Let’s Talk about [Death] Baby: #DeathAndClassics

Roman Epitaph, B808

“[Hey,] you who are reading this epitaph, remember that you too will be dead.”

Qui legis hunc titulum, mortalem te esse memento.

A few days ago I posted the following tweet.

Aelian, Fragment 187/190 (from Stobaeus 3.29.58)

“Solon the Athenian, the son of Eksêkestides, when his nephew sang some song of Sappho at a drinking party, took pleasure in it and asked the young man to teach it to him. When someone asked why he was eager to learn it, he responded: “So, once I learn it, I may die.”

Σόλων ὁ ᾿Αθηναῖος ᾿Εξηκεστίδου παρὰ πότον τοῦ ἀδελφιδοῦ αὐτοῦ μέλος τι Σαπφοῦς ᾄσαντος, ἥσθη τῷ μέλει καὶ προσέταξε τῷ μειρακίῳ διδάξει αὐτόν. ἐρωτήσαντος δέ τινος διὰ ποίαν αἰτίαν τοῦτο σπουδάσειεν, ὃ δὲ ἔφη ‘ἵνα μαθὼν αὐτὸ ἀποθάνω.’

There were lots of interesting answers–it would be annoying to post all the tweets here, but I have added some to give an idea of the range of responses.

Simonides, Fragment 15

“Human strength is meager
Our plains incomplete
Toil follows toil in our short lives.
Death looms inescapable for all—
People who are good and bad draw
of that an equal portion.”

ἀνθρώπων ὀλίγον μὲν
κάρτος, ἄπρακτοι δὲ μεληδόνες,
αἰῶνι δ’ ἐν παύρωι πόνος ἀμφὶ πόνωι·
ὁ δ’ ἄφυκτος ὁμῶς ἐπικρέμαται θάνατος·
κείνου γὰρ ἴσον λάχον μέρος οἵ τ’ ἀγαθοὶ
ὅστις τε κακός.

Fragment 16

“Since you are human, never claim what tomorrow might bring.
Nor, if you see a fortunate man, how long it will last.
For not even the time of a tender-winged fly
Is not as fast.”

ἄνθρωπος ἐὼν μή ποτε φάσηις ὅ τι γίνεται 〚αὔριον〛,
μηδ’ ἄνδρα ἰδὼν ὄλβιον ὅσσον χρόνον ἔσσεται·
ὠκεῖα γὰρ οὐδὲ τανυπτερύγου μυίας
οὕτως ἁ μετάστασις.

Here are the tweets I sent to try to contextualize the question:

I ask the #deathandclassics question in all seriousness because it is a question I actually consider often (1/8)

I actually have been memorizing the opening lines of the #Odyssey to recite to myself in times of agitation. And I think, if I know I am going to die, I will recite it to myself. (2/8)

Why the #Odyssey? I think the #Iliad is the poem of death and the Odyssey is the poem of life. Both poems are at some level about what it means to be a person, but the Odyssey is about how life is lived. #deathandclassics (3/8)

In a way, it will be like a replaying of my life through a story I have read many times. There is also the ancient allegorical tradition that the Odyssey is about the transition from one realm to the next, the movement of a soul from one plane to another #deathandclassics (4/8)

Even without the allegory, the Odyssey is about the journey of a person and the journey that IS the person. #deathandclassics (5/8)

I think that this might be nice to think about in the final moments—that even though I individual am passing on, I am drifting away on words that have moved through a thousand years #deathandclassics (6/8)

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A Stomach Ache: Cicero Writes His Brother About Books

Cicero, Letters to Quintus 25

“I believe that you will anticipate that I didn’t lose those books without some kind of a stomach ache…”

puto enim te existimaturum a me illos libros non sine aliquo meo stomacho esse relictos.

Cicero, Letters to Quintus 24

“Concerning the issue of supplementing your Greek library and trading books in order to acquire Latin ones, I would really like to help get this done, since these exchanges are to my benefit as well. But I don’t have anyone even for my own purposes whom I can trust with this. The kinds of books which are helpful are not for sale and they cannot be procured without a deeply learned person who has a serious work ethic.”

De bibliotheca tua Graeca supplenda, libris commutandis, Latinis comparandis, valde velim ista confici, praesertim cum ad meum quoque usum spectent. sed ego mihi ipsi ista per quem agam non habeo. neque enim venalia sunt, quae quidem placeant, et confici nisi per hominem et peritum et diligentem non possunt.

Bonus Quotes from Cato, Dicta Catonis

“Read books”

“Remember the things you read”

Libros lege.

Quae legeris memento.

 

Books–Loyal, Forgiving Friends

Cicero, Letters to Friends 175 to Varro

“Know that since I got back to the city, I have renewed my relationships with my old friends—by which I mean my books. It is not as if I avoided their presence because I was judging them, but because they filled me with shame. For I believe that since I submitted myself to events with the most turbulent and faithless companions, I had insufficiently obeyed my books’ commands.

But they have pardoned me. They welcome me back into that ancient communion and they tell me that you were wiser than I was because you persisted in this practice. But this is how I have achieved an understanding with them and why I think I am right to hope that should I see you again it will be easy for me to manage whatever is happening and whatever threatens in the future.”

scito enim me, postea quam in urbem venerim, redisse cum veteribus amicis, id est cum libris nostris, in gratiam. etsi non idcirco eorum usum dimiseram quod iis suscenserem sed quod eorum me suppudebat; videbar enim mihi, cum me in res turbulentissimas infidelissimis sociis demi<si>ssem, praeceptis illorum non satis paruisse. ignoscunt mihi, revocant in consuetudinem pristinam teque, quod in ea permanseris, sapientiorem quam me dicunt fuisse. quam ob rem, quoniam placatis iis utor, videor sperare debere, si te viderim, et ea quae premant et ea quae impendeant me facile laturum.

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Why, Salvete Amici!

A Model Friend Request for Readers; A Somewhat Awkward Dating Profile

Dio Chrysostom, 18.21

 “I would like it, if it were also pleasing to you, for us to meet at some time and then, spending time with ancient writers and talking about them, be useful to one another.”

βουλοίμην δ᾿ ἄν, εἴ σοι κεχαρισμένον εἴη, καὶ ἐν τῷ αὐτῷ ποτε ἡμᾶς γενέσθαι, ἵνα καὶ ἐντυγχάνοντες τοῖς παλαιοῖς καὶ διαλεγόμενοι περὶ αὐτῶν χρήσιμοί τι γενοίμεθα.

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[I actually find this sentiment a little sweet and completely relatable]

Seneca’s Research Advice: Exercise. Then Read and Write in Turn

Seneca, Moral Epistles 84

“I believe that these journeys which remove my languor are good for both my strength and my researches. How they profit my health is clear: my love of literature makes me lazy, neglectful of my body. On a journey, I may exercise incidentally.

I can show you how this helps my research too. But I in no way take a break from reading. My reading, I believe, is necessary: first, it ensures I will not be satisfied with myself as I am; second, once I have understood what others have learned, I may judge what has been discovered and what still must be thought out.

Reading feeds the mind and replenishes it when it is worn from studying—even though it is not without work itself. We should not restrict ourselves to writing or to reading:  endless writing saps our strength and then exhausts it. Too much reading can puff up or dilute our ability. Most commendable is to take them in their turn, to mix one with the other, so that the seeds of one’s reading may be grown anew with the pen.”

Itinera ista, quae segnitiam mihi excutiunt, et valitudini meae prodesse iudico et studiis. Quare valitudinem adiuvent, vides: cum pigrum me et neglegentem corporis litterarum amor faciat, aliena opera exerceor; studio quare prosint, indicabo: a lectionibus nihil recessi. Sunt autem, ut existimo, necessariae, primum ne sim me uno contentus; deinde ut, cum ab aliis quaesita cognovero, tum et de inventis iudicem et cogitem de inveniendis. Alit lectio ingenium et studio fatigatum, non sine studio tamen, reficit. Nec scribere tantum nec tantum legere debemus; altera res contristabit vires et exhauriet, de stilo dico, altera solvet ac diluet. Invicem hoc et illo commeandum est et alterum altero temperandum, ut quicquid lectione collectum est, stilus redigat in corpus.

I was reminded of this passage while contemplating Paul Holdengraber’s regular injunction not to read bad writing:

Seneca offers good advice for anyone working on a long project, but especially for graduate students or anyone working on a thesis.  As we have mentioned before, this resonates with Leonardo de Bruni’s warning about reading trash. Of course, the statement should probably be tempered by Pliny the Elder’s suggestion that “no book is so bad it doesn’t have something to offer”.

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The Odyssey Within the Epic: Allegory and the Making of Meaning

In response to yesterday’s anecdote about the absurdity of the Odyssey a reminder: generations of readers believed that the epic is a crypto-text conveying many deeper meanings.

Heraclitus, Homeric Problems 70

“Generally, then, if one wants to examine it carefully, you will find Odysseus’ wandering to be an allegory. Homer has positioned Odysseus as some kind of an instrument of every kind of virtue and he has used him to philosophize, since he hated the wickedness which governs human life.

The land of the Lotus-eaters, a farm of exotic temptation, represents the temptation of pleasure through which Odysseus sailed in perfect control. He snuffs out the savage anger of each of us with the advice from his words as if cauterizing it. This anger is named the Cyclops, the one who steals away [hypoklôpôn] our faculties of reason.

What of this—does it not seem that Odysseus who ‘overcame the winds’ was the first to anticipate fair sailing through his knowledge of the stars? And he was superior to Kirkê’s drugs because he discovered a cure for addictive delicacies thanks to his deep wisdom.

And his intelligence extends even to Hades so that nothing in the underworld might go unexplored. Who listens to the Sirens and learns a diverse history of all time? Charybdis is an obvious name for luxury and endless drinking. Homer has allegorized manifold shamelessness in Skylla, which is why she would logically have a belt of dogs, guardians for her rapacity, daring, and pugnacity. The cattle of the sun are about controlling your eating—for he would not even allow starvation to be a compulsion to do injustice.

These stories were told mythically for their audiences, if someone delves into the allegorized wisdom, it will be the most useful to those who apprehend it.”

Καθόλου δὲ τὴν ᾿Οδυσσέως πλάνην, εἴ τις ἀκριβῶς ἐθέλει σκοπεῖν, ἠλληγορημένην εὑρήσει·

 πάσης γὰρ ἀρετῆς καθάπερ ὄργανόν τι τὸν ᾿Οδυσσέα παραστησάμενος ἑαυτῷ διὰ τοῦτο πεφιλοσόφηκεν, ἐπειδὴ τὰς ἐκνεμομένας τὸν ἀνθρώπινον βίον ἤχθηρε κακίας.

 ῾Ηδονὴν μέν γε, τὸ Λωτοφάγον χωρίον, ξένης γεωργὸν ἀπολαύσεως, ἣν ᾿Οδυσσεὺς ἐγκρατῶς παρέπλευσεν·  τὸν δ’ ἄγριον ἑκάστου θυμὸν ὡσπερεὶ καυτηρίῳ τῇ παραινέσει τῶν λόγων ἐπήρωσε.  Κύκλωψ δὲ οὗτος ὠνόμασται, ὁ τοὺς λογισμοὺς ὑποκλωπῶν.

     Τί δ’; οὐχὶ πρῶτος εὔδιον πλοῦν δι’ ἐπιστήμης ἀστρονόμου τεκμηράμενος ἔδοξεν ἀνέμους δεδωκέναι; Φαρμάκων τε τῶν παρὰ Κίρκης γέγονε κρείττων, ὑπὸ πολλῆς σοφίας πεμμάτων ἐπεισάκτων κακῶν λύσιν εὑρόμενος.

     ῾Η δὲ φρόνησις ἕως ῞Αιδου καταβέβηκεν, ἵνα μηδὲ τῶν νέρθεν ἀδιερεύνητον ᾖ.  Τίς δὲ Σειρήνων ἀκούει, τὰς πολυπείρους ἱστορίας παντὸς αἰῶνος ἐκμαθών;  Καὶ Χάρυβδις μὲν ἡ δάπανος ἀσωτία καὶ περὶ πότους ἄπληστος  εὐλόγως ὠνόμασται·  Σκύλλαν δὲ τὴν πολύμορφον ἀναίδειαν ἠλληγόρησε, διὸ δὴ κύνας οὐκ ἀλόγως ὑπέζωσται προτομαῖς ἁρπαγῇ, τόλμῃ καὶ πλεονεξίᾳ πεφραγμέναις·

 αἱ δ’ ἡλίου βόες ἐγκράτεια γαστρός εἰσιν, εἰ μηδὲ λιμὸν ἔσχεν ἀδικίας ἀνάγκην.

     ῝Α δὴ μυθικῶς μέν ἐστιν εἰρημένα περὶ τοὺς ἀκούοντας, εἰ δ’ ἐπὶ τὴν ἠλληγορημένην σοφίαν καταβέβηκεν, ὠφελιμώτατα τοῖς μιμουμένοις γενήσεται.

From Porphyry’s essay, On the Cave of the Nymphs 35

“In Plato, the water, the sea and the storm are material matter. For this reason, I think, Homer named the harbor “Phorkus’” (“and this is the harbor of Phorkus”) after the sea-god whose daughter, Thoôsa, he genealogized in the first book of the Odyssey. The Kyklôps is her son whose eye Odysseus blinded. [Homer named the harbor thus] so that right before his home [Odysseus] would receive a reminder of his mistakes. For this reason, the location under the olive tree is also fitting for Odysseus as a suppliant of the god who might win over his native deity through suppliancy.

For it would not be easy for one who has blinded [the spirit] and rushed to quell his energy to escape this life of the senses; no, the rage of the sea and the material gods pursues anyone who has dared these things. It is right first to appease these gods with sacrifices, the labors of a beggar, and endurance followed by battling through sufferings, deploying spells and enchantments and changing oneself through them in every way in order that, once he has been stripped of the rags he might restore everything. And thus one may not escape from his toils, but when he has emerged from the sea altogether that his thoughts are so untouched of the sea and material matters, that he believes that an oar is a winnowing fan because of his total inexperience of the tools and affairs of the sea.”

πόντος δὲ καὶ θάλασσα καὶ κλύδων καὶ παρὰ Πλάτωνι ἡ ὑλικὴ σύστασις. διὰ τοῦτ’, οἶμαι, καὶ τοῦ Φόρκυνος ἐπωνόμασε τὸν λιμένα·

                    ‘Φόρκυνος δέ τίς ἐστι λιμήν,’

ἐναλίου θεοῦ, οὗ δὴ καὶ θυγατέρα ἐν ἀρχῇ τῆς ᾿Οδυσσείας τὴν Θόωσαν ἐγενεαλόγησεν, ἀφ’ ἧς ὁ Κύκλωψ, ὃν ὀφθαλμοῦ ᾿Οδυσσεὺς ἀλάωσεν, ἵνα καὶ ἄχρι τῆς πατρίδος ὑπῇ τι τῶν ἁμαρτημάτων μνημόσυνον. ἔνθεν αὐτῷ καὶ ἡ ὑπὸ τὴν ἐλαίαν καθέδρα οἰκεία ὡς ἱκέτῃ τοῦ θεοῦ καὶ ὑπὸ τὴν ἱκετηρίαν ἀπομειλισσομένῳ τὸν γενέθλιον δαίμονα. οὐ γὰρ ἦν ἁπλῶς τῆς αἰσθητικῆς ταύτης ἀπαλλαγῆναι ζωῆς τυφλώσαντα αὐτὴν καὶ καταργῆσαι συντόμως σπουδάσαντα, ἀλλ’ εἵπετο τῷ

ταῦτα τολμήσαντι μῆνις ἁλίων καὶ ὑλικῶν θεῶν, οὓς χρὴ πρότερον ἀπομειλίξασθαι θυσίαις τε καὶ πτωχοῦ πόνοις καὶ καρτερίαις, ποτὲ μὲν διαμαχόμενον τοῖς πάθεσι, ποτὲ δὲ γοητεύοντα καὶ ἀπατῶντα καὶ παντοίως πρὸς αὐτὰ μεταβαλλόμενον, ἵνα γυμνωθεὶς τῶν ῥακέων καθέλῃ πάντα καὶ οὐδ’ οὕτως ἀπαλλαγῇ τῶν πόνων, ἀλλ’ ὅταν παντελῶς ἔξαλος γένηται καὶ ἐν ψυχαῖς ἀπείροις θαλασσίων καὶ ἐνύλων ἔργων, ὡς πτύον εἶναι ἡγεῖσθαι τὴν κώπην διὰ τὴν τῶν ἐναλίων ὀργάνων καὶ ἔργων παντελῆ ἀπειρίαν.

Robert Lamberton 1986, 131 [Homer the Theologian]: “The bungling, dimwitted, sensual giant of book 9 is, then, a projection into the myth of the life of the senses—specifically Odysseus’ own life in this physical universe. The blinding of Polyphemus is a metaphor for suicide…The cyclops becomes a part of Odysseus—a part he wants desperately to escape—but his ineptitude in handling his escape at that early point in his career involves him in an arduous spiritual journey.”

 

Some Allegorical Readings from the Scholia Vetera to the Odyssey (Dindorf)

Schol. E. ad Od. 1.38

“Allegorically, an uttered speech is called Hermes because of his hermeneutic nature and he is the director because he manages the soul’s thoughts and the mind’s reflections. He is Argeiphontes because he is bright and pure of murder. For he teaches, and evens out and calms the emotional part of the soul. Or, it is because he killed the dog Argos, which stands for madness and disordered thoughts. He is the one who makes the reflections of the mind appear bright and clean.

ἀλληγορικῶς δὲ ὁ προφορικὸς λόγος ῾Ερμῆς λέγεται παρὰ τὸ ἑρμηνευτικὸς εἶναι, καὶ διάκτορος ὅτι διεξάγει τὰ τῆς ψυχῆς καὶ νοῦ ἐνθυμήματα, ᾿Αργειφόντης δὲ ὡς ἀργὸς καὶ καθαρὸς φόνου. παιδεύει γὰρ καὶ ῥυθμίζει καὶ πραΰνει τὸ θυμικὸν τῆς ψυχῆς. ἢ ὅτι τὸν ῎Αργον κύνα ἀναιρεῖ, τουτέστι τὰ λυσσώδη καὶ ἄτακτα ἐνθυμήματα. καὶ παρὰ τὸ ἀργεννὰ ἤτοι καθαρὰ φαίνειν τὰ τῆς ψυχῆς ἐνθυμήματα. E.

*Heraclitus the Obscure claims that Hermes is a representation of Odysseus’ rational mind (Homeric Problems 72-73)

Schol. EM ad Od. 4.384

“The winds and every sort of breeze”: Some allegorize Proteus as matter itself. For without matter, they claim that the creator [could not] have made everything distinct. For, although matter is never clear to us, men, trees, water and all things come from it. Eidothea, you see, is thought. Matter produces thought once it is condensed. Others allegorize Proteus as the right part of the spring when the earth first begins to make the shapes of grapes and offspring. Menelaos, since it was not the right time for sailing and he missed the spring, sailed in the wrong direction. The name Proteus is suitable for allegory.”

ἀνέμων καὶ παντελοῦς ἀπνοίας. τινὲς δὲ καὶ ἀλληγορικῶς Πρωτέα τὴν ὕλην. ἄνευ γὰρ ὕλης φασὶ τὸν δημιουργὸν πάντα τὰ ὁρώμενα **** ὕλης δὲ τῆς μὴ φαινομένης ἡμῖν, ἐξ ἧς ἄνθρωποι, δένδρα, ὕδατα καὶ πάντα τἄλλα. Εἰδοθέη γὰρ τὸ εἶδος. ὕλη γὰρ ἀποτελεῖ εἶδος κατεργασθεῖσα. ἄλλοι δὲ Πρωτέα φασὶν ἀλληγορικῶς τὸν πρὸ τοῦ ἔαρος καιρὸν, μεθ’ ὃν ἄρχεται ἡ γῆ εἴδη ποιεῖν βοτανῶν καὶ γενῶν. ὁ δὲ Μενέλαος μὴ ὄντος καιροῦ ἐπιτηδείου πρὸς τὸ πλεῖν φθάσαντος τοῦ ἔαρος ἀπέπλευσε. τὸ δὲ Πρωτέως ὄνομα εἰς τὴν ἀλληγορίαν ἐπιτήδειον. E.M.

 

Schol V ad Od. 5.1

“Tithonos is the son of Laomedon, Priam’s brother. He is a husband of Dawn [Eos]. Endumiôn is said to have married Selenê and Tithonos, the Day. The allegory works like this. Endumiôn is concerned with hunting man, and he goes to bed at night, but not so much at day because he is occupying his time with hunting affairs. Tithonos is appropriate for those interested in the stars and who take to bed at day but stay awake at night because they are occupying themselves with the stars.”

Τιθωνοῖο] Τιθωνὸς Λαομέδοντος παῖς, Πριάμου ἀδελφὸς, ᾿Ηοῦς ἀνήρ. ὁ ᾿Ενδυμίων λέγεται συνευνᾶσθαι τῇ Σελήνῃ καὶ ὁ Τιθωνὸς τῇ ῾Ημέρᾳ. ἀλληγορεῖται δὲ οὕτως. ὁ ᾿Ενδυμίων εἰς ἄνδρα κυνηγέτην, καὶ τῇ μὲν νυκτὶ κοιμώμενον, τῇ δὲ ἡμέρᾳ οὐδὲ ποσῶς, διὰ τὸ ἠσχολῆσθαι περὶ τὰ κυνηγέσια· ὁ δὲ Τιθωνὸς εἰς ἀστρονόμον καὶ τῇ μὲν ἡμέρᾳ κοιμώμενον, τῇ δὲ νυκτὶ ἐπαγρυπνοῦντα, διὰ τὸ ἠσχολῆσθαι περὶ τὰ ἄστρα. V.

Schol. HQV ad Od. 10.6

There are other interpretations. Some allegorize Aiolos as the year and his children as the twelve months. Some say that he that he paid special attention, because he was knowledgeable of astrology, of when the sun was blowing in the west in the bull position. Some winds blow sometimes and then move against themselves, as many do….

῎Αλλως. τινὲς ἀλληγοροῦντες Αἴολον μὲν λέγουσι τὸν ἐνιαυτὸν, δώδεκα δὲ παῖδας τοὺς μῆνας. τινὲς δὲ ὅτι παρετήρησεν, ἀστρολογίας ἔμπειρος ὢν, ἡλίου ὄντος ἐν ταύρῳ ζέφυρον πνεῦσαι. οἱ δὲ ἄνεμοι πνέουσιν ἐνίοτε καὶ καθ’ ἑαυτοὺς, ὡς καὶ πολλοί· καὶ γὰρ ἡμεῖς δίχα βασιλικοῦ προστασσόμενοι προστάγματος. H.Q.V.

Quintilian 8.6.44

“Allegory, which we translate into Latin as inversion, either communicates different things in words or meaning or something completely contrary. The first type emerges from continued metaphor as in “Ship, new waves will return you to this sea—What can you do? Make bravely for the harbor!” And that whole passage in which the ship stands for the state, the waves and storms stand for civil war and he makes the harbor stand for peace and agreement.”

[44] allegoria, quam inversionem interpretantur, aut aliud verbis aliud sensu ostendit aut etiam interim contrarium. prius fit genus plerumque continuatis translationibus, ut

O navis, referent id mare te novi
fluctus; o quid agis? fortiter occupa
portum,

totusque ille Horatii locus, quo navem pro re publica, fluctus et tempestates pro bellis civilibus, portum pro pace atque concordia dicit.

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Tessered Latin and Greek: A Lexical “Wrinkle in Time”

There is a great story in the Daily Beast about Greek (and a little Latin) in Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. This blog has a little cameo…

Sometimes when I talk to students about my childhood I get the sense that it seems almost as distant and different from theirs as some of the texts from Ancient Greece I encourage them to read. I listened to the radio play of Empire Strikes Back on the radio. I remember getting cable installed. I never sent an email until I went to college. I used to check out vinyl records from the library to listen to Cinderella and the JungleBook!

Ah, the library. I grew up in rural Maine and the local free libraries were, in a way, the center of my childhood. My father was deaf from birth; reading was what we all did as a family. And it was the one realm in which I never felt limited. My parents never told me what to read, when to read or, more importantly, what not to read. We just went to the library every week and they set me free.

At some point in elementary school, I took it upon myself to read the entire collection of Newbery award books. There was a list prominently displayed in the kids’ room at a few different libraries we frequented. I am pretty sure I read Lloyd Alexander’s The High King first and soon after Robert Obrien’s Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh. I love both books and when I noticed the medal on the cover, connected it to the list and just started in on it.

I connected with Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time almost immediately. That famous start: “IT was a dark and stormy night.” My father used these very words all the time before he would start telling us some ridiculous tale. The world in this book was also one like mine: it was dark (as often the case in rural Maine) and, with our long winters, it was also stormy.

It also deploys that initial scale that works so well–it starts small and simple: Margaret in her room or at the kitchen table, complaining of school, lovingly tolerating her precocious brother. But it was also a world that promised that the stark simplicity it presented was a mere facade over something much more complex–that behind the austere and disappointing world, there were other worlds. In short, the promise of a tale like L’Engle’s was the very promise of the libraries I so loved–that there are ways out of this world into countless others.

I have never reread this book as an adult, but every time I think of it: it is dark, I am in third grade, but there is a light dawning on the horizon. So, when the journalist Mimi Kramer (@nhmeems) contacted me over twitter to ask about the Greek and Latin in A Wrinkle in Time, my first reaction was shock. There is Greek and Latin in L’Engle’s novel? There is, and, as she tells in her fine story on it, it is messed up. And how it has stayed messed up itself is a story worth reading and telling. It is, a bit depressingly, a very adult and mundane mystery, but, for me at least, it provides a passage through time.

The author J.S. Bangs–to my knowledge–was the first to post online about the problems with the Greek. As you can read there or in Kramer’s article, whoever transcribed the quotation from Euripides (most likely from a quotation book cribbed poorly from Stobaeus) confused lamdas for etas and nus for upsilons, giving us the aesthetically displeasing fairly impossible: “Αεηπου οὐδὲν, πὰντα δ’ εηπἰζειυ χρωετ for the text printed as Euripides fr. 761 in Stobaeus: ἄελπτον οὐδέν, πάντα δ’ ἐλπίζειν χρεών. The book’s translation, moreover, “Nothing is hopeless; we must hope for everything” obscures what I see in the Greek which is a near koan, “nothing is unexpected, and one must expect everything.”

The story of trying to fix this has its own story. The Greek is off in the blog post (to be pedantic): the initial breathing and the vowel in the final participle need adjustment: ἄελπτον οὐδέν, πάντα δ’ ἐλπίζειν χρεών, (not the displayed Ἅελπτον οὐδέν, πάντα δ’ ἐλπίζειν χρηῶν). And even in a recent edition where the Greek has been mostly fixed, the rough breathing on that initial Alpha remains.

But that is a quibble. I am surprised (but not overly so) that I remember nothing of this; but a little shock that this bad Greek has lasted over 60 years! (And that is the story Mimi Kramer tells, much better than I could do so. And she keys us into another mystery. In the same scene, but a little earlier, the mysterious Mrs. Who speaks Latin!

“Finxerunt animi, raro et perpauca loquentis,” Mrs. Who
intoned. “Horace. To action little, less to words inclined.”

The translation she quotes, however, does not match up well with the Latin provided. To be fair, Horace is a bit of a punk: I think he is virtually untranslatable–but, for those readers who know Latin well, can we bring any light to this dark night?

Here are the full lines from Loeb’s translation by Rushton Fairclough

Horace Sermones 1.4

“The gods be praised for fashioning me of meagre wit and lowly spirit, of rare and scanty speech.”

di bene fecerunt, inopis me quodque pusilli
finxerunt animi, raro et perpauca loquentis.

More literally (but with a much inferior rhythm, I would suggest “The gods have done well: they made me of a small and minor spirit, one who speaks rarely and little”. The proffered translation in A Wrinkle In Time is “To action little, less to words inclined”, which seems to be a combination of only the second halves of the couplet (…inopis me quodque pusilli…raro et perpauca loquentis).

So, a working theory Kramer and I discussed for this is simply that someone who didn’t know Latin picked this Horace out of a quote book where there were two lines each of Latin and English and, because only the second line of English was selected, selected only the second line of Latin too. The translation first appears in a 19th century anthology of Richard Steele’s essays for The Spectator and The Tattler, as a reprint of Spectator No. 19 (March 22, 1711). In the typical fashion of 18th-century literary essayists, Steele and Addison prefixed a Latin epigraph to each of their essays without translation. The English version, then, was provided by the compiler of the anthology as a service to those readers without Latin. The English rendering must have made an impression on someone, because it reappears at the beginning of the 20th century in a dictionary of phrases and classical quotations. The full English translation is;

Thank Heaven that made me of a humble mind;
to action little, less to words inclined.

Guess what else is in that very dictionary? You guessed it, the Euripides fragment on page 129 with the correct Greek with the very translation offered in A Wrinkle in Time.

So, we have a half couplet plucked from Horace and a line poorly transcribed from Euripides. Can any lovers of language (and L’Engle) propose something more generous? Is she reading the Latin differently? Am I reading it wrongly?

As someone who loves literature, I take perverse pleasure in not allowing there to be mistakes. So, for instance, where our Horace above has famously declares that even Homer nods (that is, loses track of stuff), many interpreters instead have declared, no, impossible! And we engage in mental acrobatics to show how even mistakes are actually signs of hidden deeper meaning.

So, maybe the ‘wrong’ Greek is not wrong at all. Perhaps it is really an invitation to contemplation of absurd erudition. Or, even more importantly, perhaps it is a secret message–an anagram or something, which, if decoded, will open up for us passages to universes unknown.

(Ok. I was a kid again there, still hoping to skip dimensions….)

Image result for a wrinkle in time cover

This is the over of the book I read.

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