Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Romans and Americans

Occasionally you run across a comparison, invariably unfavorable to both parties, between us, the postmodern Americans, and the ancient Romans. Usually the comparison is based on our decadence, or theirs, or our domination of the world, or theirs, or on their downfall, and the downfall we project, with very good reason, for ourselves.

When I was young I studied Latin some, and I was fascinated by how a sensibility in some ways absolutely familiar to me, and in other ways absolutely alien, existed in the same ancient writer or poet. For me, long ago, it was maybe my first experience of culture shock.

I liked the Latin love poets, especially Propertius. Translating them was almost impossible, though I tried--the combination of the strange and the familiar made for some beautiful stuff, but the juxtaposition was too weird to bring into English very successfully.

So, lately (one of the vices of retirement), I have been looking at some of my long-ago efforts at translation. My Latin vocabulary is long gone, and my grammar is fuzzy. But the impossible strangeness of what I "translated" remains. I once even tried to translate some philosophical poetry. Lucretius, on the nature of things; long, incredibly tedious, but with occasional flashes of a brilliant psychological insight. Technically, he was an epicurean, but temperamentally, like all Romans actually, he was a stoic. This hard, impenetrable pessimism is possibly the most alien thing about the Romans to me.

Anyway (as you might have feared, this is leading up to a translation, and--even worse--it's not a love poem), I found a segment of Lucretius which I tried to translate 35 years ago, a very famous passage on why death should not be feared. Now, somehow, it sounds like a very depressed and depressing Buddhism, but with this very odd stoic edge that I still like. (I am a Buddhist, and take my word for it, Lucretius is not at all Buddhistic when you get right down to it.)

I translated it as prose, of course--to try to make it into English verse would make it laughable.

Why you shouldn't be alarmed at death
--by Lucretius

Death is of no consequence, since the soul ends in the very state it begins in, and--just like in the time before we were born we felt no agony in the African wars when the world under the rim of heaven shook in the clash of arms, and no one could know whose reign they would live or die under--even so, when we exist no longer, and when body and soul combined in us now are cut apart, no evil then can happen to us.

When we are completely nonexistent there is no pain; even if earth is inundated or the sky falls or the world ends, it won’t matter to us. Even if some kind of awareness could remain after mind and body separate, that can be no concern of ours, for the Self is by nature the mind and body linked together. Nor would it matter if after death the eons reassembled our atoms and put them together as they are now, not even if the flame of life were rekindled, once the recollection of our past selves was interrupted.

When you look back through infinite expended time, the belief comes easy that the same atoms of which we are now made could have existed before in the same order and rank, since the movements of matter are endless. But we could never bring our present selves to mind again, for there was a pause of life, and the atoms wandered and danced far from our senses.

And to be in pain and anguish in some future time your self has to exist again, and death forbids it. Harm cannot befall any man dead. Know, therefore, that there is nothing to fear in Death, for a man who does not exist is not miserable. You can no more suffer in your future nonexistence, once immortal Death rips your life away, than you did before your birth.

Suppose you meet someone who claims to know we die, but who also is sad that when he dies they will bury his corpse and he will rot, or wild animals will gnaw his flesh, or funeral fires will turn his bones to ash—this unfortunate man really doesn’t understand he will die at all: thus the anguish in his heart.

Not truly realizing he will die, he imagines himself on the other side of death and persists in thinking himself somehow alive in that future day when the carrion birds and the wild animals claw at his corpse, and he is sorry for himself. He imagines he stands beside his own dead body and somehow feels its pain. He is upset that he was made so as to die, and does not see that in true death, there is no other self to stand by and mourn the self that is perished, or feel the funeral fire burn up his abandoned body.

Men often take their places at banquet, faces darkened under wreaths, and grasp their cups and spill these words from the soul: "Our joy is short and soon gone, and once gone it will never come back. No longer will you delight in coming home to the best of wives, your lovely children running to you with kisses, touching your heart with sweetness. What is now yours will be taken from you. One evil day plunders these flowers of your life." But they do not add: "Nor will you ever more desire any of these things."

This reminds me very much of a similar argument on the same matter by Sigmund Freud. But Freud lacked the rolling cadences and the archaic sensibility of Lucretius.

And of course it goes without saying that we Americans are not at all like Romans.

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