The Art of Latin

10/10/08

Permalink 02:31:25 pm, by Chris Jones Email , 852 words, 1514 views   English (US)
Categories: Modern Latin, My Own Latin

The Art of Latin

I’ve written a few posts in the past about Latin as an art form in modern times. It’s a topic I really should explore more often, but I always feel such discussions devolve into pointless navel gazing; a paragraph or two in and I start to ask “What is the point of defending this?” If it matters the work will speak for itself; if not then why add more fodder to the opus futile?

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Latin is a dead language, and although I applaud modern efforts to make it more popular, I think it’s unlikely the language will every be used artistically the way modern poets use their native tongues. It is tempting to see this problem as the reverse of the usual argument justifying the study of ancient writers in their original language, that one cannot fully appreciate Vergil and Homer unless they are read in Latin and Greek. But if that’s true, how can any writer produce a work of art in a non-native language that he/she couldn’t just as easily (and perhaps a little better) produce in his/her own?

There are of course obvious counter-examples; the polish-born Joseph Conrad didn’t learn to speak English until his twenties, but few would deny Heart of Darkness or Lord Jim as English masterpieces. The difference is that Conrad was working in a modern language with a host of living critics (from the man in the London street to talented friends like Henry James). Conrad had something organic that he could bump his prose against; by contrast, Latin writers today find their standard in lifeless tomes and silent manuscripts. That innate sense of a language’s subtleties is acquired in Latin by pouring over citations and reading what amounts to a small fraction of literary output from a small and highly-educated circle of ancient writers.

For example, look up ensis and gladius in Whitaker’s Words program, and you get the same result: “sword". It takes quite a bit of reading to understand some of the difference between these words (the first is more poetical–somewhat akin to using “blade” to refer to such a weapon), and even here I don’t think we get half of what the words meant for the average Roman of the 1st century. Now ask any English speaker the difference between “cutlass” and “saber"; even if they don’t know the technical definitions (assuming they don’t interpret these words as automobile models), they can give a rough idea of the subtle differences (e.g. cutlasses are associated with pirates and unsavory types; sabers are more serious and have a nationalist connection thaks to the cliche “saber rattling"). These subtleties are the hallmark of modern poetry; “cutlass” and “saber” may be metrically indifferent (a poem that uses “cutlass” would not suffer rhythmically if it substituted “saber"), a good poet would find reasons to prefer one over the other. Latin as we know it today just can’t offer these liguistic nuances. This is one of the reasons, IMO, that much of modern Latin poetry is obsessed with metrical rules, a feature of ancient poetry where we do understand about as much as the ancients.

But let’s approach this from another angle. What if we concede upfront that Latin poetry is a wholly intellectual exercise? This is obviously contrary to a conventional wisdom that poetry should denote genuine emotion, a belief that sees art in general as an inscrutable endeavor of personal expression. Nevertheless, is it possible to create art using this intellectual approach, one that bypasses the “gut” reaction and appeals to a mind that spends time decoding and understanding a work before it can be appreciated?

Here’s a crude example of what I mean. Suppose a boy sends the following note to girl: You have the most beautiful eyes. If he’s lucky, the object of his affection will reciprocate with a genuine, heartfelt smile–an immediate “gut” reaction to his declaration. Now what if he wrote Pulcherrima lumina habes and she didn’t know Latin? Sure, she might discard it as nonsense, but it could also spark a curiosity to pursue the meaning of the unknown words and how they are strung together? Recognition would come later and as the result of a mental effort to understand, but while the initial reaction would be the same as in the English case, there would be more to ponder; “Why did he write this in Latin? Was the process I had to go thru to learn what was said part of his message?” Or, on a more sophisticated level, “Why did he use lumina for ‘eyes’ as opposed to oculi?”

Questions like these stir the intellect, which I think is a more viable approach for modern Latin poets than attempting to elicit a visceral reaction. I certainly can’t say I’ve worked out all the details, or even that such an approach can produce art as opposed to mere appreciation of a well-solved puzzle. But that’s my theory and I’m sticking to it for now.

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