Wednesday, February 01, 2006

One more curious excerpt from the Heather book, this time on writing for publication:

"Compared with the clarity and matter-of-factness of, say, Caesar, his [his being Sidonious, the 5th century stylist under discussion] love of showing off seemed the height of decadence. Writing at the end of the Victorian era, Sir Samuel Dill passed this judgement:

"' . . . There is little doubt that he valued his own compositions not for their substance, but for those characteristics of style which we now think most worthless or even repulsive in them . . . the torture applied to language so as to give an air of interest and distinction to the trivial commonplace of a colorless and monotonous existence . . . '

"Even in translation, Sidonious can drive you crazy with his inability to call a spade a spade, and there's no doubt he spent a lot of time trying to say things in as complicated a way as possible. One of his later letters contains a nicely illuminating comment, delivered at a moment when he thought that the literary audience he had been educated to address had gone for ever: 'I am putting together the rest of my letters in more everyday language; it is not worth embellishing phrases which may never be published.' But it is not fair to judge fifth-century style by first-century standards, and more recent commentators on late Roman Latin . . . have been less quick to condemn the stylistic complexities that were the height of artistic chic in the fourth and fifth centuries. An age that can see chain-sawed cows in preservative as art is by definition unlikely to judge other artistic endeavours by rigid universal standards." (page 376)

A startling level of self-honesty from Sidonious, no?

Moving on, I'm now reading Caesar's commentaries, one of many books I know I should have read yet haven't. What's startling is the seamlessness of the Roman Empire's end with its beginning; I left off with Roman territories being settled by migratory warbands of barbarians who had grown overly powerful along the borders of the Rhine, the Danube, and the Alps, and I open Caesar to find him preoccupied with stopping this precise thing from happening: the Helvetii want to leave their small territory north of the Alps and conquer a richer and larger one in Gaul; Caesar, for reasons of Roman border security, want no such thing to happen (among other problems he foresaw, was that if they left their territory, more warlike and fierce, and thus less-desirable-as-neighbors Germanic tribes would move into the gap). The continuity makes it more apparent that Rome fell as it rose than anything else I've read.

In any case, I'm enjoying the Caesar immensely. I bet I'd enjoy it in Latin even more. I really wish I had even some tiny natural talent for languages: it is my largest intellectual deficiency, I've never been able to pick up any language, though not for lack of trying: even Hebrew school did little for nothing; four years of French, nothing; living in Israel for five months, barely able to buy a bus ticket. My brain is just not made for more than one language, I suppose, though I find the specific words and the ways they mean, in other languages, fascinating.

That said, Jonathan Mayhew has been writing some super posts on translation recently. The idea of being able to translate is no less fantastic to me than science fiction; maybe that's why I like reading about it so much.

What I'd do to be able to read Dante in Italian.

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