Nothing New in the West

Limp Trysts was the headline for the Village Voice play review I read sometime in the summer of 1987 about a promiscuous homosexual man and his many passionate but fleeting and ultimately unfulfilling assignations. It’s such a scrumptiously clever example of the plasticity and playfulness of the English language, and I always think of it when I need reminding of the power and joy words have and hold for us. 

A few years later I was working for an advertising/design firm in Milan called Epierre, mostly translating VHS videos and related promotional material into Italian. I worked closely with two native writers, who happened to be husband and wife – and my main job was essentially to introduce them to the subtleties, the almost-always positive intent and wide-open, unapologetic phuhquew-ness of American culture. They, along with the rest of the design team, had a hard time not only understanding the ballsy, quixotic attitude towards life incarnate in our colorful idioms and pop-culture squawk, but they also had an equally hard time coming to terms with my own wiseacreage and gone-Borneo depravity.

I’ll give you an example: one of the movies that crossed my desk at the time was Driving Miss Daisy, which was kind of small-worldish for me because I was living in Atlanta when they were filming it a few years before, and had been on the set a couple of times, accidentally and mostly unwelcome, which I’ll tell you about another time. Anyway, we had a meeting to discuss it and I tried to explain the different meanings of the title – how the negro Hoke ferries the proud Jewess around, but also drives her to be a better, more enlightened person. The title they went with, which I voted vehemently against, was A Spasso con Daisy, which is a laughable insult of Uhry’s original intent, to the movie and everyone else’s diminishment. I suggested in all seriousness ‘Sto Cazzo con Daisy instead.

While I’m riding this particular hobbyhorse, I’d like to mention All Quiet on the Western Front, one of the finest books about war, and one of the finest books about anything of the twentieth century, period. It’s a masterful straight-from-the-trenches muckdog bark of world-weary wisdom and deadpan humor, littered with heartbreaking ennui and alienation. I was living briefly in Hamburg (a hotdog in Hamburg!) several years after the Italian job and happened to see this book at a friend’s house. I didn’t recognize it at first because the title in German is Im Westen Nichts Neues, and he was surprised I didn’t know it. I told him what it was called in English, and I think he winced, even though it’s sometimes hard to tell with Germans.

It was an unhappy yet luminous epiphany for me – what I would translate as Nothing New in the West – a blasé, tossed-off official communiqué at the end of the novel that was intentionally chosen as the mocking title, has been made unaccountably poetical and romantic in the English translation. Erich Maria Remarque’s tale of the extreme physical and mental stress of endless, senseless slaughter, the no-name, insignificant, and carelessly remembered battles told with the bland detachment of a psyche devastated by the daily terror and numb to hope, wrecked by some puny and probably over-educated Little, Brown and Company noodge editor in New York trying to move a few more units.

I’m not usually one to judge a book by its cover, but Nothing New in the West is a different beast than All Quiet on the Western Front. Whenever I think about this, I actually get angry because it’s a criminal bait-and-switch that wrecks everything about this heartbreaking work and that war for me.
Trying to tack back to the ancients, and some sort of relevance to the task at hand, i.e. “The Classics,” I’ll cite one more example, this time from one of my favorite philosophers, Aristotle, a Greek, at least. I’ve been using his quote, “Wit is educated insolence” as a tagline on my website for years – it’s the definition of recalcitrance, in my opinion, and I love it. That said, I was reading something somewhere recently and saw this cherished quote of mine rendered: “Wit is well-bread insolence.” What? I had to take a deep breath and think about that. For a long time. “Well-bred” is certainly different than “Educated,” and carries the implication of upbringing versus schooling. Hmm. I’m going to stick with “Educated” because I’ve been using it for years, and I like the subtle difference implicit in the hard work and choice of “well-read” as opposed to the perhaps undeserved and underserved privilege of “well-bred.”
Which brings us back to the beginning and the Odyssey, and the challenges of translating an almost-3,000 year old song, essentially, part of a vital, centuries-long oral tradition that was only meant to be heard, into a book, written in modern English. As Alexander Pope said: “Homer makes us hearers, Virgil leaves us readers.” I think there’s a lot of truth to that, so I’ve tried to approach Homer with my ear more than my undeniably myopic and parochial eye.
Looking over my notes, I’m realizing that to delve into the Odyssey correctly and in good conscience (what’s that?) I’d really have to discuss the Trojan War in depth first, and that means tackling the The Iliad. Have you seen that monstrous tome lately? It could easily replace a Danforth in a Force 10 off Tierra del Foowaygo, baby. I’m not joking: it’s 12,000 or so lines of dactyl pentameter, and I’ve already told you about how impenetrable that scribbled, wibble/dribble is. Yeah, you know about the infamous horse of course, and Helen’s face, the one that proverbially launched a thousand ships, and Ajax, the bronze-helmeted hero, but to do the gods, the heroes, Homer, and you justice I’d have to go back to the beginning: “Rage – Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles...” Which is fair enough, except I haven’t finished reading it yet, so I’m going to have to tell you about Marcus Aurelius and his seminal but thank goodness 90-page skinny but meaty Meditations this week instead.
Marcus Aurelius (121 –180 AD) was the quintessential philosopher king, the Emperor of Rome from 161 AD until his death in 180, and the last of the rulers known as the Five Good Emperors. The others were – Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, and Antonius Pius – by imperial succession, not bloodline. Marcus Aurelius was also the last emperor of the era known as Pax Romana, a relatively peaceful era in the history of the Roman Empire, that became bloodier and ugly for essentially the next millennia or so.
I just read an article on Quillette this morning titled Sickness and Stoicism, and it offers life lessons in today’s topsy-turvy world of illness, financial hardship, loneliness and death from Seneca the Younger (4 BC – 65 AD), a Roman philosopher and statesman, satirist and noted Stoic. I thought I would try to do the same with Marcus Aurelius, since I believe human nature doesn’t change, hasn’t changed in thousands of years, and that life is tragic, not therapeutic, no matter what bleeding hearts, do-gooders and progressives, with their equality-for-all fantasies and moral wish-fulfillment prescriptives and magnificently-vague but laughably-hypocritical bromides and panaceas passionately urge. In the west, there really is nothing new.
But I’ll first insert a word of advice for all of us laughably comfortable quarantined stir crazies, especially the loud know-it-alls, with no way-on at the moment, poolside or seaside, cocktails in hand, in the most prosperous and free country the world has ever known: “Masculine republics give way to feminine democracies. Feminine democracies give way to tyranny.” Aristotle’s wise words should ring a warning bell. Let’s hope that bell doesn’t start tolling anytime soon.
There are obviously many translations of this sublime (re)collection, originally written in Greek and unofficially titled Ta Eis Heauton (Things to One’s Self), since Marcus meant it only as a personal and private diary. Not sure when or how Meditations became the de facto but still unofficial title. The first print version of the original Greek was published in 1559 by Conrad Gessner, with the accompanying Latin translation by Wilhelm Xylander. The first English translation was published in 1634 by Meric Causubon, according to Wikipedia.
A.S.L. Farquharson’s Everyman’s Edition, published in 1944, and the standard for over fifty years, is probably the most literal, but sounds stilted and trips over its own tongue at times to my mind. Martin Hammond’s 2006 Penguin Classic is much more readable than Farguharson’s, but also seems to be almost slavishly attached to exactness to the detriment of flow. Even though it’s the best-selling translation on Amazon, I wouldn’t recommend it. Gregory Hays’s Modern Library softcover is in my opinion the most impressive, most comprehensive translation, and the language is much more fluid and modern than the other two.

But let’s not start with Marcus’ revelatory truths and timeless advice, which we’ll get to, but with my overall impression of the man and his musings. Obviously he’s been in print for two thousand years for a reason, many reasons, and is popular with the highborn and lowbrow alike since he rejected comfor and praise in equal measure, tried to lead by virtuous example rather than force and to put his duties, his loved ones, and his country first. I recently saw an interview with General Mathis and he said that Meditations was on his nightstand and he referenced it frequently. The problems with recalcitrant belligerents and unctuous politicians and fools he was suffering on a daily basis as Secretary of Defense were essentially the same ones that Marcus Aurelius knew well: “the people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly,” and the General found Marcus’ wisdom and forbearance relevant, executable, excellent, and admirable.

And I agree. But here’s the problem I have with the Stoics in general and Marcus Aurelius in particular – they’re a pretty joyless lot. Yes, they take whatever life throws at them with admirable equanimity and spine-cold courage, are patient and almost zen in their fatalism, agreeable and grateful to a fault, but without any real passion or levity anywhere that I can see. I can’t find the passage where Marcus Aurelius talks about lust (which in his mind seems to be indistinguishable from love), which he condemns bluntly as a vile temptation and something we must resist at all costs. His take on carnal knowledge is that it’s nothing more than, and I’m paraphrasing from memory, “a little bit of friction and then some fluid.”
Which reminds me of a scene in the Woody Allen movie Manhattan – he’s at a party, and overhears this beautiful blonde explaining to her friend that she’s finally had her first orgasm, and when she told her therapist about it he said it was the wrong kind. Woody Allen’s eyebrows go up. “The wrong kind? Every orgasm I ever had was right on the money.”
And I agree – even the worst lubricious ministrations I’ve ever had were something to write home about. Ahem. Humorlessness aside, let’s get back to this Stoic’s more practical how-to-live-life-right advice. Marcus Aurelius’ primary tenet is: The obstacle is the way, and we must always act with “wisdom, justice, temperance and courage.” This is in essence the same as the Buddhists life is suffering, and the only way to overcome the suffering is to embrace it, not as part of life, but as life. This is truer today than ever: the Corona Virus isn’t a parenthesis, an annoying and unavoidable viral hiccup in our happiness that will one day pass, but rather just another breath we’re taking. So take another deep breath, and “fit on your greaves and your swordbelt and face the moil and the melee” like a man.
Number two is: don’t let hardship tarnish your character, because character, what you think of yourself, and how you act, is much more important than reputation, which is what others think of you. Marcus believes that living well and acting well is the same thing as being happy. If I could sum up the gist of this imperial philosopher’s wisdom in a single succinct axiom it would be: live in the present, with virtue.
Number three: Momento Mori. Always remember that the difference between life and death is an eyelash, and don’t take even one minute of this improbable miracle for granted. We’re all going to die. Period. And there was absolutely nothing spiritual about Marcus and his fellow Romans – their view on life and death was decidedly corporeal, with no pie-in-the-sky future rewards or anything resembling salvation or redemption in the equation. Heaven didn’t exist for them, but hell sure did. Marcus saw enough of the close slaughter and shrieking agony of battle, and knew “how to stand and fight to the finish, twist and lunge in the War-god’s deadly dance” to appreciate the unearthly evanescence, the poignant beauty of life, knowing too well that too soon the “hateful darkness” would seize us all.
Number four: Be graceful in both success and failure; accept victory without arrogance and pain and suffering with indifference, because fate can be fickle. This reminds me of the great Aemilius Paullus and his vastly-outnumbered army’s astonishing victory over Perseus in the foothills of Mount Olympus around 200 BC. Magnanimous Aemilius let Perseus and his family live, and on the march back to Rome tragically lost his own two sons; one in battle and the other for some reason that I can’t remember. Anyway, what should have been a triumphant victory celebration for Aemilius instead had him pondering his own unenviable fate, returning childless, in contrast to the supposedly unhappy lot of his humiliated rival Perseus, utterly defeated and returning on foot as no better than a slave to a life of poverty and hardship, yet accompanied by his wife and children. “You should cower in abject humility in the face of fortune, ever watchful for the end, whatever it may be, that the gods will cause to strike each and every one of you in retribution for your current success” laments Aemilius.

Number five is to withhold judgment. “If the cucumber is bitter, throw it away.” Marcus urges all of us to be as objective as we can, at all times. “Take away your opinion, and there is taken away the complaint.” To be unselfish in our actions, at all times. “It isn't manly to be enraged. Rather, gentleness and civility are more human, and therefore manlier.” To willingly accept our fate, at all times. “Whatever happens to you has been waiting to happen since the beginning of time.” Starting now, at this very moment. “You could be happy today, instead you choose tomorrow.” Excellent advice, of course, and much easier said (in royal robes and flourishes) than done, especially down here in the stubborn muck and mortality of mere men.

That’s the Philosopher-King, in a nutshell. Simple, astounding stuff.
I didn’t want to but I’m going to finish this post with an obvious observation: my journey is not yours. I’m happy to tell you all about Marcus Aurelius and his Meditations, as I’ve read him, or walk you through Homer’s masterful, meandering genius, so we can all be awed together by Odysseus’ familiar but transcendent stories, vaguely remembered and newly-refreshed, of his might and cunning, or revel in Ajax’s flashing, astonishing heroism. I can hate on Chaucer, which I will do – except for the Knight’s Tale which I think is as good as any epic prose poem ever written – because bawdy has its limits, and we can’t all be flamboyant carpenters and chatelains. You may or may not agree. But hopefully and eventually you’ll be inspired to embark on your own literary or spiritual or poetic adventure, over these same pathways and brainwaves, or maybe undertake other renaissances equally audacious, mysterious and ultimately meaningful to you. I can’t live your life, and don’t intend or pretend to. You can’t live mine, either, and we’re all writing our own obituaries every single day, aren’t we?
April 08, 2020 — Johnny Mustard