Wednesday, March 23, 2011

One tries extremely hard not to envy the classicists

In Charlottesville, I must say, resistance to envying the classicists is not especially trying. A paper of pervasive circulation and omniscient gossip boasted this week that it has no idea who Cavafy is, but it knows the University alumnus who will be speaking about him. (This assertion, as we've seen, is impossible; one can't know Daniel Mendelsohn without knowing Cavafy, but the defiant ig-norance and oblivious condescension are quite authentic).

So let us take up poor Mendelsohn, an unknown known, with a degree from this place and another from mine.

What's enviable about classicists, is not what they've learned and what they've seen, so much as the quality of their reminiscences of doing so. They were all under 21 when they read and recited and translated and reflected upon Catullus, and they were not doing it alone. You and I try our best not to maim such people, such perfect lovers that the heart simply sinks to know they may be in the boat at the same time as we are reeling in the catch of the day. They were immersed in the most opulent and subte and lucid erotic poetry ever conceived, at the very time of life that you couldn't pay them to be anywhere else. And what is memory?

One of the reasons [Catullus' translation of Sappho's ode] was so easy for me to memorise when I was twenty and couldn't stop looking at the pale-haired boy sitting opposite me was the lulling rhythm of the two last lines, qui sedens adversus identidem te / spectat et audit, 'who, sitting opposite you, repeatedly / watches and hears you.' 

How do you know who you are? You are the one who sits there in class, day after day, trying to memorise an ancient poem of love and of watching, repeating to yourself identidem-de, identidem-te, and although you know it means repeatedly-you, repeatedly-you, it begins to sound like identity-you, identity-you, and I suppose this is really why it slipped so easily into my mind, a lifetime of reflections ago, because that made a perfect kind of sense to me.

There is another way to know your-self, and that is not by identifica-tion with the thing you love, by collapsing into the other, but by differentiating yourself from it. Catullus is aware of this and wants to remind us of this .. In ordering the words out of which he creates his own version of Sappho, he puts the adverb adversus, 'opposite,' immediately next to identidem, so that one of the effects of this climactic line is to make you hear the words opposite and same one after the other: otherness, alterity, and sameness, identity, are exquisitely contraposed.

How do you know who you are? You are the one who loves by superimposing sameness over difference. This is the etymology of your desire.

These extracts from Mr Mendelsohn's first book portray his debt to learning, without misrepresenting it to himself as fitting a self-conception still in formation. His career in criticism - chiefly for The New York Review of Books - is distinguished by acute and capable vigilance against any slovenly adaptation of literature to common or individual certitudes. He must relish his embrace by the paper of the place where he mastered Catullus.

But Mendelsohn's critical posture is not only available in other discip-lines, it is just as crucial to their pursuit, the object of which is to acquire resistance to slovenly certitude. It's for their acquain-tance with the skeptics, more than for the luxuries of their poetry, that the classicists aren't to be envied, but emulated. If we were wine, we would say skepticism is our acidity, our backbone and guarantor of age. But we are not wine. We cannot therefore tire of resort to youth to embody what is at stake in our intellectual conduct. And what is memory, but the resource of resolve to preserve, and get it right. 

Daniel Mendelsohn
The Elusive Embrace
  Desire and the riddle of identity
Knopf, 1999©

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