Dreaming in Latin: My Affair with Cicero & Chortling over Ovid

Every autumn I sit under multiple blankets, drinking cups of chai, surrounded by dictionaries, poring over my favorite literature in a foreign language. I swear the comfort of dictionaries—a word can change its meaning entirely when combined in different phrases, in different contexts—makes it possible to escape from the gloom of chilly fall days.  Recently, reading in another language distracted me from my fierce fights with 25-mile-per-hour winds on my bike, and a wish that our leaves would blow into somebody else’s yard.

 Thank God for the charm of languages!  Hipsters read French, Italian, Japanese, and Spanish, travel, and perhaps join the Peace Corps, while nerds read classical languages and often stay home.   Much as I love Latin, you will not get social points for spending the summer reading Statius.  And claiming you dream in Latin is, in my opinion, always going too far. That is not to say that I have not gone far: and yet, one does not want to be a don or a scholar (unless you’re Mary Beard).  A language is more than words: it shapes the culture and the structure of thought.  It is difficult to translate this reality to people who do not know a foreign language. And in the U.S., where we seldom bother to learn other languages, xenophobia grows.

I hide the fact at dinner parties that my  “affair” with  Cicero, a binge-reading of his speeches and letters, turned into a sympathetic imaginary dialogue with this brilliant, annoying, insecure orator.  In a flash,  I understood his character and the politics of the first century B.C. as I had never experienced through reading history.  I flashed on the elaborate networking, the insane politics, the chances Cicero took with prosecuting mobsters:  he wanted political fame so desperately that he wrote letters begging  friends to write the history of his suppression of Catiline’s conspiracy against Rome. 

I see Latin poetry through scrims of different readings and interpretation over the decades.  Is Ovid’s myth of Daphne and Apollo in Metamorphoses humorous or tragic? Is it about unrequited love or rape? Probably both. Cupid shoots the god Apollo with an arrow of love and shoots the nymph Daphne with an arrow of repulsion.  Daphne runs away, and the out-of-shape Apollo chases her,  begging her to run more slowly, promising he will run more slowly, too.  She is dedicated to the chaste goddess Diana, and begs her father, Peneus, the river god, to  save her.  He turns her into a laurel tree, which Apollo obnoxiously claims as his own.

As an undergraduate I scribbled the following irreverent remarks in the margins: 

  • Couldn’t Peneus have done better? Why a tree?
  • Is she a lesbian?  Is that the arrow of repulsion? 
  • Why does Prof think this erotic?  The wreath holds her rumpled hair “without law.”  She  is a mess and prob stinks from running.  Unshaven legs, I’m sure.  A modern feminist.  (N.B. We didn’t often shave our body hair back the.)

I could have garbled on like this forever, but I doubt it went into my paper on Ovid. 

Or perhaps it did. 

Resting Your Eyes: Sir Walter Scott’s “Kenilworth” and D. H. Lawrence’s “Kangaroo”

You mat wonder why I bought this Heritage Press copy of Sir Walter Scott’s Kenilworth ($3.50).  I haven’t read Scott in years, and I did not particularly want to read it.   The illustrations by Clarke Hutton are charming but that’s not the reason, either.  The thing is, these oversized books have crisp pages and biggish print. After reading a 19th century reference book with small print cover-to-cover, I need to rest my eyes.

Anyway, Kenilworth is billed as a “historical romance.”

“I love ‘hist-roms,’ ” I said to my husband.

“Hist-roms?”

“Jean Plaidy.” He disapproves of Jean Plaidy on account of the covers, but I do enjoy her novels about the Borgias and the Tudors.

Before I started Kenilworth, however, I decided to read some D. H. Lawrence.  I declared not long ago that he is my favorite writer.  So I curled up with  a small red 1960 hardback copy of his 1923 novel Kangaroo, which I bought  for $6.50.

It is not Lawrence at his best.  Last summer I reread Lawrence’s The Plumed Serpent and found it silly and surreal.  Well, Kangaroo is more of the same.  In The Plumed Serpent, set in Mexico, Don Ramon, a wealthy Mexican landowner, founds an Aztec cult and claims he is the god Quetzalcoatl:  one of his goals is to drive Christianity out of Mexico.

In Kangaroo, set in Australia, a man named Kangaroo wants ” to be with men who are sons of men, not sons of women.  “Man that is born of woman is sick of himself.  Man that is born of woman is tired of his day after day.  And woman is like a mother with a tiresome child:  what is she to do with him?  What is she to do with him? –man that is born of woman.”

This has been going on for pages now.

And then Kangaroo talks about ant-hills.

“But the men that are born like ants, out of the cold interval, and are womanless, they are not sick of themselves. They are full of cold energy, and they seethe with cold fire in the anthill, making new corridors, new chambers–they alone know what for. And they have cold, formic-acid females, as restless as themselves, and as active about the ant-hill, and as identical with the dried clay of the building. And the active, important, so-called females, and the active, cold-blooded, energetic males, they shift twig after twig, and lay crumb of earth upon crumb of earth, and the females deposit cold white eggs of young. This is the world, and the people of the world. And with their cold, active bodies the ant-men and the ant-women swarm over the face of the earth.”

I love Lawrence, so I will finish this.  But do you see why I need Kenilworth?