other method – sure to induce melancholy, if you were not already in its grip – is to make the heroic effort to plough through the book from cover to cover. I have tried both methods over the years, yet I found myself wholly unable to make substantial headway on it. This literary mass, this rudis indigestaque moles has been beckoning me for years, and so – being a wholly unreasonable person – I committed to setting myself about the plough, and for the past ten days have devoted all of my reading time to Burton. In one sense, I have spent a week and a half reading one book; in another, I have spent a week and a half reading everything that Burton ever read, at least in summary format. Burton himself freely acknowledges that his work is likely to cause a certain amount of cognitive and spiritual strain: “After a harsh and unpleasing discourse of melancholy, which hath hitherto molested your patience, and tired the author…” [3.1.1.1]

The Anatomy of Melancholy is a reader’s book, a writer’s book, a scholar’s book. Though I suspect that the material contained between its rather distantly-spaced covers is sufficiently broad that any reader would, perusing it long enough, find something which addressed their interests, it nevertheless remains true that the true bookworm – the helluo librorum – is the reader most likely to appreciate Burton’s approach. Burton is, through and through, a reader. There are moments at which his prose is worked up rather nicely (in particular in the lengthy prefatory section Democritus to the Reader), but substantial chunks of the book are little more than quotations or (what is still more frustrating now that many of Burton’s sources are not only out of print but perhaps even lost entirely) bare citations of works in rapid succession. These do not make for the most enlivening reading, especially if the book has begun to tax your mental stamina. Samuel Johnson famously claimed of The Anatomy of Melancholy that it was the only book which compelled him to wake up two hours early every morning to read it. Given Johnson’s own confession to reading books in an unsystematic and discursive way, in conjunction with his advice against reading a book for which you do not feel an immediate inclination, I suspect that Johnson went in for the purple passages more than anything.

On the topic of Johnson, it appears that the expression given to his aversion to nautical travel in Boswell’s Life may owe something to his reading of Burton. In The Anatomy of Melancholy, we read, “What is a ship but a prison?” [Part 2.2.6.3.4] Johnson, according to Boswell, claimed, “No man will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to get himself into a jail; for being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned.” To be sure, the parallel may be purely coincidental, but approaching Burton after having read through Boswell’s Life three times, I felt in some ill-defined way a continuity from Burton’s thought to Johnson’s.

Johnson’s primary criticism of the book, that “It is, perhaps, overloaded with quotation,” hits on exactly that part of the work which is most likely to trouble modern readers, while simultaneously being one of the work’s primary charms. Johnson’s assertion that “there is great spirit and great power in what Burton says, when he writes from his own mind,” seems true enough, but Burton’s original writing constitutes only a small portion of the total unwieldy mass of the book.

Image result for robert burton anatomy of melancholy

And here it is that it becomes clear that the book’s primary appeal will be to other bookish types: there is something undeniably fascinating about the amount which Burton read, digested, and organized. He seems less a man than a machine. The book is divided into three overarching partitions, each of which is meticulously divided into sections, membra, subsections, and so on. This is all organized in that hyper systematized mode which was very much the fashi in the 17th century. The quotations are not simply a disordered mass; each of them is specifically and intentionally marshalled to illustrate some particular point. Burton has translated many of the Greek quotations into Latin, and has occasionally either modified the Latin quotations or slipped when citing them from memory.

No one could doubt the man’s Classical attainments, yet it is his general approach toward Classical quotation which fascinated me. Burton was the true polymath, and gathered together ancient, Medieval, and contemporary sources without explicitly or consciously discriminating between them. Burton’s polymathy cuts across time and disciplines, and the panoptic view of all subjects within The Anatomy reminds us just how silly the rigorous demarcation of intellectual disciplines can be. Burton had an admirable command of Classical literature which would shame many a Classicist today. One could use his book as a “crammer” for many of the most famous and well-loved of Classical references and quotations, and if it were not so hard, it could serve as a Classical education in miniature. But The Anatomy shares something in common with another monstrous work of English prose: Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. When reading Gibbon, one must already be thoroughly steeped in ancient and medieval history and geography to fully appreciate much of the narrative. Similarly, much of The Anatomy is best appreciated if you have at least some grounding in Latin, and the Classical quotations are perhaps best appreciated when you recognize them, even if you find that you are no longer able to place them immediately.

Burton’s book is not simply a storehouse of quotation, but when asked what I was reading, I found that I had considerable difficulty describing the book, as it defies any attempt at non-pretentious summary. “You see, it is a book about everything and nothing…” Perhaps the simplest way to describe it is as a loose collection of about five or six thoughts on various topics, which are qualified by 1,200 pages of footnotes. Or perhaps it makes more sense to say that The Anatomy is a highly-systematized commonplace book, in which Burton occasionally adds commentary in his own voice. It contains little of what could be deemed original thought, yet it is very much sui generis and feels far more creative than it should.

The Anatomy is also Burton’s autobiography. He is the archetypal umbraticus doctor [cloistered pedant], who has lived his life ass to chair, elbows to desk, eyes to codex. He freely admits to having done nothing beyond study. Indeed, though he expatiates at some length on the topic of love, and adopts a rather polemical tone toward travel writers (claiming that he would set all of their geography straight if he had undertaken their voyages), he freely admits that he has never sampled from the gardens of Venus or ventured far beyond the library. Despite that apparent limitation, he bestrides the world of learning like a colossus, and seems to have become a man of the world without experience.

Burton does not always quote uncritically, and on occasion shows touches of a more progressive, humanistic understanding. In the early pages of his third partition, dealing with melancholy brought on by love, we read page after page of distilled misogyny from ancient to contemporary sources, focusing chiefly with what are perceived to be the manifest dangers and deformities of women. Yet, after collecting all of this together, Burton asks the reader not to impute misogyny to him – he claims that he is a mere compiler, and invites the reader to substitute “him” for “her” in all of his quoted passages, arguing that they would all be equally true with pronouns replaced, as reminders of how degraded all of humanity really is. But Burton certainly lapses into the prejudices of his time and place in the final portion of his book, in which he cites a heap of anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic, and anti-Muslim sources in his discussion of Religious Melancholy. The third partition is in many ways the least enjoyable, in part because it gives us a more reactionary, more ossified, more myopic and narrowly prejudicial Burton than the humorous cynic whom we encounter in the first. Our scholar is on far firmer footing when discussing such subjects as The Miseries of Scholars than when wading into the pangs of despised love, and in general his commentary on books reads far better than his commentary on life itself.

Ultimately, it is hard to determine how to approach and read The Anatomy. At times, the entire project seems like a ridiculous satire of itself, a monument to the absurdity not only of bookish learning, but of the whole of life. Burton wrote the book to work through his own melancholy, and yet, after well over 1,000 pages of modern text, no real progress seems to have been made toward understanding or treating it, even in a strictly theoretical way. It is as though Burton, in the character of Democritus Junior, winks at us from the pages and says, “Behold, dear reader, how I have wasted my life. Read this book, and know that yours has been wasted too.”

The Anatomy of Melancholy is torture to read from cover to cover, but it is exquisite torture, not without its gratifications. I confess that I feel that it took something from me to finish it all. Yet, having finished a cover-to-cover reading, I look forward to enjoying it for the rest of my life by flipping through it at random for scraps of erudition and delight. It is a wholly incomparable book, an entire liberal education in and of itself; and though it may actually induce melancholy or madness in the reader, no literary experience will ever rival this stupendous monument to the wonder, the thrill, and the vanity of scholarship.

Inside Menophilia’s Universe: A Tawdry Tuesday Classic (NSFW)

Last year, I was alerted to this poem by a friend. I won’t out him to the world. This is some tasteless stuff.

Greek Anthology 5.105 [Attributed to Marcus Argentarius]

 “The lusty ladies claim that Menophila’s universe is different,
Since it contains a taste of every kind of vice.
Come here and check her out, Astrologers, for her sky
Can fit both the dog and the twins inside.”

῎Αλλος ὁ Μηνοφίλας λέγεται παρὰ μαχλάσι κόσμος,
ἄλλος, ἐπεὶ πάσης γεύεται ἀκρασίης.
ἀλλ’ ἴτε, Χαλδαῖοι, κείνης πέλας· ἦ γὰρ ὁ ταύτης
οὐρανὸς ἐντὸς ἔχει καὶ κύνα καὶ διδύμους.

The joke (and the filth) depends on a double entendre. The Dog and the Twins are celestial bodies [Sirius, the Dog-star and Gemini, the twins]. But “dog” (κύων) and “twins” (διδύμοι) can also mean “cock and balls”. ὄρχεις is the more clinical word for “testicles”.  The “sky” here may be euphemistic for Menophila’s mouth (As our friend below notes, “Aristotle (at least) uses “ouranos” for “the roof of the mouth,” so this is definitely about fellatio.”)

A Facebook correspondent (S. C. Stroup) has suggested some useful improvements to this post. First, “the name “Menophila” (Μηνοφίλα) can be read as “month” / “moon” lover (from μήνη, “moon”); so her name is an astronomical pun, as well.” This adds a nice, though mind-bending visual possibility, which Stroup picks up on:

“I would render the second line as “Hers is different, as it tastes of all mixtures.” The joke, I think, is that the Twins and the Dog—Gemini and Sirius—don’t appear right next to each other. So she mixes it up.”

So, here is Stroup’s full translation:

“Ladies of luxury claim that Moongirl’s delights are different;
Different (they say) because she enjoys all mixtures.
Come, Astrologers: and check her out:
Her vault of heaven holds both cock and balls.”

Image result for ancient Greek brothels

Monstrous Monday: Another Horror to Fear from Antiquity

Paradoxographus Vaticanus 2

2 “Daliôn says in the first book of his Ethiopian Matters that there is an animal in Ethiopia called a krokotta. When that creature goes near backyards it hears people chattering, and especially the words/names of children. But when it goes out at night, it speaks words/names and the children who come out are devoured by it”

Δαλίων φησίν, ἐν τῇ πρώτῃ τῶν Αἰθιοπικῶν ἐν τῇ Αἰθιοπίᾳ θηρίον γίνεσθαι κροκότταν καλούμενον· τοῦτο ἐρχόμενον πρὸς τὰς ἐπαύλεις κατακούειν τῶν λαλουμένων, καὶ μάλιστα τὰ ὀνόματα τῶν παιδίων. νυκτὸς δὲ ἐρχόμενον λαλεῖ τὰ ὀνόματα καὶ ἐξερχόμενα τὰ παιδία καταβιβρώσκονται ὑπ’ αὐτοῦ.

Photios adds the following horror:

“[We should note the fact that] there is a creature in Ethiopia which is named krokottas which is like a combination of wolf and a dog, but it is more savage than both and is heavier in its face and at the end of its feet. It is also amazing for its boldness, and it is extremely capable compared to the rest in its teeth and its belly. For they also tear to pieces easily every type of bone and whatever they take up is consumed easily and their digestion is indescribable. In addition, while some of them have been described as imitating human language, we don’t believe it. Nevertheless, some have added that they call out people by name at night—and that they try to use a human voice in doing this—and then they gobble up whoever comes out as they fall upon them.”

     ῞Οτι ὁ κατὰ τὴν Αἰθιοπίαν ὀνομαζόμενος κροκόττας ἐστὶ μὲν ὡς ἐκ λύκου καὶ κυνὸς σύνθετον, ἀμφοῖν δὲ ἀγριώτερον καὶ πολλῷ βαρύτερον ἀπό τε τοῦ προσώπου καὶ τῶν ἄκρων ποδῶν, ἀλκῇ δὲ θαυμαστόν, ὀδοῦσι δὲ καὶ κοιλίᾳ δυνατώτατον τῶν ἄλλων. Καὶ γὰρ κατάγνυσιν εὐπόρως πᾶν ὀστοῦ γένος, καὶ τὸ διαιρεθὲν εὐθέως δεδαπάνηται, καὶ περὶ τὰς πέψεις ἀδιήγητον. Τοῦτο δὲ καὶ μιμεῖσθαί τινες τὴν ἀνθρωπίνην διάλεκτον διηγούμενοι ἡμᾶς μὲν οὐ πείθουσιν· ἐκεῖνοι δὲ καὶ τοῦτο προστιθέασιν, ὡς καὶ ἐξ ὀνόματος κατὰ τὰς νύκτας καλοῦντες, τοὺς δὲ ὡς ἐπ’ ἀνθρώπου φωνῇ προσιόντας, οἱ δὲ ἀθρόον ἐπεισπίπτοντες κατεσθίουσιν.

The crocotta shows up elsewhere as well (Pliny, Aelian, etc).

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