President-Elect Obama

It’s appropriate that Election Day should come so shortly after Halloween.  As the ghosts and ghouls vanish into their occult places when day breaks, so the bogeymen and superstars of the campaign season pass out of view once the election is over.  It’s back to Alaska with Sarah Palin, back to work for “Joe the Plumber,” back to the political science textbooks with the Bradley Effect, back to a museum of the 60s with the Weather Underground.  Four years from now another set of entertainments will rise from some unknown quarter and haunt us for a season. 

The candidates themselves do not go anywhere; they cease to exist.  The winning candidate is replaced by the office holder, the losing candidates are replaced by somewhat older, somewhat sadder versions of the people they were before they ran.  That’s why there’s a richer vein of literature about losing contenders for power than about winners.  Try to dramatize the winner and the best you can do is hint at what Shakespearean actors call “the man inside the king.”  The king is a symbol, he is power, he is majesty, he is order, and he is empty.  Art and literature can focus on the king only when the symbol fails and the human being emerges.  I think the Horace illustrates that process in his Ode 1.37.  As long as she is a contender for power, Cleopatra is at best a monster.  Defeated, she is one of us. 

Here’s Cedric Whitman’s translation of that poem.  Robert Frost defined poetry as “that which is lost in translation”; I’m afraid Whitman does not manage to defeat that definition.  But it does show the major gestures in Horace’s original, and unlike some other versions it is possible to read Whitman’s aloud.  I’ve appended Edward Wickham’s edition (from his Oxford Classical Text) of the original below. 

Drink, comrades, drum the ground, now it is time

for freedom’s dance; and call on all the gods

to come, lay out their gorgeous couches,

and let them recline at the feast of Mars.

It had been crime till now to pour good wine

from the crypts of our forefathers, while ruin poised

over the Capitol, and fevered madness

was winding cerecloth round our realm-

Dreams of the queen of half-men, girt by her crew

of sickly shame, and drunk with delirious hopes

grown fat and reckless on easy fortune!

But all that glare of frenzy waned

When scarce one vessel of her fleet sailed home

unscorched by flame; her mind, long tranced and dazed

on heady Egypt’s wine, now waking

to terror’s truth, found Caesar’s oars

hard pressing on her flight from Italy,

swift hawk on downy dove, hunter on hare

in snowy fields of Thrace, and ready

to fling her into chains, a beast

of ominous wonder.  But she had loftier thoughts,

to find out death; blades could not make her cheek

blanch like a girl’s, or drive her flying

with huddled sails to lurking shores. 

Her courage soared; with placid face she scanned

her fallen palace, and valorously reached

her hands to rasping snakes, sucking

their venom’s blackness through her limbs.

Once death was fixed, the fiercer grew her mind:

Indeed, she scorned his cruel galleys, and men

who would have had her walk uncrowned,

no spiritless woman, in triumph’s pride. 

The original:

Nunc est bibendum, nunc pede libero

pulsanda tellus, nunc Saliaribus

ornare pulvinar deorum

tempus erat dapibus, sodales. 

Antehac nefas depromere Caecubum

cellis avitis, dum Capitolio

regina dementis ruinas

funus et imperio parabat

contaminato cum grege turpium

morbo virorum, quidlibet impotens

sperare fortunaque dulci

ebria.  Sed minuit furorem

vix una sospes navis ab ignibus

mentemque lymphatam Mareotico

redegit in veros timores

Caesar ab Italia volantem

remis adurgens, accipiter velut

mollis columbas aut leporem citus

venator in campis nivalis

Haemoniae, daret ut catenis

fatale monstrum; quae generosius

perire quaerens nec muliebriter

expavit ensem nec latentis

classe cita reparavit oras;

ausa et iacentem visere regiam

vultu serno, fortis et asperas

tractare serpentis, ut atrum

corpore combiberet venenum,

deliberata morte ferocior,

saevis Liburnis scilicet invidens

privata deduci superbo

non humilis mulier triumpho.

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9 Comments

  1. cymast

     /  November 5, 2008

    “fevered madness

    was winding cerecloth round our realm”

    That pretty much sums it for me.

    And “funus,” whatever that means. (winding?) Sounds like a fun word.

    I watched the CNN broadcast of the election. The excitement and emotion of the crowds across the country was moving. One black journalist said she was battling stress-induced nausea all day. Another black journalist, after Obama was announced the winner, cried.

    IMO, McCain, during his concession speech, looked surprisingly calm- almost relieved. His speech was very gracious and seemed quite sincere. Palin was visibly upset.

    Deep down, I kinda knew Obama would win, but somehow I’m still surprised.

  2. lefalcon

     /  November 5, 2008

    seems like there’s normally a couple things that stick out in each campaign..This time one of those was: Joe the goddam plumber!!!! Summary of him in 1 sen: he’s pissed about something he can’t quite verbalize. Wow. Fitting that somebody who’s “pissed about something they can’t verbalize” would be emblem of Cain’s campaign. Seriously. No wonder the McCain camp glommed on to him.

    Yes the thing was long and ridiculous..very long in fact: I remember us sending messages about the candidates in early 2007 if not earlier.

    Let’s remember that almost half of voters cast a vote for McCAIN-PALIN………Wooo hooo!!!! Well u just can’t stop being a fucked up country over-night.

    But thank GOD it’s over, thank God B.O. prevailed over better hygiene habits..Thank God there were no flippin weird-ass glitches and a clean result was known the very evening of election day.

    It’s really just an absolutely profoundly moving event, and I mean that seriously. In the wake of 9-11 we didn’t know how the next few yrs could play out.. The situation is very very similar right now..with the amazingly wonderful difference that this is not a dark, ominous harbinger but the opening of a fantastic new chapter. Look!!!:: Even Krusty the Klown taking the oval office would be “fantastic new chapter” after 8 yrs of the horrendous “leadership” of GW Bush……….and BARACK OBAMA I venture to say has a zillion more things going for him than Krusty. It’s a truly great moment.

  3. acilius

     /  November 6, 2008

    FUNUS, FUNERIS is the Latin word for funeral. It is fun to say, though, and of course the first three letters spell “fun.”

    “Not a dark, ominous harbinger”- that pretty well sums up my view of the matter. Had Crazy John prevailed, it would have been a dark, ominous harbinger. Mr O, by contrast, seems like he might be relatively tolerable.

    We had a bunch of people over to watch the election results and eat cake. Sometime today or tomorrow I plan to post a picture of the cake.

    Crazy John’s concession speech was wonderful. I loved it because it meant that he had lost, but also because it was so much more pleasant in tone and so much less burdened with pointless stupidities than the rest of what we’ve been hearing from the candidates in recent weeks/ months/ years.

  4. cymast

     /  November 6, 2008

    OK “funus” isn’t so fun anymore. I was thinking of winding as in “winding cerecloth” and funneling/winding.

    I choose “superbo”- above, good.

  5. acilius

     /  November 6, 2008

    “Winding cerecloth” is Whitman’s version of “funus parabat,” literally “was preparing funeral rites.” Roman funeral rites did traditionally begin by wrapping the corpse in wax cloth (aka cerecloth,) so it isn’t an unreasonable translation.

    Of the two words “funus” and “superbo,” I’d have to say “funus” would be the less unpleasant. SUPERBUS/ SUPERBA/ SUPERBUM is the root of the English “superb,” so that’s nice. But in Latin it didn’t really mean that- it meant “arrogant.” It appears here as the adjective in the phrase “superbo non humilis mulier triumpho,” which Whitman translates as “no spiritless woman, in Triumph’s pride.” A more literal translation would be “not a lowly woman amid an arrogant Triumph.”

    Actually, Whitman undertranslates the word “superbo.” It is really a most disagreeable word. The most famous association of the word “Superbus” in Latin is with King Tarquinius Superbus, who was overthrown because he was connected to a rape. Indeed “superbus” is a word often used to describe rapists. “Superbia,” literally “arrogance,” is a technical term for rape in Roman law. Considering that at the end of the poem Cleopatra is a woman faced with subjection to the violent power of her sworn enemies, the word would certainly have suggested rape to a Roman audience.

    That suggestion is the key to the shift in Horace’s attitude towards Cleopatra. Cleopatra in power was a threat to Rome, and Horace execrates her for that. Cleopatra defeated is a woman in danger of being raped. Horace takes her suicide as an act of heroism because it represents an extreme form of resistance to rape. The only way Cleopatra could retain control of her body was to destroy that body before Augustus and his men could get hold of her.

  6. cymast

     /  November 6, 2008

    Thank you for your scholarly explanation.

    Are you suggesting had Cleopatra been a man, or Cleopatra’s overthrowers had been women, Cleopatra would have less likely been a target for rape? What is the purpose of raping someone who is already defeated? And isn’t the rapist the one who is the ultimate spectacle of defeat? A rapist isn’t human- that is, the willful absence of humanity is the ultimate self-defeat.

  7. acilius

     /  November 7, 2008

    “Thank you for your scholarly explanation.”

    You’re welcome!

    “And isn’t the rapist the one who is the ultimate spectacle of defeat? A rapist isn’t human- that is, the willful absence of humanity is the ultimate self-defeat.”

    That’s an argument with which Horace would have been very familiar. The two main philosophical schools of his day, the Stoics and the Epicureans, both taught that the key to true humanity was self-control. Both Stoic and Epicurean philosophers habitually cited the rapist as a man who had become less than human through the loss of self-control.

    Since the Epicureans also claimed that pleasure was a positive good, while the Stoics dismissed pleasure and pain alike as illusions, the Epicureans were sometimes accused of hedonism. Horace described himself as a “pig from Epicurus’ herd,” apparently a self-deprecating joke nodding to this accusation.

    Whether Horace thought of himself as an Epicurean or not, Ode 1.37 is closer to Stoicism. The Epicureans rejected suicide in all circumstances, arguing that a person ought to be able to retain his or her self-control no matter how grievously he or she was tested. They claimed that pain is always manageable and pleasure is always attainable. Death itself they regarded as nothingness, and therefore insignificant.

    The Stoics recognized that people have their breaking points. Though pleasure and pain are illusions, only under certain conditions can a person develop the spiritual strength that will enable him or her to see through those illusions and attain self-control. They claimed that a person who knows that he or she is about to be pushed beyond a point at which it will be possible to maintain or regain self-control would be justified in committing suicide.

    “Are you suggesting had Cleopatra been a man, or Cleopatra’s overthrowers had been women, Cleopatra would have less likely been a target for rape?”

    Yes, less likely. Though of course there are men who rape each other. And women who help men rape other women.

    “What is the purpose of raping someone who is already defeated?”

    Well, Augustus’ official plan was to hold a Triumph, a grand celebration of military victory in the course of which the victorious general and his army paraded through the center of Rome. Part of that parade was a display of the spoils the Romans had taken from the enemy. If the enemy commander had been captured, he (in Cleopatra’s case, she) was dragged in chains behind the Roman commander’s chariot. What’s the point of doing that to someone who’s already defeated? How could a person take pleasure in dragging someone through the streets in front of a jeering crowd and not take pleasure in every other form of torture, including rape?

  8. cymast

     /  November 7, 2008

    I would go out on a limb and presume that rape is willful loss of self-control, motivated by hate.

    There seems to be no point in enduring torture for the sake of Epicureanism. I find it quite odd that Epicureans would prefer a life of torture to “nothingness.”

    There are also women who rape women, and women who rape men all by themselves. I’ve never understood it, and prefer it that way.

    “How could a person take pleasure in dragging someone through the streets in front of a jeering crowd and not take pleasure in every other form of torture, including rape?” I guess I don’t understand taking pleasure in torture. When confronted with my worst enemy- say, somebody who was trying to kill me- I would simply try killing that person first. I just don’t see the the interest in torture. Supposedly it’s useful as a deterrent/punishment, but it’s not interesting enough to warrent making a grand spectacle, IMO. It’s actually quite repulsive.

  9. acilius

     /  November 7, 2008

    The Epicureans would not have wanted anyone to do anything for the sake of Epicureanism. Their view was that their theories, properly understood and applied, would enable anyone to enjoy life, no matter how bad that person’s external circumstances might be. Regarding death as nothing, they counseled against fear of it, but also against any act to hasten it. Their idea was that since death is nothing, it should not figure in our thoughts at all.

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