Saturday, December 24, 2011

More Lucretiana

Scriptoria, Invocations, and a Philological Note
From Lorna Price, The Plan of St. Gall in Brief, an overview of the three volume work by Walter Horn & Ernest Born.  UC Univ Press, Berkeley, 1982.  Here I refer to the plan, whole, opposite p. 1, to the index drawing on pp. 10-11, to the reconstruction drawing on p. 29, showing the E end of the church amd the novitiate and infirmary complex, and the detail of the abbot's house on p. 40.  In the Index drawing, "a" marks the "Scriptorium below" and "Library above", tucked into the NE angle of the transept (in the SE angle is the Sacristy, below, and the Vestry, above).  The legends, the longer ones scanning, are in a fine Carolingian miniscule of their date, AD 820.
As you can learn on line, if you don't know, Fulda as you see it today is no longer the Carolingian monastery church that was indeed famous as a center of learning.  You can see original parts of the church of St. Michael, and the article from the Catholic Encyclopedia gives a good idea of how important Fulda was.  Based on archaeological studies over nearly two centuries, a reconstruction of the abbey church can be made.  But to get an idea of its place in the development of transalpine European architecture, it still is best to go to Kenneth Conant and Nicholas Pevsner, if English text is wanted.  And Greenblatt, in The Swerve, was wise not to insist that Poggio Bracciolini had to have found his manuscript of Lucretius at Fulda (the actually Carolingian Oblongus and Quadratus weren't known yet; modern texts rely heavily on them).  Yet, for all the reasons he gives, Fulda is not unlikely.
So the room where the monks sat to copy as well as the library space that housed Fulda's collection of manuscripts do not exist.  For that matter, if you go to St. Gall, the architecture you see is Baroque (and later in details), but the Abbey Library owns the plan made for the abbot of St. Gall, evidently (from the dedication on it) in AD 820.  We don't know if it was ever built in full this way, but it tells us more about Benedictine monastic organization and building north of the alps and the communal life lived in them than all the tomes of Mabillon. The scriptorium is labeled (and the sedilia are shown: see a on the Index drawing). It even tells us which buildings were provided with permanent privies, necessaria naturae, and how many posts were thought necessary in each outhouse (you can see those for the bloodletters' building, next to the infirmary, in the detail above at top left, and those for the abbot's mansio, at bottom left, by and large the same buildings that had rooms with a caminus (cheminée) built into a corner.
One of the great experiences of my student life was a seminar on the St. Gall plan under Prof. Walter Horn.  I happened to be the only member of that seminar with enough Latin to read and interpret all the legends on this tabletop-size vellum document (yes, made from three skins).  Everyone else had the task of enlightening me on the architecture.  I no longer have my card file of every single word on the plan.  On its web site, you can study and zoom and read everything for yourself, though I haven't found a list of the Latin yet.  If you can find Lorna Price's book, it is invaluable (though the legends are not given in full or in Latin).  The main point is that almost every novel or film or social studies textbook depends on the St. Gall plan for its evocation, if it has any substantial elements, of Benedictine monastic life, either from this plan or on the many studies, a few in English, many in German, based on it.  Monte Casino itself was less informative.  Notice the arcaded porticoes of the Abbot's house: at least this building had stone walls, as, of course, the church had, but Horn and Born are surely right that these monasteries had roofs steep enough to shed snow, and not tiled!
I do wish Greenblatt had shown the same familiarity with this material as Umberto Eco did in The Name of the Rose.
The example above suggests how the reading of Greenblatt's book is enhanced if one brings assorted bits of substantial knowledge to it.  It also helps to know at least a little Latin and Greek and to have read, probably in translation, the three evidently authentic Letters of Epicurus preserved by Diogenes Laertius.
First, though, concerning the Invocation to Venus.  I think that Greenblatt may make too much of its Venereal properties.  That is to say, any  long poem written in hexameters must have an invocation and it needn't be to the Muses as such.  If Epicurus had chosen hexameters, he'd have felt obliged to have one, too.  To address the force of Nature, of Physis, pervasive in everything (barring the atoms themselves), Nature which is generative and forcibly active in us all, is a sound Epicurean choice.  And an invocation must be to mythological entities (not to Poetic Inspriation but to Muses, for example), so to Venus rather than to Physis.   That is what Lucretius means by it, and he exploits it most gloriously for pages of poetry.  Why, in an Ode to St. Cecilia, for example, Nicholas Brady (co-author with Nahum Tate of a new singable translation of the Psalms, Tate who wrote the libretto for Purcell's Dido and Aeneas) for Purcell's 1692 Ode does invoke Cecilia, though in terms that do not stress her martyrdom, then provides Purcell and the audience with a virtual Middle Baroque Guide to the Orchestra, whose verses illustrate the virtues of each section of instruments, as if evoking the provinces of all the Greco-Roman pantheon, after hymning the Soul of the World.  That's just poetry, nothing to do with theology and not much to do with philosophy.  No more, I think, does Lucretius mean to worship Venus (rather, to reverence Nature profoundly and provide an appropriate opening to de Rerum Naturae).  But when "the jarring seeds of matter" kept singing in my head, recognizing the setting as just like that in the Frost Scene of King Arthur, I had to go and check on the Lucretian credentials of Nicholas Brady (which is fact are excellent).  Also, by the end of the 17th century, those "jarring atoms" were a common trope.  That is why I rather wish that Greenblatt had written one more chapter!  If you like Henry Purcell, as I do, you will love the 1692 "Ode for St. Cecilia's Day".
Back to Epicurus.  I had not read the only substantial surviving works, and I still have to find myself a good text of Diogenes Laertius, heaven help me (even for the 3rd century AC he is not the most inspiring writer).  But the Epistle to Herodotus is easily obtainable in Perseus, on line, even if you have trouble getting the Greek text there, and in The Epicurus Reader, inexpensive on Kindle.  Both of these include all the scholia (and distinguish them, too, from proper Epicurus); the Perseus** is the nicer translation, and the Reader doggedly excludes any Greek words, but the Kindle word-search comes up with all the swerve references.
Now, 'swerve' not only provides Greenblatt with his title.  It translates clinamen  (both the i and the a are 'long'), which proves to be a strictly Lucretian Latin word, though in its meaning plain as all the other -clin- stem words).  The dictionaries cite an "obsolete" Latin verb, *clinare, which per se does not occur in preserved texts.  Given that it is obviously cognate to Greek klino, one immediately suspects that Lucretius has done just what Cicero would have done: taken the Greek, formed from a Middle Voice participle, and used it, as we do such French as "de luxe" and "souvenir".  Consider, too, that LSJ (Liddell, Scott, and Jones, the big lexicon), in one of its citations uses the English swerve as a translation: eklínthê, he swerved.  We usually use that word for what an vehicle does to avoid hitting another vehicle, or a pothole.  As an absolute noun it is unusual, even rare, and poetic.  So clinamen would have seemed to Romans reading de Rerum Natura.  Besides, the Notes in the Kindle Epicurus Reader cite two studies on the Epicurean 'swerve', and by that name: "Epicurus on the Swerve and Voluntary Action," Atlanta, 1987, and H. Jones, "The Epicurean Tradition", London, 1989, AA Long.
** Under Epicurus in Perseus, the reference is D. L. 10.1, sections 55—83, where D.L. stands for Diogenes Laertius.
So my immediate suspicion that Greenblatt had not personally chosen 'swerve', though he made it his title, is borne out even by these elementary inquiries, and the range of translations for all the forms from klino in LSJ made clear why Lucretius had chosen clinamen (wherever it would scan) to explain why atoms in motion sometimes colliding and prior to space or distinguishable matter do account for...well, for everything.  And this is why the Church couldn't stomach Lucretius.  It isn't just that no gods are accessible (though their names can be invoked).  And, Lucretius got pretty nearly all of the Epicurean material from Epicurus himself.  Epicurus's dissolution of the soul at death is utterly antipathetic to any stretch of Christian philosophy.  The Church rather cherished the Stoics and certainly wallowed in neo-Platonism, but Epicurus and Lucretius are pure and serene atheism.  Like many moderns today, good Epicureans in antiquity could happily enjoy the art and architecture, the poetry and rhetoric of traditional religion (and they had no need for personal salvation), without believing in anything in them.  I mean, if Epicurus and Lucretius were alive today they'd be passionate about the Higgs boson.
It is more astonishing than I had ever dreamt: Epicurus realized that there was no beginning, because there was no 'what' to be a beginning of.  He had no mathematics relevant to the tasks at CERN.  He had no instruments to speak of.  He had a most remarkable human brain and in its exercise developed a most exceptional human mind.  Lucretius was his greatest disciple, evidently, and he barely escaped extinction; the two Carolingian Mss that we have seem to be the basis of the later medieval ones such as that found by Poggio Bracciolini.
To me, being able to read some of Epicurus and consider the questions in his language and the lack of mathematics beyond plane geometry, is profoundly reassuring; to be human surely is enough and more.
And the conscious mind is what makes one human.
I want to celebrate the New Year by making this post in time for it.  If I find more in further reading, I'll write another post.  For now, once again, I thank Stephen Greenblatt for his book and the Loeb library for endless good things and Perseus for surviving so many evolutions of formats.
And a Happy New Year to all readers.
CLINAMEN addendum
My excuse for fascination with the noun clinamen was its being the rarest, to my knowledge, of the “bare” neuter nouns formed on verb stems, that all are declined like nomen.  All are neuter 3rd declension. “Bare” because there is no qualifying element and nothing to suggest agency: nomen barely names the ‘know’ stem.

I have never shed my adolescent pleasure in inflections and etymologies.  I suppose it is due to having begun Greek, Latin, and German at about the same time and in that order.
Later, in that St. Gall seminar, dealing with the hypercorrect spelling, toregma for toreuma, only cemented it.
How wonderful that Latin has the consistently adverbial ablative case to help make sense of Greek use of the remaining oblique cases, not least genitive ‘absolutes’.  That Greek has the middle voice of the verb to explain Latin deponents.  Not to mention each other’s sequences of moods / tenses.
clinamen, n. ‘swerve’ is perfect for Epicurean atoms (or sub-atomic particles, for that matter) that in their unqualified, undirected state of motion prior to time and space (and shape) may bump into one another, to be propped by one another, without any purpose or will or agency;
flamen, n., cf. ‘blast’ as well as compounds like ‘inflate’ (unrelated in its stem to the masculine gender ‘flamen’ for a young priest), is the name for the motion of air;
certamen, n. is the name, contest, for matching;
flumen, n., memorized as meaning ‘river’, and, of course, the same as Italian fiume, is the name of streaming or (liquid) flowing.
Those are the ones that come to mind.  Like the stem verbs themselves they are intransitive, i.e., without agency.
The apparent Greek form from which the noun clinamen may derive (this is why I need to read the Epicurus epistles in Greek) is a Middle Voice participle, i.e., a verbal adjective of the Middle Voice of klinô, in Greek a very common noun both bare and in compounds.
I decided not to make this part of my Essay, proper, because my infatuation with the comparison of the bare bones of languages, at their most elementary, might not interest everyone.  But is it fatuus when it dawns on a young mind that the stuff in grammars is not the invention of schoolteachers or philologists but rather the natural science of language?

Friday, December 2, 2011

What I've Been Thinking . . .

Buster: Fast Food
When in doubt, post the cat

A couple of weeks ago, when the five finalists for the National Book Award in non-fiction were announced, I found that I had read three of them, all with interest.  Loving Lucretius for most of my long life, I may have enjoyed Swerve most, and Stephen Greenblatt writes wonderfully well; seeing a mature scholar give himself so wholeheartedly to my favorite Latin author gave me great pleasure, and though I had read accounts of the Council of Constance I had never read one so alive as his.  I was so surprised by his chapter on Montaigne that I decided to get the Essays complete and read him, as I never had done before.  I also pulled out my good old Budé text of Lucretius and re-read a good deal of it, using the French as I had done in university when I got stuck, to avoid slowing down too much by using a dictionary; Lucretius, however, is not so hard as Greenblatt says.  Greenblatt was reveling in aspects of the Renaissance that I have always enjoyed dabbling in, not least Poggio Bracciolini.  Yet I didn’t dare think he’d win the prize.  I was afraid some readers might think he was proposing that, if the Lucretius manuscripts hadn’t been discovered just when they could be copied and printed, Reason might not have prevailed in the way that it did.  I don’t think he meant that, though no man could fall for Lucretius more whole-hog than Greenblatt does.  I was, however, disappointed that he stopped at the point that he did, and I know that there still are lots of educated readers whose temperament makes them assess Lucretius by each and every error (e.g., the size of the sun) that he made rather than by the power and depth of his inquiry and the glory of his poetry (Screech’s Penguin Classics Montaigne is almost Thomist in considering the essayist’s faith, and he certainly does not make much of his references to Lucretius).
I was surprised that Deborah Baker’s The Convert, which certainly I had read with great interest, was among the finalists; I thought it insufficiently well structured and was disconcerted by its relationship to its living subject.  In sum, I thought that Mary Gabriel’s Love and Capital, on Karl and Jenny Marx would be the winner.  I had never read anything about Marx and his family and Engels that was both serious and treated them as living persons, persons living in a particular history, too, not merely domestically.  Though works on Marx and Engels fill libraries (not that I have read very much, for when I was a student one did not want to be noticed reading about the founders of Communism, and I don’t like ideologies of any kind very much, especially not when they’re argued as political science is), I think that Mary Gabriel has done an outstanding piece of work in this biography, and I thought it was the best balanced and most complete and likely to endure of the three finalists I had read.  I cannot overstate how much I have learned by reading Mary Gabriel.  I thought Greenblatt would get torn limb from limb, though his vulnerability, which almost asks for attacks, is no excuse for failing to read him, as one would read any poet, I hope, for what he offers, which is important if not exclusively so, and for the self-portrait, if I may say so, that his book provides.  I mean, we don’t attack poets, do we, for laying themselves bare?  But evidently the committee saw it my way; usually I am at odds with committees.  Stephen Greenblatt did win.

And then there is my fascination with theoretical physics and with astronomy.  Not wishing to confine myself to Brian Greene’s books or rely too much on the perhaps too lively video assistance of the NOVA programs (the books are really clearer, if you want to try to learn so far as a lamentable lack of mathematics permits, by reading and thinking over and over), I have tried and tried to get through Lisa Randall’s Knocking on Heaven’s Door, and I just can’t.  She explains indefatigably, as if for the very stupid and stubborn, what I don’t need to have explained, and she does not explain at all some things at the very heart of her work at CERN, for example, that I do need help with.  And her writing has all the worst characteristics of, say, Scientific American articles, only aggravated by efforts to entertain by talking about her encounters with popular culture.  I was prepared to like her book, from an interview that I saw, but I can’t.
Never mind.  I see that the difficulty of explaining Branes and Dimensions and the rest is due to human verbal language being created by and for our empirical, sensory experiences in Newtonian space and time.  I have to try to think my way through concepts that are, literally, ineffable.  Likewise, my brain’s ability to envisage needs not to be worried by a video that looks as if a here-and-now figure or object or event were visibly here-and-now elsewhere or otherwhen, too.  And I probably cannot ask for a resolution of exceeding the speed of light as recorded by instrumentation made by and in terms of a Newtonian (or Einsteinian) model.  It suffices to keep reading and thinking about it all.  History is full of funny language, as funny as black energy.  Someday it may be possible to name better what is being learned (it always has been possible).  After all, the only thing is that I want to know that everything, including parallel universes and other oxymorons, has no beginning and no end—and what it has, instead.  I mean, some enigmas are for Six Year Olds:
Elizabeth Ann said to her Nan: “Please, will you tell me how God began?  Somebody must have made Him.  So who could it be, ‘cos I want to know?”
            A. A. Milne, Now We Are Six, “Explained”, pp. 76–78.