Not having Googled my name in a number of years, I was surprised to find that the top search result for my own name (there are, I’ve learned, many ‘Alex Sheremets’, and multiple variations thereof) was an Amazon review all the way from June 2008, of a Latin textbook, of all things, that had been the standard intro to the subject ever since it was published in 1956. It was (and still is, despite a new edition) the most popular review of Wheelock’s Latin on Amazon, garnering close to 400 ‘helpful’ votes, and a couple of dozen comments ranging from agreement to abject dissent.
I’d not a chance to respond, partly because I didn’t realize what was going on, and partly because I’d grown up – or rather, had grown into myself, over time. Now, I’m an artist, see, and perhaps even thought of myself as an artist then. But, back in June 2008, I was stuck at home, messing around with Latin conversations non-stop, listening to hours of Latin recordings, and trying – really, really trying – to get fluent in the language. I know, now, that part of the attraction to ancient lingoes was their sheer mystery, as well as the fact that, unlike the more academic types, I was treating the language with genuine respect by putting it on par with any other modern tongue, instead of merely ‘decoding’ it like some jigsaw puzzle. Most professors couldn’t speak it. Hell, most can’t even WRITE it, and I – a young kid interested in so many things already – was gonna show ’em (baby!), and leave the shit-kickers in the dirt!
Of course, that’s not what I told myself. At least, not exactly. I told myself that I ‘NEEDED’ Greek and Latin to really understand poetry (my true aim), and therefore write it better than anyone before me, for I’d know the true origin of language, in the metaphysical sense, by being able to strip it down to its more primitive manifestations in a way that academics could not. So, I’d spend much time practicing conversation every day, dipping every once in a while into Virgil and Catullus, just to see where I was at, technically speaking, but not realizing that, as a budding poet, I was in fact wasting time – and that everything I needed, everything that’s worthy of the term ‘art’, had already been provided by modernity, if only I’d learn to look a little more wisely.
Now, allow a digression. Getting fluent in multiple languages is, too often, a kind of bargaining chip – a social token. Just think of people’s utter GREED for travel, the way they post photos all over social media, not knowing the true import of such places, obsess over food and architecture, and merely pretend to engage with these peoples and lands. Of course, they tell themselves that they’re ‘cultured’, and somehow benefiting from such meaningless activity. But, realistically, the limits of their engagement is – well, themselves, for they must bring such baggage wherever they go, and if they cannot extract things of depth from their neighborhood, or a quiet book, in bed, they’re certainly not prepared to do the same in Bucharest. And, in a sense, language is treated in much the same way, a minor hobby that’s often called ‘exchange’ or ‘understanding’, but is in fact mere capital. That’s not all bad, of course, and some good CAN come from even naive self-absorption, but when I packed away my Latin books – a few of them in editions dating from the mid-1800s – I felt a tear accumulate, that, no matter how short-lived, revealed that I was kicking a mere habit, an addiction, to be blunt, rather than letting go of something purposeful.
It was under this spell that I’d written my review, and, despite a number of comments disagreeing with my assessment, it is still a correct assessment, and will continue to be correct for as long as we’re recognizably human. This is because claims that one can truly ‘read’ Latin through a text like Wheelock’s, followed by more supplemental reading, then ever more advanced vocabulary, are ridiculous, since NO language is ever acquired in this way. Sure, you can learn words, understand passages in a mechanical sense, but when one hears phrases such as ‘communication’, one thinks of nuance, too – and poetry IS nuance, at least on a word-by-word basis. So, for those still interested in Latin, my recommendation is the same: get yer ass speaking and writing, first, before you delude yourself into thinking that a mere 4 years in college, followed by a Master’s, then by a Ph.D., will get you fluent. Do, then, what I ultimately could NOT do for lack of interest, drive, and talent for the field: get conversational, and leave the academy in mumbles. As for writing well, in English? Forget it. Latin is for Latin, and art lives (and basks) in separation. You either have talent or you don’t. This applies to Latin. Yet it applies even more so to art, as it’s the lone human endeavor that people can literally waste entire lives on, to no personal benefit whatsoever, and much harm to the general good.
But wait. What of Virgil? Propertius? Those great passages in Homer? Greek and Latin at their apex? Isn’t that the crowning achievement of our good earth? Well, if you think that an over-reliance on cliches, stock myths, and clunky, simple-minded beliefs from 2,000+ years ago is the apex of human achievement, then perhaps it is. Those attuned to the real world, however, will see how Wallace Stevens has outdone even Shakespeare, or the ancient Chinese poets outpaced anything the Greeks and Romans could ever throw at ’em – not to mention the visual arts, wherein all the ham-fisted temple reliefs of, say, the Acropolis can’t even BEGIN to capture the complexity of even a several-inch stretch of this lone, innocuous Rembrandt:
Just note what Rembrandt does with his own myths. The father doesn’t ‘run’ to the prodigal son, as Luke would have it, nor is the father’s emotion simply one of love and compassion – again, as the clumsy, didactic Luke would have it. The man’s look is far more complex, and his feelings connoted by more than mere musculature or posture (all easy ways out, and the mainstay of Greco-Roman art), but facial expression, tension in the body, hesitation, with the dark, supporting figures in the back acting as both spectators AND specters vis-a-vis the central figure – perhaps a comment on the sort of things the father had to endure, as well as uncertainties about his future, that Luke, by contrast, merely simplifies away into a small, educational story? Or note a seemingly throwaway detail, the son’s one slipper that’s fallen off: just think of how Rembrandt creates motion, ACTION, with this choice, for it implies he’s rushed over, falling into his father, even as his body is now completely at rest. Time is compressed, things are implied, and one gets a sum far deeper and more technically impressive than in the stuff of ancients.
And, really, it is THIS difference that separates the modern from the ancient, for while older artists and writers were content to communicate with broad, often clunky strokes, with an eye towards things other than art, and only minor deviations from their own self-shackling mythos (or whatever other religious or philosophical mindset they might have fallen into, either by choice or historical circumstance), the moderns create FAR more suggestive art-works by attention to detail, color, symbolism, and the like, in a way that would have only confused their predecessors. And isn’t that expected – that people will inevitably BETTER past accomplishments? And if this is so evident in science, politics, ethics, and the like, why not in art, too, unless one is merely shamanizing art as a sort of fetish, somehow apart from the real world and its parameters, neither bound by rules, nor human trajectory?
The modern world, as I see it, came in waves. The first, of course, was in China, wherein poets like Tu Fu and Li Po anticipated the West by about 1000 years (or more), and books like the Tao Te Ching are still so mired in our future, now, that people have not been able to fully grasp its import. For when information, or hard data, is finally mastered, and the more immediate concerns resolved (poverty, violence, etc.), there will be no more place to go but inward – truly, the ‘final frontier’, for while outer space is uniform, predictable, and rote, art isn’t, for it’s deeper, and far more nuanced communication is now at a geometric ascent because of such.
The second wave came with Genghis Khan, because, say what you will of his barbarism, evil, and destructiveness, he was merely doing, in macro, what nation-states have been doing in miniature ever since. And I don’t mean the obvious shit, either, like proto-imperialism, and the like. Death and terrorism aside, Genghis Khan established an empire that let others LIVE, both apart and together, all the while slyly playing upon their new-found pride, their sense of personal expansiveness, the logic of international cooperation, even as the flip-side to such noble lusts – violence, myopia, and the like – was corralled by new, self-regulating outlets, and therefore never truly loosed upon the world when these lusts could have been at their height. Today, the human politic is much the same, for, even if more sophisticated, essential human nature has NOT changed. Instead, it’s merely been given greater outlets than the Mongols ever could – luxury, time-sinks, food, art, medicine, widespread literacy – that keeps the human animal at bay. The blueprint, however, has remained the same, and will only re-adjust in the next general sweep, via routes we can only guess at. This will not be soon.
But while Genghis Khan engendered the body politic, the final wave – whose true, long-term impact has not been properly understood, and will only be evaluated decades or centuries hence – came from 4 or 5 other names, none of them conquerors, or personages of seeming physical import. These are William Blake, as a kind of proto-Modern, Herman Melville (via Moby-Dick), Walt Whitman (tied with Melville in general importance), and Mark Twain. Sure, people might point to the American Revolution as a more decisive HISTORICAL event, but even that, in a very real sense, was still stuck in the world of the body, and was a mere improvement, in degree, upon Greece’s model, or Genghis Khan’s model, for the Constitution IS, after all, a blueprint for interaction between bodies. A great thing, no doubt, a thing that’s let the world enter into a new-found state of commerce, luxury, and long-life, but still impacting us as bodies, with only a trickle-down effect upon deeper abstractions.
Moby-Dick, however, and Leaves Of Grass are a blueprint for the interplay of ideas, in real time, not as the static little pinpricks of philosophy, or middle-grade didactic art, but as living art, as they change and adapt within a single text, and play upon the mind in far more subtle ways than their predecessors ever could. So, say what great things you will of Rembrandt, Shakespeare, and even a few ancients – the two texts I’ve proffered are still a VERY different animal, and in effect build a self-sustaining universe, with its unique motives and rules, rather than choking on its own regurging mythos.
As for Latin, and its effect on the above theory? Well, there is one thing, thrown out as a kind of monkey-wrench, by Catullus. And it captivates the reader PRECISELY because it shows a man on the cusp of ‘something’ – a flash or realization, a thread that, sadly, he could not follow, a sense of parallax that was simply far beyond him, and the West, as a whole, for another 1500 years. It is this, and it is something no other Western poet would do until they had time to grow up:
He seems to me to be equal to a god,
he, if I dare it, seems to surpass the gods,
who now, face to face, uninterrupted,
watches and hears you
sweetly laughing, which sunders me
from my senses: for when I look at you,
Lesbia, no voice is in my mouth,
my tongue is rigid, and through my body
a thin flame pours down, my ears ringing
with their own sound, my gaze curtained by a double night.
Leisure, Catullus, is dangerous; leisure
urges you to extravagant behavior;
leisure in time gone by has ruined kings
and prosperous cities.
A few predictable things, naturally: Catullus’s sillier infatuations, as per the thrust of his earlier and later poems, a few near-cliches that appear even in the original Latin, and the like. And then – wait, just WHERE did that final stanza come from? From Sappho, whose fragment was rehabilitated into a good poem, here, or from Catullus, himself?
Neither, I’d argue; for it came of Catullus, yes, but only by way of accident. Something ‘clicked’ in him, something that Catullus couldn’t understand, and made its way out, but only in THIS poem. It was a fluke, but what was ‘it’, exactly? Look at the poem again. Then, re-read that last stanza. It is quite Rilkean, a la Archaic Torso Of Apollo, wherein a final line literally comes out of nowhere, but utterly forges the poem into a whole, provides its import, and clarifies everything that came before. Here is, then, something that starts out a little predictable, only to turn to a sweeping philosophical posit that can ring true forever, and granted Rome (or its idea) an eternity that not even its more celebrated poems could not. It is this style of connecting wildly disparate, almost paradoxical ideas that no ancient writer, to my knowledge, ever employed, in any other poem, big or small, to such grand effect, even as #51 seemingly ends on a prosaic, declaratory line that, just as impressively, deepens due to everything that comes before it.
And this is what’s meant in the discussion of Whitman and Melville, above. Catullus does the same thing they’d eventually do, yes, but only in one poem, as if some blueprint in the brain ‘allowed’ it to come out then and there, then blipped out what in the subsequent Dark Ages must have felt like forever. The best modern writers, however, picked such out at will, for they were able to recognize it in their own thoughts, and actively CHOSE to make such sweeping connections – consciously or not! And, again, this is only expected. The circumstances were right. The artists had, after much fiddling, finally become adults. That doesn’t say much for the ancients, no, but it gives them something even more important: a narrative. A sense of place. Usefulness. PURPOSE…
It is not, alas, the purpose they’d imagined for themselves, when Rome was the height of things, ‘eternal’, but, in a weird way, it is somehow grander, too. Rome wanted to be the apex. It wanted to live on and on and on. It wanted, in short, to be the standard of things, forever. Yet this was, no doubt, quite childish, and destructive, to boot, for if Rome had its wish, we’d be in a kind of eternal recurrence, no better than a spider tracing out an ever-lengthening web of the same old shit, unaware – no, worse; UNCARING – that there is some beyond.
As for my review? I mean, fuck it. It was a stage in my life, like Rome was a stage in a deeper course of human events, like I am, inevitably, a stage for others. Few things are ever truly ends in themselves, but serve as intermediaries, something few people, much less nations, ever understood. I like that I know, sure, but since when does reality ever care for such consent?