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.