Category Archives: Tragedy

Pharsalia / De Bello Civile

maxresdefaultMost of us, when we think of the classics, think of Homer — the Iliad and they Odyssey — and sometimes of the Aeneid. Greek and Latin literature aren’t as important nowadays as they used to be, when during e.g. John Milton’s time they formed as core a part of the curriculum as the Bible. Even Aristophanes — without a doubt, the funniest man on Earth — is half forgotten. Which is a shame, because not only was the literature of the Greeks and Romans fundamental to the whole of Western culture, but it’s pretty darn good as well.

Take this Lucan guy. Here was a poet who loved the Stoic ideal yet was rashly ruled by his own intemperate emotions. An early friendship with Nero burned out for Reasons and Lucan ultimately championed a conspiracy to depose him. Something which ended, unsurprisingly, in his arrest. Suddenly realizing the consequences of his rashness, Lucan begged for a pardon, but Nero allowed him only the choice of his death. He was just 25.

Which is a pity, because the half-finished epic he left behind — what is known today as the Pharsalia and in the Roman world most likely as De Bello Civile (“On the Civil War”) — is absolutely wonderful. Did Lucan have the technical mastery of a mature Virgil? Of course not! But instead Lucan’s work is charged with an absolutely frenetic pace, a sense of gloomy realism yet with an almost Lovecraftian supernatural lurking in the shadows, and an almost addictive affection for lost causes.

Pharsalia endeavors to tell the tale of the civil war between Pompey and Caesar (the first phase of a series of civil wars that would only end with the deaths of Cleopatra and Marc Antony), with the text breaking off abruptly after Cato’s march through treacherous Libya to reach Leptis (Magna?) and Cleopatra’s seduction of Caesar. It builds on a pair of epic similes — Pompey compared to a dying oak tree, and Caesar to a bolt of lightning — turning them into conceits he draws entire characterizations from. Pompey’s ill-fated wife stands with Virgil’s Dido as one of the most richly-drawn-out characters of the Roman period, and under Lucan’s hands the setting develops a raw, emotionally-charged energy.

Even Cato — the closest thing this epic seems to have to a hero — has his tragic flaw; he is strict and wooden beyond all reason, a character trait we see from him early on. Pharsalia is rather like Madame Bovary in this respect: a great tale woven wholly from unsavory heroes, and proof against the idea that you need personable characters to weave a great story, as long as the story itself offers that dramatic power, that emotional charge, all good narratives need to run. Indeed, both Pharsalia and Madame Bovary seem to be using their characters’ unsavoriness as a theme, making a point: Flaubert about bourgeoisie ennui; Lucan about Nero’s infamous den of iniquity.

For this is really the epic’s beating heart: it is one extended, sustained invective against Nero, an allegory clothed in a historical novel’s garb. And what a heart! We’re more than willing to excuse the weaknesses of our tragic heroes, Pompey and Cato, for in them we see our own weaknesses, especially against somebody like Caesar (or Nero) who seems to think — and have confirmed for them either by the world itself or sycophants — that they’re well and truly beyond anybody else.

One can just as easily read the Czech intellectual into our heroes, or Reinhold Niebuhr, and in Lucan’s Nero Caesar we can see too well the Francisco Francos, Pol Pots, Benito Mussolinis, and other orange-skinned dictatorial assholes of our day … and see ourselves as La résistance, partisans, the gallant opposition. Truly does Lucan speak when he says

Victrix causa deis placuit sed victa Catoni
“The conquering cause pleased the gods; the conquered’s, Cato.”

Is it any wonder, then, that when times get tough and we find ourselves implacably opposed to our fellow countryman, Pharsalia always seems to wax in importance?

If you read: Pharsalia badly needs a new verse translation, one fit for our times. The most current verse translation seems to be Susanna Braund’s 1992 effort, whose free verse frankly rather spoils the effect of Lucan’s almost monotonous hexameter; beyond that, Sir Edward Ridley’s 1896 blank verse effort is the easiest to obtain (being the one in the Gutenberg database), while a 1718 effort by one Nicholas Rowe into heroic couplets most accurately matches the original’s sense of overweening regularity, although at the cost of losing much of its emotive charge.

As far as prose translations go, if you have to read them, Riley’s Bohn’s and Duff’s Loeb editions are decent enough (Riley offers a literal translation of the Latin). Avoid, however, at all costs, Robert Grave’s 1957 prose translation: Graves is as giddy in  denigrating Lucan and absolutely destroying his ornament and anything remotely resembling poetic character as Lucan himself is in denigrating Nero, yielding a first three books so poorly translated as to be almost unreadable. (His notes, as insufferable and tone-deaf as they are, are, however, occasionally useful.)

A hypothesis: Much Lucan scholarship rages around the question of how he wanted Pharsalia to end, with one side arguing that its natural end would come with Caesar’s death, and the other, Cato’s. I tend to side with the Catonists here, because this is clearly a tale that grew in the telling, and I want to add an extra idea: Sulpicia’s vision at the end of Book I clearly extends well beyond the events of Pharsalia proper and suggests enough material for a trilogy, to match the three phases of the Civil War, one which a less outspoken and more dedicated Lucan would have likely been finishing up in his early 30s.


The Name of the Rose

51qakol63al-_sx324_bo1204203200_Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose is his first, longest, and most seminal novel. Eco himself is likewise one of the most important writers in 20th century Italian literature after, perhaps, only Italo Calvino. It is, in a word, engrossing.

On the surface level it doesn’t seem so much. Our deuterotagonists, the hapless novice Adso and his master, the Franciscan William of Baskerville, are an obvious expy of a certain well-known detective duo copy-pasted into an early 14th century medieval monastery where a major summit looking to mend a worsening feud between Pope John XXII and the Franscican Order (backed by the Holy Roman Empire) is about to take place …

… which has, unfortunately, been plagued by a recent spate of murders. Their star illuminator was recently found at the base of a cliff marking the edge of the abbey, with some odd signs linking it to the Book of Revelation, and our intrepid detective duo must go about solving it (or trying to) before the Papal and Imperial delegations arrive, in which case the ongoing crime spree becomes public knowledge to the abbey’s embarrassment.

This, however, is only the surface-level plot. In fact, the basic plot of the novel is an expansion of Borges’ “Death and the Compass”. So if not the plot, what drives the tale?

Themes of Borges — the abbey’s labyrinthine library should immediately call to mind “The Library of Babel” and references to Averroes his eponymous Borgesian “Search” — abound in the text. Indeed, the novel’s whole primary thrust as a text is so richly steeped in Borges (one of its characters is the rather suggestively-named Jorge de Burgos) that one of the easiest ways to read it is as an extension of his Labyrinths. But there’s more, still; perhaps the richer, second-order thematic allusions operating beneath the text. These are primarily to Aristotle and his Poetics (which, coincidentally enough, also links to “Averroes’ Search”), and moreso to Poe and The Fall of the House of Usher (where the architecture of the abbey and the state of its community are inextricably intertwined) and one of the character’s fates is a direct allusion to The Cask of Amontillado.

It is because of this layering, the elusive allusiveness created by a professor of semiotics, that The Name of the Rose is widely considered one of the canonical postmodern texts. And even then, it doesn’t really feel at home with more self-evidently postmodern works such as Shea and Wilson’s The Illuminatus! Trilogy, Don DeLillo’s White Noise and Underworld, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, or even Eco’s own Foucault’s Pendulum, most of which tend to be much more playful with and subversive of reader expectations than The Name of the Rose is.

In fact, between William of Baskerville’s ultimate disillusionment and the great character arc of the abbey itself hewing to the Poetics’ Romantic-era interpretation, I would argue that, if anything, this novel is a throwback, one that would be praised as a masterpiece of Modernism if it were written, say, around the same time Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (a Modernist work with a more Postmodernist feel) was. Expect me to develop this hypothesis (or not) sooner or later, though it will be spoileriffic.

So … was it a good read? Of course! Umberto Eco is a master writer, and nothing he adds into this text is random. There are layers and layers and layers of meaning to unpack here. If you find yourself unable to read past Adso’s description of the abbey door, give up, this work’s not for you; but if, on the other hand, you clear that chapter then you’re not going to be able to put it down, like, at all.


s2-e1499395917940Ahh, Beowulf. That great alliterative Anglo-Saxon poem. We all know it and love it. We’ve probably all read — in some translation or another — the scene where he defeats Grendel, and some more interested consumers have also likely read the harrowing underwater battle where he defeats Grendel’s mother. Some of us may even remember that he got himself killed by a dragon at the end.

Beowulf is a poem unlike any other. Cast in the alliterative tetrameter that was characteristic of Germanic lay verse, its heartbeat remains very much a pagan Germanic poem. Set in southern Scandinavia, it speaks of an era of small petty kings, when Danes, Frisians, Swedes, and Geats all stood on equal footing with one another. Yet, at the same time, while it’s about that time, it’s hardly of that time.

Beowulf’s poet was a newly Christian man in a newly Christian land. Times have changed, and the poem is an extended dirge looking back at that pre-Christian past, at a society that demanded noteworthiness via physical and mental prowess. Beowulf, the poem intimates, was the Geats’ last great king before their land was absorbed by the Swedes, and by so choosing such a character as his hero, the poet casts on his work — then as now — an air of deep melancholia.

These legends are dying, just as the Geats as a people have died, absorbed into the Swedish mien — they need to be written down before they’re forgotten. Too many, tragically, were.

And so, despite the fast pace of the poem’s action scenes — sailing from Geat-land to Denmark, Grendel’s wrath, and the three great battles that define modern readings of the poem, it is still a leisurely composition that has Beowulf recount his feats (more than once!) and digresses into a welter of other legends surrounding the early Danes and Geats, a poem that develops not just Beowulf’s character, but those of the Danish king, Hrothgar; his own, Hygelac; and later, his Swedish thane, Wiglaf. It digresses into tales involving Danish-Frisian wars and even tales developing the theme of the proper use — and abuse — of power.

But most of all, it is a fragment of an otherwise-lost legendarium, the one known by the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes. It is one we can see the impetus of Anglo migration in: their homeland is squeezed between these larger and more centralized powers, Denmark and Frisia, and in the Geats’ fall (the one Beowulf forebodes) the Angles likely saw their own inevitable fate if they stayed where they were. It’s a fragment, perhaps, of a poet’s attempt to write down the longest-lasting stories — stories that lasted so long because they are, in part, fairy tale — before these, too, are lost forever.

Beowulf, in short, takes some of Tolkien’s themes — the idea of a lost legendarium, for example — and recasts them in a space where they aren’t just lost, they’re being lost, and from that it drives its deep and profound melancholia. It is a dirge; it hurts, at the end.

Seamus Heaney’s translation has been the standard poetic version for just shy of the last twenty years. (Tolkien’s estate also recently released his prose translation, a text that’s inarguably more of interest for Tolkien and Beowulf scholars than those who want to read the epic as an epic — that is, as a poem.) It will likely remain so for the next hundred or more.*

And yet, another example of Beowulf’s profound melancholia: Heaney won the Nobel Prize before he completed the translation that’s perhaps his best-known work today. He was hailed as “Ireland’s most important poet since Yeats” and the British press, on his 2013 death, thought him “the most famous poet in the world”. How many of us have actually ever read anything of his beyond his Beowulf? Is this the fate of the modern poet, to be beloved only as a translator, not a creator of original art? Or — perhaps more tellingly — is it an indictment of poetry’s loss of place in the modern literary world, to the point where even the most successful poet of the last fifty year’s work’s already half-forgotten, relevant to the humanities academe but hardly the plebes?

* Stephen Mitchell also recently — as in this year (2017) — released his own poetic translation. Burton Raffel’s was the most prominent poetic version before Heaney’s. But Heaney’s “So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by” is frankly impossible to top.