The Serial Lover

Dear Ernest,

As I read your letter, I fell, almost involuntarily, into a state of thorough introspection, a consideration of my own habits wherein I examined the ramifications of my efficiency, as you described it, and of each particular mannerism that I possess.  I shortly realised that these subconscious habits you mentioned, these mindless expressions of virtues and of vices, could take place in even least conspicuous expressions of morality—in mere thought—and insofar as they were notions arising at random, could provide, escaping all notice and control, some of the most troublesome and unknowable sources of intellectual sin.  Upon realising this, I began examining my thoughts, searching them for whatever may be of ill report, and finding, much to my dismay, that as I so examined, my thoughts contained nothing more than a contemplation of my thoughts themselves, which left me confused and frustrated by the vain attempt.  Needless to say, I soon directed my attention to a cogitation of recursive systems and fractals.

And indeed, this seems to me to be the fundamental shortcoming of the Freudian age.  Psychology is prefaced, unlike all other sciences, by a philosophy of introspection, not of nature.  Here man does not observe the natural universe outside of himself, using the scientific method from the age of reason, but rather, he observes himself and the inner-selfs of those around him, taking his means instead from the romantic and mystical age that followed.  But the romantics, in all their zeal for formless intuition, and in all their commendable appreciation of the complexity of natural phenomena, appear nonetheless to have overlooked an essential issue that, in a simpler fashion, any adherent of formal reasoning and academic proceedings could have never failed to notice: namely, that the scientist always perceives in the third person only, and that a mirror is not the self, but a false image or resemblance.  Consciousness is, like the speed of light, a cosmic limit, always trailing off in front of an observer at the same rate.  Indeed, the moment man considers his own thoughts, he is no longer thinking them.

In your last letter: “[Love] is not a set of scripts we can write to program ourselves to imitate Christ – it is a continuous choice, an expression of our thoughtful, creative self in ways that show love to others and to God.”

In any case, it remains a question for the ages whether Hamlet loves Ophelia when he says ‘get thee to a nunnery’.  Perhaps the to be or not to be speech is really a demonstration not of suicidal gothicism nor of manic depression, but of prudent foresight and planning for a certain fate; for who could ever imagine such treachery as Hamlet’s dread command going unpunished, even with death itself?  How could he ever hope for a better future than ‘that sleep of death’, his only ‘consummation’—perhaps with some dark but revealing allusion to la petite mort?  If this is so, then there is no more passionate expression of love devised in all of English poetry than the scene that follows.  But it is a very strange kind of love.  One not of intimacy and affection, nor of any warm sentiment that would betray the serial-killer illusion under which our Hamlet is so often typified, but it is a love that exists in thoughts, a love that operates, much like the programming of a computer, by systematic planning and calculated proceeding.  This is the kind of love that submits, in the most dire of circumstances, even to surrendering its very object for the sake of her own good.

 

Your servant,

TWM

For the Love of God

Dear Ernest,

As, in my shameless, Victorian manner, I bemoaned and bewailed your long absence from our dialogue, in my lowest state of bereavement, when all hope had very nearly drained out from my lifeless heart, I began to imagine, though the very thought seemed to harrow me with an insurmountable consternation and perturbation, what would inevitably become of our nearly forgotten deliberation if, little by little, in small degrees, our letters became less and less frequent, less thoughtful, and altogether less interesting.  I quickly realised, as I evaluated this nightmarish fantasy of mine, that the whole situation would, without a doubt, be your fault entirely.  This was only a matter of elementary reasoning, for after all, you were the one who, in my imagining, stooped to writing a letter about the proper cultivation techniques for growing eggplants, and to so dully penned an expository, I could hardly be blamed for responding with a comment, however lengthy or tedious, on the economic and culinary benefits of owning a refrigerator.  I need hardly mention your spiritless droning on over the superiority of the colour blue to all others, and my response, a mere ‘sup’, was simply the best answer that I, or even the most masterful and creative intellectual, could ever muster.  In short, the gradual decline of standards, and the incremental deterioration in quality, while perhaps expressing itself in my letters just as much as in yours, was solely and unmistakably the fault of your own failure to provide interesting content, which, while bad enough in itself, also accounted in full for my own demise into an unending literary lifelessness.

In your last letter, when quoting a very clever gentleman: ““How can an earthly purpose point to a heavenly one?””

Anyway, now that so much is cleared up, I’d like to discuss something else: the love of God.  I recently had a conversation with someone about the theological doctrine of Penal Substitution (Jesus dying from the sins of man).  In an attempt to point out how ridiculous the whole idea is, my philosophical friend said something along these lines: “If John Somebody steals a cup of tea from Don Quixote, and for that offence, you sentence Sancho Panza to thirty years in prison, then you’re not upholding justice and mercy at the same time, you’re just being a jerk to Sancho Panza”.  In retrospect, I realise that the best response would have been to point out that everyone is a jerk to Panza, even Don Quixote.  But since this is an intellectual blog, and at that, one of certain standards, I’ll offer a more thoughtful response:

The problem with this quixotic situation is simply the choice of third-person narrative.  Penal Substitution is a doctrine based on the circular reciprocity of requited love.  By this I mean that if, for example, Romeo loves Juliet, then one of his greatest objectives in life is to keep her happy and healthy.  However, if Juliet requites Romeo’s love, then a large part of serving her means, for Romeo, taking care also of himself.  In this way, love is a lot like writing letters back and forth: the better one letter, the better its response, and if Romeo is well off, then Juliet will be also, which is the lover’s greatest concern.  By loving Juliet, Romeo has not taken away resources from himself—though it may seem like this at first—but rather, he has increased the over all purposes that he and Juliet collectively possess for staying alive.  Obviously, Shakespeare is a bad example, seeing that Romeo and Juliet were never actually in love, but it serves our philosophical purposes just fine.

Between God and man, there is a very similar drama, only man is not well off, and therefore, God will suffer.  And He does.  Penal Substitution doesn’t mean choosing a third-party at random to suffer for the crimes of another; rather, it means that, when man has turned from God, such that either he or God must pay, Jesus chooses Himself.  After all, in the third-person, it doesn’t make much sense that one man should need to die in order that another might live, but the situation does in fact arise, and the Christian answer to the conflict is different for each narrative.  In the first-person, the crucifixion illustrates that the proper answer is, ‘I die’, and in the second person, the resurrection tells us to answer, ‘you live’.  But if, as humans, we respond gratefully to both of these divine answers, saying back to Jesus, ‘I am dead in my sins’ (Ephesians 2:1), come, ‘you live’ inside of me, then the third-person narrative will have no mention of death at all: ‘He lives’.

I propose that pointing earthly purposes to heavenly one’s is all a matter of Imitation Christis.  If on Earth, we can experience this drama in the first person, not just reading about it in books and obscure theological doctrines, but actually knowing Jesus in the second-person—as a You, not a Him—then having been so deeply loved, we will find it difficult to respond in any other way toward others.  We are the recipients of an incredible letter, to which, if we offer any reply at all, everything we write thereafter will bear a resemblance, and gradually, by small degrees, our Earthly story will be transformed into something very near a Heavenly one; we will understand other characters in the text more thoroughly and love the more fully than ever before—and indeed, this entire literary revolution, the demise of the old and rise of the new, will be entirely and unmistakably His fault.

 

Your Servant,

TWM

The Rebirth of the Author

My Dear and Idle Ernest,

What follows is a brief thought-piece that I humbly put forth as a response to Ronald Barthes’ infamous essay, The Death of the Author.  Let it be clear to everyone reading that I do not mean to suggest, by publishing this during such a fallow period in your output, that you are somehow dead or lifeless–in a literary sense or otherwise–but I rather intend this merely as a bit of ‘intermission-music’, as it were, something to entertain us all philologically and philosophically while we await, with a psychological eagerness, your next philomathological letter.  Pardon my Greek.

While I don’t think you have to read Barthes in order to understand and enjoy what follows, I have provided a link to his essay above for those who are interested.  If you get bored, skip to the last paragraph.

Your Servant,

TWM

The Rebirth of the Author

In any act of reading, listening, or conversing, there is always entailed, whether in the foreground or background of thoughts, an ongoing exercise of information management, a process wherein the raw material passed from orator to auditor, or from writer to reader, as the case may be, is instantaneously converted into something else, some extracted object of greater relevance to the personal interests of the receiving agent than the mere words presented—that is to say, an interpretation.  And it is this interpretive process that we rightly regard as the ultimate source of all human rhetoric, the faculty alone responsible for our capacity to assign any significance whatsoever to the language of other people—a faculty, without which, every external exchange of words would be utterly inconsequential, a futile production of sounds or symbols that has no effect on the observer beyond a mere stimulation of physical senses.  Indeed, if we imagine a world without this normative process of interpretation, we quickly see the greatest philosophical pitfall of strict Empiricism, finding ourselves in a place where all objects, persons, words, and sounds, deprived of their corresponding Platonic Forms, immediately lose their entire meaning upon entering the mind of an observer, for the receiver of all such information, if lacking in this capacity, will be unable to do anything more with it than to remember how it was presented ‘word for word’.

But it is the profound enablement of the true cognitive model, this inevitable habit of the human mind, that it allows for endless possible linguistic choices to express a single idea, so that the abstract object of an ‘interpretation’ may be realised in whatever one concrete manner is most fitting to a particular context.  As a result, a reader may discuss wisdom found in books without direct quotation, a teacher may instruct his or her pupils based on knowledge rather than on words, and a student may be properly equipped, by virtue of a purely normative education, to solve real-world problems that never even arose in the theoretical realm of the classroom.  This is all due to the remarkable and unequaled paradigm of human communication: any given exchange of words in any given context may bear future consequence precisely because, for all parties involved, the corresponding ideas transcend and stand apart from every mode of expression by which they are put forth.

But we must also appreciate the equally profound danger of this paradigm.  The moment one interpretation has been extracted from a text, countless other possibilities, along with all their corresponding ideas and consequences, have been lost.  If after such has taken place, a single reader puts forth his or her interpretation as ‘the correct reading’ or the ‘authoritative perspective’, that is to say, the precise meaning that the author has intended, he or she will utterly miss all of those other abstract possibilities, which stand, while perhaps not in contention with the reader’s own, at the very least, as an invaluable elaboration or extension to what a single person can interpret alone.  It only stands to reason that any object extracted from another is always but a subset of the whole, so that the whole meaning of a text is always larger and more complicated than that of any extracted interpretation.

It is in light of this enablement and this danger that I hereby propose ‘a verbatim doctrine of philology’, that is, most generally, a methodological philosophy of literature wherein the text is always preeminent to the interpretation.  Indeed, the text is held as a dictionary of its own meaning, such that any rewording of its ideas or translation of its content, while valuable in a particular context, is yet understood as something short of the full situation presented by the author verbatim.  As may be deduced from the doctrine’s carefully chosen title, I regard this methodology as itself an interpretation of the omnipresent axiom found verbatim in John i, 1 of the Latin vulgate: In principio erat Verbum.

By this philosophy, I mean to suggest that upon each reading of a text, its author is born again, becoming once more like a living person and speaking to the reader in a very intimate and humane manner.  The living author is able, thanks to the process of interpretation, to address the unique concerns of an individual reader or a foreign culture in a way that is deeply vivid, real, and novel, even without loosing all of the wonder and mystery that comes with a regard for authorial intent.  The full scope of a text, like the full scope of a human being, remains forever unconquered by analysis.  Just as a biography written of an author will never be tantamount to an encounter with the real person, so will no work of criticism ever suffice to substitute a work of literature itself—for the meaning of which one must always turn again to the source.  But both the immeasurable, personal influence that the Author yet holds over the reader, as well as the ongoing, universal consequence that He still bears on the future, remain irrefutable intimations that, in the mind of every reader, this so-called Author and Creator of all His work is indeed fully alive once again.

“Ζῶν γὰρ ὁ λόγος τοῦ Θεοῦ καὶ ἐνεργὴς καὶ τομώτερος ὑπὲρ πᾶσαν μάχαιραν δίστομον καὶ διϊκνούμενος ἄχρι μερισμοῦ ψυχῆς καὶ πνεύματος, ἁρμῶν τε καὶ μυελῶν, καὶ κριτικὸς ἐνθυμήσεων καὶ ἐννοιῶν καρδίας·”

“For the word of God is living and working continuously; it is more sharp than any double-edged sword, piercing even as far as the partition of the soul and spirit, and of joints and of marrow.  It is critical of the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12)

 

A Pointed Purpose

Yo, Ernest,

The informal greeting is an indication that, unfortunately, I do not anticipate this letter being the sort of thing I’ll be copying onto parchment any time soon—which is a real shame, considering how many other things there are that I copy onto parchment on a regular basis.

Well, here’s a quotation and a translation:

At pius Aeneas, quamquam lenire dolentem

solando cupit et dictis avertere curas,

multa gamens magnoque animum labefactus amore

iussa tamen divum exsequitur classemque revisit.

 

But pious Aeneas,

although he longs to sooth her pain with solace

and turn her from her cares with gentle words,

Much grieving,

and labefied, his soul, With great desire,

he nonetheless pursues the god’s commands

And returns to his fleet.

Aeneas heroically carries his father, Anchises, out of troy as the city burns behind him.

Pious is a common epithet that Vergil uses to describe Aeneas.  It had broader implications in the context of ancient Rome than it does today, including a dutifulness not only to the gods, but also to one’s family and one’s state.  In the excerpt which I have so translationally quoted, it seems to bring out the purpose for which Aeneas is leaving Dido.  He is choosing to serve the gods, his family, and his future state.  By pursuing Rome instead of remaining in Carthage with Dido he is providing his son with a perspective principality—however unfulfilled that prospect may end up—while serving also his father by making a legacy of his bloodline.

In your last letterThey serve to point.

But Dante, who we know to be more clever than he’s, took advantage of the change in meaning that this word underwent over the thirteen centuries between their lives.  In his Comedy, pietate refers to pity.  Dante understands that all these reverences that Vergil thought of as shows of piety are really earthly passions—cares for the vicissitudinous and the mortal, which can be nothing else but sorrows and depravities.  The fact that Dido’s curse comes true, that Aeneas son, Ascanius dies before he can inherit the throne, demonstrates the shortsightedness of these investments.  And for Dante, even his reverence for the ‘gods’ is a folly.

How can an earthy purpose point to a heavenly one?

 

Your servant,

TWM

Star Gazing

Ernest,

Your letter reminded me of a beautiful moment in Dante’s Divine Comedy, when just before entering the dooming gates of hell, Dante, the literary character, addresses Vergil, his guide, who tells him that Beatrice  has advised their journey.  What’s particularly moving about this passage, which I have quoted below, is the hope that Dante displays even in the face of what lies before him.  Just a few short paces off lie the gates of hell itself, with that infamous inscription carved into stone above the top: LASCIATE OGNE SPERANZA VOI CH’INTRATE, “ABANDON ALL HOPE, YE WHO ENTER HERE!”

But Dante doesn’t do this, instead he finds all the more hope in what Vergil has told him:

 

“Oh pietosa colei che mi soccorse!

e te cortese ch’ubidisti tosto

a le vere parole che ti porse!

Tu m’hai con disiderio il cor disposto

sì al venir con le parole tue,

ch’i’ son tornato nel primo proposto.

Or va, ch’un sol volere è d’ambedue:

tu duca, tu sengore, e tu maestro.”

Così li dissi; e poi che mosso fue,

intrai per lo cammino alto e silvestro.

 

“O compassionate, she who thus availeth me!

And courteous, thou who hast obeyed so prompt

The truthful words that she hath put to thee!

Thou hast inclined desire in my heart

For venture, with thine words, that I renew

To mee the primal purpose as before.

Now go, for to us both a single will:

Be thou the leader, thou the lord and master!”

And even so I said to him.

When he had moved,

I entered by the journey deep and cruel.

 

Seeing through all the brutal devastation that lies directly in front of him, Dante is able to hope in something glorious that comes long after it.  By God’s grace and love, symbolised in the figure of Beatrice, ‘who availeth’ him, this woeful journey though the land of tears serves, even by its very ugliness, to but highlight the profound beauty and eternal splendour of a salvation yet to come.

Dante says he is moved with disiderio, ‘desire’, which comes from the Latin, desiderare, a word composed of two parts: de, meaning ‘concerning’, and sidera, meaning ‘the stars’ or ‘the heavens’.  So Dante is foreshadowing the last moment of the Inferno, when he and Vergil come forth out of hell—a place of unbearable darkness, where even the stars neglect to shine—to see once more, in the very last line of the book, something truly awe-inspiring:

 

E quindi uscimmo a riveder le stelle.

We thence went forth to rebehold the stars.

 

This line inspired a moment in my twelfth symphony (2012):

 

 

I think life is a lot like this.  Gratitude for God’s small gifts in the present is a way of desiring; that is, a way of regarding the stars, our ultimate destiny in Christ.  By giving thanks for something like a familiar cup of tea, a good grade on a blog post, or a book consisting of something other than meaningless numbers and names, we are able, by an ironically short sighted act of thanks, to transcend all of our present despairs and adversities, liberated, by God’s grace, to live with an ever present hope in our eternal beatitude, to endure, even through the fiery pains of hell itself, with a perpetual and imminent longing for that ineffable vista of the stars.

 

Your servant,

TWM

Thanks in Hell

I have decided that the three best expressions of thanks in literature all take place in hell.

In a very specifically insignificant order, they are:

(1) When the devils of Milton’s Paradise Lost praise Satan for designating himself to go and tempt man (Milton Par. II.476-485)

(2) When Dante thanks Virgil for renewing his courage just before entering limbo (Dante Infer. II.133-142)

(3) When Odysseus makes sacrifices to ingratiate the dead (Hom. Od. 11.23-33)

I think the notion of thanks in hell creates a very strange paradigm.  Milton does a good job exploiting the bizarreness of it when he writes ‘for neither do the Spirits damn’d / lose all their virtue’.  Of course, he is making a pun off the etymology of the word ‘virtue’, which, in the Latin, virtus, had also a connotation of mere strength, not necessarily associated with any moral standard.

 

Their rising all at once was as the sound

Of thunder heard remote. Towards him they bend

With awful reverence prone; and as a God

Extol him equal to the highest in Heav’n:

Nor fail’d they to express how much they prais’d,

That for the general safety he despis’d

His own: for neither do the Spirits damn’d

Lose all their virtue; lest bad men should boast

Their specious deeds on earth, which glory excites,

Or close ambition varnisht o’er with zeal.

 

(Milton Par. II.476-485)

 

Milton goes on: ‘lest bad men should boast / Their specious deeds on earth, which glory excites, / Or close ambition varnisht o’er with zeal.’  So for Milton thanks, in hell, is an end in itself.  The damned are virtuous, or strong, not for the sake of being virtuous, but in order that they might be praised for it.

But Dante understands that gratitude can also be a means to an end.  It can move someone to do something good—like ascending to paradise—for which they only lacked sufficient motivation.

 

“Oh pietosa colei che mi soccorse!

e te cortese ch’ubidisti tosto

a le vere parole che ti porse!

Tu m’hai con disiderio il cor disposto

sì al venir con le parole tue,

ch’i’ son tornato nel primo proposto.

Or va, ch’un sol volere è d’ambedue:

tu duca, tu sengore, e tu maestro.”

Così li dissi; e poi che mosso fue,

intrai per lo cammino alto e silvestro.

 

Pardon my horrific translations; I was having a little too much fun this morning:

“O compassionate, she who availeth me!

And courteous, thou who hast obeyed so prompt

The truthful words that she hath put to thee!

Thou hast inclined desire in my heart

For venture, with thine words,

That I renew to mee the primal purpose.

Now go, for to us both a single will:

Thou the leader, thou the lord and maestro.”

Even so I said to him; and when he had moved,

I entered by the journey deep and cruel.

 

However, I mostly included the Homer quote to motivate people to keep reading.  I thought it was funny in its obscurity.  Odysseus it trying to motivate the dead souls to speak to him, using a technique that we may call ‘pre-thanks’

 

ἔνθ᾽ ἱερήια μὲν Περιμήδης Εὐρύλοχός τε

ἔσχον: ἐγὼ δ᾽ ἄορ ὀξὺ ἐρυσσάμενος παρὰ μηροῦ

βόθρον ὄρυξ᾽ ὅσσον τε πυγούσιον ἔνθα καὶ ἔνθα,

ἀμφ᾽ αὐτῷ δὲ χοὴν χεόμην πᾶσιν νεκύεσσι,

πρῶτα μελικρήτῳ, μετέπειτα δὲ ἡδέι οἴνῳ,

τὸ τρίτον αὖθ᾽ ὕδατι: ἐπὶ δ᾽ ἄλφιτα λευκὰ πάλυνον.

πολλὰ δὲ γουνούμην νεκύων ἀμενηνὰ κάρηνα,

ἐλθὼν εἰς Ἰθάκην στεῖραν βοῦν, ἥ τις ἀρίστη,

ῥέξειν ἐν μεγάροισι πυρήν τ᾽ ἐμπλησέμεν ἐσθλῶν,

Τειρεσίῃ δ᾽ ἀπάνευθεν ὄιν ἱερευσέμεν οἴῳ

παμμέλαν᾽, ὃς μήλοισι μεταπρέπει ἡμετέροισι.

τοὺς δ᾽ ἐπεὶ εὐχωλῇσι λιτῇσί τε, ἔθνεα νεκρῶν,

ἐλλισάμην, τὰ δὲ μῆλα λαβὼν ἀπεδειροτόμησα

ἐς βόθρον, ῥέε δ᾽ αἷμα κελαινεφές:

 

Then Perimedes and Eurylochus held the victims;

And I, drawing a sharp blade from my side, [presumably, on which a sheath was hanging],

Dug a trench, deep and long on this side and that,

And on both sides of it I poured a libation to all the dead,

First with honey-milk, then with a redolent wine,

And third, again, with water; and on it, I sprinkled light barely-groats [because, apparently, dead souls like that sort of thing]

And to the many wandering heads of the dead souls, I vowed

That when I had come to Ithaca, a barren ox, whichever is the best one,

I would sacrifice it in my halls, and would fill a pyre with goods,

And to Tiresias, alone and afar, I would sacrifice a black ram,

Which distinguishes itself from our sheep.

 

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.

The Remarkable Accoutrement

It was quite a remarkable accoutrement, the hat that Andrew wore.  It was of that eccentric, French fashion that only a select few can seem to pull off; and if anyone were so aptly placed among those choice and fortunate few as to be rightly labeled the paragon of that class, it was none other than this most formidably sophisticated fellow—that is to say, Andrew—on the head of whom, when placed, that hat seemed to transform the otherwise average gentleman into a nobleman of noblemen, venerated of the venerable.  Upon wearing it, he looked like Frank Sinatra, the Jolly Green Giant, or someone of that remarkably handsome sort—perhaps Peter Pan.  And all around him the sun shone bright and the autumn winds danced with a new-found vivacity, sprinkled with the ambrosial aroma of florid fields.

For this reason, it is not in the least a bewilderment that Larena Lee should have fallen head-over-heals in love with him when first she laid her hazy hazel eyes on the youthful lad.  Indeed, she should have done exactly that.  But unfortunately, as is not strange to any of us who hold our heads just below the clouds, things do not always workout so romantically and perfectly in real life, but the true nature of reality is full of such deformities and decrepities as are not otherwise found in books or fairy tales.  No, instead, Larena Lee fell quite heals-over-head, only slightly bruising her pretty little ankle on the fourth stone step.

“Are you okay?” Andrew, being of the errant and quixotic sort of nobility that he was, hesitated not a moment to aid the damsel in distress.  Helping her to her feet (and not failing to notice her irresistibly petite and pallid ankle—fair, even bruised as it was) he offered her his name and a pleasantry, a reasonable courtesy to be expected in such a situation, “That was quite a spill—I’m Andrew by the way.”

“Larena Lee,” she offered him her hand (so that he might shake it, as people often do), “O dear, you’re rather right, it was quite a spill indeed; I scarcely noticed it.”  Whereupon the immense lake of tea that she had inadvertently flung across the entire room became conspicuous to her.  But enraptured, she soon disregarded the tea again, and it became just as inconspicuous as it was from the start—and would be for all the rest of eternity, inconspicuously filling the room with an inconspicuous aroma (as aromas generally are inconspicuous, evading the eyes in their pellucidly pungent manner) that could be anything but equated to the aforementioned florid ambrosia, finding a congeniality much more fitting in the highly uncongenial odorous force of a fungus-suffused felt, or carpet.  She shifted her focus back to whom she was certain, beyond the shadow of a doubt (and doubts tend to have rather long shadows these days), would hereafter be the love of her life—assuming he kept his hat on.  “I like your hat.”  she smiled at him.

“O thank you; I put it on my head myself.”  Andrew was clearly an exceptionally quick-witted fellow, remarkable in his charm, grace, and choice of wardrobe.  The couple stood there in an awkward silence for a while, lost in each others eyes (which is a difficult state to accomplish, considering how small an eye is, how large a person, and how much larger still a sense of direction).  Then finally Andrew spoke: “Larena Lee?”

“Yes, Androstenedione—I mean, Andrew—yes, Andrew?”

“I couldn’t help but notice you staring at me…”

“Yes, androgenic Andrew.”

“And well … I was wondering …”  This was it.  They both knew he was about to ask her out on a date (of course, he would have, himself, been too grammatically pedantic to use the phrase ‘ask her out’, but too eloquent to say ‘ask her outward’); they could tell what was about to happen by means of the prickly, augurial butterflies flapping wildly through their stomachs (once again presenting a feasibility issue much like the optical disorientation mentioned earlier).  “Well … here it goes …” he swallowed hard, wiped away the perspiration, and closed his eyes tight (I suppose, trapping Larena inside—depending on your own, personal convictions about what’s going on in the story right now) “How would you like to have a romantic kettle of Sanskrit-Breakfast Tea with me?”

Larena Lee was eager to accept the invitation, but found herself restrained by but one thing: the grammatical construction.  It took her a while to think about his use of an adverbial interrogative and the appropriate response.  Of course it might seem too forward if she were to reply adjectivally, too compendious—and also grammatically fallacious—if she were to offer a mere affirmation, and too philosophically irritating if she reciprocated interrogatively.  So she settled on an adverbial response, which she thought would create a nice parallel construction in the dialogue—romantic, without being overly candid: “Well.”

There was another awkward silence—though not quite as awkward as the last (for it is not strange that awkwardness grows week with wear).  Andrew replied, less mindful of where things stood grammatically (though he is, indeed, like really grammatical and stuff): “Well?  Well what?”  Enamoured, his ardent arteries yet undulate with an amorous ardor.

“Well.  Precisely well.  I would well like to have a romantic kettle of English-Breakfast Tea with you.”  Alas, as we often see in everyday discourse, a keen observance of grammar had completely compromised her consciousness of the content of conversation.

“No, not English-breakfast, Sanskrit-Breakfast.  It’s just like English, only its Sanskrit.”

Larena Lee, somewhat embarrassed that she had not taken better note of the language, and thinking herself a foolish, uncultured girl, blushed apologetically; “I’m quite sorry,” she said, “I um … I thought … I thought that by ‘Sanskrit’, you meant ‘English’.”

“Oh.  I see.  No, I did not.”

“Well in that case, a warm cup of Sanskrit-Breakfast Tea sounds delightful.”  In this she spoke most truly; Sanskrit is indeed a charmingly euphonic tongue.

“Very well; then let us be off.”

And they retired to more private quarters for their tea, leaving behind a gentleman in the corner who has been left unmentioned hitherto.  His name was Don Ulysses Darius Epsilon (though he went by Themistocles, or Phillip, because he was a law-abiding man who was particularly fond of horses).  He sat in silence, pondering what a great difficulty that singular encounter had made of itself.

In a small, dusty kitchen, with a creaky wooden floor, Andrew set up a brew, while Larena Lee admired his remarkable hat.  It was made of a soft, but distinguished, grey fabric on top, which hung casually over whatever was beneath it, sewn with a sturdy seam to the oblong brim.  All in all it was a perfectly charming piece of cloth—rugged, yet tender, tough, but sensitive.  And she couldn’t take her eyes off it (that is, of course, because her eyes were in their sockets—though this matter may have been confused to some degree previously—and therefore, they were not touching the hat, which meant they could not either be removed from it).

With the kettle boiling away, Andrew turned to Larena Lee, who was sitting at the table, expectantly, and he walked over to sit with her.  They sat, facing each other, at the table, in another awkward silence (which is, of course, where novel daters often tend to sit), and he thought of points of conversation.  He went through a number of possible lines in his head—for he was, indeed, quite fond of geometry—and mentally, he tried each one on for size: “so I was calculating the hypotenuse last night and … ” No, that one was too simple; he wanted to impress her.  “I was considering the projection of a seven-dimensional cloth into four-dimensional space for an integration problem …” No, that was too fascinating; he didn’t want her to think him unbearably engrossing.  “I was reading Catullus …” No, that was too gross.  Finally, she interrupted his thoughts:

“So, do you often drink in Sanskrit?”  He looked at her, not quite finished calculating.  Then he realised she had said something, and he played it back in his mind, whereupon he quickly fashioned a response so as not to seem rudely irresponsive:

“भवतु”  He said, or at least tried to say—the only problem was that he didn’t know any Sanskrit, so he couldn’t read his response aloud.  But on the bright side, he thought of something to say to her: “I wrote you a sonnet.”

“When?”

“Just now.”

“How?”

“In my head.”

“Oh.”

“Would you like to hear it?”

“Yes.”

“Okay,” he thought quickly, “here it is:

Let…

Let me get the tea first.”  He got up, walked over to the stove, picked up the tea kettle, put the kettle back down, walked over to a cabinet, opened the cabinet, found nothing inside, closed the cabinet, walked over to another cabinet, opened that cabinet, found nothing more or less than exactly two tea cups within, took out the tea cups, put them down on the counter, closed the cabinet, picked the tea cups back up, walked over to the table, set the tea cups down on the table, walked back over to the stove, picked up the teapot, walked back to the table, poured tea in Larena’s cup first (for he was a courteous gentleman), and then, trying to pour tea in his own, he missed, spilling it all over the table.  “O dear!”  Larena found this very romantic, but perhaps it was a bit improper of him to be calling her by such an intimate appellation so soon.  “It seems I’ve spilled.  Let me go get a towel.”  What happened next needn’t be described.

He sat back down, and the two of them sipped their tea together.  Larena spoke, “I feel ashamed to admit it, but in a spirit of utter transparency, I must tell you I’ve never had Sanskrit-Breakfast Tea before.  What’s in it?”

The tea is made of whatever herbs Andrew might happen to find lying around on any given day.  “I’m afraid I can’t tell you that; it’s an ancient secret.”

At this, there was nothing more to say.  They sipped their teas.

Then Andrew started again: “So I was formulating an infinite geometric sequence that equivocates to a sinusoidal—” His voice broke off.  What was he doing!  One can’t bring up such a controversial topic on a first date; it’s abominably uncouth!  He thought quickly, “—I mean, what I meant to say was…I’m delighted that I finally asked you outward.”  He stuffed his foot in his mouth—much to Larena’s amazement, and slight disgust—in the great haste of recovering from one misspeaking, he had fallen into another much worse.  What had become of his former eloquence?  Something was depriving him of it.

Larena blushed, “So, do you mean…this is like…a date?”

Andrew thought for a moment, while Larena Lee looked at his luxurious hat.  “Hm,” he says, “That’s quite an interesting metaphor.”  They both thought about how the metaphor could be extended.  “I suppose, it’s a bit drier than a grape, but certainly more juicy than a raisin.”  They were both tickled by the literary implications.  And the Homeric metaphor began to grow.

“It’s sweet.”  Larena added, and they were both thrilled with amusement of double entendre.

“But its dangerous.”  Andrew cautioned her abruptly.  The smile absconded from her face.  “You must be extremely cautious to avoid the pit!”  Whereupon, they both started laughing wildly, though unsure of exactly what was so funny.  It is at times like these that one must recall the adage of a great sage of old: ‘I’m so clever that sometimes I don’t understand a single word I’m saying’ —Oscar Wild.

The laughter settled down soon enough, and they both sipped their teas.  Andrew started thinking of something else to say, but as fate would have it, Larena was the next to speak, which she did, only momentarily sneaking another glance at his hat: “Well I am glad to have been asked outward, but you will have to pardon me, I don’t mean to pry; however, I couldn’t help but notice a peculiar qualifier buried in your wording.”

“What qualifier was that?”  Andrew began to grow anxious.

“Finally.”  They were both silent for a moment, but moments as these had long since given up the arduous task of being awkward in nature.  So they sat in a strangely unawkward silence; one, in fact, that was so peculiarly unawkward as to verge on being awkward in its unawkwardality.

“Now isn’t that an interesting adverb?”  Andrew thought quickly, but no ideas seemed to come to him.  “It has such a sense of—” As he thought, Larena admired his hat, “—of … a sense of finality.”  His eloquence had left him a fool of itself, but it was no matter, for Larena Lee hardly noticed the lexical gap, finding herself utterly enraptured in an androcracy; that is, a dreamy universe ruled almost entirely by the charms and apparel of Andrew.

“Indeed, it does.”  She sipped her tea, “you are quite right.”

It is at this point fitting that something be said as to the appearance of these two.  Indeed, it has been highly indecorous of the author to leave out such a detail thus far, and so, he humbly and apologetically offers this consolation, first speaking in regards to Larena: she was unspeakably pretty.  And as for Andrew, his charm has already been sufficiently spoken—remember, tall, dark, handsome, and green…dark green.

“Were you not intent on reciting a sonnet?”  Larena spoke again.

“Ah, yes;” Andrew cleared his throat, “I most certainly was.  Ornatus usurpandus est.

“O, it’s in the romance language of Italian; how romantic.”

“Um actually,” this moment was nonetheless awkward in spite of the couple having already conquered so much awkwardness in the past.  “Actually, that was the vulgar language of Latin.  It means that I must, in a spirit of total cordiality and decorousness, regrettably and temporarily excuse myself, as I am really—though not uncomfortably so—quite due, in a professional and formal sense of the word—that is, the word, ‘due’—yes, quite due for an appointment with the necessary.”  At this it was certain to both of them that Latin is indeed an extremely concise language.  There was a silence; the reader is left to determine the awkwardness of it for himself.

“Oh, of course, by all means; go right ahead-I mean—I don’t mean go ahead, but I mean…well, let yourself go—no…” she couldn’t think of a euphemistic way to say it, “have a pleasant temporary absence.”  They both felt a bit ashamed of their wording, but they knew deep down–all the more to their shameful bliss–that it would in truth be a very pleasant ‘temporary absence’, especially because it would allow them each time to recover from that traumatic experience, having very nearly brought both the English and Latin languages to utter waste.

Larena sat back in her chair and looked down at her thumbs, which she twiddled around one another.  Andrew got up and left, and what followed needn’t be described.

Upon his return, tragedy ensued.  Larena looked up and saw—miserable to behold—his head lay open, naked.  He had, unbeknownst to her, removed his hat and set it on the table before leaving for the loo—though the author failed to describe this pivotal moment.

“What are you doing?”  She pressed urgently.  “Your hat!  Your glorious hat!  What has become of it?”

“Its okay, Larena.”  He tried to comfort her, but words wouldn’t come.  “I-um … I’ll say the sonnet now.”  This helped mildly mitigate the situation, for Larena was always excessively pleased to hear romantic poetry, though she had never before had any addressed explicitly to her—unless you count an anthology that she ordered to be sent by mail.  He began directly:

I shall tell you candidly, as a gentleman of crossed intents

That I find it difficult to suppose there be a thing more lovely,

Or indeed, a wretched horror altogether more intense,

A good or ill that’s so more fully,

A passion’s fire of greater vivacity or effervescence,

Than as dreams expiring, or antithetical the hour,

That graceful, glorious, ineffable—though of such evanesc-

But no, the word ‘s too long.

I’m appalled by long words.  Life is so insufferably abridged and abbreviated and short as it is, we oughtn’t waste our time pronouncing such long words to express that matter.  Let me start over.”

“Indeed, further, the meter was not all that becoming of a sonnet, and I can’t say I was particularly fond of the rhyme scheme.”

“Right you are; it was an utter failure, and I’m glad it’s over.  Allow me to begin again.

If eternity were present in an instant

And perpetuities were quintessential moments,

If fleeting dreams sufficed as permanent,

Etherial realities inconstant,

Then actuality and certitude

Were but a dream and love were but a fact,

Eternity were Love’s beatitude

To adorn with what its beauties never lacked.

So let us dream, my love, that dreams were true

Your essence, substanceless, were real as Eve,

A sunset never setting, forever new,

And the charming gloaming at dusk would not bereave.

If but that love were painless, ever-present,

But love were not itself ‘less evanescent.”

“Hm.”  Larena pondered.  “It’s pretty good.  But—”

“—I know, I know, I said the word again.”  He almost put his foot back in his mouth, but Larena stopped him, gently.

“No, it wasn’t that…”

“—What was it?  What is it—the rhyme scheme again?”

She thought.  “No.”  She looked him directly in the eyes, and stood there, much the way she had when she first lay eyes on him.  “No—the problem was—that I didn’t understand it.”  They were both quiet, in a silence much resembling the one that DUDE had observed earlier.

“Oh.”  Andrew was lost for words.

“Say an easier one.”

A brief hesitation (perhaps in the manner of that aforementioned word), and he began: “Okay.

What is this thing, for which—or one, for whom—

I haven’t left a word—or thought’s medallion—

To ornament the beauty—I have not room—

No remnant wit—in Sanskrit or Italian—

This is she—she of the fairest ankle—

With whom e’en cruel Achilles cannot compete—

I must confess—I haven’t a rhyme for ankle—

To end the line—I made the word repeat—

Larena, this is terrible—I’m sorry.”

“No, don’t stop; keep going—I like it.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know.  It’s simple.”  She tried to think of a better way to describe it.  The main liking she took to it so far was, of course, the flattery it offered concerning her ankle—about which she had been mildly self-conscious since the fall, but now she was even verging on considering allowing the cuff of her jeans to rise a little once more, which she had pulled down just before leaving the other place (the name of which place, the author failed to mention, on account of a want for creativity or fear of exposure).  “It’s honest.  It’s clear.  It’s a stilnovismo.  It has the modern voice of candidness.  It’s transparent.”  She now realised she was running on at the mouth, wasting time.  “Say more about my ankle.”

“Well.”  Andrew was somewhat reluctant, but he conceded, with a concessive clause.  “Although I don’t find it so beautiful as you just described—I mean the poem—your ankle is utterly beautiful—I’ll finish it for your sake:

O fairest of the fair—ankle of ankles—

Noble, small, white—what else can I say?

I still don’t have a word to rhyme with ankles—

So I guess I’ll end the line again that way—

My knees grow week in the presence of that ankle—

Because, for medical reasons, they’re weaker than my ankle.

Oh dear.  That last line had too many syllables.”

“I know, dear.  It’s better that way.  You look nice without your hat.”

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.