I GRABBED A BUNCH OF POEMS.

From the introduction to Greek Epigram in the Roman Empire: Martial’s Forgotten Rivals, by Gideon Nisbet:

This, then, is a book about short, funny poems. Classicists have tended to ignore them, which I think is a pity; then again, it is only in recent years that the notorious Martial has begun to attract serious attention. Classicists of an older style are visibly uncomfortable around Martial; they wish he had written something with a little more gravitas, and certainly with much less sex in it. From this point of view it is odd that they have not made more of his Greek models, whose preserved output in Book 11 of the Byzantine-era Palatine Anthology is noticeably less rude (although recently published papyri indicate that their minds were at least as filthy as Martial’s own). This book aims to shed light on a whole corpus of ancient humour which will come as a surprise even to many professional students of antiquity.
I haven’t set out to offer a comprehensive survey, merely an open-ended investigation into what is out there, how it works, how one author’s approach differs from another, and where the form seems to be headed. The foundation of this endeavour is rough and ready: I grabbed a bunch of poems. I offer a translation of each poem to give a broad idea of what its sense might be, along with minimal notes on any textual difficulties…. One thing I do not set out to do is close down signification within texts that (in my view) intentionally resist it. I’m not much of a deconstructionist, but I do take it as fairly evident that language is slippery in use, and anyone who reacts badly to the milder deconstructionist/postmodern ideas will probably not enjoy what follows. Also, some of the moves I make with material culture — in particular, the way I read the cheapness and nastiness of the Nikarkhos book fragments as something significant that we can work with, figuring out a model readership so to speak via the back door and maybe even politicising them — may not strike everybody as a proper way to do classics. Sorry. But I think more classicists should spend more time with zinesters and Webmonkeys before they write this sort of thing off.

Why can’t more academics write like that? I have been known to react badly to deconstructionist/postmodern ideas, but I can deal with them as long as they’re presented as helpful avenues of approach rather than as a revelation from the academic equivalent of Mount Sinai, and reading Nisbet’s prose makes me want to read more of it, even if he’s going to lead me through the Valley of the Shadow of Deconstruction. But maybe most academics prefer to be read only by fellow initiates.

Comments

  1. Why can’t more academics write like that? [...] But maybe most academics prefer to be read only by fellow initiates.
    Because if, like Nisbet, you’re an academic in the UK, you’re in the business of producing ‘four star’ research (quality that is world-leading in terms of originality, significance and rigour) for the next REF, not ‘grabb[ing] a bunch of poems’ and submitting them to inexpert deconstruction in the manner of zinesters. So, yes, most pretty unsurprisingly prefer to be read by ‘initiates’.

  2. Are you assuming a priori that his analysis is “inexpert,” or are you familiar with the book?

  3. Here’s another passage from later in the introduction:

    This is a book about jokes. It’s important to me to make my meaning plain, but I also hope that the result will be more or less fun to read. I have aimed to write a disrespectful book about unrespectable material, with no attempt to mask my views in an assumed impersonality, or to claim academic ‘detachment’ — a pose which I find distasteful, and which has led to little interesting work on these texts.

    I find that a very attractive attitude.

  4. Sir JCass says:

    Bald heads forgetful of their sins,
    Old, learned, respectable bald heads
    Edit and annotate the lines
    That young men, tossing on their beds,
    Rhymed out in love’s despair
    To flatter beauty’s ignorant ear.
    All shuffle there; all cough in ink;
    All wear the carpet with their shoes;
    All think what other people think;
    All know the man their neighbour knows.
    Lord, what would they say
    Did their Catullus walk that way?
    W.B. Yeats

  5. @hat: “Four star” sets my satire sensor on, anyway.

  6. I would assume it was satire except for that “inexpert,” which seems to me fiosachd speaking in propria persona. I could, of course, be wrong, and I hope I am.

  7. dearieme says:

    The most beguiling argument I’ve come across from a Classical scholar boiled down to this:
    The Greeks were jolly good chaps.
    Jolly good chaps don’t treat their womenfolk badly.
    Therefore much that people believe about the treatment of women in that society must be wrong.
    I suppose the tale of the Gordian knot had inspired him.

  8. Fiosachd is not to blame for the language. “Four star” is a technical term in the Research Excellence Framework, and it is indeed defined as “quality that is world-leading in terms of originality, significance and rigour”.

  9. I know that; that’s why fiosachd put it in quotes. I understand the REF thing, I just am unsure whether “inexpert deconstruction” is an impression of what someone else might say or a personal jab.

  10. Older classicists may have had a tendency to be uncomfortable with Martial, but I seemed to remember doing some of his epigrams in high school. So I went to the shelf and got down my third year Latin text from high school (Latin for Americans) and, sure enough, there was a selection of seven of Martials epigrams included. Our teacher wasn’t a prude, but she did warn us that we didn’t want to just pick up a copy of Martial and start reading randomly, due to the nature of a lot of the material, but the same could be, and was, said of Ovid whom we also read that year. This was in the late ’80′s, and I’m certain that our books weren’t written by old-style classicists.

  11. It’s impossible to ignore the racy content of authors like Martial, Ovid, Catullus, Aristophanes, Petronius and others. The club of classical scholars (until very recently almost exclusively men, and many of them men of the cloth) has been secretly chortling over them in private, among themselves, for two millenia, even if until recently they haven’t discussed this material in public. Now that times have changed, the secret is getting out.
    There’s worse stuff in the vast, multi-volume Greek Anthology, too–a whole book devoted to pederasty. There are also collections of Christian epigrams, epigrams on buildings, and other more innocent material.
    The whole Greek Anthology is available in the Loeb series, in an older edition that hasn’t been revised. In the past 30 years or so, on the other hand, Aristophanes, Martial, and other Latin poets have come out in new, or revised, unexpurgated editions, with much better texts and translations, and a much higher level of scholarship, than the older editions. The advantage of the older editions was that the good stuff was left untranslated, or, in some cases, translated from Greek into Latin or from either classical language into Italian (a language apparently deemed more suitable for “that sort of thing” than the language of the Anglo-Saxon nations). That way, it was easier to find what you were looking for.
    In all fairness, though, the older Loebs were produced in a regime of censorship which lasted in the US and Britain until the 1950s. But the texts were always available in the original languages to those who could read them.

  12. I’m really glad you liked what I wrote, and very tickled to see it cited as an example. I’m not sure I was as user-friendly in that book as I was trying to be, but I’ve kept at it since and am gradually getting better (I hope) at writing for both academic and non-academic readerships at one and the same time.
    REF is an issue, now – back in the day, it was RAE, with subtly different rules that made a big difference to how you gamed it.
    There’s interesting scholarship now on classics and censorship, including a good recent edited volume, ‘Expurgating the Classics’, which is a Bristol Classical Press book so not even all that expensive as these things go.
    Still a fan of fans, and of the skills and wit they bring to the reading of media texts.

  13. The custom was carried over to the earliest translation of the Chinese novel Jin Ping Mei (金瓶梅), where the spicy bits were all translated into Latin.

  14. And then the curious schoolboy looks up the Latin in the big dictionary, only to find it defined in *more Latin*.

  15. “And then the curious schoolboy looks up the Latin in the big dictionary, only to find it defined in *more Latin*.”
    Yes, but that was an excellent way to expand your vocabulary in both languages.

  16. Except that that ‘more Latin’ is then defined in yet more Latin! And so on, until eventually iteration #5 takes you from paraphrase to definition, which is something like: ‘rem obscaenum facere’.

  17. (Sorry, typo – I do know the gender of ‘res’)

  18. “Except that that ‘more Latin’ is then defined in yet more Latin! And so on, until eventually iteration #5 takes you from paraphrase to definition, which is something like: ‘rem obscaenam facere’.”
    You had to use your imagination creatively–and usually you were right if you were the sort of teenager I was.

  19. There’s interesting scholarship now on classics and censorship, including a good recent edited volume, ‘Expurgating the Classics’, which is a Bristol Classical Press book so not even all that expensive as these things go.
    Thanks, I’ll look out for it…. Holy crap, Amazon has it for $96.09, marked down from $120.00! I’m afraid that is, in fact, “all that expensive” to my broke ass. Ah well, I’ll check the library.

  20. Bummer. Sorry, I had no idea. £56 seems about the right money in the UK, which compared to e.g. OUP stuff is almost cheap.

Speak Your Mind

*