December 15: Sympathy For The Ancients, or, Call Your Mother

I took an intellectual history course in college, but it was at 9 am so I can't claim to remember much of it. Nevertheless I am aware of the battle between the Ancients and Moderns back in the 17th century -- the time when there was suddenly a big pile of non-Ancient writing, which, for lack of a better label, was called modern. It's confusing because all the stuff that was in the Modern department back then is now ancient -- indeed, harder to read than some of the ancient stuff. It should read like this:


But instead the feeling you get is this:


In any case, I always got the impression that we, right-thinking thinkers that we are, should be rooting for the Moderns instead of those stuffy old Ancients. But today's excerpt from the Odyssey might give you pause, because it's hard to top the scene where Odysseus meets his dead mother in Hades:

But I abode there steadfastly, till my mother drew nigh and drank the dark blood; and at once she knew me, and bewailing herself spake to me winged words: ‘“Dear child, how didst thou come beneath the darkness and the shadow, thou that art a living man? Grievous is the sight of these things to the living, for between us and you are great rivers and dreadful streams...
It's a good thing this translation is a little old and musty, because, having had a parent recently cross the dreadful stream, I would be laid low by a powerful rendering of this incident.
So spake she, and I mused in my heart and would fain have embraced the spirit of my mother dead. Thrice I sprang towards her, and was minded to embrace her; thrice she flitted from my hands as a shadow or even as a dream, and sharp grief arose ever in my heart.
And then a bunch of other women come up -- " all they that had been the wives and daughters of mighty men." Without their mighty men, too -- it's like a reproach against Odysseus and his he-man wandering and thirsting after fame, right in the middle of the epic that makes him famous. You can see why the party of the Ancients felt that it was unimprovable.

I should also note that, a little before this part, there's some comic relief -- Odysseus meets one of his men who died because he fell off a roof. I don't think it's supposed to be comic relief, actually, but anyone who's seen, or read, a lot of "Meet The Fockers"-level studio comedy knows that falling off a roof is comedy gold. It's just like two drunk guys -- always funny. Like Jerry Lewis, it transcends any Académie française dispute.

P.S. Confidential to Mom: I actually did call you today but it just kept ringing. I guess you were on the other line.

1 comments:

Lisa Simeone said...

This translation is tremendously beautiful.