Thursday, March 29, 2007

The Rise of the Vernacular

I just started reading Hayden Pelliccia's review of the two new translations of Virgil's Aeneid in the latest issue of The New York Review. (The timing seemed appropriate, following up on the conclusion of the second season of Rome!) Pelliccia teaches Classics at Cornell. I had not previously heard of him, but he takes an interesting point of departure. He points out that, in the absence of anything even faintly resembling a historical record, Homer's epics can never be anything other than fiction:

What the classical Greeks knew of that world they knew from Homer, which means that Homer's version of people and events enjoyed, as it still does, the definitiveness of fiction or myth: the legitimacy of the Iliad's representation of King Agamemnon as an arrogantly boorish fool is not subject to revision in light of new evidence about any real historical Agamemnon, who might to our surprise turn out to have been, say, a wise and lovable commander, and husband, too.

Indeed, Homer himself may have been a "fiction of convenience," a means to hang a label of authorship on a long-standing artifact of oral tradition.

Virgil, on the other hand, was flesh and blood. He lived through the events that were dramatized in the two seasons of Rome; and, back in the days when Masterpiece Theatre ruled Sunday evenings, one may recall that he was present, "performing" his Aeneid, in the very first scene that Claudius "documented" in I, Claudius. Since this epic celebrates the foundation of Rome, one could imagine that such "performances" were in frequent demand by the then emperor Augustus.

Pelliccia then introduces another interesting contrast: He views the Homeric epics as a reflection of Hesiod's "sour view that things have gone downhill precipitously since the heroic age." Virgil, on the other hand, weaves a narrative that begins with the total annihilation of Troy and ends with the foundation of (to borrow the phrase from the Lombardo translation) "everlasting Rome," which Roman audiences would surely read as an improvement. What interests me the most, however, is how Pelliccia wraps up his argument:

But whether they've gone up or down, the significant point is that the "things since then" are there at all: the Iliad and the Odyssey do not fast-forward into the present in any remotely comparable way; what happens in the Iliad stays in the Iliad.

I have to wonder whether or not that last little jab of wit originated in a classroom lecture, ringing a change on an old and familiar cliché about Las Vegas as a ploy to make sure that students are still awake and paying attention. They may not have remembered the details of the argument leading up to the punch line, but they might remember the punch line and then scramble to recover the rest of the joke.

This kind of anachronism has been a mainstay of humor, whether it involved Anna Russell referring to Wagner's Rhine Maidens as "aquatic Andrews Sisters" or Jack O'Brien rewriting all the geographical references in Comedy of Errors to shift the setting from the Mediterranean to the California coast (knowing full well that any reference to Pismo will get a laugh, particularly in San Diego). Nevertheless, we tend not to expect it in scholarly texts. While I am sure that Pelliccia is not the only one who uses this technique to engage students in the classroom, I rather like his effort to shift the technique onto the printed page. After all, it has the same effect, which is to make sure that we get the point of the argument that we have just traversed; and, if we get that point, it may stick with us long after we have finished the text and put it aside. In other words it reminds us that scholarly reading can be a pleasure, rather than the chore that an unpleasant undergraduate life may have taken it to be!

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