March 25, 2010

Idylls of Theocritus

For my lit project, I read the Idylls of Theocritus.

Theocritus is widely considered the father of pastoral poetry, Virgil his most famous son. Shepherds and goatherds and cowherds sing in contest and blow a syrinx. And lovers pine for love, maidens for men, old men for young boys. Satyrs rape young nymphs. Polyphemus tends his flock. And everything is sweet and honey-dipped in the meadows and groves.

Theocritus is less sober and more naive than Virgil. Theocritus is less of a poetic force to reckon with. The collection of his poems that survive, some of them spurious, is rather eclectic, which might not help his reputation. Not all are bucolic paeans. There are laudations for men and gods and there are mini-epics, which are amusing and curious. Theocritus (like Callimachus) believes in the short poem form, and the mini-epics (a couple hundred lines at most) are abrupt passages seemingly torn from greater epics.

I have little to offer in sustained analysis of Theocritus, but do have a puzzle a quick google search failed to solve: how does one pronounce Theocritus? Does one stress the second syllable, as in Thee-ok-ruh-tus? Or does one stress the third, as in Thee-uh-kri-tus? Quite the puzzle. And, I am afraid, beyond me.

March 24, 2010


For my lit project, I read the Heroides of Ovid.

The Heroides are a collection of letters (epistles) as written by mythological lovers (heroines, except for the "double Heroides" in which both lovers write a letter). Thus mythology is given some subtle psychology. Entertaining, inventive, fascinating, &c. And yet I was disappointed. The idea thrilled me, the poems themselves did not. (All except Helen to Paris, which I will single out for making Helen a strong, intelligent woman contrary to common mythological portrayal.)

I have so little to say, and so say no more.

March 20, 2010

Eclogues and Georgics

For my lit project, I read the Eclogues and Georgics of Virgil.

I read Dryden's translation of the two works. With Dryden, one might mistake the poems as English, so easy is the translation. This is both good and bad; good in that it is easy on the native English-speaker's tongue, bad in that one often forgets Virgil for the translator. I do not know how Virgil's Latin reads, but it does not read like this.

This was my second time through the Eclogues, which helped me appreciate it. This was my first time reading the Georgics, though, and I was quite surprised. Lucretius showed me the potential of didactic poems; Virgil has fulfilled that potential (note: Lucretius seems to have influenced Virgil).

Rather than talk about the Georgics, I have decided to reproduce a passage from the end of Book II:
Ye sacred muses! with whose beauty fired,
My soul is ravished, and my brain inspired--
Whose priest I am, whose holy fillets wear--
Would you your poet's first petition hear;
Give me the ways of wandering stars to know,
The depths of heaven above, the earth below;
Teach me the various labours of the moon,
And whence proceed the eclipses of the sun;
Why flowing tides prevail upon the main,
And in what dark recess they shrink again;
What shakes the solid earth; what cause delays
The summer nights, and shortens winter days.
But, if my heavy blood restrain the flight
Of my free soul, aspiring to the height
Of nature, and unclouded fields of light--
My next desire is, void of care and strife,
To lead a soft, secure, inglorious life--
A country cottage near a crystal flood,
A winding valley, and a lofty wood.
Some god conduct me to the sacred shades,
Where Bacchanals are sung by Spartan maids,
Or lift me high to Haemus' hilly crown,
Or in the plains of Tempe lay me down,
Or lead me to some solitary place,
And cover my retreat from human race.

Happy the man, who, studying nature's laws,
Through known effects can trace the secret cause--
His mind possessing in a quiet state,
Fearless of Fortune, and resigned to Fate!
And happy too is he, who decks the bowers
Of sylvans, and adores the rural powers--
Whose mind, unmoved, the bribes of courts can see,
Their glittering baits, and purple slavery--
Nor hopes the people's praise, nor fears their frown,
Nor, when contending kindred tear the crown,
Will set up one, or pull another down.

Without concern he hears, but hears from far,
Of tumults, and descents, and distant war;
Nor with a superstitious fear is awed,
For what befalls at home, or what abroad.
Nor his own peace disturbs with pity for the poor.
Nor envies he the rich their happy store,
He feeds on fruits, which, of their own accord,
The willing ground and laden trees afford.
From his loved home no lucre him can draw;
The senate's mad decrees he never saw;
Nor heard, at brawling bars, corrupted law.
&c. Spring is coming, and I am called to distant meadows.

March 15, 2010

La marche des machines (1927)

Since writing my senior paper last year on early montage documentaries, I have come to regard a small and elusive group of filmmakers as a curious rumor. I think of them as the Paris Film Club Crowd. They are a young and enthusiastic lot. They are most prominent in the late 1920s. They make montage films, some of them earnest documents, others abstract explorations. They show these films to fellow film enthusiasts, often at film clubs, often in Paris. Among the circle, one will find Jean Mitry, Jean Vigo, Boris Kaufman, Georges Lacombe, Henri Storck, Jean Lods, Pierre Chenal, and Eugene Deslaw. Many others are associated with this group: Charles Dekeukelaire, Jean Dreville, Jean Painleve, Alberto Cavalcanti, Joris Ivens, Marcel Carne, &c. Some of these names ought to be familiar, others completely unknown. Those names which are known are not known for their early montage abstractions; such is the nature of this era, and I am desperate to penetrate it.

La marche des machines is one the key films to come from this crowd. Deslaw directed. It is only the second Deslaw film I have seen. It is very short and very difficult to judge. I feel that the film has no context, nothing to ground its abstraction; ironic, considering I had known about this film, its context, and its impact for years and have sought it out with determination. I found what I was looking for: a rhythmic film about machines. That is all.

My impression of Deslaw is true for the rest of the group. His films lack rigor, clarity, perhaps worthwhile cinematic ideas, yet his technique is so charmingly light and youthfully poetic that his films are difficult to resist. I say this of La marche des machines, though it is too small a film. I say it of Deslaw's Montparnasse (1929); I say it of Carne's Nogent (1929); I say it of Storck's Images d'Ostende (1929); I say it most of all of Vigo's A propos de Nice (1930). I might dare to say it of all these young cineastes in Paris, but the group remains so obscure. What of Deslaw's La nuit electique? What of Lacombe's La Zone? What of Lods' Le Mile? So much remains hidden, and even I am having trouble bringing it out. What a mess.

I am stuffing this post with names so that a better historian will do the necessary research to bring this group to light. I apologize to all of you who read this expecting an interesting or moderately witty commentary on a film you ought to see. Although I hope that if you are a regular reader of this blog you do not expect that anyway. I am really curious though! Who were these young fellows? What are these lost films like? Why has nobody caught on to this group, the "new wave" of 1930? Why is nobody but me interested in exploring them? I am such a bad pioneer.

March 06, 2010

Odes of Horace

For my lit project, I read Horace's Odes.

I do not have much to say. It was only into Book II or so that I began to feel the rhythm of these poems. An obsession with death runs through them, sometimes in a Stoic way, sometimes an Epicurean. I would call the Odes Stoic, though. Live today that you may die tomorrow. Such is his theme.

I had been aware of the problems of translation before this, but only with Horace have I realized how distant these Ancient poets are in translation. Horace exists only in Latin; what I encounter is a shade. I discovered this after reading multiple translations of one poem (I did this for several poems). What I read was not Horace.

Translated by A.E. Housman-- IV.7:
The snows are fled away, leaves on the shaws
And grasses in the mead renew their birth,
The river to the river-bed withdraws,
And altered is the fashion of the earth.

The Nymphs and Graces three put off their fear
And unapparelled in the woodland play.
The swift hour and the brief prime of year
Say to the soul,
Thou wast not born for aye.

Thaw follows frost; hard on the heel of spring
Treads summer sure to die, for hard on hers
Comes autumn, with his apples scattering;
Then back to wintertide, when nothing stirs.

But oh, whate'er the sky-led seasons mar,
Moon upon moon rebuilds it with her beams:
we where Tullus and where Ancus are,
And good Aeneas, we are dust and dreams.

Torquatus, if the gods in heaven shall add
The morrow to the day, what tongue has told?
Feast then thy heart, for what thy heart has had
The fingers of no heir will ever hold.

When though descendest once the shades among,
The stern assize and equal judgment o'er,
Not thy long lineage nor thy golden tongue,
No, nor thy righteousness, shall friend thee more.

Night holds Hippolytus the pure of stain,
Diana steads him nothing, he must stay;
And Theseus leaves Pirithous in the chain
The love of comrades cannot take away.
But still beautiful. From here, I am torn about where to take my project: to lesser Ancient poets or to modern philosophy? I feel the Shades may win.

March 02, 2010

Lucretius On the Nature of Things

For my lit project, I read On the Nature of Things by Lucretius.

Lucretius's project in On the Nature of Things is to banish from the minds of men the fear of gods and death. Lucretius does this by showing that the Nature of Things can be explained by Atomism, atoms being indivisible bodies flying through void. Each book of the poem is devoted to different aspects of nature, and each phenomenon is explained through Atomism/materialism in various ways. A reader, thoroughly absorbed in this work, concludes that since everything can be explained by atoms, gods do not participate in nature (and remain ever-serene, happy, aloof), and since humans are atoms and the atoms dissipate when the body dies, death is nothing to us (no Hades, just nothingness). If Order and Gods cause us pain, then Chaos and Void are our balm.

So say the Epicureans. This is the only major surviving work of Epicureanism (written 200 years after Epicurus). Before reading this, I had already been aware of my affinity with Epicureanism; I was an expert, in fact ... but I need not boast of my wisdom, which should be immediate to everyone. What follows are notes on what was most banal and most bizarre in this work--

Lucretius has a grand time insulting every major philosopher and philosophy before him. The only exceptions are Epicurus, Democritus, and Parmenides (he defies the first and borrows heavily from (while lightly criticizing) the latter two). He quite happily attacks everybody else, sometimes calling them by name, other times describing their ideas without approaching their character. He likes to show why they are wrong and he is right. He loves to call them idiots*. Not even Heraclitus is safe, though I do believe Lucretius is wrong for criticizing Heraclitus for not being "logical."

"Logic" raises a most bizarre trait of Lucretius's scientific method -- he demands logical rigor from philosophy while he asserts that sense perception is the basis for all truth. Presumably this is a counter to Parmenides, who brought logical consistency to the point of utterly denying sense perception; no, say the Epicureans, this is wrong. The senses are everything, and if you see it, it must be true. The Epicureans are thus proto-scientists, but before the age of experimental testing and observation; and so Lucretius, in explaining the Nature of Things, proposes bizarre hypothesis after bizarre hypothesis, offering multiple explanations for one phenomenon insofar as the explanations do not contradict themselves (logically). The sun, for example, is as large as we see it to be, a small blazing disc traveling a vast sky; greater animals are born from lesser animals (Ancient Evolution); earthquakes happen when subterranean mountains fall; &c.

Lucretius's many explanations are sometimes aligned with modern science, sometimes totally absurd. Modern readers ought to be surprised to discover Ancient theories of atoms, evolution, and light, while explanations of magnetism, lightning, and earthquakes will undoubtedly make modern readers smile because of their whimsy and naivete. Lucretius's Ancient earnestness is hard to fault.

The poetry itself has similar highs and lows. The final 250 lines of Book III are the boldest in the book and some of the boldest in Classical Lit. "Hell does exist on earth -- in the life of fools." Lucretius argues that the hellish afterlife humans so fear is present here in life, that life is a loan, and that Wisdom is necessary to banish this fear and suffering. Only a book later, however, at the end of Book IV, Lucretius is arguing a most curious argument against sex (as a cause of pain). There is nothing in the argument I do not agree with, but I cannot help but wonder how Lucretius could fall so far.

Bold, bizarre; few words describe this poem better.

On the Nature of Things lacks Epicurean ethics. This is disappointing. What little survives of Epicurus's writings remains the definitive work on the subject. Though Ancient Natural Science is interesting in its way, Epicurean ethics is what interests me most. It is misunderstood today. People drink expensive wine and eat expensive cheese and gossip and call themselves Epicureans while Epicurus sits in his corner and nibbles bread and sips water. I always hesitate to mention Epicurus to anyone who does not know Ancient philosophy. This has ruined a perfectly awful pun which I have never dared use but have always wanted to: Epicure-Ian.

Read more about Epicurus here:
I recommend his surviving letters. Lucretius struggles to say in a poem what Epicurus says in a line. Lucretius is fine, though; everyone should read the end of Book III at least.

[*Lucretius is especially insistent about applying this to DG]

March 01, 2010

February 10 favorites

I only watched 8 films this month. 8! I do believe that is a record low for me. From this small batch, these were my favorites:

The Swallow and the Titmouse (1920)

Au Bonheur des Dames (1930)

A Page of Madness (1926)