A Public Poetic

From the very start of the Aeneid, Virgil makes it clear that his epic is to find its focus in two essential subjects: arma virumque, “arms and a man” (Virg. A. I.1).  These two major themes each carry larger significance that is developed throughout the epic: arma refers not only to arms, but also, by metonymy, to public wars, the deeds of arms, and virum refers to the private experiences and developments of a man as an individual.  So from the outset, Virgil offers his readership a poem that considers the human experience in both a public and a private context.  He reconciles these two perspectives in the character of Aeneas, who is both a public hero, as the founder of Rome, and a private individual, as a lover of Dido and victim of fortune.  This reconciliation is among the most clearly manifest poetic innovations that, several centuries later, would cause Dante Alighieri to say of Virgil, tu se’ solo colui da cu’ io tolsi / lo bello stilo che m’ha fatto onore, “you alone are he from whom I took the beautiful style that has done me honor” (Dante Inferno I.86-7).  However, Dante views the foundation of Rome not as a political conquest, but as a spiritual mission, and so accordingly, in the literary character of Dante, his own parallel of Virgil’s Aeneas, we find the reconciliation of a private drama with a public one that is not political, but spiritual—a divine comedy.

In the Aeneid, Aeneas is introduced as both a public leader and a private individual.  When he and his men find themselves in an unknown land, having lost thirteen ships, he encourages his men with a speech, after which Virgil’s narration affords us additional insight into his character: Talia voce refert curisque ingentibus aeger / spem vultu simulat, premit altum corde dolorem, “He relates such things with his voice, and sick with great worries, he imitates hope with his face, repressing pain deep in his heart” (Virg. A. I.208-9).  Here Virgil paints the image of a public leader, who puts forth a front of spei, ‘hope’, but as a private individual, carries great curas, ‘worries’, within—the nearly golden line (209) creates a powerful juxtaposition of these two facets of Aeneas’ Character.  At the same time, Venus expresses a similar two-fold interpretation of Aeneas when she raises her entreatment to Jupiter.  She says, Certe hinc Romanos olim volventibus annis, / hinc fore ductores, revocato a sanguine Teucri … pollicitus … / hoc equidem occasum Troiae tristesque ruinas / solabar fatis contraria fata rependens, “Surely, you have promised that the Romans, the rulers, shall be from these men, recalled from Trojan blood.  In this, indeed, have I found solace for the fall of Troy, holding fate against fate” (Virg. A. I.234-7).  Here she first expresses a public concern, the founding of Rome, but her reaction is private.  We are presented, in this single speech, with the images of both a patron goddess, longing for her promised and fated city, and a mother, grieving the misfortunes of her son.

However, for Dante, the significance of Rome’s destiny is not political, but spiritual: Per quest’andanta onde li dai tu vanto, / intese cose che furon cagione / di sua vittoria e del papale ammanto, “through this journey, from where you give him [Aeneas] praise, he understood things that were occasions of his victory and the papal mantle” (Dante Inferno II.25-7).  Here Dante acknowledges that Aeneas’ learnings are a personal victory, but the public founding of Rome, as it functions in the establishment of the Church, is not merely a political victory, but a spiritual one.  In this way, Virgil’s pagan force of fate is reinterpreted as a Christian force of providence, and the focus is shifted from the destiny of an empire to the will of the gods (or of God).  In both cases, a private drama is held against a public one, but for Dante, the public drama is only public in the sense that it is universal: just as the political issue of the founding of Rome made Aeneas’ private history relevant to the entirety of Virgil’s Roman audience—thus transforming it into a public history—so, for Dante, does the spiritual issue of God’s will make the private histories of both him and Aeneas relevant to his whole Christian audience, all of whom are to be subjects of quello imperador, ‘that emperor’ (God), and citizens of sua città, ‘his city’ (Dante Inferno I.124-6).  Thus, issues of politics are equated to those of salvation.

But with this Christianisation in place, Dante’s and Virgil’s tasks are really quite similar: they both endeavour to transform private stories of love and misfortune into public ones.  Dante expresses the need for such a transformation in the fortieth chapter of his Vita Nuova, where he tells the story of two pilgrims who seem ignorant of his local, private griefs, chè forse pensano de li loro amici lontani, li quali noi non conoscemo, “for perhaps they are thinking of their far away friends, whom we do not know.”  Here Dante expresses a frustration with the disconnect between his personal drama and theirs.  He acknowledges that each party has its own story, his being the drama of Beatrice and theirs being, perhaps, some drama involving distant friends.  But he then resolves to write parole le quali farebbero piangere chiunque le intendesse, “words that would make anyone who listens weep” (Dante Vita Nuova XL).  This universal appeal, which will exploit the commonalities of all private dramas, is to be the great accomplishment of the dolce stil novo, and is one of the major innovations for which Dante is in debt to Virgil.

The universal appeal of Dante’s dolce stil novo is accomplished through the transformation of his romance with Beatrice into a divine love, relevant to his entire audience.  This transformation plays itself out in two ways worth mentioning, both of which parallel phenomena in Virgil: (1) the equating of Beatrice’s love for the literary figure of Dante with that of God for man, and (2) the portrayal of love as an active, cathartic, and redemptive force, rather than a mere enslaving passion.  Virgil’s parallel for the first of these has already been mentioned: the love of Venus, who is both a mother and a goddess, for Aeneas.  Dante likewise transforms Beatrice’s love—which, while not the love of a mother, is still a private love—into a divine love.  He does so in the second canto of the Inferno, when the literary character of Dante has just expressed concern that his journey through hell, unlike Aeneas’, is not divinely willed, and is therefore unwise; whereupon Virgil corrects him, telling him that he was sent by Beatrice, who, moved by love, expressed the divine will that Dante complete his journey (Dante Inferno II.49-114).  Beatrice’s love is made divine, clearly, by the fact that she is a blessed soul from heaven, but also by its close association with the Virgin Mary.  Just shortly after Beatrice says, amor mi mosse, “love moved me” (Dante Inferno II.7), she explains that Mary, weeping before God, sent Beatrice (via the message of Lucia) to prod Dante onward (which she does via the message of Virgil) (Dante Inferno II.94-114); hence, Beatrice was moved, in one sense, by her own personal love, but in another sense, by the divine love represented by the Virgin Mary.  The weeping of Mary—who is a symbol of love—before God, sì che duro giudicio là sù frange, “so that the firm judgment on high breaks” (Dante Inferno II.96), closely parallels the weeping of Venus, the goddess of love, before Jupiter, the god of justice—both of which public dramas portray the universal theme of justice and love.

The second way in which Dante’s private romance is universalised comes directly from a reference to the dolce stil novo.  The title of dolce stil novo is first given to Dante’s poetry (and the works of his small poetic circle) in the Purgatorio, where Bonagiunta makes it clear that Dante’s canzone, Donne ch’avete intelletto d’amore, typifies this new style (Dante Purgatorio XXIV.49-57).  In the canzone Bonagiunta mentions, Dante expresses, with his praises, the cathartic and redemptive power of his love for Beatrice: e qual soffrisse di starla a vedere / diverria nobil cosa, o si morria, “and whoever endures to stand there [near Beatrice] and to look on her either becomes something noble, or dies” (Dante Vita Nuova XIX).  Hence, Dante’s private love has been transformed into a redemptive force, something that purifies and promotes the salvation of souls.

It should also be noted that this new style is an active style, a style of praising.  Dante writes of the innovation that this new canzone presents: lo fine del mio amore fue già lo saluto di questa donna, … chè era fine di tutti li miei desiderii.  Ma poi che le piacque di negarlo a me, lo mio segnore Amore … ha posto tutta la mia beatitudine … in quello parole che lodano la donna mia, “the end of my love used to be the greeting of this lady, [Beatrice,] which was the end of all my desires.  But now that it pleases her to deny me that, my lord, Love, has put all my beatitude in those words which praise my lady” (Dante Vita Nuova XVIII).  This novissimo, most new, active desire of Dante’s stands in vivid opposition to his earlier passive one.  Instead of wishing for something to happen to him (namely, that he be greeted), he now wishes to do something (praise Beatrice).  This is the essential difference between the dolce stil novo and the older style; the latter of which is manifest in the first poem of the Vita Nuova, in which Dante addresses ciascun’alma presa, “every engrossed, or captive, soul” (Dante Vita Nuova III).  At this earlier point, he is love’s prisoner, only waiting for something to happen to him, but in the dolce stil novo, his narrative has a new-found authority, by which he is able to act all on his own.

In his De Vulgari Eloquentia, Dante points out the importance of this active voice in poetry.  He says that the word cantio, when used to describe the creation, rather than the performance, of poetry, has an active sense, et secundum istum modum Virgilius, primo Eneidorum, dicit Arma virumque cano, “and according to this usage of the word does Virgil say, at the beginning of the Aeneid, I sing of arms and of a man” (Dante De Vulgari Eloquentia II.viii.4).  So Virgil’s active declamation is important to Dante.  It contrasts Homer’s deferral of the duty to sing or speak to a muse—e.g. μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ, “Sing of the rage, O goddess” (Hom. Il. I.1) and ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦσα, “Tell me of the man, O muse” (Hom. Od. I.1)—which makes Homer’s oeuvre an act of performance rather than of creation, and for Dante, it is therefore cantio only in a passive sense.

With his new, active style, Dante transforms his understanding of love from something that happens to him into something that he seeks.  For the sake of love, the purifying force, he journeys through hell and purgatory to salvation, which is his analogue of Aeneas’ trial-filled journey to Italy (because salvation is the destination of Dante’s spiritual journey, while Italy is the destination of Aeneas’ political one).  So the transformation of love into something of which one actively seeks to become worthy makes it a divine force—rather than a private affaire—that propels Dante to salvation.  In the same way, Virgil transforms love from a mere private affair between Dido and Aeneas into a fateful force that motivates Aeneas’ active quest for Italy, for Aeneas himself says, hic amor, haec patria est, “this [Italy] is my love, this is my fatherland” (Virg. A. IV.347).  In the cases of both poets, the transformation of love from a passion that is experienced into a calling that is sought after—which coincides with a poetic narrative that seeks to do something, whether lodare or canere, rather than express what is done—makes it public, and affords it universal appeal.

Furor Impius

See my English translation following the selection.

“Asper tum positis mitescet saecula bellis;

cana Fides et Vesta, Remo cum fratre Quirinius

iura dabunt; dirae ferro et compagibus artis

claudentur Belli portae; Furor impius intus

saeva sedens super arma et centum vinctus aenis

post tergum nodis fremet horridus ore cruento.”

-Aeneid 291-6

Original Translation:

Bitter then the times shall mitigate,

setting wars aside; Quirinius,

Brother Remus, with Hoary Faith and Vesta,

justice then shall grant them—

dire the gates of War shall be secured,

fitting close with the fastening violent iron seal;

Rage, sitting impious within,

bound above, with brazen, behind his back

knots a hundred, cruel arms, horrible,

he shall roar with bloodied face.

Vulgarity and Poetic Optimism in Catullus

What follows is an essay in which I express opinions that I believe to have belonged to Catullus (84 – 54 BC) or Roman society, but certainly not myself.  Please read discerningly and appreciate this distinction.  I consider Catullus’ sexual humour to be entirely inappropriate, but it is necessary to address the matter from a scholarly perspective in order to see beyond it and ultimately recognise what is lovely and good about Catullus’ poetry.  There is plenty to object to, but the more difficult task is making something of good report out of it all, which is the very essence of what I mean by ‘poetic optimism’.  The essay follows:

No argument need be made to demonstrate that Catullus’ poetry is, on the whole, extraordinarily sensuous, erotic, and even, at times, pornographic.  The most obvious attestation of this point may be Catullus 16 from the Carmina, the first two lines of which stand among the most salacious and infamous vulgarities in all of extant Latin poetry.  But even in this most obscene poem, this disgrace and abomination to mankind, even here is found something of the poetic optimism that is the essential ideal of every pursuer of beauty; that is, the ability to transcend the mere acceptance of things as they are and conceive of them as they ought to be.  The height of Catullus’ ‘poetic optimism’ may be found, as I will argue in this essay, in Catullus 64, but to understand it, we must contextualize the lofty epyllion with his more earthy works and explore how its commonalities with the latter can function as a kind of metatheatrical rupture, making the quixotically crafted aesthetic more powerful and more real by linking it to the mundane.

Catullus 16 seems particularly relevant to this discussion because it affords us insight into the poet’s understanding of his own use of vulgarity.  Such insight can be gained from his adagial distinction between the poet and his poetry: nam castum esse decet pium poetam / ipsum, versiculos nihil necesse est, / qui tum denique habent salem ac leporem, “For it is becoming of a godly poet to be pure himself, [but] it is in no way necessary with respect to his verses, which then, in short, hold salt and charm” (Catull. 16.5-7).  Catullus says that poetry ought to hold salem ac leporem.  Here used substantively, the adjective, sal carries a sense of ‘freshness’ or ‘wit’ and leporus of ‘pleasantries’ or ‘attractiveness’.  Elsewhere in the poem, he describes his verses as molliculi, a little bit ‘effeminate’ or ‘mild’, and in Catullus 1 he describes them as lepidus, ‘charming’, ‘effeminate’, or ‘pleasant looking’ (Catull. 16.4, Catull. 1.1).  Catullus tends to use all of these terms almost interchangeably to describe his poetry; hence, there is a sense in which, for Catullus, charm, wittiness, a lack of gravity, and effeminate attractiveness are all inseparable qualities and together play an essential role in good poetry.

Perhaps the last of these qualities, effeminate attractiveness, is the ultimate link to the voluptuousness and vulgarity of his poetry.  If such is the case, the frivolous manner in which Catullus makes sexual references can be accounted for not only by the inseparability of this quality from ‘mildness’ and ‘pleasantry’, but also by the way the quality is described: rather than feminine attractiveness, Catullus’ word choices imply effeminate attractiveness, meaning that there is a sense in which the sexuality is to be feigned—it is, metaphorically, to be the product of a man playing the role of a woman.  And this reversal of gender roles was, for the ancient Greeks and Romans, a source of much comedy and amusement (as clearly evidenced by the Greek comedy, Lysistrata).  Thus, the uncensored sexuality in Catullus is meant to be taken lightly; it is to be charming and even bordering on humorous.

On the other hand, Catullus says that the poet ought to be castus and piusCastus may mean ‘virtuous’ or ‘chaste’ and pius may mean ‘dutiful’, by which translations, a connotation simply of morality and temperateness might be achieved, or we might even create the more specific notion of a poet who strives well to fulfil the high calling of art itself—he is both dutiful to and virtuous in the performance of his craft.  But it is also valuable to note that both of these words may hold religious connotations; castus may mean ‘pious’ and pius may mean ‘godly’.  So the Roman ideals of both virtue and godliness are relevant.  But the differences must be appreciated between these ancient Roman ideals and their modern descendants.  Today, in the christianised west, virtue includes chastity, and chastity means abstinence in all contexts outside of marriage (although, arguably, the definitiveness of this matter may be in the process of waning).  But in ancient Rome, even the gods themselves were unfaithful, and extramarital sex was sometimes a part of religious ritual in the form of sacred prostitution.  So the qualities that Catullus demands of a poet do not necessarily exclude the possibility of what we would consider sexual impurity.

Instead, what Catullus demands of a poet is better characterised as restraint and self-control.  Catullus writes, [Aurelius et Furius] me ex versiculis meis putastis, / quod sunt molliculi, parum pudicum, “[Aurelius and Furius], on account of my verses, which are a little effeminate, you think me insufficiently shamefaced” (Catull. 16.3-4).  In ancient Rome, men possessed an abundance of sexual freedom.  It was socially acceptable for a man to sleep with whomever he pleased, so long as such affairs remained private; however, the moment they became public, it was considered shameful.  Catullus’ poetry displays such sexuality as was to be kept private, and this is why he is accused of being ‘insufficiently shamefaced’.  So his response is, as we have already elaborated, that a poet, in real life, must possess the restraint society demands, but such demands do not apply to poetry itself.  Art, for Catullus as for much of the western world, is to be the honest expression of humanity, uncensored by societal standards and limitations.  This is one of the principles (and perhaps the most pure of the many possible motivations) behind nudity in art.

Both this perspective of nudity and the light humour of sexuality in Catullus are relevant to Catullus’ description of Ariadne in Catullus 64: magnis curarum fluctuat undis, / … non contecta levi velatum pectus amictu, / non tereti strophio lactentis victa papillas, / … omnia … ipsius … fluctus salis alludebant, “[Ariadne] undulates with and is distressed by great waves of concern, not covered with the light cloak that [formerly] covered her breast, her breasts of milk-white not bound by her smooth breastband, the waves of the sea played with all of these things” (Catull 64.62-67).  Initially, this description seems to be an instance of Catullus’ light and humorous sexuality.  Instead of mare, ‘sea’, he uses the word sal, ‘salt’, which by metonymy means ‘sea’.  But notice the metatheatre: sal is also one of his choice words for ‘wit’.  Hence, poetic wit is alludit, ‘playing’, with Ariadne’s leves, ‘light’, garments.  So in this sense, Catullus is clearly being unserious and, at least to his own mind, humorous.  The sexuality is supposed to be effeminate, charming, and inconsequential, a mere pleasantry.

But the sea also symbolises Ariadne’s curae, her cares, worries, and concerns.  Catullus goes on to write: sed neque tum mitrae neque tum fluitantis amictus / illa vicem curans toto ex te pectore, Theseu, / toto animo, tota pendebat perdita mente, “But she, caring about the situation neither then of the headdress nor then of the floating cloak, with all her heart, all her spirit, all her lost mind, she hung upon you, Theseus” (Catull. 64.68-70).  Here the use of the verbal form of cura makes clear that the aforementioned curarum undis were waves of care for Theseus (metaphorically linked to the waves of the sea).  It also becomes clear, in this further elaboration, that a double meaning is implied by the word pectus, which I previously rendered as ‘breast’; here it makes more sense as ‘heart’.  So the image in the previous quotation (lines 62 through 67) can also be reinterpreted: the wave’s of Ariadne’s love for Theseus are playing with those garments with which she hides her heart, leaving her shamefully exposed.  She has been overcome by love and passion, Venus has externavit (Catull. 64.71), driven her out of her mind, and as a consequence, she has been left as a bare expression of what it means to love and to be human, bound no more by societal demands than by her breastband.

This alternative interpretation reflects more of the poetic gravity that would be expected to accompany the lofty epic style of Catullus 64, but the lighter interpretation is also important.  It’s as if Catullus is mocking his own severity.  Humour, triviality, and stylistic rupture serve as a kind of light cloak to mollify (make mollis) the potency of the bare humanity, making it less shameful, and more socially acceptable.  People may have had difficulty relating to the high ideals of Catullus’ epic style, so he bridges the gap between them and something very mundane and commonplace in Rome: lust.  Catullus’ vulgarity is something vulgaris, ‘ordinary’, to which the vulgus, the ‘common people’, could relate.  But it is the nature of his poetic optimism to not leave it at that.  Instead, in his poetry, Catullus transcends the mere acceptance of things as they are and conceives of them as they ought to be—he transforms mere lust and vulgarity into something better, something human.  Perhaps the fact that this action took place even in ancient Rome, a society in which sexual liberality was praised as an essential part of piety, attests to the existence of a universal moral consciousness in the human mind, a conscientia, or ‘common knowledge’, that transcends all cultural barriers, so that even Catullus knew there to be nothing lovely or of good report about lust and salaciousness, and as an artist, thirsted to create something better.

The Sage

“FORLORN!” he often drunken said, “Forlorn are they that roam the chasms of the mind!  Forlorn are they that stand in pause without!” and then a tipsy grin would trip across his face, “and between them,” he’d interrupt his wandering speech and laugh a luxurious and drunken laugh—a laugh of indifferent wisdom, the breed of scoff as often fills a vasty space of silence with the intoxic foam of apathy, “between them stands a chasm,” he’d try once more: “indeed, there is a chasmic chasm between the roamer and the stander standing—a chasm as great and as profound as the stander’s pause and the roamer’s roaming mind.  So that he that roams is lost and he that stands knows not where he’s standing.  Forlorn,” he’d raise his bottle again, “forlorn are they.”  And then he’d drink.

They called him the philosopher, or the sage.  And often he was hated and often too drunk to know he was hated so.  I’ve heard him called ‘malignant’ and ‘a corruption to the youth’, and many would spin a sumptuous length of impressive, lengthy adjectives to hang derisively before his title, but regardless, regardless of if they called him a “profane, disgraceful, distasteful, despicable, detestable, deplorable, malevolent, misanthropic, abominable, insufferable, insubordinate…” and many seemed reluctant to finish their impressive thread, perhaps being unsure of what noun to attach to the end of it, and so regardless of with what profoundly expressive words that lengthy list was comprised, at the end was always attached—whether out of a want for creativity or an abhorred veneration for the man held darkly in the deep chasm of the heart—attached to the end was always the four-letter word ‘sage’.

And venerate him they did.  Though they were disgusted by him beyond the measure of words, they listened.  And when they listened, he spoke.

I went to hear the man speak once.  Far off in his study I found him, laying atop a crooked mountain of books.  Indeed the whole room was filled with books and other strange objects.  The books were all laying out carelessly, opened or closed, with multiple volumes scattered throughout the small, dark room and pages missing, which could be found here and there intermixed with the rest, and sometimes even covers were torn from their places, again laying among the rest, which would have led one to question whether the poor condition of these books was the consequence of mere carelessness or deliberate destruction and disdain.  Other strange members of the gallimaufry included a golden pocket watch; a very nice, victorian-styled smoking-pipe; a beautiful, ceramic, full-body sculpture of Athena—missing only its nose and laying sideways; a gel model of a human hand; fine china and silverware—all of which was broken if it could be; a fine romantic portrait of a noble lady—the frame of which lay in pieces mingled about the portrait, and one of which pieces was stabbed directly through one of the pearls that made up her necklace; and among all of this mess were of course a number of corks and many shards of smashed liquor bottles scattered between everything else and ready to pierce the foot of the first man foolish enough to walk around in that room without exceptionally precautious footwear.  All in all it was a shamelessly gaudy mess that displayed an equally careless monetary extravagance as treatment of valuables.

As we have already mentioned, the room was dark.  Indeed, it was quite dark, and musty.  This was because on that night that I went to visit the man, as on all other nights, the exclusive sources of light in the room were a crooked chandelier of candles, made of gold, with garishly ornamented arms, and hanging almost just above the sage’s head, and a plethora of other small candles on silver or golden candlesticks, all of which were sitting among the rest of the mess, with no particular care being taken to avoid setting fire to the many highly flammable paper items—and indeed, it smelled as if such an occurrence was not uncommon.  These luminaries but scarcely lit the creaky wooden floors and pealing yellowing wall paper, making it hard to see and dangerous to step.

That night, as on all other nights, the philosopher lay on his back on the top of a mountain of books in the centre of the room, drinking his liquor and babbling to himself.  We must be careful when we use the word ‘drinking’, as this does not seem to fully describe what it was the drunken man did—he was indeed drinking, but only a small quantity of the liquor that he poured directly out of his bottle; the rest dribbled back out of his mouth, as he murmured on with a soft droning voice, and trickled over his ugly face and ugly grey beard.  That liquor which escaped seeped its way deep into the philosophical pages of the books upon which he lay and accounted for the overwhelming aroma of alcohol that filled the room and seemed to inebriate everything in it, so that from the noble woman in the painting, to the sculpture of Athena, to the very walls and candlesticks, everyone, and everything, seemed drunk.

When I came upon this scene, for a long time I merely stood in silent awe, observing it all.  Then, approaching the man in the centre, I began to slowly make my way into the large mess, which reached so far out from the mountain of books in the middle that it filled the entire room and made it impossible to speak to the man from a comfortable range of distance without being dragged into the heart of it.

As I advanced, I began to hear the man’s musty murmuring only slightly better, and focusing too much on trying to make out what he was saying and too little on where I was stepping, I inadvertently kicked something over—I’m not sure what it was—and it made a hearty crashing sound.  At that, some intelligible words began to just scarcely emerge out of the drunk’s babbling, much like the pile of books in the centre that gradually erected out of the confused mess that surrounded them:

“Is that you, Samuel?” he groaned, “You’re such a rat, you.”

I didn’t know what to say, so I remained silent.

“Well, you rat?  What do you want?”

Still silence.  He lifted his head and looked at me.

“Oh.  It’s you.  You’re not Samuel.  You’re … who are you?” I stared at him blankly, “Pah!” he waved me away with his hand, “I don’t care who in the god-forsaken physical universe you are.  Go away.”

I still didn’t know what to say.  He started babbling again, and went on for a good moment or so before he turned and looked at me once more.

“You’re still here?  Well, what in the name of existential idiocy do you want!”

“I—” I didn’t know what I wanted.

“You what?” he looked at me impatiently, “You are who?”

“I’m—” I furrowed my brow.  What right had he to ask me who I was?  “Who are you?”

“Ah,” he laughed a brassy laugh, “so that’s what you want, whoever you are.”  he turned away and lay on his back again.  Taking another drink in the same manner already described, he began to speak, making a grand, narcissistic show of the first few words: “I am one who knows.  Not one who thinks, but merely one who knows.” he laughed, “I am a man who, as Isaac Newton once said, ‘sits on the shoulders of giant idiots’.  Every kind of work and every kind of thought of every kind of man of every kind of mankind sits below me, all worthless and gargled about,” he spit out some liquor and waved his bottle, spilling much of its contents about, “and I,” he went on, “I lie on top.  Before me were men of honour,” he said this with a sarcastic emphasis on its triteness, “hard-working men, with all sorts of ridiculous virtues and passions.  By all the laboursome labouring and such mores as are congenial to progress, they’ve heaped together a massive pile of—of what?  Wisdom?” he laughed again, as if this notion itself were exceedingly humorous and even entertaining, “What man has constructed is a pile of words.  It isn’t worth much, and it doesn’t mean anything, but it makes for a comfortable throne on which to stretch out and lie.  And that is exactly my purpose here; I have every intention of stretching out and lying so much that credulous men will think my lies are true.  But what is this to you?  What’s your business in coming here?” as he spoke these last questions, he rolled over onto his belly and turn to look at me, supporting his head with a tripod formed by his two arms, each holding up either cheek, and swinging his feet back and forth behind him, so that he very nearly resembled a school-girl at a sleep over, eager to hear the latest gossip.

“I have no business.  I just wanted to hear you speak—to know if what they say about you is true.”

“And what do they say about me?” he asked this as if he had never been told before and was excessively eager to hear me say it.  We can only assume that this eagerness was the result of a strange pride that he took in his deplorable reputation, causing him to delight in hearing about it, for there is no doubt that others had told him of it countless times before.

“That you’re a cynic,” I replied stiffly, “and an ignoramus.”

At this, he laughed hideously, “Ah, yes, well I must admit I am.  Some people have their heads in the sand, others in the clouds, and still others haven’t heads at all.  I confess to you with barbaric shamelessness that I belong to this third category.  So let them call me an ignoramus, for I am one who knows, not one who cares.”  He rolled onto his back again and began preaching, raising his bottle to the ceiling as if he were addressing the chandelier, “A wise man,” he said, “is a man who cares.  Indeed, the substance of wisdom is passion, not knowledge.  I am not a wise man; I am an ignoramus—an omniscient ignoramus.  That outside these decaying walls there are men, women, and children, suffering, anguishing, starving to death, is of no significance to me.  This is simply because I don’t care.  I know it very well—I know everything very well—but I am not wise in it because it signifies nothing.  Knowledge without perspective is not wisdom but a mere mess of words.  And this I know very well.”

“But why?  Why doesn’t it mean anything to you?”

“Why?  Why should it mean anything to me?  Indeed, why should it mean anything to anyone?  A man is a peculiar arrangement of dust.  From all other things he is only peculiar—not extraordinary, mind you—but peculiar.  He will exist in his particular form for a time, and perhaps even cause another arrangement of dust so strange as he to arise, but very soon he will begin to grow old, and as he grows old, his form will start to change, and as it changes, it will gradually become evident that it was nothing so extraordinary after all.  For soon, it will lie in the earth once more, where its form will continue to change, and change, until, one day not far off from the man’s birth, his form resembles nothing less peculiar to himself than to anything else.  Then, all that’s left of him may be a couple of peculiar words, which we might set down in a book—if they should be so peculiar as to merit such an exercise—and then, we may throw that book somewhere among the rest of the meaningless heap, where it will slowly, at its own rate, decay into the forgetfulness of other men.”

“But what of his soul?”

“His soul?  Now come, my charming idiot, even to you it should be obvious that the soul is something wise men made up to entertain themselves.  There is no soul.  This I know well.  If a man had a soul, why would he have a body?  Everyone acknowledges this simple fact in ordinary life, but when they turn to philosophy, they suddenly invent this ridiculous conception of a ‘soul’ in order to give themselves something to talk about.  If I bump into you, and you say, ‘excuse me’, and I scoff at you in reply (as I am most apt to do), this is because my body has exerted force on your body.  Not even the most unknowing of wise men would think that ‘bumping into a person’ refers to some abstract collision of normative concepts.  A man is his body, or else he is nothing.”

“So is there then no god?”

“Ha!  My boy, now have you ever asked the question!” he became quite excited at this, and in his frenzy, he flung liquor everywhere, so that an unsettling quantity fell even on me and began to seep into the fabric of my attire.  “You’ll want to sit yourself down for this one!  Grab yourself that monkey’s butt and use it as a stand for yours!”  I looked around and realised he must have been referring to a large, taxidermal figure of an ape, bending over to reach out as if for a banana on a lower branch, making its bottom an excellent place for sitting.  This I used as a stool, according to the sage’s advice, and listened as he began to degrade the fundamental principle of all mankind to utter dust.

“Gods,” he began, “are the inventions of dissatisfied minds.  A mind that wanders and a mind that sits idle is a mind without a reason to exist.  There is nothing of substance that the human mind may observe, so it resorts to making things up.  If there were a soul, then why would there be a body?  And if there were a perfect god, then why would there be an imperfect man?”

“So man is imperfect?”  Sitting in the hunched position which seemed most conducive of the ape-seat, I began to stroke my chin with one hand, looking, I suppose, rather like an ape myself.

“Of course.  Why, do you suppose he is perfect?”

“Well, no.  I just wonder—if you have some definition of imperfection, then you must have a concept of perfection, in which case, you have perspective, and in which case, you are wiser than you give yourself credit, for everything around you must have significance, and—”

“—Woah woah woah woah woah!  I see what you’re doing.  Don’t try that stuff with me.  I’m the Odysseus of philosophers—I’m well traveled, and I can cheat my way out of anything.  Perfection and imperfection are merely physical properties.  Like colours.  Colours exist relative to other colours.  We know that red is red because it is not blue, but this doesn’t signify anything, it’s just a part of the meaningless nature of the universe.  It’s the wise men, like you,”—at this point, it was clear that ‘wise’ was to be considered a derogatory term—”who assign these properties meaning, with your gods and such.  But simply because I acknowledge that the properties exist, I am not therefore obligated to care about them.”

“I must say, you are quite a postmodern philosopher.”

“Most philosophers are so postmodern that they deny the existence of postmodernism as a philosophy; others are so pre-modern that they don’t even believe in it.  I am neither.  Postmodernism is simply a quality of philosophy, you may assign it to me or not as you please, but it signifies nothing.”

There was a pause, and I used the time to think.  It was growing late, and the candles were growing short—something that I suppose only candles can do.  A few had even burnt out.  But the aroma of alcohol didn’t cease to fill the air, and all the splendour of mankind still sat below the disbelieving sage.

“Then let me ask you this, my cynical sir,” I restarted our dialogue, “How do you know these things?”

“What do you mean?  Through observation of course!”

“So you observe other men and have found them to be meaningless?  Then, I take it meaninglessness is a quality assigned just like imperfection?”

“Indeed.  Maybe you’re not so stupid after all.”

“Then what is so meaningless about meaninglessness?  You are a self-aware being in a world full of other self-aware beings, all of whom are making observations about the world around them and holding those observations against certain normative conceptions in order to assign them qualities.  Isn’t that the very definition of meaningfulness?  Perfection, imperfection, meaninglessness, meaningfulness, these are all perspectives held on the normative and empirical world, giving it significance.”

“I take back what I said about your intelligence.  That ape was smarter than you; at least he has become a subject of taxidermy, extending the existence of his peculiar form for a number of years after his death.  Your words, on the other hand, are so ordinary and unpeculiar, that they shan’t even find their way to the memory of mankind.  The normative qualities of things are just another realm of things—normative things, mind you, but things nonetheless.  If I have decided that physical things are meaningless, what makes you think I should find normative things meaningful?”

I took no head of his argumentum ad hominem, “Precisely because they are universal.  All men find things to have the same qualities.  The concepts of perfection and imperfection are transcendent of the things they describe and necessarily exist in the minds of all rational creatures.  But such concepts are transcendent even of the minds in which they exist.”

“There you go—you wise man—making up dogma about gods and significance!—”

“—And what of love?  The ability for a rational creature to substitute his own existence and well-being with that of another?”

“What of that?  It’s rubbish!  It happens, sure, but it doesn’t mean anything.  The ‘well-being’ of a man is really of no significance, so how can sacrificing it or saving it mean anything?”

“It has to mean something.  We call it well-being because, according to the transcendental principles of the normative world, it is good for things to exist.”

At this the man hesitated.  He had in fact submitted that there is such a thing as well-being.  So the Odysseus of philosophers, the man of ‘poluntroppos‘, took the discussion for a turn,  “Well I must say, you have me there.  I do in fact find love quite entertaining.”  He took a drink casually, and another few candles in the room quietly flickered out.  “Love,” he began again, “love is perhaps the most interesting part of this meaningless universe.  At least the universe is interesting.”  He wavered around from one idea to another like a drunk man wandering the streets.  “Of course, the only true love is unrequited.”  Now he spoke with more purpose, “Any old lethargic narcissist can love when it feels good, but only the man stupid enough to choose to love even when it causes him agony, only he can be called a true romantic.  Romeo and Juliet was only a good love story for the first two scenes—the rest is ridiculous rubbish.”  He took another drink and looked off into the distance, suddenly quite placidly, peering through a skylight in the ceiling, as if into his memory, and he tried to recall an ancient adage, “A wise man once said,” Suddenly his look of ponderance left, and he frowned, as if he had forgotten himself, “What am I saying?  Quoting a wise man?  What I meant to say is this bit of foolish knowledge: If you love something, let it go; it won’t come back, but do it anyway—it’s mildly entertaining.”  At this he chuckled, but only softly, and mildly.  “I did that once,” he began again, “I—I wrote a poem about it.  Would you like to hear?”  He turned and looked at me.

I was quite simply enraptured as I marvelled at this man and the profound range of forms he could take on.  Once he was as a drunk, then as a mad man, and he was now as an innocent dreamer.  I nodded gently, as if in a trance, to encourage him to continue.  At which he began to recite his poem, droning in his drunken way, but gently:

How she was sweet as zephyrs in the autumn

In cool caress the arboretum’s dead

And raise, those careless currants, dancing dead

Among the hesitating arboretum boughs.

“How she was pretty as hesitating branches

Will bend and blush embarrassed, ashamed to smile

At dancing dead who rise to raise that blush

As handsome roses in the sun at evening’s end.

“How she was beautiful as autumn’s romantic, flaming gloaming

Habitually robes the desolate scape in celestial rays,

And hesitating rays of sweetest, golden evanescence,

In passion, they die among the leafs to rise no more—

And all is lost.

There was a long silence during which the lovely guiltlessness of this man’s melancholy dissipated through that dark, inebriated room.  Suddenly the misanthropic smirk had turned to a romantic frown.  But darkness yet lurked in the far corners of the room, and many more candles had gone out while I was entranced with this man’s charm.  They were now extinguishing with greater and greater frequency.

“Then isn’t the sheer beauty of that experience worth living for?” I asked softly, “It has begotten such exquisite art.”

“Worth living for?  Living?  The only difference between art and ‘real life’ is that we live life for the mere fun of it.  Sure, love is entertaining, but it isn’t even real.  It dies.”

“But isn’t that part of its beauty?  As you said in the poem… what did you say?  ‘How she was beautiful as … hesitating rays … they die’ … didn’t you say that she was beautiful because of her evanescence?”

“I don’t know.”  Said the man who knows everything, “I can never know what she was; there was no way for me to peer into her mind.  What is love if it can’t even know of its object?  What is love if one can never truly know what the other feels, suffers, and thinks?

“My dear idiot, I am not a wise man, but I know this:” he took a drink before continuing.  Then, drunken, he abruptly shattered the tranquil atmosphere that had so become the room, “Forlorn!” he cried, and more candles went out, “Forlorn are they that roam the chasms of the mind!  Forlorn are they that stand in pause without!” the candles died, all but one, “and between them,” this last candle flickered.  He laughed, as one who knows, “between them stands a chasm–indeed, a chasm as great and as profound as the stander’s pause and the roamer’s roaming mind.  So that he that roams is lost and he that stands knows not where he’s standing.  Forlorn,” the last candle died, “forlorn are they.”

The room was very dark, lit only by the ominous glow of the moon, which gazed down through a skylight from high above, in the heavens, casting a long shadow of the sage across the floor as he preached and spat, laying atop his glorious mountain of knowledge.  The portrait of the noble lady and the statue of Athena looked sinister and menacing, lit there in the silver darkness of knowledge.  The man went on preaching and seemed to forget me as he spoke.  I too seemed to forget him.  Little by little he seemed darker and darker to me, till he was only a silhouette, and then a mere shadow.  His speech likewise faded from intelligible words to murmuring, so that he seemed as a wretched demon, imprecating a horrible curse on all mankind from atop his throne.

I started for the door, and hearing me leave, he shouted out after me, “Is that you Samuel?  You rat!”

As I rushed out of that place, dawn approached from the East.  The horizon slowly faded from black to purple to grey to red, according to each contrasting quality of its ascension.  The cold, wandering zephyrs crispened the morning dew and carried with them the sweetest sounds of church bells ringing far off in the distance.  And the perfect, broken harmony of all of nature cried in steady solemn tones, “Behold, there is a God in Heaven, forlorn among the fallen men of earth!”

The Shaded Dawn

The shaded Dawn that sulks and Mourns the morning

With woeful Doves that requiem their sleep

Together prelude still and soft adorning…

The quiet brook that flows where willows weep

Passing gently by and swift absconding

In passion’s hast but tranquil waters deep…

The flaming autumn of the day And brilliant gloaming

That contends against the ends of the Earth to temporise

The fall of Dusk to Dark and Distant groaning

When necromantic wonders And phantasms arise—

This dying image of evanescent glory

That whispers secret augury to the few and perspicacious

Who mark the hour’s end and coming demise,

And oh how it marks with dread and fear of glory,

This image, that end!  But onward soul, be resolved and pertinacious;

Heed not this wisdom, but disobey your nature.

While yet the sacred morning mourns her loss

And evening ever evades it’s coming cross,

Assume an ardour more surreal and sublime

That transcends the idiotic bounds of verse and rhyme,

A timeless incandescence more furious in feature

Than that of a thousand deaths and damnéd demons

Who deride the day with divination of distant dreaded doom.

Nay, Love with the very force and agony of all this gloom,

For ’tis well to mark the wisdom dawn may give

That whoever dies for Love shall ever live.


At night’s bewitching hour exceeding twelve

When all the luminary bodies set

And darkness haunts the land

To make the forms of earth seem hideous,

Painted with death

The swelling ocean’s sand,

Drifting vessels, black, romantic yet

They stand, though shaded by day’s adversary,

When dawn and dusk seem furthest

And hallowed day unworthiest

‘Tis said by men of mind’s perfidious

That rising from Lethe

The bodies then of graves that diggers delve

Take precedence o’er the earth sans luminary

Guards to sanctify the grounds

To terrify the time

And make fantastic sounds

In crooked verse, sans rhyme,

Occult and vital.  But ’tis not then so–

The night’s a barren canvas of dreamful woe.