Blameless Virgil Gnaws the Dust
I have earth-shattering news. I finished The Aeneid.
People who are keeping up know the story. I felt bad about reading almost none of the books on the Lit. Hum. list back when I was “studying” at Columbia, so I downloaded a syllabus and went to work. I slogged through Homer, Herodotus, Thucydides, and some other crap I am too lazy to list. Then I grounded my hull on Virgil. He’s a terrible writer, and I accidentally bought a translation by an even worse writer; by the time I realized it, I was about 60% of the way through the book. I bought the right translation and started over.
It’s a punishment fit for a mythological character. It’s almost Sisyphean. I refused to read this horrible book when I was supposed to, so I was condemned to read it later; not just once, but 1.6 times. I got the Santayana treatment, to the tune of 60%.
Man, this book stinks. It was agony. With junk like this to deal with, no wonder the ancients took so long to achieve literacy. It must have been extremely unappealing.
Checking the syllabus, I see that my next Herculean labor is Ovid’s Heroides. To show how little I learned at Columbia, I will reveal that I have no idea what the book is about. Maybe it wasn’t on the syllabus in 1902 when I took the course, or maybe it just wasn’t on the list of things I expected to be on the exam. In any case, I know nothing about it, and I kind of wish it could stay that way.
Wikipedia, I summon thee!
The Wiki-Oracle informs me that Ovid was a guy who gave up law to become a poet. Not sure that’s a step upward. He wrote in something called “elegiac meter.”
Here’s a quotation: “An elegiac couplet consists of one line of poetry in dactylic hexameter followed by a line in dactylic pentameter.”
Now I have to look up dactylic whatever.
My God, this is boring.
“The foot is the basic metrical unit that forms part of a line of verse in most Western traditions of poetry.”
“A dactyl (Greek: ????????, dáktylos, ‘finger’) is a foot in poetic meter. In quantitative verse, often used in Greek or Latin, a dactyl is a long syllable followed by two short syllables, as determined by syllable weight.”
If a dactyl is three syllables, how can you have dactylic PENTAmeter? “Penta” means “five.”
Oh, okay. I see it now. Dactylic pentameter is apparently fifteen syllables.
How can anybody care about this stuff?
No, I’m wrong about the fifteen syllables. There is apparently a thirty-page book somewhere explaining the rules of dactylic pentameter, and there are lots of variations.
I guess I’m a low-foreheaded potato eater, but I have never understood how meter alone could turn something into verse. When someone reads “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” I totally understand why it’s called poetry, but just screwing with rhythm in unimportant ways only creepy, mildewed academics can perceive is a different matter.
I think haikus are stupid. Is it okay to say that? They’re stupid. Compared to a haiku, a limerick is exciting new technology.
Ordered Sonic fries
She brings me cheese tots instead
Tears in my lime slush
While I was reading The Aeneid, I looked for some evidence that it wasn’t plain old prose, and I gave up. I’m sure it’s in there, but it doesn’t exactly jump out at you or have any detectible positive effect on the reader. You don’t sit there thinking, “Wow! This meter is really clever!” It’s more like, “BOREDOM! BOREDOM! WHEN WILL IT END???? OW, MY HEAD! WHY DID HE WRITE THIS???”
Rhythm is very important to writers. Sometimes a writer’s understanding of rhythm is obvious. One of the neat things about David Mamet is that he has good rhythm. His dialogue bounces along in a very appealing, balanced way. But that doesn’t mean arbitrarily choosing a completely ineffective, rigid rhythmic scheme makes you a great writer. If anything, it makes you self-deluded. A person who gets off on weird rhythmic regimes is missing the point of literature. It’s like thinking your food is good because all the ingredients are autumn colors.
If you want to make clever patterns other strange people notice, my suggestion is to take up needlepoint or maybe drums.
I can already see that Ovid’s rhythmic genius is going to be lost on me. I will just take that as given.
Once Ovid is in the can, I’m out of the Greek mythology ghetto. I can’t wait. The only person I’ve developed any liking for is Herodotus, and that’s only because he isn’t serious. The rest deserve all the bad things that happen to them. The characters and actual human beings in these books are like members of street gangs: they estimate the value of their existence based on the completely unnecessary, narcissistic suffering they inflict on themselves and others. Your son got his head chopped off in battle? Boo hoo! Maybe you should have stayed home instead of sailing off to hit other people with swords.
I didn’t do a calculation, but I’m pretty sure Aeneas lost more men than he took with him. I think he had fourteen ships at the start. What does a Greek ship hold? Say 150 men, tops? By the end of the book, Italy was buried in the rotting corpses of Trojans. One guy–Turnus–killed thousands of Trojans and Tuscans (I think it was Tuscans). Virgil had to be fudging his numbers. My guess is that he wrote the first part of the book, establishing the number of Trojans, and then he got carried away with slaughter in the second half of the book. Then he was too lazy to go back and correct the math. Even Virgil got tired of The Aeneid.
Just a theory.
I should write my own Greek epic and call it The Idiocy. It would be about a bunch of Greeks who got drunk and decided it would be great fun to go burn and pillage someone else’s city, only to find out that war is really unpleasant and lots of people you like die.
Oh, wait. That epic has already been written. Three times.
How could the ancients admire these morons? What kind of infantile morals did they have, to get worked up about which racist rapist murdering crybaby attention-whore thief won which battle?
It goes to show what the world was like before Judaism and Christianity. People had the values of monkeys.
I guess I’ve vented enough about Homer and Virgil. I’m not sure, though. I may have to resume later. I may not be completely purged; I may just be tired.
I’m looking ahead. I only have to read 134 pages of The Inferno. I’m tempted to get down on my knees and thank God, but the little intelligent part of me is screaming, “Who teaches a course and tells you to read a third of a book? What good is that?” For the rest of my life, I’ll have to tell people I read little bits of Dante’s Inferno and then stuck it on a shelf, so I don’t really know what’s in it.
Maybe this course is stupid. I hadn’t really considered that. I considered it back in the Devonian Era, when I was actually in college, but looking back, I thought that was just immaturity. Maybe I was right!
They put Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon on the list. I’m not reading that. It’s just a sop to black people and women. Besides, I already read it. They could have put something really good in that spot, like 1984 or Animal Farm. They didn’t have to struggle to find a black female author and jam her in there in spite of the dubious quality of her work.
Song of Solomon wasn’t in print when I took Lit. Hum., so I give myself a pass. Maybe I’ll give myself Lit. Hum. credit for reading Catch-22, which is a work of real genius.
They stuck Virginia Woolf in there, too. I may blow that off. I haven’t read Lord of the Flies yet. Maybe it will fill the hole. I don’t know anything about Virginia Woolf, but the Burton/Taylor movie was quite depressing.
Apparently, Goethe and Nietzsche have been part of the curriculum in the past. I have no memory of reading either, so I may jam one of them in the Woolf opening. How to choose, though? Wait! I know how! Which one is shorter? Hmm…they’re both around 150 pages. But Goethe’s Faust is a story, not a dreadful philosophy book. I’m a Christian; I already have a philosophy. I don’t need a new one which is necessarily wrong, inferior, and pernicious.
Okay, Faust. That kills Virginia Woolf.
Here’s something interesting! My old Lit. Hum. prof, James R. Russell, moved to Harvard and tried to start a Lit. Hum. knockoff. He has a syllabus, and it’s online. This would be closure, a la mode. I’m trying to relive the course he taught, so what better way to replace Toni Morrison than to make a selection from his list?
Well, this is sad. I looked at the syllabus, and there is nothing from the 20th century in it. I’m apparently on the second semester, and he never did a second semester.
There goes that plan.
I learned some other interesting stuff while Googling Lit. Hum. today. Remember how I said I cheated on a couple of tests at Columbia in order to avoid being expelled? I hate cheating and cheaters, so it really bothered me. Well, it turns out Columbia’s Lit. Hum. system has had other cheating issues. The Columbia wiki site lists THREE, in 1987, 2007, and 2013. In all cases, instructors leaked test questions early. That’s how I cheated, and I believe it also happened in Columbia’s Contemporary Civilization course. I remember a bunch of guys sitting in a room, looking over the exam and frantically flipping through books for answers. I may have cheated in that class, too.
Someone I knew took a test early; his professor was a lady named Lavinia, which happens to be the name of the lady who married Aeneas. The instructor let him keep the test paper, and naturally, it got passed on.
Lots and lots of people cheated on the core courses at Columbia, and instructors helped. Sorry to burst the world’s bubble. It’s Quiz Show all over again, only nobody reads this blog or cares.
I don’t recall ever cheating on anything else in school. I was a mess, and I really did not want to be sent home for failing tests. The pressure was too much. Embarrassing.
I’m going to read Lord of the Flies. That will just have to do. It’s 20th-century. It’s post-war. It’s not a consolation prize for a mediocre writer who belongs to an underrepresented group. It’s not about a bunch of bitter, thwarted cirrhotic Algonquin Round Table rejects getting plastered and making emasculating remarks about each other.
I looked over a bunch of other potential works. I’m surprised to see that I’ve read most of them. For a person who more or less gave up on literature at 25, I got a lot done.
Today is a great day. Virgil is behind me. Now to get back to them tasty potatoes and maybe some NASCAR.
I felt like I should say a few more things, about cheating at Columbia University, and about Ovid.
When I attended, there were three core courses (that I now recall). One was Contemporary Civilization, and it more or less covered the history of Western thought. The second was Literature Humanities; it covered the history of Western literature. The third was Art Humanities; it covered looking at slides of different types of marble columns. Ionian! Doric! That other kind!
I have a dim memory of attending one or two Art. Hum. classes before making my grand disappearance, but that may be something I dreamed. I seem to remember kouroses.
The big problem with these courses was that every student had to take them, and the exams were standardized. As a result, each course had numerous instructors and sections, and if an idealistic hippie instructor decided grading was a male-exalting, eurocentric concept that tended to inhibit homosexuality and socialist urges, then that instructor could hand the exam out early to take pressure off of his or her students. Those students could, and did, pass them out to students in other sections. This is why cheating was…not unheard of. In fact, the system made it hard to get a fair shake playing it straight.
That covers that.
As for Ovid, when I read his name, I always think “Egg.”
Also, I just started reading his works, and I am happy, happy, happy to report that they are short. Really short. Other than that, I wonder why they were written.
The first one is Penelope’s letter to Odysseus. He is about to come home, kick ass, and take names. Telemachus has already made his voyage to Pylos, and Penelope is really tired of feeding suitors.
I’m sure there is something brilliant about this “poem.” I do not see it. It doesn’t rhyme. It’s not clever. It doesn’t tell us anything new or even a little bit interesting about Odysseus. On top of that, it’s another example of the sick, sad obsession the ancients had with Troy.
If there is something brilliant hidden in it, someone will have to explain it to me. For less than $30,000 a semester.
I looked it up, and Homer was born at some time within a century or so of 1000 B.C. The accepted date for the sacking of Troy is 1270 B.C. Virgil was born in 70 B.C., and Ovid was born in 43 B.C. How long do these people need to get over Troy?
Creativity isn’t that hard. You just say to yourself, “I’m going to come up with something new,” and then you wait. Eventually, an idea will come. It’s not necessary to drag the carcass of Odysseus out over and over for a millennium.
The ancients had the sequel disease; the one that gave us 55 Fast and Furiouses when one was way more than enough. In a thousand years, they could not come up with anything better than Iliad III: the Final Reckoning. Maybe we shouldn’t look down on Hollywood [note: yes we should]. Entire generations of Greeks and Romans were no smarter.
Good news: Heroides short. Bad news: still stuck in 1270 B.C.
If Dante so much as hints at the existence of Troy, I will fly to Italy and desecrate his grave.