Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Catullus still rocks 2000 years on

I wrote this for Guardian.co.uk, but annoyingly (for me anyway), their resident classicist Charlotte Higgins had spotted the same story and wrote this neat piece at the same time. Being the freelance, I got spiked. Such is politics. But I still enjoyed writing my version, so thought I'd give it a bit of life here. Especially since I think there may be different ways of looking at the interesting First Century BC context...


More than 2,000 years after his death, it appears that the poet Catullus still has the power to shock and cause controversy. An employment tribunal in London has just heard that Mark Lowe, the millionaire boss of Nomos Capital sent a work experience girl an email containing the phrase “pedicabo ego vos et irrumabo” .

The lawyers opposed to Mr Lowe suggested that this line was, inappropriate and likely to "violate" the dignity of the email’s recipient. Lowe, meanwhile, claimed the poem: “… is burlesque, it was always light-hearted in the first century and it still is now.”

Rather wonderfully then, a court case dealing with such specifically modern phenomena as hedge-funds, email communications and Thai prostitutes has stumbled across a question that has been exercising poetry lovers for the last 2000 years: exactly how rude is the poem we now call Catullus XVI?

As far as we moderns are concerned, until fairly recently, the simple answer would have been ‘unprintably so’.

Those plosive-heavy words “pedicabo” and “irrumabo” refer to anal and facial penetration. “I will bugger you and stuff your gobs” is the admirably literal translation suggested by Guy Lee (in the 1990 Oxford translation). Catullus then goes on to refer to Furius and Aurelius, the addressees of the poem with the lovely chiasmus: “Aureli pathice et cinaede Furi.” That’s to say, it’s Aurelius who will enjoy the attentions of Catullus’ penis in his mouth and Furius who will get it in his bottom.

For years, these first two lines were considered so indecent they weren’t translated into English. Even in the 1960s the Loeb edition of the poem, with translations by FW Cornish, rendered the contentious line thus: “…” Cornish also refused to print the last 8 lines of the poem, even in Latin. Other editions have seen it translated into Greek, French or just duplicated the original Latin phrase in place of translation. When they have dared tackle the lines, scholars have come up with curious suggestions like: “Nuts to you boys! Nuts!” or “I’ll show you I’m a man!” or “Furius, Aurelius, I’ll work your/ own perversions on you and your persons.”

That probably says more about 19th and 20th Century squeamishness than Catullus’ contemporaries. The marvellous “it was light-hearted in the first century” defence put forward by Lowe is not without substance. Certainly, Catullus is making a joke.

Later in the poem he says that the reason he’s made these threats to his friends Furius and Aurelius is that they’ve suggested his poems may be a bit soft (molliculi) and that he’s less of a man because he’s written a poem addressed to his lover Lesbia suggesting that he’s going to give her many thousands of big kisses.

The most obvious solution to the poem that follows from that is that Catullus is being heavily ironic. Suggest he’s a softy, both in the sense of being effeminate and unable to perform sexually, and he’ll prove you wrong by making vigorous love to your bottom. An act that becomes even more transgressive since Catullus also suggests that the “pius” poet ought to be “castus” (normally translated that the pious poet ought to be chaste.)

Of course, this being Catullus, there are further potential interpretations. The poem is steeped in innuendo and ambiguity. That word “castus” , for instance, could be understood to mean “acting correctly from a masculine point of view”. In which case, having lots of sex wasn’t such a problem. Even the famously censorious Cato the Elder had declared it perfectly acceptable for Roman men to frequent prostitutes.

The joke in the First Century might also have depended on the feminisation of Furius and Aurelius. The important point is that because they have suggested Catullus is a bit of a girl, they are going to become the passive recipients of his attentions. And that could be seen as a serious insult.

The charge of feminity, to give one notorious example, was at the heart of a 62 BC scandal involving Publius Clodius Pulcher. (Neatly, he was the brother of Clodia - the woman whom many scholars suspect is the real subject of the poems dedicated to ‘Lesbia’. The ones to which Furius and Aurelius objected to in the first place…) Clodius had dressed as a woman in an attempt to get close to Julius Caesar’s wife during a rite from which men were excluded - and he had also been caught in incestuous relations with his sister. A massive bribe got Clodius off the hook in the following court case, but his arch-enemy Cicero would attack him ever afterwards on the grounds that he was lascivious and feminised. Suggestions that were meant to really sting – and which took on extra weight thanks to a wide-spread rumour that when Clodius had been captured by pirates during the Third Mithridatic War, he’d paid the price of his freedom with his anal virginity. A rumour whose very existence proves that receiving anal sex as a Roman man was no laughing matter.

In such a context, Catullus’ “burlesque” takes on fangs. Yes, he’s being funny, but he’s also launching into the furthest stratosphere of rudery and insult. As far as the modern court case goes, it seems a shame that history doesn’t record how Furius and Aurelius reacted to this metaphorical fucking. But the fact that it remains troubling after all this time (not to mention hilarious) is testament at least to Catullus’ unique and wayward genius.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Google ego-alert ego-massage

My google ego-alert email service had a link to this review of Sod That today in the Huddersfield Examiner, by one Chris Mellor.

Here's his conclusion:


Walking on fire is over-rated, he says. Ask the 28 people who suffered serious burns during an attempt to break the fire-walking world record in New Zealand.

Going shopping in Milan, riding a gondola in Venice and visiting Florence are all kicked into touch, although I actually did visit Florence. Nice girl.

“This book is a rallying call for common sense and dignified indolence over hectic, wasteful and morally dubious over-activity. Sometimes staying at home is the best thing to do with your time,” he says.

I couldn’t agree more.


I'm all aglow. Especially since Chris Mellor seems to be a fellow (non-) traveller.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

A fantastically awkward encounter

Just got back from The Connecting Worlds event at this.

It was an excellent evening, with four moving and entertaining readings. Two of them really brought home the sadness of exile. (Especially a very touching poem from Chenjerai Hove about how you forget to appreciate lovely things when your world is filled with horror). Two of them were really funny.

But I don't want to talk about that. I want to talk about the gloriously awkward conversation I had with the last reader Geoff Dyer.

After Dyer's reading (typically amusing, with a cruel cliff-hanger relating to an involved encounter with a monkey that is probably going to force me to buy the book, the sod), there was a lot of milling around and shuffling home kind of activity. I was keen to get back to the nest myself, mindful that my girlfriend was home alone with a teething baby and that my bike didn't have any lights. So I'd tucked my trousers into my socks and got out my helmet when my friend Nathan waved Geoff Dyer over and introduced him to me and said:

"Geoff, this is Sam he’s a massive fan of yours."

Geoff Dyer remained cool, but a brief flicker in his eyes told me he had the fear. Nathan had just landed him with a stalker. With weird trousers. At this point, of course, Nathan walked off.

Geoff D: I’m glad there’s one here. Fan, I mean.

Me: Hahahahahahaha.
(For just a little bit too long).

Geoff D: Er.

Me: Er.

Geoff D: I see you're on your bike.

Me: Yes my machine is out there.

(I indicate some bike stands visible through the glass front of the building. I have no idea why I called it a 'machine').

Geoff D: Nice weather for biking. Bit windy though.

Me: It’s okay. When you're going downhill.

Geoff D} (Silence)
Me } (Silence)

Geoff D:Are you coming to the dinner?

Me: No. I’ve uh got a wife and baby back home.

Geoff D: That’s nice for you. Cosy.

Me: Er, yes.

Geoff D:Well, goodbye.

Me: Goodbye.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Happy Bloomsday

Here's a Bloomsday extract from my book Sod That: 103 Things Not To Do Before You Die... In which the message is don't read Ulysses.*


Read Ulysses


If you do as we’re all urged and take up James Joyce’s overlong magnum opus, it is guaranteed to clog up your all too short life. Banned, criticised and suppressed on moral grounds when it first came out, it thereby became far more famous and far more durable than it would ever have been otherwise. Had it been published openly originally, the book would in all probability have been openly ignored, or at least gained wider recognition for the pretentious nonsense it is. The lives of generations of English Literature undergraduates the world over would have been considerably eased as a result.

Many readers might experience a strange feeling of guilt at thus disregarding a book that has come to be considered as such an important part of the mythical literary canon. Wading through Ulysses is often regarded as a kind of coming of age. You have to get through it to prove your worth to those invisible cultural arbiters who we imagine sit in judgement of us all. You have to know what happened to Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus in Dublin on 16 June 1904, even though the answer is, basically, nothing.

The other thing to remember about trying to prove your bookish credentials by knowing about Ulysses is that no one who actually possesses a wide knowledge of literature will believe you if you try to convince them you've read every word. They – having attempted to grind through it themselves – will understand what a thankless task it is and won't believe you.

OK, there are some fine qualities to the book. There’s some magnificent worldplay, some world beating writing and top class rudery. But a few clever turns of phrase and a couple of pervy passages don't make up for the fact that if you want to understand even half of it you have to lug a dictionary user’s guide around with it – unappealing when the book alone already weighs more than a small child.

The only passages that do make sense are the rude ones. So just do what everyone else does and cut straight to them. Skip the rest. Especially skip the 150-odd pages of punctuation bereft prose that starts: ‘Deshill Holles Eamus. Deshil Holles Eamus. Deshill Holles Eamus’ and ends ‘anyway I wish hed sleep in some bed by himself with his cold feet on me give us room even to let a fart God or do the least thing better yes hold them like that a bit on my side piano quietly sweeeee theres that train far away pianissimo eeeee one more song.’

Everything you need to know about this section is neatly contained in the word ‘nonsense’.

There is at least one good thing to be said about Ulysses, however. It does at least also have the distinct advantage of not being Finnegan’s Wake. Now that's a book you should die before reading.


Useless Trivia


On Ulysses’ first release the Sporting Times declared that the book: ‘appears to have been written by a perverted lunatic.’ Paper of record the New York Times opined: ‘The average intelligent reader will glean little or nothing from it – even from careful perusal, one might properly say study, of it – save bewilderment and a sense of disgust.’ The popular critic ‘Aramis’, meanwhile, correctly pointed out that: ‘Two thirds of it is incomprehensible.’

More Useless Trivia


A 2007 poll commissioned by teletext discovered that 28% of Britons confessed to being unable to finish Ulysses, making it the third most unread book in the country, following DBC Pierre's Vernon God Little and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

ADVERT!

Sod That is still available at amazon and perhaps even a few good bookshops. (Beware of poor quality imitations!)

*I may not agree with everything I have written here.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009