My dear Horace,
If what Suetonius tells us about your lining your bedroom walls with mirrors to enjoy coitus from every angle is true, you may find this letter a bit dull. On the other hand, you may be entertained by its coming to you from a part of the world whose existence you never suspected, and some two thousand years after your death, at that. Not bad for a reflection, is it?
You were almost fifty-seven, I believe, when you died in 8 B.C., though you weren’t aware of either C. Himself or a new millennium coming. As for myself, I am fifty-four now; my own millennium, too, has only a few years to run. Whatever new order of things the future has in store, I anticipate none of it either. So we may talk, I suppose, man to man, Horace. And I may as well begin with a locker-room kind of story.
Last night I was in bed rereading your Odes, and I bumped into that one to your fellow poet Rufus Valgius in which you are trying to convince him not to grieve so much over the loss of his son (according to some) or his lover (according to others). You proceed for a couple of stanzas with your exempla, telling him that So-and-so lost this person and Such-and-such another, and then you suggest to Rufus that he, as a kind of self-therapy, get engaged in praising Augustus’ new triumphs. You mention several recent conquests, among them grabbing some space from the Scythians.
Actually, that must have been the Geloni; but it doesn’t matter. Funny, I hadn’t noticed this ode before. My people — well, in a manner of speaking — aren’t mentioned that often by great poets of Roman antiquity. The Greeks are a different matter, since they rubbed shoulders with us quite a bit. But even with them we don’t fare that well. A few bits in Homer (of which Strabo makes such a meal afterward!), a dozen lines in Aeschylus, not much more in Euripides. Passing references, basically; but nomads don’t deserve any better. Of the Romans, I used to think, it was only poor Ovid who paid us any heed; but then he had no choice. There is practically nothing about us in Virgil, not to mention Catullus or Propertius, not to mention Lucretius. And now, lo and behold, a crumb from your table.
Perhaps, I said to myself, if I scratch him hard enough, I may find a reference to the part of the world I find myself in now. Who knows, he might have had a fantasy, a vision. In this line of work that happens.
But you never were a visionary. Quirky, unpredictable, yes — but not a visionary. To advise a grief-stricken fellow to change his tune and sing Caesar’s victories — this you could do; but to imagine another land and another heaven — well, for that one should turn, I guess, to Ovid. Or wait for another millennium. On the whole, you Latin poets were bigger on reflection and rumination than on conjecture. I suppose because the empire was large enough as it was to strain one’s own imagination.
So there I was, lying across my unkempt bed, in this unimaginable (for you) place, on a cold February night, some two thousand years later. The only thing I had in common with you, I thought, was the latitude and, of course, the little volume of your Collected, in Russian translations. At the time you wrote all this, you see, we didn’t have a language. We weren’t even we; we were Geloni, Getae, Budini, etc.: just bubbles in our own future gene pool. So two thousand years were not for nothing, after all. Now we can read you in our own highly inflected language, with its famous gutta-percha syntax suiting the translation of the likes of you marvelously.
Still, I am writing this to you in a language with whose alphabet you are more familiar. A lot more, I should add, than I am. Cyrillic, I am afraid, would only bewilder you even further, though you no doubt would recognize the Greek characters. Of course the distance between us is too large to worry about increasing it — or, for that matter, about trying to shrink it. But the sight of Latin letters may be of some comfort to you, no matter how bewildering their use may look.
So I was lying atop my bed with the little volume of your Carmina. The heat was on, but the cold night outside was winning. It is a small, two-storied wooden affair I live in here, and my bedroom is upstairs. As I looked at the ceiling, I could almost see cold seeping through my gambrel roof: a sort of anti-haze. No mirrors here. At a certain age one doesn’t care for one’s own reflection, company or no company; especially if no. That’s why I wonder whether Suetonius tells the truth. Although I imagine you would be pretty sanguine about that as well. Your famous equipoise! Besides, for all this latitudinal identity, in Rome it never gets that cold. A couple of thousand years ago the climate perhaps was different; your lines, though, bear no witness to that. Anyhow, I was getting sleepy.
And I remembered a beauty I once knew in your town. She lived in Suburra, in a small apartment bristling with flowerpots but redolent with the smell of the crumbling paperbacks the place was stuffed with. They were everywhere, but mostly on shelves reaching the ceiling (the ceiling, admittedly, was low). Most of them were not hers but belonged to her neighbor across the hall, about whom I heard a lot but whom I never met. The neighbor was an old woman, a widow, who was born and spent her entire life in Libya, in Leptis Magna. She was Italian but of Jewish extraction — or maybe it was her husband who was Jewish. At any rate, when he died and when things began to heat up in Libya, the old lady sold her house, packed up her stuff, and came to Rome. Her apartment was apparently even smaller than my tender companion’s, and jammed with a lifetime’s accretions. So the two women, the old and the young, struck a deal whereupon the latter’s bedroom began to resemble a regular secondhand-book store. What jarred with this impression wasn’t so much the bed as the large, heavily framed mirror leaning somewhat precariously against a rickety bookshelf right across from the bed, and at such an angle that whenever I or my tender companion wanted to imitate you, we had to strain and crane our necks rather desperately. Otherwise the mirror would frame only more paperbacks. In the early hours it could give one an eerie feeling of being transparent.
All that happened ages ago, though something nudges me to mutter, centuries ago. In an emotional sense, that would be valid. In fact, the distance between that place in Suburra and my present precincts psychologically is larger than the one between you and me. Which is to say that in neither case are “millennia” inapplicable. Or to say that, to me, your reality is practically greater than that of my private memory. Besides, the name of Leptis Magna interferes with both. I’ve always wanted to visit there; in fact, it became a sort of obsession with me once I began to frequent your town and Mediterranean shores in general. Well, partly because one of the floor mosaics in some bath there contains the only surviving likeness of Virgil, and a likeness done in his lifetime, at that! Or so I was told; but maybe it’s in Tunisia. In Africa, anyway. When one is cold, one remembers Africa. And when it’s hot, also.
Ah, what I wouldn’t give to know what the four of you looked like! To put a face to the lyric, not to mention the epic. I would settle for a mosaic, though I’d prefer a fresco. Worse comes to worse, I would resign myself to the marbles, except that the marbles are too generic — everybody gets blond in marble — and too questionable. Somehow, you are the least of my concerns, i.e., you are the easiest to picture. If what Suetonius tells us about your appearance is indeed true — at least something in his account must be true! — and you were short and portly, then you most likely looked like Eugenio Montale or Charlie Chaplin in the King in New York period. The one I can’t picture for the life of me is Ovid. Even Propertius is easier: skinny, sickly, obsessed with his equally skinny and sickly redhead, he is imaginable. Say, a cross between William Powell and Zbigniew Cybulski. But not Ovid, though he lasted longer than all of you. Alas, not in those parts where they carved likenesses. Or laid mosaics. Or bothered with frescoes. And if anything of the sort was done before your beloved Augustus kicked him out of Rome, then it was no doubt destroyed. So as not to offend high sensibilities. And afterward — well, afterward any slab of marble would do. As we used to say in northern Scythia — Hyperborea to you — paper can endure anything, and in your day marble was a kind of paper.
You think I am rambling, but I am just trying to reproduce the train of thought that took me late last night to an unusually graphic destination. It meandered a bit, for sure; but not that much. For, one way or another, I’ve always been thinking about you four, especially about Ovid. About Publius Ovidius Naso. And not for reasons of some particular affinity. No matter how similar my circumstances may now and then appear to his in the eyes of some beholder, I won’t produce any Metamorphoses. Besides, twenty-two years in these parts won’t rival ten in Sarmatia. Not to mention that I saw my Terza Roma crumble. I have my vanity, but it has its limits. Now that they are drawn by age, they are more palpable than before. But even as a young pup, kicked out of my home to the Polar Circle, I never fancied myself playing his double. Though then my empire looked indeed eternal, and one could roam on the ice of our many deltas all winter long.
No, I never could conjure Naso’s face. Sometimes I see him played by James Mason — a hazel eye soggy with grief and mischief; at other times, though, it’s Paul Newman’s winter-gray stare. But, then, Naso was a very protean fellow, with Janus no doubt presiding over his lares. Did you two get along, or was the age difference too big to bother? Twenty-two years, after all. You must have known him, at least through Maecenas. Or did you think him too frivolous, saw it coming? Was there bad blood between you? He must have thought you ridiculously loyal, true blue in a sort of quaint, self-made man’s kind of way. And to you he was just a punk, an aristo, privileged from the cradle, etc. Not like you and Anthony Perkins’s Virgil, practically working-class boys, only five years’ difference. Or is this too much Karl Marx reading and moviegoing, Horace? Perhaps. But wait, there is more. There is Dr. Freud coming into this, too, for what sort of interpretation of dreams is it, if it’s not filtered through good old Ziggy? For it was my good old subconscious the train of thought I just mentioned was taking me to, late last night, and at some speed.
Anyhow, Naso was greater than both of you — well, at least as far as I’m concerned. Metrically, of course, more monotonous; but so is Virgil. And so is Propertius, for all his emotional intensity. In any case, my Latin stinks; that’s why I read you all in Russian. It copes with your asclepiadic verse in a far more convincing way than the language I am writing this in, for all the familiarity of the latter’s alphabet. The latter just can’t handle dactyls. Which were your forte. More exactly, Latin’s forte. And your Carmina is, of course, their showcase. So I am reduced to judging the stuff by the quality of imagination. (Here’s your defense, if you need one.) And on that score Naso beats you all.
All the same, I can’t conjure up your faces, his especially; not even in a dream. Funny, isn’t it, not to have any idea how those whom you think you know most intimately looked? For nothing is more revealing than one’s use of iambs and trochees. And, by the same token, those who don’t use meters are always a closed book, even if you know them physically, inside out. How did John Clare put it? “Even those who I knew best / Are strange, nay! stranger than the rest.” At any rate, metrically, Flaccus, you were the most diverse among them. Small wonder that this huffing and puffing train took you for its engineer as it was leaving its own millennium and heading for yours, unaccustomed as it may have been to electricity. Hence I was traveling in the dark.
Few things are more boring than other people’s dreams, unless they are nightmares or highly carnal. This one, Flaccus, was of the latter denomination. I was in some very sparsely furnished bedroom, in a bed sitting next to the sea-serpent-like, though extremely dusty, radiator. The walls were absolutely naked, but I was convinced I was in Rome. In fact, I was sure I was in Suburra, in the apartment of that pretty friend of mine from days of yore. Except that she wasn’t there. Neither were the paperbacks, nor the mirror. But the brown flowerpots stood absolutely intact, emitting not so much the aroma of their plants as the tint of their own clay: the whole scene was done in terra-cotta-cum-sepia tones. That’s how I knew I was in Rome.
Everything was terra-cotta-cum-sepia-shaded. Even the crumpled bed sheets. Even the bodice of my affections’ target. Even those looming parts of her anatomy that wouldn’t have benefited from a suntan, I imagine, in your day either. The whole thing was positively monochrome; I felt that, had I been able to see myself, I would be in sepia, too. Still, there was no mirror. Imagine those Greek vases with their multifigured design running around, and you’ll get the texture.
This was the most vigorous session of its kind I’ve ever taken part in, whether in real life or in my imagination. Such distinctions, however, should have been dispensed with already, given the character of this letter. Which is to say, I was as much impressed by my stamina as by my concupiscence. Given my age, not to mention my cardiovascular predicament, this distinction is worth sustaining, dream or no dream. Admittedly, the target of my affections — a target long since reached — was markedly younger than I, but not by a huge margin. The body in question seemed in its late thirties, bony, yet supple and of great elasticity. Still, its most exacting aspect was its tremendous agility, wholly devoted to the single purpose of escaping the banality of bed. To condense the entire endeavor into one cameo, my target’s upper torso would be plunged into the narrow, one-foot-wide trough between the bed and the radiator, with the tanless rump and me atop it floating at the mattress’ brink. The bodice’s laced hem would do as foam.
Throughout all this I didn’t see her face. For the above implied reasons. All I knew about her was that she was from Leptis Magna, although I have no idea how I learned this. There was no sound track to this session, nor do I believe we exchanged two words. If we did, that was before I became cognizant of the process, and the words must have been in Latin: I have a faint sense of some obstacle regarding our communication. Still, all along I seem to have known, or else managed to surmise in advance, that there was something of Ingrid Thulin in the bone structure of her face. Perhaps I espied this when, submerged as she was under the bed, her right hand now and then, in an awkward backward motion, groped for the warm coils of that dusty radiator.
When I woke up the next — i.e., this — morning, my bedroom was dreadfully cold. A mealy, revolting daylight was arriving through both windows like some kind of dust. Perhaps dust is indeed daylight’s leftover; well, this shouldn’t be ruled out. Momentarily, I shut my eyes; but the room in Suburra was gone. Its only evidence lingered in the dark under my blanket where daylight couldn’t reach, but clearly not for long. Next to me, opened in the middle, was your book.
No doubt it’s you whom I should thank for this dream, Flaccus. Now, the hand jerkily trying to clutch the radiator could of course stand for the straining and craning in days of yore, as that pretty friend of mine or I tried to catch a glimpse of ourselves in that gilded mirror. But I rather doubt it — two torsos can’t shrink into one limb; no subconscious is that economical. No, I believe that hand somehow echoed the general motion of your verse, its utter unpredictability and, with this, the inevitable stretching — nay, straining — of your syntax in translation. As a result, practically every line of yours is surprising. This is not a compliment, though; just an observation. In our line of work, tricks, naturally, are de rigueur. And the standard ratio is something like one little miracle per stanza. If a poet is exceptionally good, he may come up with a couple. With you, practically each line is an adventure; sometimes there are several in one line. Of course, some of this has to do with having you in translation. But I suspect that in your native Latin, too, your readers seldom knew what the next word was going to be. It’s like constantly walking on broken glass or something: on the mental — oral? — version of broken glass, limping and leaping. Or like that hand clutching the radiator: there was something distinctly logaoedic about its bursts and withdrawals. But, then, next to me I had your Carmina.
Had it been your Epodes or Epistles, not to mention Satires or, for that matter, Ars Poetica, the dream I am sure would have been different. That is, it would perhaps have been as carnal, but a good deal less memorable. For it’s only in the Carmina that you are metrically enterprising, Flaccus. The rest is practically all done in couplets; the rest is bye-bye to asclepiads and Sapphics and hello to down right hexameters. The rest is not that twitching hand but the radiator itself, with its rhythmic coils like nothing more than elegiac couplets. Make this radiator stand on end and it will look like anything by Virgil. Or by Propertius. Or by Ovid. Or by you, save your Carmina.
It will look like any page of Latin poetry. It will look like — should I use the hateful word — text.
Well, I thought, what if it was Latin poetry? And what if that hand was simply trying to turn the page? And my efforts vis-á-vis that sepia-shaded body simply stood for my reading of a body of Latin poetry? If only because I still — even in a dream! — couldn’t make out her face. As for that glimpse of her Ingrid Thulin features that I caught as she was straining to turn the page, it had most likely to do with the Virgil played in my mind by Tony Perkins. Because he and Ingrid Thulin have sort of similar cheekbones; also since Virgil is the one I’ve read most of all. Since he has penned more lines than anybody. Well, I’ve never counted, but it sure feels that way, thanks to the Aeneid. Though I, for one, by far prefer his Bucolics or Georgics to his epic.
I’ll tell you why later. The truth of the matter, however, is that I honestly don’t know whether I espied those cheekbones first and learned that my sepia-shaded target was from Leptis Magna second, or vice versa. For I’d seen a reproduction of that floor-mosaic likeness some time before. And I believed it was from Leptis Magna. I can’t recall why or where. On the frontispiece of some Russian edition, perhaps? Or maybe it was a postcard. Main thing, it was from Leptis Magna and done in Virgil’s lifetime, or shortly thereafter. So what I beheld in my dream was a somewhat familiar sight; the sensation itself wasn’t so much that of beholding as that of recognition. Never mind the armpit muscle and the breast bustling in the bodice.
Or precisely because of that: because, in Latin, poetry is feminine. That’s good for allegory, and what’s good for allegory is good for the subconscious. And if the target of my affections stood — lay down, rather — for a body of Latin poetry, its high cheekbones could just as well resemble Virgil’s, regardless of his own sexual preferences, if only because the body in my dream was from Leptis Magna. First, because Leptis Magna is a ruin, and every bedroom endeavor resembles a ruin, what with sheets, pillows, and the prone and jumbled limbs themselves. Second, because the very name “Leptis Magna” always struck me as being feminine, like Latin poetry, not to mention what I suppose it literally means. Which is, a great offering. Although my Latin stinks. But be that as it may, what is Latin poetry after all if not a great offering? Except that my reading, as you no doubt would charge, only ruins it. Well, hence this dream.
Let’s avoid murky waters, Flaccus; let’s not saddle ourselves with exploring whether dreams can be reciprocal. Let me hope at least you won’t proceed in a similar fashion about my own scribblings should you ever get acquainted with them. You won’t pun about pen and penis, will you? And why shouldn’t you get acquainted with my stuff quite apart from this letter. Reciprocity or no reciprocity, I see no reason why you, so capable of messing up my dreams, won’t take the next step and interfere with my reality.
You do, as it is; if anything, my writing you this letter is the proof. But beyond that, you know full well that I’ve written to you, in a manner of speaking, before. Since everything I’ve written is, technically, addressed to you: you personally, as well as the rest of you. Because when one writes verse, one’s most immediate audience is not one’s own contemporaries, let alone posterity, but one’s predecessors. Those who gave one a language, those who gave one forms. Frankly, you know that far better than I. Who wrote the asclepiadics, Sapphics, hexameters, and Alcaics, and who were their addressees? Caesar? Maecenas? Rufus? Varus? Lydias and Glycerias? Fat lot they knew about or cared for trochees and dactyls! And you were not aiming at me, either. No, you were appealing to Asclepiades, to Alcaeus and Sappho, to Homer himself. You wanted to be appreciated by them, first of all. For where is Caesar? Obviously in his palace or smiting the Scythians. And Maecenas is in his villa. Ditto Rufus and Varus. And Lydia is with a client and Glyceria is out of town. Whereas your beloved Greeks are right here, in your head, or should I say in your heart, for you no doubt knew them by heart. They were your best audience, since you could summon them at any moment. It’s they you were trying to impress most of all. Never mind the foreign language. In fact, it’s easier to impress them in Latin: in Greek, you wouldn’t have the mother tongue’s latitude. And they were talking back to you. They were saying, Yeah, we’re impressed. That’s why your lines are so twisted with enjambments and qualifiers, that’s why your argument is always so unpredictable. That’s why you advise your grief-stricken pal to praise Augustus’ triumphs.
So if you could do this to them, why can’t I do that to you? The language difference is at least here; so one condition is being met. One way or the other, I’ve been responding to you, especially when I use iambic trimeters. And now I am following this up with a letter. Who knows, I may yet summon you here, you may yet materialize in the end even more than you’ve already done in my verses. For all I know, logaoedics with dactyls beat my old sance as a means of conjuring. In our line of work, this sort of thing is called pastiche. Once the beat of a classic enters one’s system, its spirit moves in, too. And you are a classic, Flaccus, aren’t you, in more ways than one, which alone would be complex enough.
And ultimately who else is there in this world one can talk to without revulsion, especially if one is of a misanthropic disposition by nurture. It is for this reason, not vanity, that I hope you get acquainted with my iambs and trochees in some netherworldly manner. Stranger things have happened, and my pen at least has done its bit to that end. I’d much rather, of course, talk to Naso or Propertius, but with you I have more in common metrically. They stuck to elegiac couplets and hexameters; I seldom use those. So it’s between you and me here, presumptuous as this may sound to everybody. But not to you. “All the literati keep/ An imaginary friend,” says Auden. Why should I be an exception?
At the very least, I can sit myself down in front of the mirror and talk to it. That would be fairly close, although I don’t believe that you looked like me. But when it comes to the human appearance, nature, in the final analysis, doesn’t have that many options. What are they? A pair of eyes, a nose, an oval. For all their diversity, in two thousand years nature is bound to repeat itself. Even a God will. So I could easily claim that face in the mirror is ultimately yours, that you are me. As conjuring tricks go, this might do. But I am afraid I am going too far: I’ll never write myself a letter. Even if I were truly your look-alike. So stay faceless, Flaccus, stay unconjured. This way, you may last for two millennia more. Otherwise, each time I mount a woman, she might think she is dealing with Horace. Well, in a sense she is, dream or no dream. Nowhere does time collapse as easily as in one’s mind. That’s why we so much like thinking about history, don’t we? If I am right about nature’s options, history is like surrounding oneself with mirrors, like living in a bordello.
Two thousand years — of what? By whose count, Flaccus? Certainly not in terms of metrics. Tetrameters are tetrameters, no matter when and no matter where. Be they in Greek, Latin, Russian, English. So are dactyls, and so are anapests. Et cetera. So two thousand years in what sense? When it comes to collapsing time, our trade, I’m afraid, beats history, and smells, rather sharply, of geography. What Euterpe and Urania have in common is that both are Clio’s seniors. You start talking your Rufus Valgius out of his protracted grieving by evoking the waves of Mare Caspium; even they, you write, do not remain rough forever. This means that you knew about that mare two thousand years ago — from some Greek author, no doubt, as your own people didn’t cast their quills that wide. Herein, I suppose, lay this mare’s first attraction for you as a Roman poet. An exotic name and, on top of that, one connoting the farthest point of your Pax Romana, if not of the known world itself. Also, a Greek one (actually, perhaps even Persian, but you could bump into it only in Greek). The main thing, though, about “Caspium” is that this word is dactylic. That’s why it sits at the second line’s end, where every poem’s meter gets established. And you are consoling Rufus in an asclepiad.
Whereas I — I crossed that Caspium once or twice. When I was either eighteen or nineteen, or maybe twenty. When — I am tempted to say — you were in Athens, learning your Greek. In those days, the distance between Caspium and Hellas, not to mention Rome, was in a sense even greater than it was two thousand years ago; it was, frankly, insurmountable. So we didn’t meet. The mare itself was smooth and shiny, near its western shores especially. Thanks not so much to the propitious proximity to civilization as to vast oil spills, perennial in those parts. (I could say this was the real case of pouring oil upon troubled waters, but I am afraid you wouldn’t catch the reference.) I was lying flat on the hot upper deck of a dirty steamer, hungry and penniless, but happy all the same, because I was participating in geography. When you are going by boat you always do. Had I read by that time your piece to Rufus, I would have realized that I was also participating in poetry. In a dactyl rather than in a sharpening horizon.
But in those days I wasn’t that much of a reader. In those days I was working in Asia: mountain climbing and desert trekking. Prospecting for uranium, basically. You don’t know what that stuff is, and I won’t bore you with an explanation, Flaccus. Although “uranium” is another dactylic word. What does it feel like to learn a word you cannot use? Especially — for you — a Greek one? Awful, I suppose; like, for me, your Latin. Perhaps if I were able to operate in it confidently, I could indeed conjure you up. On the other hand, perhaps not: I’d become for you just another Latin author, and that is a recipe for hiatus.
In any case, in those days I’d read none of you, except — if my memory doesn’t play tricks on me — Virgil, i.e., his epic. I remember that I didn’t care for it much, partly because against that backdrop of mountains and deserts few things managed to make sense; mainly because of the epic’s rather sharp smell of commission. In those days, one’s nostrils were very keen for that sort of thing. Besides, I simply couldn’t make out 99 percent of his exempla, which were getting in the way rather frequently. What do you expect from an eighteen-year-old from Hyperborea? I am better with this sort of thing now, but it’s taken a lifetime. On the whole, it seems to me that you all were overdoing it a bit with the references; they often strike one as filler. Although euphonically of course they — the Greek ones especially — do marvels for the texture.
What rattled me perhaps most in the Aeneid was that retroactive prophecy of Anchises, when the old man predicts what has already taken place. Here, I thought, your friend went a bit too far. I don’t mind the conceit, but the dead should be allowed to be more imaginative. They ought to know more than just Augustus’ pedigree; after all, they are not oracles. What a waste of that stunning, mind-boggling idea about souls being entitled to a second corporeality and lapping from the river Lethe to cleanse themselves of their previous memories! To reduce them to paving the road for the reign of the current master! Why, they could become Christians, Charlemagnes, Diderots, Communists, Hegels, us! Those who will come after, mongrels and mutants, and in more ways than one! That would be a real prophecy, a real flight of fancy. Instead, he rehashes the official record and serves it as hot news. The dead are free of causality, to begin with. The knowledge available to them is that about time — all time. That much he could have learned from Lucretius; your friend was a learned man. More than that, he had a terrific metaphysical instinct, a real nose for things’ spiritual lining: his souls are far less physical than Dante’s. True manes: gaseous and unpalpable. One is tempted to say his scholasticism here is practically medieval. But that would be a put-down. Because metaphysically your future turned out to be far less imaginative than your Greek past. For what is life eternal to a soul compared with a second corporeality? What is Paradise to it after the Pythagorean promise of another body? Just unemployment. Still, whatever his sources were — Pythagoras, Plato’s Phaedrus, his own fancy — he blows it all for the sake of Caesar’s lineage.
Well, the epic was his; he had the right to do with it what he liked. But I find it, frankly, unforgivable. It’s failures of imagination like these that paved the road to the triumph of monotheism. The one, I guess, is always more graspable than the many; and after that gigantic Greek-and-homemade stew of gods and heroes, this sort of longing for something more graspable, more coherent, was practically inevitable. In other words, for all his expansive gestures, your friend, my dear Flaccus, was just craving metaphysical security. And that, I am afraid, is a contradiction in terms; perhaps the chief attraction of polytheism is that it would have none of that. But I suppose the place was getting too populous to indulge in insecurity of any kind. That’s why your friend pins this whole thing, metaphysics and all, on his beloved Caesar in the first place. Civil wars, I should say, do wonders for one’s spiritual orientation.
Originally published in the December 1995/January 1996 issue of Boston Review